BBC Drama Chief Talks Global Hits and Impact, U.S. Partners, Need for Ambitious Shows
Ben Stephenson also discusses the importance of stars like Benedict Cumberbatch, hits such as 'Doctor Who' and Britain's answer to Shonda Rhimes
As the BBC's controller of drama commissioning, Ben Stephenson has been focusing on providing British audiences with a breadth and depth of drama series.
The U.K. public broadcaster has increasingly found co-producers in Hollywood, from Starz and AMC Networks to FX and HBO. He recently returned from his latest trip to L.A. and says he was excited about industry partner's enthusiasm about current and upcoming shows.
On Wednesday evening, he talked about the state of drama and the BBC's need to remain ambitious in front of TV industry representatives in London at an event hosted by BBC director general Tony Hall and him.
In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Stephenson discussed why BBC dramas have found partners and loyal fans in the U.S., the differences between dramas from the U.K. and Hollywood, how he picks projects and evaluates the ratings performance of such hits as Doctor Who and what upcoming shows he is particularly excited about.
He also talked about his belief in casting new talent and talent without much TV experience, such as his university colleague Benedict Cumberbatch when he was cast as Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock.
THR: How do you feel about the state of BBC drama?
Stephenson: I was just in Los Angeles for a week. I was there because I think we have more co-productions than we have ever had before with networks of real scale and size. What it made me reflect on was we haven't shifted anything that we are doing this year, and yet our relationships with our international partners have changed, and massive American companies want to come aboard our dramas.
The BBC license fee and all it stands for can be viewed as something that is very old-fashioned, but actually, we have interpreted it as something really modern. It allows us to tell such a huge diversity of stories. And the way we interpret it in drama, it pushes us as modern and ambitious as possible. That environment and the range of stories that we tell is really connecting with an international audience. By just being ourselves and interpreting the license fee in the most modern way, we are connecting with British audiences, but also worldwide audiences. It just struck me when I was on Sunset Boulevard last week having a cup of coffee and I looked up, and there was this massive poster for The Missing on Starz, written by two new writers who have never written drama before that is incredibly dark and complex and goes to the heart of what I think BBC drama stands for in terms of creative risk. And it is one of the biggest hits this year across all channels and has made a massive splash in America in terms of the reviews.
When you look at us in the landscape of other [networks] over here, I don't think anyone else is making the same impact that we are having. Although together, they spend more money than we do on drama. They all make good drama, but we believe what we stand for is the best modern drama. We're not about cozy period drama. I think that was an interpretation probably 10 years ago. I think we have massively shifted the dial. Everything is about an attitude and a modernity that you see in shows like The Missing, Happy Valley and The Fall but also period drama Peaky Blinders, which is not a cozy, comfy drama. It's not a warm bath, it's more a bath full of nails.
I'm really pleased with the way me and my team and the writers we work with have pushed what BBC drama stands for and really pushed it into the modern age. We got to continue that and be even bolder and even stronger. I do believe we are leading the way in terms of drama in this country. The stronger, the more provocative the story, the bolder the writers' vision, the more risky it feels, the more likely it is to be really good and it will connect with audiences.
How have online video services like Netflix and Amazon helped make people abroad aware of British dramas?
The conversations I was having in LA last week focused on how ultimately quality is what matters. And if you push an agenda of quality and originality, that is what is going to win. Audiences are really smart and want the best quality and the most original. The thing that matters more than anything else is getting the most original ideas. That was what every single person I spoke to last week said, and I agree. There is no doubt that Netflix, Amazon and all of those have made the world smaller in a good way. But also the surge in drama has made people seek out the best, and therefore, if you make something brilliant, it will rise to the surface whatever country it is from.
Why is British drama so appealing to U.S. and other audiences these days?
Britain has a particular attitude towards things. America has a particular attitude towards things as well. But I think for me, embracing that cultural specificity, not trying to make American television is the key to what we do. Because why would we?! They do it so brilliantly. I think if you connect with writers in a really specific and supportive way, that will naturally come out, because that is the DNA of this country.
What are you looking for?
I absolutely look for things that have an attitude, that come from over there or over there. If you look at The Missing or Peaky Blinders or The Fall, they take subject matter that has a straightforwardness to it, but what they all have is this approach that comes totally out of left field and constantly surprises you, both in terms of the twists and turns of the story, but also in terms of the acute angle.
How would you explain the differences between U.S. and U.K. drama?
