Fight, fight, fight. One of the leading figures in British comedy (I'm Alan Partridge, The Thick Of It) calls on our TV industry to be more aggressive in selling itself abroad + attacks the interference of government and press in the creative sphere
Recorded in 2012
Armando Iannucci: Thank you very much, BAFTA, for your incredible kindness in not only inviting me to give this year’s Television Lecture, but of laying on such a magnificent parade through central London leading up to it. I know how deeply the British public share our concerns about the digital future and the challenge of multi-platform delivery, which is why I’m sure they turned out in the large numbers they did this afternoon.
Now, my predecessor in this spot, Peter Bennett-Jones, argued last year that the BBC needs to be split into two divisions, one factual, and one entertainment. Indeed, many in the crowd in Trafalgar Square were telling me the same today. I’ll be taking Peter’s advice tonight, and speaking just about comedy and drama, since that’s what I feel qualified to discuss. I also ought to point out that Peter is my agent so I suppose it’s appropriate he gets a 10 % share of my argument this evening.
But I dedicate tonight’s lecture 100% to him. He’s been my mentor and model for nearly 20 years now, fighting to help me make the comedy I wanted to make under the creative conditions I needed to make it, and his generosity, idealism and idiosyncrasy for me represent totally what we are in UK Television when we are at our best; especially the idiosyncrasy.
This lecture has the rather aggressive title of ‘Fight, Fight, Fight.’ And to show I mean business, I also ought to warn you that I use the F-word three times this evening, and by that I mean ‘Fuck’. And that was one of them.
I had originally thought of calling tonight’s talk ‘Make Good Programmes’ and the plan was to be introduced, come over to the lectern and say, ‘Good evening. Make good programmes’ and then sit down again. But that would only have led to an awkward silence, followed by everyone heading downstairs to a glass of rather sharp tasting white wine and then, with a free evening ahead of them, no doubt heading over to a rival talk Brian Sewell is giving on Titian at The National Gallery.
But ‘Make Good Programmes’ is all I’ve ever believed, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to believe. Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your audience. Make good programmes, and they will come.
My only working principle, whenever we make something, is rather ruthlessly to concentrate on that rectangular screen on the monitor as I’m filming. What’s happening in that screen? Is it clear what’s going on? Is what’s in that monitor the funniest, the best it can be? Is it telling the story? Is it believable what those people are saying? And I will always fight to make it so, even if that means starting afresh, rewriting the scene, dropping an extremely expensive prop, ignoring a magnificent but distracting view the location manager sold his wife to get access to.
All of that, because that rectangle is all the viewer cares about too. Whatever device that rectangle is on may keep changing, away from the home and onto the tablet, but it’s still those same four sides enclosing what you’ve made. It’s an intimate connection between you and them. There may be a hundred people on set, we may measure our reach in terms of millions but ultimately people watch in ones and twos, with families and friends. TV is personal.
It’s personal for me. When I was growing up in Glasgow my father was self-employed, and had good times and bad times. In the good times, we lived in a nice house, but there were bad times. There was a particularly bad time when there were six of us in a two-bedroomed tenement flat in Glasgow. But even then, I remember television taking us out of ourselves. Us all gathered round and there being laughter, at Morecombe and Wise and The Generation Game and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. But also great illumination, with the likes of The World At War and Horizon and a fantastic series I remember, dramatising Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle to the Galapagos Islands, where he began his intellectual journey that was to lead to the development of his theory on evolution.
I personally felt grateful that British TV set itself apart from its international rivals in this way, not afraid to challenge, to stretch the mind and imagination. It stretched mine, it galvanised my creative ambitions, it gave me a standard to reach for, which is why I feel happy making television, and grateful and thankful that I’m making it in Britain.
That’s why I’ve called this talk ‘Fight, Fight, Fight’, because I want to encourage us to be more aggressive in promoting what makes British TV so good – and to be ambitious, arrogant even, in how we sell it to the world; never to sell ourselves short. I’ll be talking about my American experiences in a moment, but commercially, I want us all, especially the BBC, with a brand recognition up there with Apple and Google, to go abroad and prostitute itself to blue-buggery if need be in how it sells and makes money from its content, so that money can come back to production in the UK.
But more importantly, at home, I want us to be more vocal in fighting whatever attacks or restricts our creative ambition: the caution, the assault from politicians and press barons, the unnecessary constraints imposed by any executives who commission in their own image, according to their own agenda of tastes and priorities instead of in creative engagement with the programme makers.
I want to banish forever the memory of a seminar a few years back, where a roomful of some of the best comedy writers in the country were told by executives, ‘Here’s some of the topics we’re looking for in comedy: Builders, women....’ No doubt they were inundated with scripts about a building firm who wanted to build a woman. I want to argue that programme makers, the creative industry in television, is its hugest asset, and will be the true source of any profit to come, and needs to be treated with respect and support.
Now, profit, the weasel word, profit. I’m not a naturally aggressive person but one of the few times I’ve spoken out in public about television was after James Murdoch spoke up in favour of profit, and attacked the BBC for being far too good. I was frustrated that the BBC started apologetically looking at reining in some of its services, and apologising for having websites and digital channels and local radio. And at the time I said, publicly, I loved the BBC dearly but I was frustrated that every time it was accused of a crime, even one it wasn’t guilty of, it would immediately hand itself in to the nearest police station. I also said the BBC should get someone to tell James Murdoch to fuck off, but it looks like that happened at the most recent MacTaggart Lecture [given by James’ sister Elisabeth Murdoch].
Now, it would take someone with a sick and twisted sense of humour to revel in the subsequent emotional distress that has befallen James Murdoch since he made that argument, which is why BAFTA has asked me to give this lecture.
But I want to look at that provocative remark he used at the end of his MacTaggart Lecture, that ‘The only reliable, durable guarantor of independence is profit.’ That sentence riled me. It got to me. Not just because my first instincts were telling me it was the opposite of everything I believed, but also because of a niggling, troubling little emergency flare that went off at the back of my mind that perhaps there might be something in it. That independence is key. That creative independence is what defines British television at its best, but if it’s under attack, where is it to go if not into the arms of the moneymen? Well, we’ll see.
So let’s, first, take a look at the world stage. British television was once the most admired, the most copied and influential in the world. I say ‘once’ because I think over the past five, maybe 10, years we’ve stopped thinking that. We’ve been surprised and gob smacked by how good American telly has become. Bringing cinema production values to the small screen and attracting cinema talent.
America’s best writers and directors have been enticed to the longer-form TV drama and as a consequence have given us the likes of The Wire, Damages, The Walking Dead, Six Feet Under, Homeland and Game of Thrones. Some of these series have been called the greatest television ever made. Which is silly, because that’s Breaking Bad. Or is it Family Guy?
My epiphany was when watching an episode of Battlestar Gallactica, not the ‘80s mullet version, but the high concept reboot from a few years back, where some of the central cast – held in captivity by the Cylons – resorted to suicide bombing to overthrow them. For an American show deep in America’s War on Terror, this was an astonishing piece of bravado from the programme makers, and it made me sit up and think about how gloriously daring we could be with television drama.
But American TV wasn’t always to that standard. In the 1970s and ‘80s, that time when perhaps America’s political and cultural dominance was at its height, and when Britain’s great doubts about its identity and role were at their most pronounced, in those times we at least consoled ourselves with one unarguable, self-evident fact; American TV was glittery crap and ours was really, really good. Yes, there were iconic shows from the US like Kojak and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but these were just well made entertainments at the very tippy-topmost peak of a mound of dross.
