Bang2writer Jeremy Allen is back, this time with a fantastic two-part run-down of Ben Stephenson’s talk at De Montfort University earlier this year. Jeremy has made sure Ben has approved these articles himself, so you can be sure of their accuracy and depth. Enjoy!
Ben Stephenson has been controller of BBC drama commissioning since September 2008, with an annual budget of around £200 million at his disposal and ultimate say over what gets aired. Yet he’s still a sprightly 33. So far Ben has presided over the commissioning of several critically acclaimed pieces, from last year’s sweeping adaptation of Andrea Levy’s modern classic Small Island, to the runaway success of BBC3’s supernatural house share drama Being Human. Today he has come to deliver a talk at my old alma mater, De Montfort University in Leicester, enlightening this year’s intake on the MA Television Scriptwriting course on the realities and aspirations of BBC drama.
It is quite apparent from the start that Ben lives, breathes and eats drama. He is enthusiastic, effusive and refreshingly open. You sense you could ask him anything (within the realms of taste and decency) and he would offer a considered and articulate answer. It is this willingness to break open the channels of communication which have led to his monthly Friday open surgeries, in which Ben spends a whole day listening to and discussing the concerns of colleagues (’they can talk about anything, it’s all confidential’). He explains that when he first came to the beeb, it was like a ‘fortress, quite intimidating’ and his surgeries are a partial attempt to counter the closed door culture he once encountered at Television Centre.
Mr Stephenson exhibits an upbeat, youthful disposition and it is this boyishness which he claims has often led to inaccurate preconceptions: ‘Because I’m 33 and look 23 people think I’m a management puppet’. However, he is quick to dispel the myth of himself as corporate stooge and the image of him hunched over a computer, obsessively poring over audience demographics. Though he is not the first executive to be tarred with the ‘yes man’ tag, in his experience most people in management are ‘incredibly passionate and keen to make a difference’.
So to the talk and it quickly becomes clear that Ben’s key mission is to deliver a ‘diversity of voices to a diversity of audiences’. To explain how this is achieved, he outlines in detail the structure and hierarchy of the commissioning process. There are two basic production departments: Independent Commissioning and In-House. Both are divided into four regions: England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The four regions are the point of entry for new writers, but Ben is keen to stress that, although it is the responsibility of the regional commissioner to promote local talent, it is important ‘not to be hemmed in by the fact you’re a Welsh voice so therefore you’ve got to set it in Wales’.
Even though Ben ultimately decides whether or not a production gets green lit, there are clearly many voices involved in the development process. Does this lead to dissent? Ben believes difference of opinion is important: ‘Drama is about people. People are different’, adding that ‘disagreements are part of the process. One person developing is not necessarily the best way of developing – everybody has gaps in their knowledge’.
The Four Channels
As you are no doubt aware, BBC television drama is spread across four channels and each has a distinct style. Ultimately Ben’s challenge is to ensure that each channel has a ‘range of drama’. It is not necessarily about producing the best script, it is about balance. For instance, if the best five scripts that land on Ben’s desk are all crime dramas, there’s no way he could screen them all. On one level, it is about choosing the very best drama, but it is also about satisfying different tastes.
So what are the fundamental differences between the four channels?
BBC1 is of course the ‘mothership’. It is where big television events take place, five nighters such as Five Days, Criminal Justice and last year’s epic Torchwood. But it is obviously more than that. BBC One’s drama output falls into three main categories:
• High quality mainstream shows that appeal to a broad audience (’intelligent, popular drama’). This covers both soaps and high rating, long running series such as Waking the Dead and Silent Witness.
• ‘New mainstream pieces that stretch and challenge’. Although these can often turn out to be the biggest mainstream successes, there is initially an element of risk. The obvious examples are Dr Who and Life on Mars.
• Dramas that may not cater for broad, mainstream tastes but fall under the channel’s remit because of the sheer quality of the piece. The examples Ben cites are The Street, Occupation, Criminal Justice and Small Island. However he is quick to point out that ultimately only one of these did not draw a sizable audience (Occupation). The point is that these dramas were put out with not too high an expectation placed on them ratings-wise in the first place, unlike say New Tricks, which is aimed at a mass audience. What unites the shows in this category is that they all ‘reflect back the audience- tell stories about them’.
