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The Parlous State of Television
Last uploaded : Tuesday 14th Nov 2006 at 02:47
Contributed by : Carol Gould


In the past few days the fine journalists Michael Henderson and Emily Bell and the distinguished television producer Sir Jeremy Isaacs have written scathing articles about the state of British television.

This crisis fits in with the current debate on rampant juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancies and violence amongst football supporters. Why? Because, as I said on BBC ‘Any Questions?’ last week, young people need role models and a cultural standard to which to aspire.

One glance at the ‘Radio Times’ weekly television and radio guide on any given night and one sees an endless stream of American movies, American comedy and drama series, reality and game shows and, as Isaacs points out, vile and offensive programmes about sexual perversion.

There are the excellent programmes that have garnered international acclaim, but they are few and far between. The reason why I write about this is because I was one of the people responsible for selecting what went onto the nation’s screens from 1981 to 1991.

When I started life as a twenty-something Assistant to the Head of Drama at Anglia Television it was considered an honour to work with the giants of broadcasting who had chosen me, an American, to join a huge, quintessentially English company. The Drama Unit operated like a university Literature Department. My immediate boss, John Rosenberg, and the men who directed the productions we commissioned, were immensely cultured intellectuals who placed high demands on me. I was charged with reading and evaluating new story material and often had to read four books in a week.

The rich discussions that ensued were reminiscent of a gruelling examination by a university professor, but the material on which we agreed was optioned, a script was commissioned and the dynamic process of production ensued. I worked with John Jacobs, David Deutsch, Alan Seymour, Robin Chapman and countless other talented writers and directors. I negotiated rights with legendary agents, locking horns with the terrifying Peggy Ramsay and holding my own. The Executive Director of Anglia Drama, Sir John Woolf, who had produced Oscar-winning ‘Moulin Rouge;’ ‘The African Queen;’ ‘Room at the Top’ and ‘The Day of the Jackal’ was a formidable adversary in discussions about prospective Drama commissions, and he even heaved a book at me that he had hated and I had loved - a novel by Paul Theroux. Sir John and I eventually became friends and I was a part of the Woolf and Rosenberg families before long.

Script and pre-production meetings were worthy of PhD credits; sitting around the table with Rosenberg, Jenia Reissar, Herbert Wise and PD James left an indelible impression that informed my professional standards for the rest of my life. The programmes we produced were, like those of other ITV companies and of BBC Drama, cultural jewels that the great British public stayed in to watch in their millions.

The creative process in British television drama was exacting because ITV was regulated by the Quality Threshold. This meant that our licences would not be renewed by the Independent Broadcasting Authority unless the programmes we produced were of the highest calibre. Our productions sold to scores of countries around the globe and were glowingly received in the world’s press.

In 1977 Anglia was given the Queen’s Award for Industry, a year in which British television was one of the most prolific and lucrative exports the country had produced since the War. Granada, Thames, Central, London Weekend, Yorkshire and other fine Drama departments contributed to this achievement. British television reflected the rich cultural heritage and originality that one also found on the stages of the West End, Stratford, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester and other regional theatres, not to mention the bustling literary and music festivals.

This magnificent period in British cultural history came to an end when Margaret Thatcher deregulated ITV. Legend has it that she was incensed by a ‘World in Action’ special, ‘Death on the Rock’ about the British Army and the IRA. Deregulation meant the ITV companies were no longer obliged to provide quality. My feeling is that it was not just Margaret Thatcher who destroyed ITV Drama. One morning after ‘Cause Celebre’ by Terence Rattigan had gone out in primetime, with a TV Times cover, a young, potbellied sales executive stopped me in the corridor and in his less-than-cultivated accent complained that he and his ‘missus’ had switched off after a few minutes because they could not make ‘ead or tail of the ‘egghead’ play. I was stunned and told him that preliminary figures indicated that the play had garnered a fine BARB rating. He sniffed and walked on. I began to get little inklings of discontent amongst the management; soon people were brought in to 'restructure' what was possibly the most successful Drama department of all time. Soon the teeming dynamo of our legendary creative group fell silent.

After Deregulation Drama was downgraded and some of the most talented people in Great Britain were losing their jobs. I attended the AGM of Anglia and anxious shareholders were asking me why there were no new drama productions. They were reassured by the Board that their investment was secure and indeed, when the plague of takeovers began to unfold, shares went up. Remember the fuss about Lord and Lady Archer? I confronted Dr Mary Archer of the Anglia Board about the cancellation of all of my cherished productions and if looks could kill I would be dead. Her silence and steely glare is something I will never forget.

Then came the Chief of Anglia who told me I was ‘past it’ at age 37. I had been on the team of four hugely popular programmes, all of which were scrapped. John Rosenberg had died and I believe to this day the collapse -- the destruction -- of the beautiful, creative world around him contributed to his fatal illness.

Thus ended the ‘Rolls Royce of ITV,’ the great Anglia Television Drama Department. So also ended the other great ITV Drama departments. It is hard to grasp the idea that British people had to decide which programmes to tape, as there was so much rich material from which to choose every night of the week. Very little comes out of the regional companies these days. British television is characterised by the foul-mouthed Gordon Ramsay, stupid and degrading reality shows and the occasional moments of inspiration from the shamefully underemployed crop of scriptwriters and directors. Men and women who worked on adaptations of great literature and on brilliant original drama, adored by millions, are surviving on work in game and reality shows.

Along with Anglia Drama came the demise of the legendary ‘Survival’ wildlife series. I felt a sense of personal bereavement when this great British production team closed its offices forever.

In 2006 we see, as Emily Bell, Jeremy Isaacs and Michael Henderson have stated in this weekend’s newspapers, a shameful mix of mediocre and often offensive dross dominating the nation’s screens day and night. Of all the countries of Europe, Britain was the flagship of cultural achievement in stage, film and television drama and now it is a virtual wasteland. Notwithstanding the huge income generated for the Exchequer, the West End is filled with rehashed American musicals. Where are the new writers? Peter Morgan is one, but there should be dozens.

When Ed Rendell was Mayor of Philadelphia its cultural life was renewed. It is now a major East Coast centre of cultural activity. His personality galvanised cultural renewal. Broad Street is now ‘The Avenue of the Arts.‘ Britain needs leaders who will show a love for cultural achievement. Knowing how complicated and protracted a process it was to produce a fine, world-class series or play, I fear the great era of British drama may never be revived because thousands of highly skilled professionals like myself were cast out so that the Boards of the ITV companies could pay themselves large salaries to produce nothing. Young people have no-one to learn from.

But the fact is that the state of British television is a disgrace. It is a dire influence on the behaviour of our youth. Something must be done.
Carol Gould was senior Script Editor on many ITV Dramas including 'Tales of the Unexpected,' 'Cause Celebre,' the PD James adaptations, the Somerset Maugham plays, the Eric Ambler thrillers and plays by Malcolm Bradbury, John Mortimer and Alan Seymour.


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