Ian Drury - Sheil Land Associates Ltd. - 52 Doughty Street - London WC1N 2LS

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Rebuilding TV Drama

Went to the first of three meetings yesterday, in my old hometown of Birmingham. This was of a strategy group working under the aegis of the Producers' Forum and Screen West Midlands. The issue to be discussed - how to rebuild a sustainable TV drama industry in Birmingham and the West Midlands.

The drama industry in Birmingham was the casualty of a cultural sea-change in British TV. I remember it because I was working on a couple of Birmingham-based drama series when the sea-change happened.

There was a BBC1 drama series called "Back Up". It was an interesting one for me because it was based around a police support unit in Birmingham, and my kid brother was then a member of a police support unit in Birmingham. Which meant that, for a week or so, as part of my research I was effectively working alongside my brother.

The first series went pretty well. That was when management looked on Birmingham as a production centre in its own right, and the Head of Drama at good old Pebble Mill took the trouble to find out what Birmingham and the region had to offer. There was a real sense of an alternative to London, and that BBC Birmingham had just enough independence of outlook to develop and produce its own slate of drama projects.

The second series turned into a bit of a nightmare. The management had changed - and the new lot simply didn't want to be in Birmingham. They hated spending time there. It was like a gulag to them. They couldn't stand being so far away from The Groucho Club. They feared that, if they weren't stalking the corridors of BBC Television Centre or hanging around Soho House, somebody else would get noticed, somebody else would get the promotion.

The atmosphere, the culture, and the quality of the product had changed radically, overnight, and for the worse.

There was no third series. Not long after that, there was no more Pebble Mill. What we got instead was Doctors, a kindergarten for people entering TV. The BBC's weird obsession with medical stuff had meant a conveyor-belt daytime drama, pumped out of Birmingham for the benefit of those who happened to be at home, was the contribution of my great city to the schedules.

You can tell how bad things are: Doctors doesn't even admit it's in Birmingham; Hustle came and filmed here, but only to keep costs down (the viewer was not meant to realise they'd popped up to Birmingham for some shots) and Survivors ... well, that was just crap.

So how do you rebuild an industry that has been destroyed by cultural prejudice rather than economic conditions? Maybe we should be asking other regions who have suffered a similar kind of devastation for what were purely political reasons. But one thing's for sure - for as long as there were senior managers in the media who felt such contempt for the audience that they couldn't bear to be out there where the viewers actually are, there was never going to be a strong drama industry anywhere in the UK.

I mean, just because people are in work - in the mythical town of Holby, or that strange London suburb of Walford, for instance - doesn't mean that the drama side of things isn't on life support.

Maybe the return of a viable TV drama industry in the Midlands will mark the rebirth of TV drama in general. Now wouldn't that be nice?

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