There are very different cultures and histories. I always say Hollywood is at the heart of America in terms of the world we are in, and theater is at the heart of Britain. If you look at our roots, they all come from Shakespeare upwards. America's roots come from Hollywood upwards. Both are clearly amazing, but incredibly different. The collaborative, audience-focused nature of Hollywood, the industry and scale of it, the fact that you have more than a hundred million households compared with 200 people in a room watching Shakespeare. They are based around a showrunner, longer-run shows; we are based around a much more single-author six-episode run. I wouldn't want to replace either one. In a way they are utterly complementary. You can overstate it, but I do think that is were the differences come from. Both countries make great drama, both countries make very different drama. Actually, I think that is why at the moment we are having success in America, because our drama sits alongside the best of their programs and feels different. In the past, people have felt they need to Americanize to make content America wants to watch. I actually think it's the opposite.
What has changed in terms of your U.S. partners?
We have relationships with HBO, FX, AMC, BBC America and AMC have done their deal. I think the mainstream cable networks are really interested in the shows that we make. That is probably a shift. We have and will continue to have great relationships with BBC America and [PBS]. But this is the first time in history that we have worked with so many partners and so many big partners for dramas we have developed for homegrown audiences.
How key is that focus on British audiences in the development process?
That is the key. We have not set out to do to work with international partners. We set out to make the very best shows for our audiences that feel ambitious and modern and by doing that, we seem to have commissioned shows with brilliant writers that the market is beyond passionate about. By being the best version of ourselves, we seem to have engaged people.
How much input do your partners have?
We work as partners, but on a show that we have been developing by ourselves in a room for two, three, four years rather than saying let's create a co-production. The reason why I go to L.A. a lot is that it is all about personal relationships, being able to sit in a room and feel how do we get on with each other and do we have the same vision. I want the producers to make the best version of the show. I don't want them to be managing two opposing networks giving two opposing set of notes. The work I do before we even near production is to ensure we are all in agreement. Of course, then there can be the sort of conversations and disagreements you can have about every show, but within the [framework of the basic] agreement. That approach has absolutely paid off. Getting the partnership right is totally key.
What are the key benefits of co-productions for the BBC?
Partly, obviously, there is a financial thing. If we do a massive show, such as The Night Manager or Taboo, we are not going to be able to fund it by ourselves, because we are governed in a particular way and there is only so much we can put into any one production. That's an economic reality. But big budgets don't make big drama. The budget has to fit what the ambition of the drama is. Television is ultimately about characters and scripts, and often that can actually be relatively inexpensive.
Also, we are proud of what we do. We love to have partners who support us. We love having an international reputation. The commercial partners in this country are not getting this level of attention and awards and praise. Of course, there are brilliant shows, such as Downton Abbey, that have a massive reputation. But only our shows have this scale of impact in the international market.
Any new initiatives after your LA trip?
I don't think there are new initiatives, but it makes me feel more ambitious and more determined that we need to keep pushing. We got to be the best place for people to work, including people working for the BBC and writers we work with. They need to feel supported and feel they can achieve their best work.
You got to bring that sense of excitement and potential. It's infectious.
Does the deal that makes AMC Networks a big shareholder in BBC America affect your work much?
There is a development deal within that for the BBC in-house studio. For them there are exciting opportunities.
You produce about 450 hours of drama a year with 250 million pounds budget…is that changing much?
It's roughly the same. It's certainly not getting less, but it ebbs and flows over the years. Essentially, we can retain the scale of what we do. When [BBC director general] Tony Hall first started, that was a big part of the conversation we had. We said we either retain the size and scale or we have to become massively smaller. The point of what we do is range. It's better to either specialize or be broad, which we think is incredibly important. Our success of the past few years has proven that. Drama gets big ratings, which is an important part of what we do. It has the talkability factor. The sense of drama being at the heart of the BBC alongside news is absolutely key. It defines us and makes us distinctive.
You can't take this for granted. We have got to be the market leader in this country and push and push and push, even if that sometimes means we make mistakes, which we obviously never do. We should support failure. In truth, we haven't had that much this year. But you need to have that attitude to have hits. I sometimes feel commercial broadcasters here are scared of failure, and if you are scared, you won't have a massive hit, because massive hits come out of something totally unexpected.
Let's talk about specific shows. You have some new dramas…
We are doing this amazing story based on the book SS-GB of what would have happened if Hitler had won WWII. It's essentially about a policeman who is now managed by the SS. The story is: What do you do? Do you become a hero and a resistance fighter or do you just live within the new society. It's massively ambitious. London is not recognizable because the bombing has succeeded and taken down some of our most iconic landmarks. And it's a really engaging, emotional what-if. It is from the James Bond writers [Neal] Purvis and [Robert] Wade.
The Missing has done really well here in the U.K….