We rejoiced in the vulgarity of their LA sheen, we enjoyed being appalled by the sausage-factory productivity, with regular, yearly seasons of 22 episodes or even more, typified by a famous Simpson’s episode where Homer raises money to fund a new, seventh episode of his favourite British TV show.
And we jumped up in down with barely concealed patronising glee that even a costume soap from us like Upstairs, Downstairs could be repackaged in America as Masterpiece Theatre. And we laughed, oh how we laughed, at their repeated attempts to take top quality British sitcoms like Fawlty Towers and make a complete shredded turkey out of them.
And then, with The Sopranos we started identifying the appearance of quality, edgy television. We identified it with HBO. We maybe saw it as a one-off. After all, HBO’s slogan ‘It’s not TV, it’s HBO’ reinforced this notion that what we were watching was somehow an exception. But now, as rivals Showtime, AMC and FX ape HBO’s commitment to a different type of television with the likes of Mad Men and Dexter, and as the big networks catch the bug with high-concept shows such as Lost and, dammit, The Office, I think in Britain, TV has gone through something of an identity crisis.
Why is this? Firstly I think the increasing power and dominance of the commissioning executive (and by that I mean either genre commissioner or channel controller or scheduler – an executive who has some say in the commissioning of programmes) – I think the increasing power and dominance they’ve had is partly to blame for this. Separating broadcasters from programme makers gave those broadcasters a power that has grown and grown so that at times it becomes a form of diktat as to what the content should be.
"We want an animated sketch show about teenage car crash victims"; "We’re looking for more dramas about superhero weathermen fighting permafrost"; "We’re after a sassy late-night antiques show"; "We want a multi-ethnic quiz hosted by an Indian Amanda Burton."
Too often, the commissioning executive became the chief creative officer behind any show, the one coming up with the title, insisting on the key cast, determining the format, imposing hard-line notes on the script, influencing the edit. Very often the producers and key creative talent became the suppliers, the contracted creative labour, used to bring the commissioner’s project to completion.
We were told we, the programme makers, were there to make headlines, grab ratings, pull in the viewers, or ‘punch through the mix’ as I remember one memo put it. The discovery that reality was popular and cheap led to a downturn in drama and comedy, and an upswing in that colossally twattish decade of programmes that described their entire contents in their title: Top Ten Celebrity Mingers, The Boy Who Can Burp His Own Kidneys, Help Me, My Sister’s A Pope.
Apologies if you’ve heard this before, but I just think it typifies what was going on. I worked for Talkback, which was a comedy company but then became much more successful making reality shows, and it produced House Doctor – one of its hits. Someone working at Talkback had decided that they were going to leave, and was at a brainstorming session for spin-off ideas from House Doctor.
People were chucking in Garden Doctor, saying: ‘Garden Doctor, fantastic, people go into gardens, do them up, sell them, improve the house. School Doctor, fantastic, people go into schools, they turn them round, whatever.’ Body Doctor, fantastic, people go in and...’ at which point my friend, who was about to leave, stood up and said ‘That’s a fucking doctor.’
Now, thankfully, the worst of those days are behind us but I do think we still expend too much of our energy trying to second-guess what the executives are after.
In comedy, for example, the agenda kept changing with a set of circular twists and turns more dizzying than the ones that got our gymnasts a bronze at The Olympics. Commissioners and controllers saying there’s too much single camera comedy on these days and they want some more studio audience sitcoms.
And then along comes Gavin and Stacey which proves the audience sitcom is dead so we don’t need any more thanks. And then along comes Miranda and the appeal goes out once more for audience sitcoms just like that. And then along comes The Inbetweeners.
It seems to go in cycles of four years. And yet controllers and commissioners seem to come and go every two years, so the cycle gets disrupted by another cycle inside the bigger cycle, until no-one knows what we’re meant to be making and everyone is just sick.
I honestly don’t think that this was the commissioning executive’s fault; it was more a symptom of the dysfunctional nature of the job: pressure on that exec to get the commission right, to get the ratings and the awards and the conversational buzz, against all competition. And that inevitably pushes them into wanting final say on all aspects of the programme. The more they have their say, however, the less say there is from the creative team.
On top of all this, because drama and comedy is so expensive to make, I think there grew a tendency to think, we were lucky to be making it at all. It was a ‘beggars can’t be choosers mentality’ that gave the broadcaster the upper hand in dishing out notes and casting suggestions and schedule deadlines. It made it easier to say no without too much explanation. ‘Sorry, we’ve already got a show set in a county with cars in it.’
That’s the nature of the dysfunction: it diminishes the use of the greatest resource in British television, the fund of creative talent of writers, performers and producers who made the greatest television in the world. The more limitations and constrictions we impose on that talent, the more British television is diminished.
If we operate under a culture of caution and compliance, our TV industry will not flow at full strength, at a time when it has to. I’ve been lucky enough to have had several chances of working with American broadcasters, and I’ve had contrasting experiences.
There was a US version of The Thick Of It, which was piloted at ABC, and there I saw first-hand the network system. The notes from every executive, meetings with a roomful of Vice-Presidents laid out in crescent formation in swinging chairs. Every decision on casting, location, the look, even the colour of the ties, (although I was allowed to have final decision on that one) but every other decision needed approval and sign off from above.
Then flash forward three years and my experience making Veep with HBO. There, the conversations were direct, focused. Most hearteningly, the whole experience was about forming a creative relationship, a dialogue, with the programme maker. Their first words to me were, ‘We like what you do, why would we want to change it?’ Yes, there were notes and talks but these were always supportive suggestions. If there was ever a difference of opinion over a decision, word would always come back: ‘It’s your show. It’s up to you.’
That’s an extraordinary contrast, and it’s tempting to conclude that the big networks just aren’t the place to go to do the type of shows that we make here, the idiosyncratic personal stuff, the typically British stuff.
But I think that’s wrong. Good stuff is made by the networks and the mistake in the end was ours for thinking that, though we came up with the programme idea, we weren’t best equipped to make it ourselves. We didn’t big ourselves up enough in the process. In fact, as my experience with Veep has borne out, confidence in our own ability pays dividends. Veep, though shot in America, with an American cast, has an all-British team of writers, all-British directors, all-British post-production from start to finish – titles, music, editing. The cast even came to London to rehearse.
It’s a lesson I need to hold on to, it’s one I’ve learnt. That we can make international television, but we need to make it our way because we have all the advantages of belonging to the best creative pool of talent in the world. The US comes to us for ideas because we have great ideas, but we are also the best equipped to make them.
For me, Veep is a start, but it signals that it’s possible, just possible, to enter not just a financial partnership with other countries, but a creative one as well. And we need to, because the market has become global, the potential audience, truly international.
I want to break off ever so briefly to show you a clip. I was thinking – given that we’re in the height of election fever over in the States – it would be good to see something funny about the American election and I scoured around various channels, networks and websites, and the thing that’s made me laugh consistently is this clip, which is fairly self-explanatory.
There are three things I want to say about that clip, and I’ll say them very quickly. I could actually do a whole lecture. Firstly, it was done on the internet, so nobody commissioned it. Someone went and did it off their own bat. And that’s an example of how the internet has given us creative tools to write, to create, to film, to test out ideas.
It means that, whereas 20 years ago people were saying to me ‘How do I get into comedy?’ and I would say to them ‘Well, you’ll have to go along to a radio production, go to a writers’ meeting of Weekending and see if you can write for that,’ or ‘Have you got a script?’ – nowadays people are giving me CDs, DVDs and web links, and the ability to create off your own bat means that actually there’s now no excuse. If you want to become a member of the creative industry within television there is now nothing stopping you in terms of going out and being able to enact your ideas.
