Pride - Press Archive - The Guardian
16 December 2002
Today the BBC announces some major new drama shows. Here, Maggie
Brown talks to the woman who decides how a £218m budget is spent
Running BBC drama is tricky, as Jane Tranter knows only too well. Christmas
schedules are ready to roll, but she she's had to send The Hound of the
Baskervilles back for a big last-minute change.
The problem with the Boxing Day treat is that the computer-generated hound
is neither frightening enough nor (monster) dog-like enough. One reason for
this, says Tranter, is that it was made by Frameworks, the seasoned team
behind Walking with Dinosaurs and the Stone Age creatures in last Christmas's
Lost World. "It sometimes appeared with a set of snapping dinosaur-style
jaws," rather than vicious canine molars, "and at other times it changed
colour and looked more like a bear" than a murderous hound. It has been
that kind of autumn season.
When Tranter, now 39, was appointed 27 months ago, after a damaging
interregnum, BBC drama was at a low point, thrashed by ITV. But it was
about to benefit from Greg Dyke's big investment in BBC1.
Now she presides over an annual budget of £218m. Yet she has found her
ramped-up output criticised for being too derivative and soapy - the weekly
episodes of Holby City, Merseybeat and Casualty have all come under attack.
At the same time, her bravest, most costly BBC1 dramas, mainly shown on
Sunday nights, have tended to perform below expectations - and have
sometimes just been bad drama.
But Tranter is ploughing on, her course unaltered. "I feel we are only now
just getting to the gateway of where we want to be," she says defiantly.
"I think this autumn is the closest we have got to moving drama forward,
on a journey on which I want to take BBC1.
"The point is that at one end we have EastEnders, Casualty, Holby City,
and then you move through Waking the Dead, Judge John Deed, Cutting It,
Sparkhouse, Stretford Wives, through to Out of Control [a bleak view of life
inside a young offenders' unit]. Across the season, we have sounded a lot
of great notes. We don't need to get huge ratings for everything. We are
She peppers her discussion of drama with the words variety, innovation,
originality and mainstream. She says that any new BBC1 drama series should
have at its heart a big, bold idea, capable of running for five years. And she
hints that Merseybeat may be axed after the current series.
I am interviewing her at her extraordinary single-storey house, set on stilts
on the banks of a Thames tributary that has a regular habit of flooding. It
suggests Wind in the Willows crossed with Frank Lloyd Wright. A year ago,
Tranter gave birth to twins, Madeleine and Joseph. It has changed her, she
says, made her even more aware of the emotions just below her skin and
everyone else's. The woes of Cherie Blair, she says, are much on her mind.
Tranter's worst disappointment this autumn was The Project, a lavish,
laborious study of New Labour directed by Peter Kosminsky and written by
Leigh Jackson. It carried BBC1's hopes of awards, but was panned as boring,
and watched by just 3 million people, falling to a low of 2.8 million.
"I expected a million more," she says. "It could have done with more light
and shade. As a piece of drama, it should have been less black and white.
We possibly worked so hard at getting the accuracy and authenticity of
Paul [the spin doctor] and [the MP] Maggie's journeys, the light and shade
of the emotions got missed out.
"It was a very, very relentlessly bleak watch. We backed the attitude of
Kosminsky and Jackson, and we are proud to do that, but they are depressed
with the political climate, and it is utterly truthful from that point of view.
Having said that, we'd do it again tomorrow. It is the most courageous
drama the BBC has done for years."
The Real Jeffrey Archer, an over- the-top satire, also received, in Tranter's
words, a "mixed negative" reaction. Again, she had expected at least a
million more than the 4.7 million who tuned in, but is proud that it
The romantic drama Sparkhouse, whose three episodes also failed to raise
even five million viewers, was created by Sally Wainwright yet did not bring
the impact of her admired ITV series At Home with the Braithwaites to BBC1.
The most successful drama was also the most traditional, Daniel Deronda,
which opened at 6.3 million and exemplified the BBC costume drama tradition
at its best, even though it was forced to play on Saturday night. "It was
lovely. I'm thrilled," says Tranter. But she says: "I did like Dr Zhivago. It
was a great thing for ITV to do. Daniel Deronda was a perfectly drawn cameo.
Dr Zhivago had a touch of the epic. There is room for both. But it would be
nice for us to do something that has that size and scale."
She says her drama department is in the first stages of developing "an
enormous epic drama set in Europe, an original huge piece for 2004." There
are also rumours, which she won't deny, of a docudrama about sectarian
conflict in Northern Ireland. Leigh Jackson is adapting William Golding's
trilogy To The Ends of the Earth, about life on an 18th-century ship.
Jimmy McGovern is writing another costume drama, James I and the
Gunpowder Plot. The next classic adaptation will be Anthony Trollope's
He Knew He Was Right, and George Eliot's Felix Holt is also being
Today BBC1 will announce that it is to screen six Canterbury Tales in
modern dress next autumn. "It's a method of doing individual plays,
themed together, and will be set on the road from London to Canterbury,"
says Tranter. She also promises a production that does "something
extraordinary" with The Tempest.
On a completely different tack, the drama department is going
anthropomorphic, with drama starring real animals à la Babe. Work has
already started on Pride, the coming of age of a lioness, with the Bristol
Natural History Unit. Sitcom writer Simon Nye has written the script -
Tranter winces at the suggestion that it sounds like Johnny Morris revisited -
and they are currently filming a mixture of wild lions on location in Africa and
captive ones. Their mouths will be made to move with computer-generated
images. "It is brutal," she says. BBC drama is also going to tell the
merry tale of the Tamworth Two, the pigs who escaped the slaughterhouse.
"One of advantages - and disadvantages - of the BBC is that it is so big.
And none of the departments has ever made use of each other and linked up."
The decision to continue playing difficult drama on BBC1 begs the question
of what viewers are to expect from BBC2 drama, veering confusingly as it
does between 24, The Gathering Storm, Tipping the Velvet, Flesh and Blood
and Babyfather. "A good question. For the past two and a half years, we've
concentrated on BBC1 - it was red alert."
With an annual budget of just £18m against £200m for BBC1, she says
BBC2 drama is less important than it used to be. Mark Thompson
downgraded it - but it can be made to pack a bigger punch. "We have put a
strategy in place, and we are seeing the very, very green shoots of it. We
want it to be diverse, but for inquiring minds. Drama that goes in close."
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