The Missing is from [writers] Jack and Harry Williams who in a way sort of personify the attitude of the BBC. It doesn't matter who you are or where you come from or how old you are - if you have a good script, that's all that matters. The Missing is their first original drama. We are doing their new piece, which is called One of Us. I think it is even bolder. It is about two families whose grown-up children are married and both of them are murdered. Just as the families are dealing with that in the remote highlands of Scotland, there is a car crash outside. They bring the person from the car in and try to save his life, and just at that moment, they see on the TV that he is the chief suspect in the murder. The questions are why is he coming to see them and what are they going to do with him? There are amazing cliffhangers, like Shonda Rhimes. Both [newly commissioned] shows go to the heart of what we are looking for - compelling surprising stories that hopefully have a must-watch about them.
What else are you excited about that is coming up?
We got two massive adaptations of iconic books. We are working with J.K. Rowling [and HBO] on The Casual Vacancy. I have seen episodes 1 and 2, and it is brilliant. It is really faithful to the spirit of the book with a big cast and great directing. We have been working on it with HBO.
Also, Wolf Hall, one of the great books. It is a brilliant piece. The adaptation, directing and acting is great. It is different from the stage version, but both very faithful in their own way...We are also really excited about Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which feels bold. It is about magic, is massive fantasy, has long special-effects sequences, so it is as otherworldly as The Hobbit is. It's a sort of extension of what we have done in Doctor Who, but for a more grown-up audience. But there are so many shows that I could go on forever.
Ripper Street is back, but Amazon has taken the lead. Why does it make sense for the BBC to air it after its exclusive run on Amazon?
We love Ripper Street. [Season] 2 didn't quite perform as we would have liked. We love it creatively, but as ever, you have to make choices between shows we love but isn't watched by a huge audience and trying out new shows. We made the decision to bring on new shows, but we all felt it was important for the BBC to be a part of it, both because we kicked it off and we also felt we can get a show that a big audience - not big enough, but big - loves, but at a cost of essentially one episode. Amazon has a window, and then we will be playing it. I don't imagine that will happen much. I don't imagine it would happen with a new show, because we would do it.
When will you decide if there will be a fourth season?
We will wait and see how it does on BBC One and what writer Richard Warlow wants to do next.
How do you think about ratings when delayed viewing is higher?
You have to focus on consolidated figures, but we are starting to look at them in a much more complex way. What is a success for one show isn't necessarily a success for another show. Doctor Who or EastEnders get a massive young audience, so in a way the overnight is much less relevant than how big the share of young audience is. TV drama struggles sometimes to get people under 50. For the BBC all audiences are important. So, I look at the overnights. You can tell something about quality if it sustains. But for others, I look at 16-34 ratings. Doctor Who, EastEnders and Our Girl beat other shows there...
Doctor Who used to get time-shifted by 5 percent. It now time-shifts by 40-50 percent. If you look at the overall levels, it is basically the same. I think it is one of the most secure shows we have ever had. And the U.S. ratings are up, and Peter Capaldi has done brilliantly.
There has been much talk about the golden age of drama…
One thing that is interesting that people are feeling the renaissance of TV drama is in part a reaction to film and that some of the territory, particularly thrillers, that film once did probably now it isn't doing. You now get that in TV. I also find interesting that actors and writers are viewing all mediums as equal. Purvis and Wade won't be making as much from SS-GB as from Bond, but it doesn't matter, and in the balance of their career, they want to do this.
British drama has become very popular in Asia. Do you travel there much?
I just hear about it, and it's amazing. Some of our most British dramas, such as Sherlock, are clearly totally beloved there. The fan base for Benedict [Cumberbatch] and Martin [Freeman] and Sherlock is enormous there. I don't travel there, but it's fascinating and extraordinary.
Speaking of Benedict Cumberbatch, how much do you see him as a BBC personality given that he makes all these movies these days? And how do you approach casting in general?
Part of what we do is we are not fuzzy. If you are a brilliant actor and you are unheard of, we will cast you in the lead. I knew Benedict, because I went to university with him. He was very well established in theater, but people didn't know who he was when he started playing Sherlock. We do cast the best people for the role. He is a brilliant actor, but Sherlock propelled him, which is the reason why he continues to do it. He loves it and knows how important it is. Similarly, Luther took Idris Elba from being a brilliant actor to having a number one film in America [recently]. I really believe that we can make stars. Our ability to find the stars of tomorrow is really important. There is a girl in The Casual Vacancy who is the talk of everyone. We got Bertie Carvel in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell who is a really respected theater actor, but this is his big TV piece. And Jamie Dornan has done so well in The Fall. It's great to see that.
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