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GUEST POST: Ben Stephenson Q & A by Jeremy Allen (Part 2)

Carrying on from yesterday, here’s the second part of Jeremy Allen’s run-down.
How does the role of commissioner add to the creative process?

Put simply, ‘commissioners are able to provide distance…they are able to stand back and ask questions’. This is because they see the script’s progress at intermittent stages. Ben describes these intermittent stages as ‘milestones’, which roughly break down into ‘commission, pre-production and edit’.

A common flaw Ben sees in the journey of the script is that it can lose its original vision: what the writer wanted to say in the first place, or even what it was about in the first place.

So when it comes to those all important executive decisions, how far does Ben’s power extend?

‘I sign off on who’s going to direct it, I sign off on the cast (apart from existing, established dramas), I sign off on the first cut’. He adds that after Episodes One and Two, he doesn’t get involved because the show should be able to take care of itself. However, he underlines that it is still his overall responsibility. In his words: ’I stand or fall’.

What about recent accusations in the media that the BBC has lost its willingness to take risks?

‘The trouble is people only remember the failures (he throws up archaeological mystery drama Bonekickers as an example). The reality is that every show is a risk and once a show is a success, people forget it was a risk in the first place’.

Life On Mars is obviously a show that could have gone pear-shaped, with its left-field premise, but Ben also cites Coronation Street as an obvious example of a show that at inception was considered a huge risk – it was of course the first of its kind to exclusively portray working class lives, a fact people easily forget now it is so comfortably embedded within the culture.

He offers another example: ‘Casualty was a risk at point of commission because it criticised the NHS’ (indeed my ex-tutor Jim Hill, who once worked on the show, told me afterwards that ‘questions were asked in the House’). It was only later that Casualty lost its radical edge and absorbed itself into the mainstream.

Quite clearly then, the biggest risks can often be the biggest successes. You therefore cannot play it safe as a writer, or censor your own work because you feel it is too much of gamble. You have to be ‘passionate’- compromise will get you nowhere. Producers will often come to Ben with five ideas for a script and he will ask them ‘what is the idea you are most passionate about making? Because they cannot be equally passionate about all five ideas’. Ultimately it is the script that one is most passionate about that will shine through.

Ben is keen to affirm that BBC drama is a risk taker and there is a fundamental reason for this. If it was just about chasing ratings, that would make them a commercial channel. They would invariably produce a glut of cops’n’docs dramas. But being a non-commercially driven channel they do not have to put all their ‘eggs in one basket’. A lot of this comes down to the licence fee, which in a way demands that the corporation ‘produce and deliver ambitious shows and take risks’. Conversely however, the security blanket of the licence fee and lack of commercial imperatives frees up opportunities for that very risk taking: ‘Drama is the most expensive genre on television. If you mess up on ITV you have money taken off you next year. The BBC doesn’t have that pressure’. Ben then delivers what seems to be a cornerstone of the BBC’s philosophy: ‘we have to allow failure in order to create success’. Or, in a nutshell: ‘we can’t just make mainstream successes and not have niche productions’. He is also quick to stipulate that success is measured by ‘reach not volume…how many different social groups of people do you attract?’. In other words: public service.

As an example of ‘reach not volume’, he mentions that the BBC’s biggest audience is 56 year old women, but it would be absurd to exclusively target that demographic. It is about being inclusive, in terms of sex, age and ethnicity. He does admit that men have recently been overlooked in terms of being catered for, particularly the more ‘blue collar’ demographic.

How important is period drama?

Ben reflects this is clearly one of the things the BBC does well and one of the things it is famous for. Despite recent efforts like Little Dorrit under-performing, Ben stresses that it is important to keep producing period simply because ‘we’re the only broadcaster in the world that make English classics’ (Little Dorrit still swept the board at the Emmys, beating Madmen and 30 Rock in the awards for writing and cinematography).

With regard to forthcoming period pieces, Ben mentions the return of Upstairs Downstairs, not so much a remake as a continuation, with Jean Marsh reprising her role as Rose, now head housekeeper in early thirties, pre-war London.

