BBC Drama 2013: The Full Story

Idris Elba as John Luther.
Idris Elba as John Luther.

THE stars of BBC Drama gathered in London last night for a preview of what is to come in 2013.

Along with leading writers, directors, producers and executives.

With members of Her Majesty’s Media – me included – also invited along to the event at The King’s Fund in Cavendish Square.

BBC Drama controller Ben Stephenson made a speech and a number of announcements about new dramas, plus the latest on Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary.

Followed by a three minute showreel of highlights.

Doctor Who’s representatives included showrunner Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss and Jenna Louise Coleman.

With famous acting faces dotted around the room, including Alison Steadman, Idris Elba, Anne Reid and the cast of New Tricks.

Below is my transcript of what Ben said about new and returning BBC dramas.

Plus a full transcript of what he said in the main part of his speech.

The BBC Media Centre has the “prepared” version of the latter but I thought some might like to read the slightly expanded transcript of what he said in the room.

Ben Stephenson.
Ben Stephenson.

Ben Stephenson on new and returning BBC drama in 2013:

“The first piece I want to talk to you about is a 13-part new series commission to take over from Merlin. It’s called Atlantis. It’s written by the absolutely brilliant Howard Overman who created Misfits for Channel 4. It’s his first mainstream series. Produced with Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy, it is a remarkable vision and adventure, set in the lost city of Atlantis with Greek myths. It’s a thrilling adventure with huge but spectacular challenges for the Merlin slot this autumn. We’re casting it at the moment and I’m really excited.

“We’re also starting to think about who plays Mr Darcy. We are doing PD James’ wonderful book Death Comes To Pemberley on BBC1. Now I’ve had lots of suggestions…

“We’ve got some other brilliant pieces to come out on BBC1. Two eight-part series from writers with their first ever series commission. Breakdown, written by Jack and Harry Williams, and The Interceptor by Tony Saint. Two thrilling new additions to BBC1.

“We’re also doing Jamaica Inn, a book that I have loved for years and not been able to get the rights to, written by Emma Frost.

Remember Me by Gwyneth Hughes, which is a fantastic ghost story.

Call The Midwife and the birth of more BBC drama.
Call The Midwife and the birth of more BBC drama.

“Of course we’ll also be bringing back – this was a hard decision for me – Call The Midwife. (laughter) It’s had rotten ratings but we thought we’d give them another go. (laughter) So we’re doing another eight-part series of that and a marvellous Christmas special.

“We’re also bringing back Death In Paradise again. A very, very easy decision considering it’s been getting eight million and I think is the highest midweek series on any channel for quite a long time.

“Adding that to the return of Ripper Street and that is every single show, every series we’ve launched so far this year coming back.

“I’m very excited – you’re about to see a showreel – Luther is about to come back. I’ve just seen episode one. I’ve literally never been so scared in my life. I actually screamed in the office. Idris is amazing. It is beyond frightening. And I’m also very pleased to announce that the very scary Ruth Wilson – she’s not scary in real life, she’s lovely in real life…but the character she played, Alice Morgan, will be back at some stage. She wears black gloves and she does very evil things.

“But it’s not just about BBC1. We’re also bringing back Sir David Hare’s single play as a series…two single films, Turks and Caicos and Salting The Battlefield, again with a fantastic cast, including Bill Nighy.

“Slightly sad news, BBC4 will be ending its drama. But we’ve had re-investment on BBC1 and on BBC2, so I thought we can more than make up for it with the ambition there. But we wanted to end it in spectacular fashion. BBC4 has been the home for the new generation of biopic. I felt it was absolutely right to end with that. So we are doing – and it is so exciting – Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. A story that maybe you don’t know, which is after they were divorced…they toured New York in a production of Private Lives. Any of you will know it’s about a couple who are divorced. We’re very excited that we’ve got Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West to play Burton And Taylor. Both of them have been on BBC4 before, so it feels like a wonderful end to the BBC4 drama story.

“Now…we’ve also got an anniversary this year. It’s the 50th anniversary and, of course, it’s that tiny little show called Doctor Who. I’ve got the new assistant in front of me, I’ve just got a bit starstruck (laughter). So this year is the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. I can’t say anything about it because I can hear Steven Moffat somewhere in the room and he is quaking with what secrets I might reveal.

