BBC Drama Chief Vows to Back Britishness and the "Unexpected" Over Algorithms

Piers Wenger
Courtesy of BBC

"The biggest risks deliver the biggest hits," and "real life stands out" in an age of big budgets and known IP, says Piers Wenger.

In unveiling 47 hours of new productions in his first major slate announcement since rejoining the BBC last fall, the public broadcaster's controller of drama commissioning Piers Wenger Thursday night said he is looking to celebrate Britishness on the screen.

Speaking at the Mall Galleries in London to celebrate the new drama commissions, he said he wants the next few years of BBC drama to be about a "strong streak of Britishness" and "a celebration of British authorship, identity and life in all its most diverse forms."

Wenger also told the congregated TV industry guests that he wants the BBC to provide an “antithesis” of "an algorithmic, data-driven approach to commissioning" and "the 'if you liked that, watch this' school of programming," a comment aimed at streaming video providers, such as Netflix and Amazon.

Said Wenger: "In a world where there is just so much content, and it can feel like your taste is being curated for you, it’s never been more important for BBC Drama to deliver the unexpected and for us to be clear and strong on what sets us apart."
He and his team instead want to rip up the rule book and deliver "the original and unexpected," which "has never had a better chance to connect with hearts and minds." Wenger added: "We know that the biggest risks deliver the biggest hits."

He pointed to this year's Oscars, saying that they felt like proof that "stories from the margins" can reach and touch mainstream audiences. "Moonlight, La La Land and Manchester by the Sea all defied the classic Hollywood archetypes to become box office success stories," Wenger said. "Only by thinking outside the usual parameters will we discover the next generation of stand-out shows." 

Wenger also said he sees room for more factual drama like a new project he unveiled from Stephen Frears (Florence Foster Jenkins, Philomena) who is directing a three-part adaptation of A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment, about the true story of the first British politician to stand trial for conspiracy and incitement to murder. The drama is about the late 1960s, when homosexuality had only just been decriminalized in Britain, and Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal Party, whose career is seen at risk as long as his ex-lover Norman Scott is around.

Said Wenger: "In a world increasingly dominated by big budgets and recognizable IP, real life stands out as a genre all of its own."