Ben Stephenson, BBC drama controller, has rejected calls for UK television to ape the U.S. and create longer-running shows. Last month, screenwriter Paul Abbott (State of Play, Shameless) urged drama bosses at the Edinburgh TV Festival to commission drama series that run for as long as US series – either a 13-parter or 24 episodes. British dramas are usually ordered in 6 parts. Stephenson, launching the BBC’s drama schedule for the next 6 months, said US TV risks losing the voice of the individual author. I’m told that US TV writers look on enviously at the British tradition of just employing single writer on each show. No writer’s room here. Stephenson said: “Get out of the room if you want to write anything else … writers would be told – make it 13 or 24 or get out. Steven Moffat would not be able to write Sherlock how he wants to. He would be biffed of and replaced with a showrunner who could give a financially acceptable model of 24 eps.”
Stephenson said that US television is driven by having to appeal to the 18-49 demographic. And for a cable network you need to be 18-49 and middle class, the BBC drama boss said. “Would we really like to see our drama suffer the same fate as new critically acclaimed Fox 24-part series Lonestar? Premiered last Monday, axed yesterday,” he said. In any case, said Stephenson, the UK just can’t afford to make drama on the scale of the US. The first episode of Boardwalk Empire cost $20 million to produce. Stephenson said: “There is a terribly fashionable, but naive mythology about US television. Of course they make great television … we should love American TV but adore and cherish our own.”
Stephenson also biffed Sky on the nose for the comparatively paltry £30 million it spends each year on original British drama.
Stephenson announced that Sam Mendes, Oscar-winning director of American Beauty, is to exec produce four new Shakespeare History Plays – Richard II, Henry IV part 1 and II and Henry V – for BBC2. Richard Eyre (Iris, Notes On a Scandal) and Rupert Goold, acclaimed stage director of Enron, will direct some of them. Pippa Harris, who runs Neal Street Productions with Mendes, will also exec produce. Really it’s hardly surprising that we Brits are so good at Shakespeare. As Louella Parsons once observed, the weather’s so dreadful on this tight little isle that we can’t wait to get in out of the rain and practise our Shakespeare on each other.