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BBC Drama Chief on 'Call the Midwife,' 'Sherlock' and What's Next (Q&A)

BBC Ben Stephenson - H 2013

"Being popular is absolutely at the heart of what the BBC does. The minute we become niche and only for a particular audience is when we are dead," Ben Stephenson tells THR.

Ben Stephenson has been controller, drama commissioning at the BBC since September 2008. In that role, he is responsible for the development of the drama schedule at the U.K. public broadcaster. THR’s international business editor Georg Szalai talked to the executive about the BBC’s recent successes, such as Sherlock and 1950s period show Call the Midwife, his latest commissions, the BBC’s international co-productions and whether he would go for a show set in the U.S.

The Hollywood Reporter: The BBC has had some big drama successes with the likes of Call the Midwife. Why has drama been such a focus for the BBC, and how do you feel about the state of drama at the company?

Ben Stephenson: It has been a really successful couple of years for BBC One and BBC Two. Drama goes to the heart of the BBC’s DNA. It is what the BBC has always been known for – drama and news. Last year, on BBC One, the goal was to launch the next generation of returning series, because we had lost such shows as Spooks – or MI-5 as it was known in the U.S., so we wanted to bring in a new shows or returners. We were lucky enough that we launched seven shows, and six of them are coming back. Shows such as Call the Midwife have been a big hit here and in America. It is the biggest series launch on any [U.K.] channel certainly this century and likely longer than that. And we also launched Ripper Street this year, which went down incredibly well over here and in America. It is BBC America’s biggest-ever launch apart from Doctor Who for a British show. And we reinvested money on BBC Two last year for a more cable attitude toward drama. We had huge success with police series Line of Duty, which we are bringing back this year. It stars Lennie James.

STORY: BBC Unveils 'Atlantis,' 'Doctor Who' in 3D, Third Season of 'Call the Midwife'

THR: So where would you like to end up?
Stephenson: What it adds up to is the ambition, with which we at the BBC are able to create our drama. That takes us forward to where we want to go. The key for us, because we are publicly funded, is we don’t have any commercial remit. So we are able to work with the very best talent in the country and the world to drive the best projects to the screen. That may well be 13-episode series like our new commission Atlantis. But it could also be single films. That is probably unique to us as a broadcaster in the world, that we can tailor the shape of the schedule to the writers’ voices. That is why we have Tom Stoppard coming back to the BBC. He hadn’t written for the BBC in 20 years, and last year he did Parade’s End, which is about to launch on HBO. And we have David Hare coming back. Also, Jane Campion has her first TV series with us this year. We want to create an environment that is electric and exciting for creatives who can have real ambition.

THR: How does the public funding for the BBC affect competition for product with U.K. TV giants ITV and BSkyB, which have also been expanding their drama work, with the former having a big hit with Downton Abbey?
Stephenson: I think the truth is that not having commercial imperatives does not mean we don’t want to be popular. There is no point making fantastic dramas if people don’t want to watch. But we can push boundaries and ambition to tell great stories. In my opinion, if you take risks with stories and writers, you will actually drive big audiences. For example, the tone of Sherlock only works on the BBC in this country. The risk we took with that tone drove the success of it internationally. And that is a massive show internationally. It is in hundreds of territories internationally, is a hit in America and has made Benedict [Cumberbatch] a star. That came out of the same approach and attitude that goes into our other work. Being popular is absolutely at the heart of what the BBC does. The minute we become niche and only for a particular audience is when we are dead. Every single member of the license-fee paying audience who enjoys drama must find enough drama across the course of the year to be really excited and be able to say, “That’s a good use of my license fee.”

