Saturday, July 05, 2008

Jane Tranter's speech to the RTS

Jane Tranter, Head of Fiction for the BBC, gave a great speech at The Screenwriters’ Festival, a mere three days after speaking at the Royal Television Society. Many of the points raised were, naturally, identical.

In the RTS speech, Tranter lists eight things she has learned about drama. Here is the abridged version:


... there's an odd tendency in our business to pretend finding successful drama is all a complete mystery. David Picker, the legendary Hollywood executive who headed up both United Artists and MGM, once said to me that if he'd commissioned everything he'd turned down, and turned down everything he'd commissioned, his success rate would have been about the same.
 
And as everybody knows, William Goldman once famously said "in our business nobody knows anything", by which he meant that in our business nobody knows what will work.
 
Over the years I have learnt not just to live with but to occasionally enjoy the process of not knowing anything, of being surrounded by the unexpected and surprising. And if I took David Picker or William Goldman at their word it would cosily abdicate me of a great deal of responsibility.
 
But I think they are both being pretty disingenuous. David Picker didn't greenlight the first James Bond movies by accident and William Goldman didn't write Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid because he didn't understand great storytelling and its visceral grip on audiences.
 
And to be honest it would be a bit tricky, wouldn't it, if I stood here and told you that after eight years in the job I still hadn't the faintest idea how to do my job.
 
So here are some of the things I've worked out along the way. Some of them will be familiar to some of you. None of them are rocket science. But they are some of the things that I know about commissioning drama. That I've learnt. And that I've grown to trust.
 
Just so you know how to pace yourselves, I've picked out eight of them. I would have liked to go for 10 but life's too short, we've all got dinners to go to.
 
So: The Thing I Know Number One. You don't move forwards by constantly looking back.
 
Now nothing pleases me more than a good debate about television drama, but I am beginning to lose the will to live over the continual conversation about how wonderful television drama used to be, with particular reference to Play For Today....

So The Thing I Know Number Two is this: stop underestimating the creative potency of the returning drama series.
 
The returning series is far riskier, more exposing and more complex to crack than any other form of television drama. The collaborative and long-term creative experience that series television offers writers and actors, producers and directors should be embraced rather than dodged. It should be applauded rather than seen as a second class genre useful only for making money or securing ratings....

That said, let's not forget The Thing I've Learnt Number Three. Always remember that there's more to great television drama than a great script.
 
It's true that, yes, the script is at the heart of everything, but we can be strangely slow to recognise that directors and the execution of the script are utterly vital to the entire process....

The Thing I Know Number Four. Only make what someone is passionate about.
 
Contrary to popular belief BBC drama isn't about my passions or even my personal tastes (it might look different if that was the case).
 
But good drama has to spring from the passion of somebody. It can be the best idea in the world but if it in some way doesn't come from the heart – as opposed to intellectual curiosity, interest or financial gain – then the drama will fail....

Thing Number Five. Don't forget the audience.

Francis Ford Coppola gave a wonderful quote about the making of Apocalypse Now. He said that in making the film he wanted to be like Proust – but he also wanted to be like Irwin Allen (for those of you too young to remember, Irwin Allen was a great popular fim producer in the 70s, the man behind those huge and crowd pleasing disaster movies, The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure etc)....

The Thing I Know Number Six. When budgets are going down and audience expectations are going up, you need to be very smart to square the circle (so no pressure there, then).
 
We all know that budgets in television drama – like budgets everywhere – are going down. Somehow we've got to find a way of coming to terms with this. Get used to it. Treat it as a creative challenge – not easy, but if it was easy, everyone would be doing it....

And talking of risks – The Thing I Know Number Seven is: nothing is a bigger killer of risk than the fear of not succeeding.
 
Over the years I've tried if not to learn to love failure (think that would be going too far) but at least to learn to live with failure.
 
Nothing breeds success like failure. If we can learn to understand – as opposed to judge – what worked and what didn't about a drama, then we will have wasted neither the audience's time nor money. And nor will we have wasted all that creative blood, guts and energy....

And finally, The Thing I Know Number Eight. Never forget why television matters.
 
Russell T Davies said something the other month in an interview he gave that really struck a chord with me. He said "I think it's really hard to say you love television. It's easy to stand up and say I love opera, I love film, I love theatre. And people say 'Oh marvellous, it's quite right.' But it's hard to say you love television. If you do, you sound trivial, superficial, and I'm not. I'm clever. And I know what I'm talking about, and I think it's monstrously unsung as an art form..."

The full text of this very interesting speech is on the BBC’s site.

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