At this point Ben is asked what constitutes a big audience? For mainstream he says ‘about 5/6 million, although New Tricks regularly clocks 7 million’. However, Ben is eager to stress that it is ‘not just about ratings’. There are other factors upon which a show is judged. One is the Audience Appreciation Index (AI), which measures ‘how much the audience actually enjoyed, valued the program. If you get a big AI for Episode One you can be confident you will get a big AI for Episode Two’. The average index is 86 (Being Human received the highest ever AI rating for a first series, between 90-92). Basically, if the AI figure is in the 80s at the start of the series that is acceptable. If, by the end of the second or third episode, the AI is not 86 or above, it is ‘disappointing’.
BBC Two is receiving more investment this year. It has, Ben admits, not had enough focus of late. Indeed, it seems BBC Two has, in many ways, lost its place. Many dramas that would hitherto have been broadcast on the second channel now get an automatic airing on BBC One. This is where, according to Ben, BBC One has actually ‘dumbed up’, as opposed to the popular conception that it has dumbed down. For instance, Occupation, State of Play, Small Island and The Street would probably have enjoyed a comfortable BBC Two slot back in the day, being the natural heirs apparent to state of the nation pieces such as Edge of Darkness, Our Friends in the North and Boys From The Blackstuff.
Ben describes the kind of drama broadcast on BBC2 as ‘lean forward TV’. It is for people who want to ‘concentrate more’. He stipulates that there is no subject you cannot do on BBC2 as long as you tell it with ‘boldness, audaciousness, angle but not niche, still broad…challenging but entertaining’. One exciting prospect he mentioned was a forthcoming ‘Eighties season’, encompassing three dramas reflecting that most decadent of decades: an adaptation of Money, Martin Amis’ scathing satire on material greed, a piece set against the backdrop of the 1981 Royal Wedding and a biopic of the young Boy George.
Additionally, BBC Two puts out ‘quality singles’, which tend to have a more filmic feel. In this, the channel enjoys a close relationship with BBC Films. Again, within the world of singles there is an emphasis on range, from traditional historical pieces such as last year’s Churchill biopic Into the Storm to more cutting edge stuff like Five Minutes of Heaven, a heavyweight, turbulent drama focussing on the Troubles.
BBC Three has a younger demographic. The obvious success is Being Human, which Ben claims is ‘entirely down to writer Toby Whithouse writing for a young audience in a smart, intelligent way’. In fact there is an ambition about Being Human which could easily have backfired. The show very much embodies the ethos of BBC Three: ‘it has to have something that immediately grabs you’.
The original premise of Being Human was a straightforward house share drama along the lines of This Life. In development however, it was felt the piece was becoming a bit boring. Toby Whithouse jokingly suggested they could make the housemates a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost. The next day he woke up and thought that’s not a bad idea.
Ben concedes that there is a ‘uniqueness of tone’ with Being Human, that doesn’t necessarily come across on the page. One distinguishing feature is its ability to seamlessly shift genre from ‘stupid humour to gothic horror to supernatural mythology to moving soap opera’. According to Ben there’s a big lesson here: ’you don’t in real life switch between genres. You don’t say now I’m going to be funny, now I’m going to be serious’. Life is more complex, more integrated.
BBC Four has both a limited budget and a limited remit. It predominantly provides a platform for quality singles, usually biopics (like last year’s acclaimed Women We Loved season- three one-off films portraying popular British female icons) or modern historical pieces (such as last week’s On Expenses). Although it can produce adaptations of classics such as HG Wells’ First Men in the Moon, Ben is happy to admit there is no place for original fiction on BBC 4. That is not what it is there for.
Thanks Jeremy! Previously by Jeremy on this blog: Panel Discussion Write-Up
NEXT: Ben’s answers to some of the most-asked questions by writers – ie. “how important are treatments?”, “Does the BBC have an unwillingness to take risks?”, “How do you recognise a good idea?”, “How do you get your work commissioned?” — and much more. DON’T MISS OUT!