Now, obviously, some things take a little bit of money, and need a little bit of support and financial backing. But the ability to grab people, especially if what you make is good, I think is now greater.
Secondly, that clip was made in the US but I can access if here. The fact is that domestic audiences are becoming less and less attached to watching stuff made on their homeland. For that reason, British comedy is now far more popular in America than it’s ever been, because people know where to access the stuff.
They know where to find The Inbetweeners and Peep Show. The Thick of It has just gone out in the UK but it’s now simultaneously going out on Hulu in America. We, in the UK, aren’t too fazed by watching Nordic drama, we’re not actually that fussed by where it’s made, as long as it’s good. And that’s an interesting thing.
Thirdly, I can watch that whenever I like. This removes the art of the scheduler, since scheduling becomes a personal gift to the viewer, who watches whatever they like. And I think – especially watching how the younger generation view television, or view content on YouTube on their laptop, on their phone, and have this expectation that they can access anything from anywhere in the world, and at any time they want it – that this inevitable revolution in viewing habits that people are frightened of is going to come upon us in the next three, four years.
What that means, though, is that content is supreme. That the programme commissioner, the scheduler, the controller has less of a vital job and that the responsibility for coming up with good stuff is back with us. Across the world, the cry is up for content. People want good stuff, and they’ll search anywhere to find it. Schedulers, networks are on the wane, and the makers of good stuff will be in the driving seat.
And that’s why it’s great we belong to the best creative industry in the world, but also why it’s essential that everyone, executives and producers in British television, prioritises good quality, challenging, imaginative programming because it’s only by doing so will we play to our strengths and stand out from the competition.
We are at our best not in committee but when we’re at our most idiosyncratic. The best British television is the vision of individual creative minds, responding to the values and events of the society around them. But it’s not self-absorbed, it’s genuinely part of the wider spirit of what’s going on in a community, but a specific response to that spirit. It’s a challenge, or a celebration of it, or a critique of it or an affirmation of it.
Because it’s individual, because it’s personal, it communicates, it connects with the viewer. Commissioning executives are at their best when they give space and encouragement to these individual responses; when they fund, and nurture and guide Graham Linehan, Adam Curtis, Nira Park, John Lloyd, Steven Moffat, Charlie Brooker, Julia Davies, Iain Morris, Simon Cowell, Jon Plowman, Shane Meadows, Aardman Animation, and hundreds more like them, producers and writers, many of whom are not household names but who have a consistent passion for striking ideas, all part of the collective and exceptional TV talent in the UK.
I personally will always be grateful to Roly Keating when, as Controller of BBC Four, he listened to my rather back-of-an-envelope description of what a fuzzy, semi-improvised, quickly shot, ensemble political comedy might be like and then gave me £200,000 and said, ‘See what you can make with this.’ We made the first three episodes.
And I think something like the recent Star Gazing Live on BBC2, the astronomy show stretched nightly across a single week, was an example of great, creative commissioning, where time and space, literally, was entrusted to a group of individuals and experts, at a risk it could all fall flat, but given encouragement and profile – and garnering great viewing figures and rewards.
The best commissioners don’t work over creative production, but alongside it. They don’t stare down at what’s on their desks, but look up and see what talent is there in the room and how it can be stretched and challenged and inspired to think about the best way to fill that rectangular screen in the corner.
Look at the Olympic Opening Ceremony. There was the commission, ‘Let Britain show the rest of the world what it is now,’ and it was entrusted to one man, Danny Boyle, to feel free to flesh it out. It was quirky, entertaining and insightful. It didn’t please everyone. My favourite exchange was from the Tory MP Aidan Burley who tweeted it was ‘multicultural crap’ and a reply from @paulsinha who tweeted back, ‘If you think the ceremony is multi-cultural, wait ‘til you see the sport.’
But I think we got some sense of the energy and passion that went into that ceremony: it was a clear creative vision, and so it connected. Just imagine what would have happened if that same brief, ‘Show the world what Britain now is,’ was instead given to a committee. There would’ve been boxes to tick, content to pick off.
Well, we don’t need to imagine because we all remember the Millennium Dome Exhibition. When the Government, the Chief Commissioner, decided the thing was too important to be left to mere creatives, it thought it could determine the content – which was why the section in The Body Zone on creativity was a brain on a stick telling Tommy Cooper jokes.
Which mindless image brings me neatly onto the subject of politicians. Another reason British television has felt so disarmed, confused as to what it’s for or where it should be going, is because of the consistent, cack-handed, interference from politicians, goaded by the press, and the rather supine and scared way the broadcasting executives have failed to fight back, too scared to face the rebuke of the press headlines.
Governments, whether right or left, have become the Commissioners in Chief, nudging and cajoling the networks into their preferred business models without the slightest sensitivity or awareness of what the British public wants from its television service, or what the British TV industry is capable of.
Now, it’s all too easy to portray the average politician as a policy-wonk fed since the age of 14 on position papers on social policy and party outreach, professionally married to the job, ascetically weaned day and night on the company of his or her fellow party workers and political researchers, never seeing daylight, never watching telly, never having any cultural development outside whatever serves their policy purview.
This would be all too easy a caricature. But it would also be accurate. Because that’s what career politicians are like. By career politicians I mean those politicians who have worked the system well enough to gain office. They have no idea what the average member of the public culturally consumes because they are not average members of the public. They are specially bred adminadroids legislabating into an empty chamber and who experience everything through the matrix of their own political blueprint for Britain. Or, put simply, they don’t watch much telly.
The recent Leveson Inquiry has thrown up many things, including the testimony of the late Jeremy Hunt. It’s interesting to notice that although people criticise the fact that we now have a Transport Secretary who’s scared of flying and an Equalities Minister who’s against gays, nobody has picked up on the fact that a man a lot of people want to see dead is now Health Secretary.
As we all remember, Jeremy Hunt was a firm supporter of the News Corp takeover of BskyB, writing a letter to the Prime Minister early in 2010, before he’d been given his quasi-judicial role as the person who was to decide to wave it through. In that letter of advice, in November 2010, Hunt wrote: ‘James Murdoch wants to repeat what his father did with the move to Wapping and create the world’s first multi-platform media operator available from paper to web to TV to iPhone to iPad. The UK has the chance to lead the way on this as we did in the ‘80s with the Wapping move. If we block it our media sector will suffer for years.’
No reference here to content, nothing about what this will mean for the British viewer, what form of programming it will unlock; what benefits it will bring to our viewing experience; how culturally it will have impact; what opportunities it will present to the creative industry. Nothing. Just a dry analysis of the cash nexus behind a digital strategy.
It’s a lack of imaginative engagement that, coming from someone who went on to become Culture Secretary, I find quite chilling. But it’s typical I think of how the political class view us. We are there to be badgered if we don’t conform to their message, if they feel we haven’t represented their side of the story well enough, or we are there to be bullied if we stray from their economic overview of what a broadcasting industry should do. If they feel it’s too downmarket; too upmarket; too expensive; not investing enough; too left wing; too right wing; too London-centric; spending too much money on outsourcing to the regions; not attracting key talent; spending too much on key talent. I say bullying because I do feel politicians, goaded by newspaper editors, have seen broadcasting, and particularly the BBC, as an easy target.
But now is the time to fight back. There’s a perfect alignment of the stars in favour of the creative forces behind television in the UK. It won’t last, so now’s the time to strike. The Leveson Inquiry has highlighted public misgivings about how our politicians and the press operate, but also the events of the summer have given us a reminder of what the public actually values about British cultural life.