How do you get your work commissioned?

Ben goes back to the four regions. The independent producer works with the writer, then they pitch the idea. He again reiterates the fact that you can go to different development people in case one of them missed the idea. So if Polly Hill from BBC England, for instance, passes on your script, Patrick Spence from BBC Northern Ireland might see something in it. It is important not to give up at the first hurdle.

The commissioning process itself is not black and white. Though technically it is a yes/no/maybe scenario, more often than not it is a conversation (’nothing is commissioned straight away’). Variables include budget and whatever slots are available. Your show may clash with something else on the schedule. You may have to wait 18 months and it can be a long, drawn out process, which inevitably leads to frustration.

What about agents?

Ben confirms that the BBC does not accept unsolicited scripts: ‘every writer at every network has an agent…a writer needs to be protected and guided’.

But of course, protection of the writer is not the only consideration. The sheer volume of scripts submitted necessitates some kind of filtering system. The agents can therefore act as gatekeepers, who help to facilitate the whittling down process and maintain a basic quality control. ‘The majority of scripts aren’t very good, that’s just the reality’, says Ben.

But how do you recognise a good idea?

Ben maintains that ‘ideas aren’t that difficult’. In other words, it’s what you do with that idea. For instance there are an abundance of cop shows, and many of these follow the same, basic premise, so what distinguishes the hits from the misses? Why does The Bill run for 26 years and Holby Blue get axed after two seasons? It’s all in the execution. Again a lot of it is down to your ‘passion to make something special’. Treatments are important in this respect.

Exactly how important are treatments?

‘It’s fair to make sure your idea stands up in treatment’ Ben affirms, although he emphasises that it is not healthy to ‘treatment something to death’.

‘The key questions to ask yourself in the treatment stage are does this tell enough story? Do the characters have enough resonance?’ Treatments are also a great way of identifying ‘big holes’, which can thus be arrested at source.

Ben does concede that ‘you can’t necessarily communicate tone in a treatment’, but offers this invaluable tip: ‘ask yourself what do I want my audience to feel when they watch this? Do I want it to be a joyous experience, do I want people to be wrung out or thrilled?’. Although the mood of the piece doesn’t have to be exclusively governed by that, it can help when trying to create a prevailing tone. Another thing to ask yourself is: ‘who am I writing this for?’

How accurate do you have to be when dramatising the lives of famous people and real events?

Recent examples of this genre are Margaret Thatcher: the Long Walk to Finchley, On Expenses and again the Women We Loved season. It is an interesting question: how do you avoid lawsuits and upsetting living family members?

Ben tells us that they work closely with relatives (such as Enid Blyton’s daughter during the making of Enid) and close sources (Heather Brooke herself during the making of On Expenses). These first hand witnesses are consistently briefed and consulted right the way through the development process and get to view the film before transmission.

There are moments in anybody’s private life that can never truly be known, a private bedroom conversation between Margaret and Denis Thatcher for example. ‘You have to make things up to reflect the truth’, Ben explains. In other words the situation has to be plausible, there has to be a sense of ‘it could have happened’. In short, it has to be true to the essence of the story.

Are you in charge of Acquisitions?

No Sue Deeks, Head of Programme Acquisitions, is in charge of acquisitions .

What about the frequent comparisons between homegrown drama and US imports, the latter often being perceived in our media as vastly superior?

Ben is quick to dispute this accusation. For a start ‘HBO only makes four dramas a year and there’s no way we’re going to do that’. He adds that there is a popular misconception that HBO is a charity that allows complete artistic freedom for writers and show runners. ‘HBO is actually one of the richest networks in the world’, with a huge profit margin. All this, despite the fact that only 5% of the US actually have HBO, on account of it being a premium rate subscription service. Many viewers simply don’t get to see The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm etc. Invariably many of the people that do subscribe to HBO are middle to upper class, live in cities, have a high income and a university education behind them. Many of them in fact work in the media. This, Ben elaborates, leads to certain shows being over-represented in the press, to a degree that is actually disproportionate to their general popularity. A similar thing happens in this country with our ‘London-centric’ media and it is important that ‘we do not presume that everybody likes what we do’. An incredible example he gives is that of Madmen which airs at 10-00pm on a Wednesday night on BBC4 and which only has an audience of 100,000. Even in the US it commands a mere 1.25 million (in a country of 308 million). And yet again this tiny percentage tend to be urbane professionals in high profile jobs, hence the show’s ubiquity in the Sunday supplements. Quite frankly, Ben claims ‘many people would rather watch EastEnders than Madmen’.