“I think this is a crucial part of the BBC’s output this year. Last year we had the wonderful Jubilee and the wonderful Olympics. This is an opportunity to make drama a landmark event for the BBC. I think everyone has a connection to Doctor Who, everyone has their own Doctor – Peter Davison, but I love them all – and I think that we can really do something spectacular with this.

“The only thing I can announce, and this is very exciting for a show that is constantly innovative – it’s going to be 3D. Which feels like a bold innovation that absolutely is right for what Doctor Who should be.

“We’re also at the moment filming Mark’s (Gatiss) fantastic behind the scenes of how Doctor Who started. I had a little cry at the read through. It was very, very moving.

“Now I’m going to show you a showreel. I haven’t shown it to anyone, apart from a few, because I wanted it to be secret. There are lots of other shows in here – New Tricks, Mayday, The Politician’s Husband, the brilliant In The Flesh, Quirke, Frankie, The Syndicate, Prisoners’ Wives, Case Histories, The Fall, Our Girl…”

Colin Morgan as Jimmy in Quirke.
Colin Morgan as Jimmy in Quirke.

My transcript of Ben Stephenson’s BBC Drama Speech in full:

“I think that 2012 was the most successful year for BBC Drama this century. A bold statement. Thanks to all the people in this room and many who can’t be here tonight. It is one that I believe – I would say that but I think I’ve got evidence. So really I want to say thank you to everyone as well as taking this opportunity to look forward to new horizons, new ambitions and a BBC with an exciting new DG (Director-General).

“The passing of some wonderful series in 2011 and 2012 marked the end of an era. Danny (Danny Cohen, BBC1 Controller) and I needed to find the next generation of returning series. And whilst this hunt still continues, I’m really, really pleased that 2012 saw the arrival of six new series, all of which will be returning in 2013. And I hope for many, many, many years to come.

“From Call The Midwife to Last Tango In Halifax, these series prove that if you create a show with intelligence, love and authorship the audience will follow. It’s also good to note that four of those six series were created by female writers with only one of them a crime show.

“So I’m determined that the next few years follow suit. But we’re also going to introduce a rich new line of shows on to BBC1 with rich, real filmic scale, including epic dramas we’ve already announced, including the 10-part The White Queen, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel and The Village, which I think take our ambition up to a new level.

Maxine Peake (Grace) and John Simm (John) in The Village.
Maxine Peake (Grace) and John Simm (John) in The Village.

“2011 saw the beginning of BBC2’s drama really coming back to life. But I hope that 2012 proved why it really mattered. Janice (Hadlow, BBC2 Controller) and I were thrilled that Line of Duty, Parade’s End and The Hollow Crown, amongst many others, proved how much audiences had missed BBC Drama. And with Jane Campion, Wolf Hall and again many others still to come I hope this will be just the beginning.

“Last week it was very, very nice to see a first. Every single drama nomination at the BPG and the South Bank Awards were won by a BBC drama. I’d always rather have audiences over awards but nevertheless that was quite a nice moment and it means that I don’t have to worry quite so much about what wins. (laughter)

“So, getting to the heart of what I want to talk about. Drama and the BBC really are inseparable. It’s written through the BBC like a stick of rock. No other broadcaster in this world, I absolutely believe, has drama so firmly embedded deeply in its DNA. Knock down any BBC building and I can prove to you that at the heart of it is a writer sat in the ruins typing away.”

Writer Lucy Gannon shouted out, “And crying.”

Ben continued: “Crying. Alright. Fair enough.” (laughter)

“A couple of weeks ago I was very lucky to be taken on a tour of the Royal Opera House by Lord Hall, our new DG. I found both the space and my time in his company absolutely inspiring. We talked about the BBC as a cultural organisation with an international reputation. One to make us proud and one that allows us to strengthen our creative muscles.

“When you go to the Royal Opera House or the Royal National Theatre there’s a buzz in the theatre before the curtain goes up. That buzz comes not just from what you’re about to see but because the space, the history, the values of the place add up to something extraordinary.

“It’s that electric crackle of excitement that I want to create at BBC Drama. I want to make BBC Drama a cultural institution. A touchstone for quality and modernity with all the excitement and glamour of the curtain going up.