In much the same way there was a pride at the celebration of the NHS in that Opening Ceremony, I think there’s a growing recognition that the BBC, and indeed, the UK’s wider commitment across channels to public service broadcasting, has given us the very best television available.
The public will now never forgive anyone who meddles with the British TV for political advantage or to further their own economic agenda. With a new Director General there couldn’t be a better time to reset the board, and signal that we’re just not going to take that kind of interference any more. That we are proud, we relish our idiosyncrasy in television, that it defines our greatness, and that to diminish it is to sterilise our ambition. The facts now prove it.
When ITV regions were sold off to the highest bidder, and we ended up with the likes of Carlton (for whom, incidentally, David Cameron did the PR) then ITV suffered the consequences in declining viewers, and reputation. This it’s now rebuilding, through a commitment once again, to quality drama and distinctive, idiosyncratic programmes.
As Sky realises it’s extended as far as it can the number of subscriptions it can pick up through sport and movies, it’s had to commit to finding a whole new type of subscriber, one who’s looking for that quality, the high-end production values and scripted ambition that we used to associate with British TV but which we now recognise in America.
And so it’s ploughing a fortune into new production, big new dramas and new comedy. It’s establishing relationships with theatre companies, and opera groups and book festivals that others can only dream of. We should be willing this venture to succeed. For years we’ve been arguing that Sky makes all this money and it should use it to fund original content, so I think it’s cheap and churlish point scoring to ignore them or want them to fail.
But, the challenge now is for Sky to hold its nerve. Some shows won’t rate, the money can’t last forever. The names it’s working with are mostly established. If it really wants to make its mark, it’s now got to find the new talent, engage with the young writers, find the next comedians and actors and show it can take risks with them as well. The reward for us will be that there is a genuine hunger and competitive fight among broadcasters for the best new drama and comedy
If we can demonstrate that good programmes actually do mean good business, then we’ve arrived at a truly creative marketplace where there’s a genuine fight for content, a fear that the best might be going elsewhere if you don’t snap it up.
That dramatically shifts the focus back to us, the programme makers, to come up with more, new, startling ideas, absolutely unmissable storylines and settings, the sharpest writing. The commissioners will have to put more work into establishing relationships with key talent, cajoling, encouraging them to feel confident that once again they’ve found a home for their work.
This is the one profound impression I brought back from my work at HBO. That actually, its business model is now inextricably bound up in its claims for originality and the close relationships it forms with programme makers. That it makes money from new subscriptions, and it can only increase its subscriptions if more and more people know they’re paying to get something different from their usual fare. And that can only happen if HBO keeps coming up with programmes that are more daring, or funnier, or more distinctive than the competition.
As a result, it makes a fortune, and can plug that back into production. It doesn’t run commercials and actually isn’t too bothered by individual ratings. Other networks are now copying them, like FX, Showtime and AMC. This way of making adventurous television is becoming the norm. It’s why American TV at the moment is the place most creatives want to go. At HBO I found a refreshing commitment to me, the programme maker; a culture of backing the creative.
But here’s the thing, what makes US television so good now, this commitment to us, is not new. For it’s precisely what defined British television for decades. Our passion, our drive to make what felt different and adventurous, had been the hallmark of British television for 40 years. I like to think that, if it got lost recently, that was just a blip. That it hasn’t been forgotten, and that once again the circumstances are slotting into place whereby it has to re-emerge and stay with us if we’re to survive and then go on to re-take our position as the best TV makers in the world.
And that blip, that period we’ve just come through, where programmes were filtered through charts and schedules and executive brain cells and imposed on a creative work-force, that is precisely the old-fashioned mechanics of the big American networks that HBO and company are fighting free of. Just as US TV was excelling by copying the values of British programme makers, so were British channels falling into the worse habits of committee-driven American network TV.
I don’t know what it’s saying, but I wrote this speech on my iPad, which I bought when I was filming in America. It must be on American settings, because every time I typed in BBC the autocorrect changed it to NBC.
I genuinely believe that times are changing, that networks are waking up to the fact that viewers will leave them unless they can commission daring and original shows. That there is now genuine competition among them for the best talent, that the internet and the international viewing audience now mean programme makers can circumvent traditional channels and commissioners if they feel they’re making no headway for them.
I believe that we may be on the verge of a tantalising moment in television, where the more good programmes we make, the healthier the audiences and the revenue. It will represent a final and fitting twist to those words of James Murdoch. He said that ‘The only reliable, durable guarantor of independence is profit.’ Could it be that soon the only reliable, durable guarantee of profit is independence? Only we can prove whether that will be the case.
It won’t happen overnight. It does need investment. We should be more aggressive in selling our content overseas. The BBC should be more aggressive, all of television should, against the politicians and press barons who seek to tame it and rein it in.
It’s up to all of us to fight, fight to recapture first position with our ideas, but fight forcefully and loudly against all those who criticise what we do. We shouldn’t be scared of offending, or portraying a multicultural nation, or pouring money into talent, or making shows that split opinion, that occasionally fail.
We shouldn’t be afraid of abandoning caution and market research, nor afraid to write and produce from the heart, out of passion. After all, what better way is there to connect with someone, than a fight? Thank you very much.
Richard Bacon: Thank you, that was terrific. I will ask a few questions and then we’ll open it up to the floor. Let me just pick out a few things from the speech. You said at the beginning initially your plan was to call it ‘Make Good Programmes’ then walk off stage. You said that is what you’ve always believed, that you should make good programmes. By implication are you suggesting that some people in telly don’t believe that, that they’re not driven by simply making good programmes?
AI: Well, I think – and it’s one of the reasons why I never felt compelled to have my own independent production company – because I’m so interested in making programmes that the last thing I want to do is then go home and discuss VAT and office bills, and then have to lay off people because we haven’t got the subscription to this.
In fact I left out a paragraph where I said I didn’t want to call it ‘Make Good Programmes’ in the end because I think that is self-evident. Anyone who goes into television wants to make good programmes, that’s why we do it, That’s why we put up with the late nights in the edit and the cold mornings in a damp location in Dorset; because we want to make good programmes.
But some people feel that the opportunities are cut off, that they have no option. It’s the ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ mentality, that they have to make this show the way the notes have said, with the cast that has been recommended because otherwise it won’t get made.
RB: You spoke quite early on about James Murdoch, and you said the only time you’ve really spoken out in anger in the past is about James Murdoch. I went to that speech, it was three years ago, it was the MacTaggart Lecture, where he talked about the only guarantor of independence being profit. And then you said you didn’t like the way the BBC reacted to that speech. Do you think the BBC shut down services as a direct result of James Murdoch’s speech?
AI: I’m sure that played a profound part of it, but it’s the drip, drip, drip of headlines that it runs away from as well as the criticism. What made me angry was not so much James Murdoch’s speech but the reaction of the BBC which was to draw in. I think it was terribly afraid of the bad headlines in the Daily Mail, and I felt people in the BBC felt they couldn’t speak out loudly against something like that. And that’s what frustrates me.
RB: And that’s partly when you’re saying the BBC should fight back, the BBC should not be afraid of some bad headlines in the Daily Mail.
AI: The great unspoken support for the BBC is the public, and the BBC seems to forget that it has that but be continually aware of the bad headlines in the Mail and in The Sun. It’s a strange dynamic which I’ve never understood.
RB: The BBC-haters had a terrible Olympics, didn’t they? That whole period was obviously terrific for the BBC. I work for the BBC, and there’s no question that they are scared to death of headlines in the newspapers. I wrote a sarcastic piece about The Archers and got an editorial in the Telegraph which I thought was quite funny, and they were furious about.