Don’t a lot of US drama fans wait until the show comes out on DVD, though?

Again, Ben disputes this. Contrary to popular belief, DVD sales don’t actually affect overall viewing figures that much.
But aren’t the late timeslots partly responsible for these limited viewing figures? For instance Damages airs at 10.45pm on a Wednesday night. What if it were to go out at 9pm?

Ben doesn’t really think it would make much difference. However it would be wrong to assume that he doesn’t have a respect for these US dramas and his own personal taste and box set collection do not necessarily tally with what he himself chooses to put on the network. On the subject of HBO, he reminds us that the BBC have collaborated with the US giant in the past on epic dramas such as Band of Brothers, Rome and House of Saddam. There is another ‘exciting collaboration’ taking place in the near future.

And so the talk concludes and Ben has to catch his train back to London.

All in all, this was a fascinating insight into the world of high level network decision making. What struck me most were the complexities of the BBC’s commitment to range and diversity and the pressure involved in trying to maintain that balance, all within a limited budget. It does seem like quite a tall order being a public service broadcaster, where you are effectively trying to please everyone.

The other revelation for me was the relatively tiny audiences for high end US shows that are obviously critically acclaimed, but which I always presumed were popular hits as well. I admit I’ve always been a big advocate for some of these shows. I came out feeling a little bit ashamed- like I’d turned into one of the Guardian reading snobs I used to despise when I was eighteen!
It will be interesting to see where Ben takes BBC drama in the near future, how it will continue to ‘take risks’ and offer a ‘diversity of choice’ without upsetting that difficult balance between mainstream and cutting edge.

But, as Ben put it, the pressure and responsibility isn’t entirely on him. He is part of a team and there are many inputs in the whole creative process from script to commission to broadcast. I have to say though, I do not envy his task.

POSTSCRIPT: Since this talk took place some months ago, a number of the projects outlined have successfully aired, such as the Eighties season. Also, there have been some significant successes in drama – notably Five Daughters, Five Days and Luther. In addition, BBC Two has announced extra investment for the channel and a range of new drama, including The Shadow Line, The Hour, The Crimson Petal & The White, Christopher and His Kind, Morecambe and Wise and When Harvey Met Bob…See here for further details.

Jeremy Allen

Fantastic stuff there Jeremy, thanks a lot!

If you have an idea for a guest post, please get in touch! In addition to write-ups of talks, courses and seminars, we’ve had Bang2writers’ thoughts on theatre, music, filmmaking and powerful opinions about “making it” and writing in general as well as a story about rescuing a duck! All the guest posts so far.

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2 thoughts on “GUEST POST: Ben Stephenson Q & A by Jeremy Allen (Part 2)”

  1. A factual correction to this statement: (Little Dorrit still swept the board at the Emmys, beating Madmen and 30 Rock in the awards for writing and cinematography).

    Little Dorrit couldn't have beaten Mad Men or 30 Rock at the Emmys, as both these shows are in different categories. Indeed, in the relevant year Mad Men won Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series and 30 Rock won Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series.

    Andrew Davies won the Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special category for Little Dorrit – beating Generation Kill (David Simon, Ed Burns),
    Grey Gardens (Michael Sucsy, Patricia Rozema), Into the Storm (Hugh Whitemore), and
    Taking Chance (Michael Strobl, Ross Katz).

  2. From your article, could it have been that Enid Blyton submitted unsolicited materials to BBC and maybe that is why most, if not al of them were rejected? On the other hand the BBC movie on Enid Blyton coindided with the publication of my book on the writer, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (
    Stephen Isabirye

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