BBC swaps ‘cosy’ period drama for modern grit to prove licence fee is not ‘old-fashioned anomaly’
The BBC cannot rest on ‘cosy’ period dramas because it must appeal to everyone to justify the licence fee, head of drama says
King Henry VIII (Damian Lewis) scrutinises Thomas Cromwell’s (Mark Rylance) shot.
Wolf Hall, starring Damian Lewis and Mark Rylance, will not be ‘cosy’, Ben Stephenson says Photo: BBC/Giles Keyte
By Hannah Furness, Arts Correspondent
6:30AM GMT 27 Dec 2014
They were once a staple of Sunday night television, but it appears the “cosy” period dramas of yesteryear could be a thing of the past for the BBC.
The BBC’s controller of drama has said the corporation is no longer looking to commission safe, “traditional” pieces, as it aims to prove its programmes appeal to a broad audience to justify the licence fee.
Ben Stephenson, who is responsible for commissioning drama, said his team are not looking to create “cosy mainstream television”, choosing instead to make dramas which “take risks” and “push boundaries”.
He added it was not appropriate for the BBC to seek huge viewing figures by catering to one “particular audience”, insisting it must appeal to all sectors of society.
Otherwise, he said, it risks leaving a “huge part of the British population who pay for the BBC” feeling “totally disenfranchised by drama”, leaving the argument for continuing the licence fee in difficulties.
In years gone by, viewers enjoyed a staple of adaptations from the works of authors including Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte, with some of Britain’s finest acting talent from Colin Firth to Emma Watson gracing its screens.
Now, its most popular dramas include the gritty Happy Valley, The Fall and The Missing, with a modern focus on appealing to viewers from all walks of society with edgy “risk-taking” plotlines.
While period dramas have been commissioned for next year, including Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Andrew Davies’ adaptation of War and Peace, Stephenson said they were only broadcast if they showed something exceptional, surprising or “take massive risks with tone”.
Simply seeking out the next Austen adaptation would not be encouraged, he said, as he outlined a line-up of new shows including The Woman in Red, the scandalous true story of Lady Seymour Worsley, and J K Rowling’s dark look at modern society, The Casual Vacancy.
The months to come will be seen as crucial for the BBC as it leads up to the licence fee debate, with its vocal critics keeping a close eye on its spending and output.
The corporation has already been subject to cost-cutting measures to increase efficiency, while some have compared British drama unfavourably with American and Scandinavian offerings of recent years.
In an interview with the Telegraph, Stephenson has now put up a robust defence of the BBC’s programming, arguing it is now viewed as outclassing its rivals with American companies vying to work with the corporation to broadcast its drama.
Admitting the corporation is “not perfect” and must not “rest on its laurels”, he said it was essential for it to prove it was relevant to everyone in Britain – not just the mainstream, older viewers traditionally enjoying BBC One.
“You can get a very big audience by catering for a particular audience, and that audience is important, but if every drama caters for that one audience you’re suddenly going to find a huge part of the British population who pay for the BBC totally disenfranchised by drama,” he said.
“We’ve come on a big journey the last few years where I feel we’ve shifted perception from a broadcaster who’s most interested in traditional period adapations to a broadcaster who makes a really broad range of modern drama.
“Sometimes that will be period but the period drama we now do may be slightly more surprising; whether it’s a piece like Wolf Hall or a modern take on period like Peaky Blinders. The stand-out shows really have been big BBC One and Two modern shows that take massive risks with tone.
“If you look at Happy Valley and The Missing and Line of Duty, none of them are cosy mainstream television. All of them take risks, all of them push the boundaries; not for the sake of it but to tell the stories.
“The whole point of the licence fee is that we don’t value one audience over another audience. Whether you’re rich, poor, black, white, of any political persuasion, of any interests, you’re all the same because you all pay for us.
“We’ve got to offer content that people of all shapes and sizes love. No other broadcaster can do that because of demographics and advertising, and that’s the world, but I do think the licence fee proves it is not an old-fashioned anomaly.”
Admitting the BBC had been criticised for producing too much costume drama in the past, Stephenson said it would not longer be commissioning “traditional adaptations of traditional novels” but focusing on “contemporary shows and presenting a view of Britain that feels contemporary to all audiences”.
Adding period drama was not of interest to “huge swathes of audiences”, he said the BBC would continue to dramatise great literature but only if it avoided looking “old-fashioned”.
Call the Midwife, one of the BBC’s most successful period dramas of recent years, worked because it was “incredibly life-affirming” while still “tackling tough subjects, showing poverty and death and making serious comment about some of the things that happened”.
When asked how BBC drama would contribute to the licence fee debate, Stephenson said the “bottom line” was to leave politics to one side and create enough “really good programmes” that people would want to pay it.
But, he warned, further cuts would mean “there comes a point at which there’s a line and you can cross no further”, leaving the corporation dropping programmes entirely instead of trying to make them for less money.
“We can’t push it any further without cutting shows, and it then becomes which show?” he said. “It can’t just be about someone’s personal tastes. The point of the BBC is you’re not going to like everything but hopefully there’s enough you’ll like.
“The point of my job is to say here’s a broad spectrum of drama, and across the year hopefully you’ll find enough to love to say yes that’s worth the licence fee.”