AI: But what I’ve never been able to fathom is why? What’s wrong with having criticism in the press?
RB: I think what it comes down to is the middle management who run each service are scared of what the people above them think, and they’re scared of what the people above them think. So it would be nice to fight back, but how can you? How can you change the mentality of these people?
AI: Well maybe you should have a look at its press department, its communications.
RB: You referred to Liz Murdoch’s speech as well, which was seen as a bit of a riposte to her brother, and she paid tribute to the BBC. She said she’s a big supporter of the licence fee.
AI: I think that’s interesting, because I think this summer has seen a sea change, not just in terms of what the Olympics has done but the fact that the curtain has been pulled back and The Wizard of Oz is this old Australian, and his young, management speaking son and it’s just not as frightening anymore. I also, by the way, praised Sky for what it’s doing just now and I think when James Murdoch was at Sky he put in motion a lot of great things that we’re seeing now which is the investment into programme making. As I said, we banged on for the last 10, 15 years about how it’s made so much money, and actually wouldn’t it be great if it made British programmes. That’s why I think this is so important; especially in comedy. It’s changed in the last year or so, but there was a time for three or four years when the BBC was the only place in town to make comedy. Channel 4 were making some comedy, but it was a very specific type of comedy. Nothing on Five, nothing on Sky and nothing on ITV. I think, no matter how great the commissioning team at the BBC, it’s unhealthy to have two or three people in charge of an entire aspect of your cultural heritage.
That’s why I think it’s absolutely important that the comedy that Sky makes, and now that ITV are making comedy, and now that Channel 4 are increasing the budget, that actually it will be a good thing for the BBC that they have competition. That they have to be hungrier, that they have to get in first and quick, and get back with replies sooner when they’re dealing with people.
RB: Yes. And leave creatives alone, which was one of the major themes of your speech.
AI: Yes, show faith.
RB: Because you talked about commissioners who become too powerful, and sometimes they impose their own personality onto commissions. Can you tell us a bit more about what you mean by that? Have you had experience of that?
AI: I think it’s inevitable, if you have that amount of power, like I’ve just described – and similarly in drama – if you are the biggest player in town, it’s inevitable that after a while you’re not going to want to make something you personally don’t like. And therefore it boils down to personal taste. However consciously you’re telling yourself you’re doing it objectively, it actually means that in the long run those who will get commissions start becoming part of a small group of people, and if you’re not on that list it’s like you can’t come in. I think that’s a dangerous place to get to.
RB: Do you find, in recent times because you’ve worked with HBO and you’ve worked with Sky and for much of your career you’ve worked with the BBC...
AI: And a little bit with Channel 4 as well.
RB: … do you find now you are given much more freedom from Sky and HBO than you are from the BBC?
AI: At the moment. But I know that the BBC are now waking up to this... ‘Hang on, the scripts aren’t coming in anymore’; ‘Hang on, he’s gone to Sky’; ‘Why’s he doing a Channel 4 show?’
RB: But are people going to Sky because it gives them independence, or are they going to Sky because Sky are paying a fortune for stuff?
AI: Mid Morning Matters was only ever there as an online project. Because it took off, we had interest from BBC and from Sky, and honestly we didn’t take it to Sky because they offered more money, we took it to Sky because they said they would leave it alone, they wouldn’t interfere.
RB: Did the BBC try to interfere?
AI: They said because it had gone out online they would put it on late at night, after Newsnight, because it didn’t feel like a new show and if there was a new series could we open it up a bit and take it away from the radio station.
Sky were very enthusiastic. It wasn’t just a case of ‘We’ll put it on and leave you alone,’ it was ‘Here’s our plan about how we can promote it, here’s how we can give it a profile, it would be great if we could get Alan prior to it to do a tour of Norwich.’ There was that kind of creative buzz. And I know the people at Sky, because they used to work at the BBC. And honestly, the money; I’ve no idea what we got for it.
RB: It wasn’t about the money?
AI: It wasn’t about the money. If you ask any of the people who have gone to Sky, it’s not about the money, it’s about the creative freedom.
RB: I think I know one or two people who might say it’s about the money, but I know what you mean. That’s a very good example of what you’re talking about, at Sky they said they’d take it, they’d promote it, they’d leave you alone and the BBC said ‘Can we take it away from the radio station?’ It seems remarkable.
You also talked about politicians, you had this statement in the speech as well ‘Another reason British television has felt so confused is because of the cack handed, completely craptacular interference from politicians goaded by the press, and the rather supine and scared way the broadcasting executives have failed to fight back, too scared to face the rebuke of the press.’
We talked about the press, in terms of government, which you say have become Commissioners in Chief, and you talked about them bullying – can I ask you just to expand on that a little bit? Can you give an example of when the government has bullied a broadcaster?
AI: There was the cut in the licence fee, that was a decision made very late on in the day when they were announcing cuts. It was a back of the envelope, last minute decision. And if you analyse it it’s got nothing to do with public spending because it’s a completely different source of revenue, the licence fee. It’s got nothing to do with what goes into the Treasury. But it was presented to the BBC as a loaded gun, very late on in the day, and as a threat.
Cameron, when he was giving a press conference a couple of days later, taking questions about cuts I think his word was ‘delicious’ when he talked about the BBC. He said ‘We’re all having to do it, we’re all in this together, everyone’s having to make cuts including – rather deliciously – the BBC.’
Now that, I think, betrays that there is a separate agenda that the Conservatives have towards the BBC. It’s not one I can fathom, as to why they find it so... the traditionalists in the Conservative Party think the BBC is still this hotbed of left leaning sociopaths, determined to bring anarchy to the UK whereas in fact they put on the Olympics brilliantly.
RB: You talked about Jeremy Hunt’s letter to the PM, and you made what I thought was a brilliant point that this letter makes no mention of content whatsoever. He’s the Minister For Culture and he makes no assessment of this move’s cultural impact. And you describe Jeremy Hunt’s lack of imaginative engagement as quite chilling. That was quite a big statement.
I think that’s an echo of what James Murdoch said about the BBC, when he said the BBC’s expansion plans were chilling.
AI: It’s very difficult to find local radio chilling.
RB: In the end, though, Sky has become a market leader in content hasn’t it? It is very good at content. Perhaps Jeremy Hunt was taking that as read when he was...
AI: It will only be so if the stuff it makes get viewers. That’s why I’m saying it has to hold its nerve. I think you can only go to the established names for a few years. Alan Partridge is an established name, [and] they’ve done a great job in promoting Alan Partridge but people knew what Alan was, and a lot of the names on Sky are established names. I think the next challenge for them now is to show that they mean it. That it’s not a token couple of years of putting things out, that it’s a long term strategy.
RB: Coming back to the James Murdoch/ guarantor of independence line, isn’t there an argument that says ‘at Sky at the moment, a profit driven company, you’re given independence. At HBO, which makes a profit, you’re given independence. And at the BBC, that doesn’t make a profit, you’ve not been given independence. In that sense, was James Murdoch right?
AI: That’s the little emergency flare that’s going off in the back of my mind, that there’s something in it. That’s why I get frustrated, and I’ve discussed this with the BBC several times, why they aren’t more aggressive overseas at marketing themselves and selling themselves. They have BBC America there, but it’s very difficult to know what BBC America is. They’re already talking about reining back BBC Worldwide slightly. It goes back to the old amateur spirit of the Olympics, where it was wrong to make money, it was somehow against the code. I still feel there’s an element [of that] within the BBC, that they feel it’s somehow wrong, or that they feel they will be open to criticism if they make money.