STORY: 'Downton Abbey' Season Three Debut on U.K.'s ITV Averages 8.6 Million Live Viewers

THR: How much do you think about Hollywood and the U.S. market, and how important is it for your dramas?
Stephenson: The priority for me is to make a great show for a British audience. Having said that, I really believe that BBC drama is an international brand. That is important, because it gives us more confidence and muscle if the rest of the world recognizes that this is something they like. I sometimes get e-mails from people in America or Australia saying how much they love some of our work. The key is integrity. It would be patronizing to foreign audiences to think that somehow we had to make shows Americanized for people in America to watch them. Sherlock is as British as British can be. Ditto with Midwife and Ripper Street, yet they have broad appeal in America -- just like the best of American shows have appeal here.

THR: What’s key for a successful co-production, including with such U.S. partners like Starz? And how important are they for the BBC?
Stephenson: The key thing is the integrity of approach. We have a huge co-production with Starz coming up -- The White Queen. It is the story of the Wars of the Roses from the point of view of the women. It is a huge romantic historical epic. It is beautifully directed, with a star-making casting in the lead for Rebecca Ferguson. The key is making sure that it has integrity for us. I believe then the rest of the world will want it as well. Our international relations are absolutely key, and I really want talent across the world to feel that we are a place to come to work with and audiences across the world to realize that BBC drama means something to them and adds to their viewing. I'm not saying that it should overtake anything that they watch, but it is part of their enjoyment of what they do.

THR: What's key to consider for someone who pitches a co-production to you, compared with other TV companies in the U.K.?
Stephenson: It should start from the writer rather than the deal. I feel that the projects other channels might find appealing in this country are ones where the deal comes first and the senses that it could sell to many countries rather than the actual writing. It must speak to a British audience. That means that it needs to have themes that are going to resonate with our channels' audiences.

THR: Any interest in shows taking place in the U.S.?
Stephenson: I probably wouldn't do a show set in America quite simply because America has such a rich selection of channels, so why would we do it? But we got Wallander and another project in Sweden, we got Australia, so I take a pretty international view. And ultimately it is about the work, it is not about putting a co-production deal together where you have a hodgepodge of different accents to sell internationally. That I don't think has creative integrity.

THR: How ambitious is your latest slate of drama commissions in the bigger picture?
Stephenson: We announced about eight new shows. It is an eclectic mix. The BBC makes 450 hours of drama a year on an annual budget of around $390 million (250 million pounds), which makes us the biggest broadcaster of drama in the country. I hope what it shows is that the confidence we had last year in terms of our drama output is redoubled in the next few years. And the more success you have, the more you are driven to be ambitious and try riskier stuff. I think that is what audiences are calling out for -- they like stuff that is different and exciting.

THR: You have a new BBC boss, Tony Hall, coming in this spring. Do you expect that to affect you?
Stephenson: Yes, we have a new director general starting at the beginning of April, which coincides with our [latest commissions] announcement. This is the dawning of a new era of ambition. Lord Hall comes from BBC News and has been running the Royal Opera House. Having someone come to join and manage us who has run one of the greatest cultural organizations in the world is incredibly exciting. And it feels like it raises the bar of ambition. Some of the conversations I have been having with him have been what sort of vision BBC Drama has going into the future, how we build on our success and how we retain the affection audiences have for us and how we become more ambitious and risk-taking. For me as a huge fan of what Lord Hall has done at the Royal Opera House, him coming to us is really incredibly exciting.

THR: Do you think there could be an increase in the drama budget?
Stephenson: We have reinvested in both BBC One and BBC Two in the past couple of years, and we already have the biggest drama budget in the country. So, I can't really comment on that. But I am always canvassing to get money to make us much drama as we can. But Lord Hall certainly absolutely recognizes the vital importance of drama on the drama. We know that for the creatives and audiences it is a key part of their viewing and their careers.

THR: Anything else you can share, for example about the Doctor Who anniversary celebrations this year?
Stephenson: Doctor Who is an international brand, and this year marks its 50th anniversary. That is a really exciting moment for the BBC at home and abroad. We haven't revealed yet what we are doing, but it will be an absolutely enormous, very, very ambitious event. We hope to unite all the fans across the world.

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com

Twitter: @georgszalai