“Part of the reason a couple of years ago I introduced the ‘Original British Drama’ tag line was because I wanted BBC Drama to add up to something. It shouldn’t just be about individual shows. I want audiences to feel that anticipation when they see our logo. When they hear that there’s a new BBC drama coming on I want their expectations to be enormous and I want them to be really tough if our ambition isn’t as huge as they demand.

“But crucially I want you – some of the absolute best talent in the world – to feel genuinely excited about working for BBC Drama.

“I hope that some of the changes I’ve made to BBC Drama in my four years in the job have helped. I hope it feels more welcoming, broader, more driven by creative talent and, crucially, at times, more fun.

The Syndicate 2: Tom Bedwell (JIMI MISTRY), Becky Atkinson (NATALIE GAVIN), Alan Walters (MARK ADDY) , Mandy Atkinson (SIOBHAN FINNERAN), Rose Wilson (ALISON STEADMAN).
The Syndicate 2: Tom Bedwell (JIMI MISTRY), Becky Atkinson (NATALIE GAVIN), Alan Walters (MARK ADDY) , Mandy Atkinson (SIOBHAN FINNERAN), Rose Wilson (ALISON STEADMAN).

“Of course there’s no escaping from the fact that we are a weighty institution with weighty and, yes, sometimes labyrinthine processes. But as much as possible I want to bypass that and create a place that feels inspiringly creative, where there is a buzz of creativity and an ‘anything goes’ optimism.

“And that means setting our values out more clearly than ever, articulating that we are the adventurous, gung-ho market leader that the competition can only follow. And sometimes, maybe, copy. And, yes, I am looking at you Sky and your ‘Original British Drama’ tag line.

“It means continuing to foster the best possible culture we can inside and having the top notch best team of staff in the country. And whilst frustrating, it’s also good news that I’m constantly having to stop my staff being poached.

“I want to build a BBC Drama department that has an enormous international reputation. When Sundance premiere Top Of The Lake and it’s called a masterpiece or Ripper Street is the highest new show to premiere on BBC America. Or actors like Idris Elba, Cillian Murphy and Elisabeth Moss come back from Hollywood to join our repetpoire. It’s really good for us. It makes us bolder and it makes us bigger. It adds a bit of spice and glamour to the mix and I think it takes us out of ourselves.

“As any of you will have heard me bang on before, you’ll know that I tend to view the word ‘international’ as a bit of a dirty word. It makes me think of Euro Puddings – that’s a real term – and pitches that have the budgets attached but no writers. It will probably have a picture of a crown or a sword on its laminated cover. All you producers know what I’m talking about, you’ve all seen it.

“But at all costs we must protect our own British values, without which we’re just a cheap imitation of Hollywood or a less Scandi version of Scandi. Why copy other countries when we can be the best at what only we can do? I want us to be international but, crucially, on our own terms.

“And that means making us more British than ever – rather than chasing a naive ambition to be a British HBO and chasing famous names it’s about applying the great Danny Boyle vision to our work, a bold, adventurous, authorial approach that exports because of its Britishness, not despite it.

“In Boyle’s vision of Britain, Mary Poppins sits alongside Brunel, Shakespeare alongside James Bond. And so it should be at the BBC. But Britishness absolutely does not mean that we don’t work with the best international talent. We should have really open creative borders.

“But none of this talk is about being niche. I want packed houses to watch our shows. The ambition to be popular and brilliant runs through the BBC. Of course I am being ridiculously, deliberately idealistic. Because without a vision, what do we have to aim for?

“Now some of you will be thinking, ‘Yeah, this is all very well but you turned my script down last week.’ Or, ‘You’re so bloody slow.’ And of course we’re never going to agree on everything and we’re all going to have our ups and downs. But whilst we are far from perfect, I want us to move with integrity at all times. I know some other broadcasters talk about themselves as paragons of virtue but we’re not. But we will keep getting better.

“Ultimately I think I can boil this down to one thing – I want to make BBC Drama the hallmark of quality and the automatic home for the best talent in the world.”

Update: Fans of BBC2’s The Hour will be disappointed to learn that it will not be returning for a third series, having not been re-commissioned by the BBC.

BBC Drama 2013 Showreel

BBC Drama

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