I argued, in the alternative MacTaggart a few years back, that they should do the HBO model, that they should set up a subscription channel that people abroad pay for to get BBC programmes.
RB: I suppose the danger, if they become too good at turning a profit, is that it undermines the argument for the licence fee.
AI: Well, isn’t the licence fee argument being undermined anyway by the way we watch television? By the way we can now download stuff onto our iPads and laptops.
RB: Do you think it’s on borrowed time?
AI: I think so, yeah. I’m no expert on this and I don’t know the economics, but it just strikes me that it’s going to be very difficult to justify that within 10 years’ time.
RB: I wanted to ask you about the new series of The Thick Of It and some other new stuff that you didn’t really talk about in your speech, but before that shall we have some questions about the speech itself from anyone in the room?
Question: Hello, my name is Jorg and I’m a writer and director. Thank you, by the way, it’s a fantastic speech. If those builders could build the perfect commissioner – male or female – what would it be, that creature?
AI: Robo-commissioner. I think a good commissioner is one who doesn’t want you to think, when a programme goes out, ‘Oh that’s definitely an X commission.’ The more anonymous they are when the programmes go out I think the better the commissioners are. Because they’re less interested in what they can put on their CV for the next job interview, and they’re more interested in having a body of work that they’re proud of. And, I’d say as a corollary of that, they end up being more successful in television anyway.
I mentioned Roly [Keating], and I’m not saying when I name people that they’re all good or all bad, and everything they’ve done is terrible and everything they’ve done is magnificent. Everyone will have different experiences with the same commissioners, I know that. And I know that I’ve been terribly lucky in the programmes that I’ve been allowed to do. But, he was running a small, low budget channel. It was there to create a little bit of fuss, didn’t have much to play with but he was happy to rummage around, see what was left and say ‘Okay, have it.’ He actually said ‘I don't know what you can make with this, I don’t know if you can make one half hour, an hour, 90 minutes – go and see what you can do with it.’ And we made three half hours of The Thick Of It, and the budget sort of determined the style in a way.
I get, from HBO and from the likes of Roly and Alan Yentob – who I’m very grateful to, five years ago he managed to find funds within the BBC to give me my own little unit. I talked about how I’ve never really wanted to run a production company, but I was given a little unit within the BBC so it was sort of like an indie but it was plugged completely into the BBC. It allowed me to develop, not just programme ideas, but to kind of develop people.
I always had a habit of taking on assistants who actually didn’t really want to be PAs, but actually wanted to do something else. One’s become a director of some of The Thick Of It this season, another has become a writer on The Thick Of It and another is studying film at New York Film School at the moment. It’s just that idea of training people up and getting them to meet other programme makers.
I find the best, most interesting and more successful commissioners are the ones who – for example – wouldn’t say ‘We love what you do, come and write for us, come and do a show on our network.’ It’s BBC1, say. Bigger risk, BBC1. A good commissioner, if that project didn’t work, would get back to them and say ‘Okay, that didn’t work, what else can you do? What have we learned from that?’
Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, who wrote Father Ted, started off on Channel 4 with a thing called Paris. I don’t know if anyone remembers it, with Alexei Sayle. It was very strange, and didn’t quite work, but they were encouraged to think again. Okay, you had your first outing on television, it didn’t work, what can you come up with next? And they came up with Father Ted. I think that’s a good commissioner, the one who wants to know what it is that’s out there that’s good, or can be developed and enhanced and encouraged; and get a real kick out of seeing that happen.
RB: Quite often a commissioner, if your programme fails, will sort of blacklist you and not deal with you again.
AI: Yeah, or is just too scared to return the calls, because there’s other people out there – let’s get hold of them now.
RB: The Roly Keating point, he was in quite a luxurious position with a new channel and a bit of a playground. If you go to a commissioner for BBC1 primetime, they are going to have to work within certain parameters. Are you saying that when a writer or a creative person goes to a commissioner, that commissioner should never tell them broadly what they’re looking for?
AI: Of course they should, but why isn’t it possible – and it’s not expensive – to be able to get the people that you’re most interested in, knowing that there’s not enough slots, to give them a little bit of money to write and develop, to carry on having a creative conversation? And heading them off early if they are coming back with a sitcom set in a farm and actually you’ve just commissioned a sitcom set in a farm? Being able to tell them not to carry that on. Rather than saying ‘Sorry, we’ve already got one,’ and leaving it at that, being able to stop them in advance and say; ‘Okay, we like what you do, so why not try this, see where you can go with that?’
Now, there’s no guarantee that will get on, it will get a yes, but at least you get the feeling that you’re in a creative company, you’re at a network where you feel at home. And I think that is what the BBC is going to have to do more of, because there’s now competition. Because Channel 4 are getting a little bit more ambitious in their comedy, and because Sky are putting on comedy. And that doesn’t cost money. And actually, a lot of people will quite happily do it for less because they know that, actually, it’s going to go out to a bigger audience. So they’ll make that calculation.
Question: Hi, my name’s Richard. I just wondered what you particularly admired about Breaking Bad?
AI: if someone came to a British network and said, ‘I want to do a story about a chemistry teacher who’s got cancer but doesn't want to tell his family, but realises he can make money to pass on to his family by making crystal meth... and it’s really sad and yet it’s really funny as well, and we’ll shoot it all on film’ – I’d be intrigued to see what journey that pitch made, and how it came out at the other end.
I was talking about how American networks are actually borrowing the British way more and more. The latest series of Breaking Bad is technically 13 episodes long, so already it’s much shorter, more like the UK [model]. But they’re now doing this thing of splitting the seasons, so they put seven episodes out, then they have a two month gap, and then they bring another seven.
So, even more, it’s becoming more like a UK show. And yet if you look at the hits here that take off, a committee couldn’t come up with it; Life On Mars. There wasn’t a seminar where somebody said ‘What we want is coma victims waking up in the 70s.’ And it’s just that thing, you cannot predict, you cannot do the calculus and have the computer tell you what will work. But as I said, I think in the last year or so, more and more people are waking up to that in television. I think there’s such a lot of distinctive drama now on BBC2 and Channel 4, the whole Shane Meadows series.
That’s why I say this is such an interesting [time]. What I don’t want is this cycle to go round, and we’re back to ‘Oh that didn’t work, so let’s put out more reality stuff.’ I think we should seize this moment, while we’re in this cycle, and seize on what’s been happening over the last 12 months in terms of being able to ease off government pressure, and this opportunity we now have creatively to make stuff not just for the home market but for as big an audience as possible internationally. It’s not going to happen again, so we should make the most of it.
RB: Do you watch any reality television?
AI: I watch [some], but there’s not as much on as there used to be. I stopped watching Big Brother in season one when whatsherface, who was a nun...
AI: Anna, got up and walked to the fridge from her bed going ‘One, two, three…’ up to 12 and then walked back, laid down on the bed and said ‘It’s 12 steps to the fridge.’ I thought, that’s an area of programming I don’t want to go down.
RB: Do they have any value at all, those shows?
AI: Of course, it’s just not my personal thing but I’m not saying we should take it off. I’m not a commissioner, for god’s sake. I’m happy to have stuff go out I don’t like.
RB: Let me ask you about the current series of The Thick Of It, tremendous, terrific triumph of the first episode. I’ve interviewed you on this stage before about this series of The Thick of It and you’ve talked about it being about a coalition government which, as a premise – two people forced to work together who are culturally different and don’t like each other – that’s an inherently comic premise.
AI: It is actually, yes, and it’s funny it’s been three years since the last series and I did think that this series would feature the new government. But I didn’t want another Malcolm [Tucker], it’s dull to have the same dynamic. So Stewart is a sort of anti-Malcolm.
