The following is taken from Broadcast.
Just before leaving her post as BBC Head of Fiction, Jane Tranter issued a parting shot against the "fetishisation" of single drama. Tranter criticised as "anachronistic" calls to revive strands such as Play for Today to address social issues. "There's a very good place for the single play on TV, but you can also get it in the theatre and in the cinema," she said. "Neither theatre or cinema can do a six-part series." Singling out stripped Peter Moffat's five-part drama Criminal Justice, Paul Abbott's six-part thriller State of Play and Peter Kosminsky's 1999 serial Warriors, Tranter added: "There's an imaginative shape, form and scheduling to TV drama. There's a fetishisation around the single play that's undermining these pieces. "When people talk about risk, they talk about singles, but it is the least risky thing you can commission. A great big chunk of something new – that's risky."
As my title would subtly suggest, I think she has missed the point. Tranter was often accused of commissioning to her taste, and nothing else, but as I don't know her, I have no idea whether this is true or not! But in terms of risk taking, it's not about size, it's about pedigree. For the sake of this article, let's leave aside the quality of something. Because no one sets out to write, commission, produce and broadcast a bad piece of television. Of course we all know that it doesn't always work out, for whatever reason, but I think we can hope that the intention, at least, was there.
So I assume that Tranter is not talking about quality either. Because of course, series or one off, she would only commission what she deemed to be excellent work. So this is purely about risk taking. Why, therefore, is a series from established talent like Paul Abbot, Peter Moffat and Peter Kominsky, riskier than a one off like Fiona's Story from someone with no apparent track record like screenwriter Kate Gabriel? By the same token, is one off God On Trial, from the experienced Frank Cottrell Boyce, riskier than commissioning Harley Street, created by virtual newcomer Marston Bloom? (Yes I was critical of Harley Street, and I didn't think another medical series was bold commissioning, but the fact that it was from an inexperienced writer was its one saving grace.)
I think you can see where I am going with this. "Taking risks" has become a buzz word that people, particularly commissioners, like to flock too, because it shows how bold and talented they are. But taking risks, real risks, is not limited to whether something is a six part series, a one off, a controversial subject matter or whatever. It's also about who you are backing to deliver the content. What would be far more beneficial for the industry are more risks in giving newer writers a chance to write on a high profile series, and ultimately given the chance to create their own.
I'm not talking about handouts. Remember we are not talking about quality here. That has to be a given. Rubbish work should obviously not pop up on telly just because it's from a twenty year old. But if the scripts are good enough, then the writer should also be deemed good enough, old enough, young enough, experienced enough... whatever. Back the talent, not just play safe with the track record. Now that would be a risk worth taking note of.