RB: Is he based on Steve Hilton?
AI: He’s based on what I’ve heard about Steve Hilton and a few of his acolytes. There’s never any direct impressions of anyone, but he’s Hiltonesque. But also that whole Cameron thing of trying to detoxify the brand, and open it and take the shirt out of the trousers, and let it all hang out. And then people like Stephen Norris and Kenneth Clarke and all those, trying to keep up with it. But at the time I was thinking, what’s the little grist to the mill? And then, when we realised, after a couple of years, that the Coalition was this outward partnership but this inward tension, I thought that gives us the comedy.
RB: Does the show have an agenda; are you trying to make a serious point?
AI: It has a very, very left wing agenda, which I was asked by Mark Thompson to put more in. And I think that’s mostly succeeded. [laughing] No, it doesn’t, I’m happy for it to be called satire but I actually think you’re on a hiding to nothing if you think that by doing comedy you’re going to change the world or alter people’s opinions and views. It’s there to crystallise what’s going on in government in a dramatic and funny way, but it’s a comedy and therefore an exaggeration. Not too much of an exaggeration.
It was interesting, we played two episodes to MPs last week. We played the first episode set in the Coalition, the second episode set in the Opposition. And it was interesting, different sides were laughing at different times. Coalition people were coming up saying ‘I was a bit uncomfortable with the first episode, the second episode I thought was terrific.’ And the Opposition people were saying ‘loved the first episode, not sure about the second episode,’ so it’s interesting.
RB: Did you get any big name politicians, any of the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet come down?
AI: There were some there that I didn’t recognise, I think some people who had just that day been shuffled, whether out of or into, I don’t know.
RB: And Malcolm Tucker was not in the first episode, which struck me as a bold decision because there’s that expectation isn’t there, fans are waiting for a Malcolm Tucker scene.
AI: Yeah, although we did try as much as possible, as much as you can in advance say it’s going to be coalition first week and opposition second. But I kind of like that, I like the destructive nature of doing something like that. But he will... as from next week battle commences, and then we go back to coalition in episode 3 but an event happens then that actually triggers the rest of the series and involves everyone from then on.
And it’s bringing in a little bit of my experience that I learnt doing the show for HBO, because they said to me ‘We’re up against the network comedies, they’re on for 22 weeks, so it doesn’t matter if you miss an episode, because there’s another one next week.’ So they don’t have storylines really, they have to keep it as self-contained as possible. And they were saying ‘We’ve only got eight episodes of this, so we want people to keep coming back, so it’s great to have – not a huge, overwhelming story, but just something that takes you from week to week. Or something that slowly builds.’
And you can see that, in Curb Your Enthusiasm, there’s the season where he’s going to be in The Producers. There’s the season where he’s opening a restaurant, so it doesn’t dominate every episode and every story, but it just gives you something to look forward to each week. We did that with Veep, and like Sir Walter Raleigh I’ve brought this back, along with the potato, and we’ve injected it into The Thick Of It.
RB: That’s quite interesting, though, that the HBO experience has now informed the new series of The Thick Of It.
AI: I kind of like the disruption of having a completely different cast for the first week. It’s madness. People will hate it.
RB: Did you get any feedback from fans?
AI: Twitter was great, I don’t how accurate it is, but it was great. We got our biggest viewing figures that we’ve ever had for an episode. I don’t know whether the bulk of people watching it now actually are new to it, so actually don’t know what to compare it to. So there are the diehard Malcolm fans but there also the ‘What is this Thick Of It that people talk about? Let’s give it a go.’
RB: I read a quote from you in the press at the weekend, that this will probably be the final series of The Thick Of It.
AI: I sort of think that now. I remember about ten years ago saying ‘That’s it for Alan Partridge, I don’t want to do it,’ and behold, I’ve got Alan coming out of my arse. So I never, ever, ever want to say never, but it’s the fourth series and because there is always a big gap between each series, it has been going for eight years, quite a while. I sort of feel, surely we’ve explored politics.
RB: Does it conclude the series in a way that says ‘That’s it’?
AI: There is a conclusion, of sorts, yes.
RB: Intriguing. Could you do specials?
AI: Yeah, the way is open to do specials. And also you don’t know what government is going to be like in two or three years’ time. We may have a Lib Dem-Labour coalition then, which is just as intriguing.
RB: You know you say the show doesn’t have an agenda, I wonder, to some extent are you saying this system doesn’t work?
AI: Yeah, I remember saying that. I did an interview with Andrew Rawnsley [for The Observer] and by the time it got round to this series, the last series I felt sympathy for politicians because we put this pressure on them and we expect them to be perfect, we expect them not to have any expenses and not to go on holiday and to be up 24 hours a day, and have the perfect answer, the perfect solution, but not spend any money. And that’s unreasonable, and I felt sympathetic. This time round I felt, do you know what, I just think it doesn’t work. The whole system doesn’t work.
RB: The Coalition government doesn’t work?
AI: How politics in the UK doesn’t work, because we feel disconnected from the main parties, you know the party membership has dropped. In the ‘60s I think it was something like 95% of votes went to the three main parties, now it’s something like 60% of votes. The last two elections, well actually you have to discount the last election because that was a coalition, that was a minority, but the two elections preceding that, for the first time, more people didn’t vote than voted for the party that formed the government. So in fact ‘Don’t Know’ was the biggest party. And I think that’s because the communication isn’t there, we don’t know what they’re talking about. They go through this system of politics degree, job as a researcher, MP by the age of 32... I’m not saying they should have run a business or something like that, but there seems to be no broadening of experience before they are in charge of our schools.
And also, ironically, the less money they have the more they feel they have to come up with a checklist of policies that involve micro-management. So they’re going to tell us we should do an hour of maths then, and we should read these books, and we should do that kind of homework. Or, we’re allowed these drugs but not those drugs. And yet, every 18 months, they could walk into work no longer being in charge of schools, but in charge of hospitals. Or in charge of all soldiers. And, somehow, they’re expected to micro-manage that. I think that just doesn’t work. It’s bonkers.
RB: On Veep, which I think you’re shortly going to make a second series of...
RB: ... which is about the Vice President of The United States of America, and part of the premise of that show is that the Vice President is an ill-defined role. Was it FDR’s Vice President who said it’s not worth a bucket of warm piss?
AI: Yes, [John Nance] Garner. And he was dropped. FDR was elected four times before they put a limit on it, and he dropped two of his Vice Presidents. The role of Vice President now is a bit more powerful, but it’s at the behest of the President. The President can determine what it is you do. So Al Gore had a pact with Clinton before he agreed, there were five things, I can’t remember them all but he wanted to know he would meet up with Clinton at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day; he could join any meetings Clinton had; if he rang someone he wanted people in government to know that if he rang them he was speaking on the part of the President.
He wanted all that, as well as specific [things]. Biden didn’t really want anything, he just wanted to be told that he was the first into a meeting and the last out of a meeting, so he could have the final say. Cheney was just given an absolute... we talked to Biden’s Chief of Staff and he said it was unbelievable. When they got into the White House they found that Cheney had set up this whole room, with people in it, who were allowed to monitor all the e-mails within government, without people within government knowing. So he had this whole bank of people just spending the day reading people’s emails to find out what they were saying.
RB: So, in a way, he’s an exception.
AI: He was the most powerful. For the first years, for George Bush’s first administration, he was effectively the Prime Minister. However, once Iraq went terribly badly, and the Rumsfeld-Cheney axis began to not work, and the President’s popularity went down, Bush was able to withdraw power from Cheney. So actually Cheney was a bit husk by then.
RB: And I suppose, as well, if Paul Ryan were to become Vice President that could slightly undermine the theory that Vice Presidents have no power.
AI: Yes, and I imagine Romney will make Paul Ryan in charge of the economy, he will effectively be Treasury Secretary in all but name.
RB: Are you enjoying this US Presidential election cycle?
AI: Yeah, you couldn’t write – and indeed he didn’t write – Clint Eastwood, could you? I think that was the problem, he didn’t write it. How did that happen? This is a superpower, at its most scrutinised moment in its four year cycle, and they said an 82-year-old man who plays cowboys is going to speak on prime time. He wants a chair, he hasn’t written anything down. What could possibly go wrong? I don’t know how that happens.
RB: He gave an interview to his local newspaper and said ‘Well I was in the Green Room and I saw this empty chair and I just had this idea.’ So he’d got to the Green Room before working out what he was going to say, and no-one on the Romney team had checked with him. It’s amazing. There was a great Jon Stewart piece on The Daily Show last week, where he talked about how he’d never understood this version of the President that the Republicans see, and he said ‘Now I get it, there is a President Obama that only Republicans can see.’ Clever line. So Veep, the second series, is happening, with HBO again?
AI: With HBO, and we start filming in November. We’re writing it at the moment.
RB: And what’s the latest on the Partridge film?
AI: It’s being writ as we speak.
RB: Shot when? Out when?
AI: I think we start shooting early next year.
RB: And have you moved it away from the radio station?
AI: Er, no. It certainly starts at Mid Morning Matters, it’s North Norfolk Digital, but it’s taken over by a slightly larger company who re-brand it as Shape, it’s called Shape, and then things snowball out of control after that.
Question: Hi, my name is Debs. Earlier you said that the budget of The Thick Of It determined how it was, I can’t imagine it any other way but how did you imagine it before you were given your budget?
AI: Well, I was approaching BBC Four, so I already knew that this wasn’t going to be Parade’s End. In many ways I was glad that we had a restricted budget, because I knew I needed that impetus, that there is no other way, we’ve got to shoot this fast and shoot this in a location that can give us three or four different locations – which is why we had two cameras on the go, so that we were always filming, so we didn’t have time to do this set up and then let’s turn around and do that set up, wide shots and singles. There was no time for that. Two cameras on the go at all times, and let’s light it generally so we didn’t have to bother with re-lighting. And if that’s the case then the cast can go anywhere they like. Okay, let’s free them up, let’s radio mic them, and that led to the reality element of it.
In my head I had this very loose [idea of] lots of people talking over each other thing, but I had actually no idea what it was going to come out like, it was the first show I’ve done where I’ve not known what it is that I was trying to get out of it. It’s a bit of a leap in the dark. And it has to be, because you don’t quite know how it’s going be on those…
And we shot each episode in three days. We shot those first three episodes very quickly, in a week and a half really, at this one location. So that’s how that determined [things]. It was a sort of a happy alignment in that I vaguely knew and accepted that that’s how it was going to be anyway, but the restricted budget confirmed that. So there were no arguments, that’s how we had to do it.
Question: I just wondered if you had any practical advice for a creative that finds himself in that position where they find that their show is being pushed into a direction by a Commissioning Editor or a channel executive that wasn’t that creative’s initial vision?
AI: I’ve always, and it’s not something I’d recommend to everyone, but I’ve always gone into each project thinking ‘This is what I want to get out of it, and this is the bottom line, and if we cross that bottom line I’m not going to do it.’ But I have to tell myself I really won’t do it. I have to convince myself that I won’t do it. And I only feel brave enough to do that knowing what my next project is going to be, but that’s really for my own peace of mind. And I find when I do reach that point of ‘I’m not going to do it,’ it seems to trigger the breakthrough. But I’m not suggesting that as a tack.
It’s difficult. As I say, I think we feel kind of hemmed in slightly, and it is the most frustrating thing when you find you’re dealing with someone who has control over your budget when you’re commissioned and you simply don’t agree with them. I think you have to work out what your bottom line is.
RB: And make that clear from the outset.
AI: I think so. Even if it’s just in your own head.
RB: When you talk about fighting back, you are talking about fighting back against....
AI: I’m not talking about physically fighting.
RB: But it’s an option. That’s the sort of predicament you’re talking about, isn’t it?
AI: Yeah. And all I can say is that at least, if it doesn't work out, hopefully there’s now slightly more opportunities to go elsewhere. It’s not a golden opportunity, and I’m not saying it’s all rosy, but at least you start thinking you could do it this way and get funding from this lot as well, and do it as a co-production.
RB: This is an exciting time in British television, isn’t it?
AI: I think so. Again, all these things boil down to money. The guy who does that lip synching thing [the YouTube video played earlier], he’s done loads. In fact we used him for Veep, we gave him raw footage of Selina Meyer and said ‘Just make one, put it out there,’ because it’s good for us as a bit of viral. But we said we were not going to interfere, just make it. I don't know how he makes his money. What I see is this allows us a kind of calling card. It’s what I say to people now who want to be comedy writers, don’t wait for the commission to start writing, just start writing.
Write a blog, write a funny character in a blog, go out and make something because the more you write the better you’ll get, but also you will then have a body of stuff that you can show people. So it’s an easier way to sell what it is you do. It’s very difficult, you know that conversation about Breaking Bad, it’s all about a guy.... if you’re able to show them some of it, it clarifies the thing. And I think that’s what the ability to make stuff in this multimedia world gives us.
Question: Hi there, my name’s Darryl. A question about the future of broadcasting: What’s going to happen when people watch things online, how do you see that being promoted in the future? How are people going to know what to watch and where to watch it?
AI: It’s interesting, because if everyone is a channel and everyone is a network you’re just going to have a billion networks. But people want to know where the good stuff is, so I think the channels will become portals… For example, if you went to Funny Or Die you know you’re going to get something good there. So similarly if you know you went to HBO Go, or you went to the BBC’s new online [site] you know you’re going to get something good there.
And it’s interesting that the online distributors like Netflix and Hulu are now putting money into making stuff because they realise they’ve got competitors themselves. If you want to watch Hulu instead of Netflix, then it’s important Hulu starts putting money into its own content. And you know, Hulu partly financed The Thick Of It. YouTube are now financing, Google are now financing. I think that’s what’s going to happen to things like the BBC.
Of course the bulk of their stuff is going to be stuff that the BBC has made itself, because that’s what it’s known for, but its commissioners or controllers are actually going to be those who specialise in finding the best stuff and being able to direct it towards you. But it’s interesting, our online experience still boils down to, fundamentally, the same sites. Google, Funny Or Die and the BBC news site and Guardianunlimited. Although we’re drawn to other things, in the end our basics are still the package of three or four things that we kind of gravitate towards.
Question: My name’s Crispin. Have you ever considered writing a TV comedy series based on TV commissioners? And, if so, could you imagine it being commissioned?
AI: [Laughs] That goes back to the wheels within wheels that we were talking about earlier. I sort of feel we covered that in I’m Alan Partridge when he had his lunch, really. I’ve been told by various people in television that Monkey Tennis has been seriously developed at least four times by four different production companies, and then dropped, because fundamentally if you examine the premise, it is just monkeys playing tennis. It’s not going to sustain beyond a one-off viewing experience.
RB: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming tonight, Armando congratulations on Veep, on The Thick Of It and on tonight’s insightful, provocative and very funny speech. Ladies and gentlemen, Armando Iannucci.
AI: Thank you very much.