BBC Is "Primary Incubator of Storytelling Talent" in U.K., Drama Boss Says

Piers Wenger
Courtesy of BBC

Piers Wenger also unveiled a new show with Martin Freeman while addressing lower 'Doctor Who' ratings, co-productions, talk of subscription models for the BBC and competition from streaming giants

Piers Wenger, controller of BBC Drama, told reporters in London on Monday that the British public broadcaster is the "primary incubator of storytelling talent in the U.K." and has a key role to play in the streaming age.

"Development is time-consuming, rooted in trust and financially risky," he said at a press event. "That is why commercial broadcasters and SVODs don’t develop in the same way that we do, but also why without the BBC, the drama market would be less vigorous."

Added Wenger: "We are the primary incubator of storytelling talent in the U.K. In a sector, which is so heavily commercialized, I truly believe that there is nowhere else in the world where you can be as creatively free as you can be at the BBC."

The exec also commented on how co-productions and increased competition are changing the BBC. "I am often asked how, in the era of co-production, the BBC can argue that its programs are unique when so many of them are co-produced," Wenger shared. "But ideas don’t start off co-produced. Rather, they are born out of numerous creative conversations between writers, producers and commissioning editors, with the aim of making something which is bold, original and unique. That often means going against the market with the ideas you are backing, but it’s a testimony to those grassroots conversations that once ideas become scripts, there is a feeding frenzy for them internationally."

Acknowledging that "we are not the only game in town anymore," he added that the BBC has been looking to move quickly on great ideas and writing amid increased competition for talent in the streaming age. "We are fortunate in not having an algorithm that we need to put ideas through."

Asked how a subscription model — which reports have said the U.K. government has been eyeing for the BBC's future — would affect the public broadcaster's commissioning, Wenger said: "It would change it completely because the BBC is a universal service,” and subscribers would mean a focus on those subscribers. "It would be a massive loss" and "a shame."

The BBC drama boss on Monday also unveiled four new dramas from first-time television writers, including one in which Martin Freeman has agreed to star, saying the commissions are furthering the broadcaster's commitment to developing and backing new talent." Added Wenger: "It might sound risky, but backing new talent is normal and natural to us."

The exec went on to describe last year as a strong one for his team. In 2019, five of the top 10 new dramas across all U.K. networks came from the BBC, including His Dark Materials and The War of the Worlds, and six of the 10 most popular dramas for 16- to 34-year-olds (namely Line of DutyLuther, Peaky BlindersDoctor Who, His Dark Materials and Call the Midwife) aired on the BBC, Wenger highlighted.

The slot average ratings for drama on the BBC grew from 2018 to 2019, with BBC drama reaching 36 percent of the U.K., he also mentioned, arguing that increased VOD usage also showed the value for money the BBC offers. "Last year, the numbers watching drama on [on demand service] iPlayer grew by 28 percent — and drama programming received over 1 billion requests," explained Wenger. "Thanks to iPlayer, audiences are actually spending more time watching BBC drama, not less."

He vowed 2020 would be an "outstanding year for diversity and inclusion in drama."

Wenger was also asked about declining ratings for Doctor Who and whether that could lead to the BBC giving the drama a rest. "I produced it for many years,” he said. “I don’t think it has been in better health editorially. I think it’s fantastic.” The exec added that the show is not only funded by the BBC, but also international partners. “It’s an incredibly important show for young audiences still watched by families in a world where there are fewer and fewer shows that have the power to do that. So it  will always be an important show for us.” His conclusion: “I think we are a very long way away from wanting to rest it.”  

Here are the four new drama commissions Wenger unveiled on Monday:

The Responder (BBC Two)
The crime drama comes from ex-police officer Tony Schumacher and draws on his experience as an urgent response officer. The series is produced by Dancing Ledge Productions, with Fremantle distributing it. "It’s a raw, anarchic and funny portrait of a corner of Britain rarely seen onscreen, through the eyes of a law enforcement officer who is struggling with his mental health," Wenger said. Freeman has committed to star in the show, "which shows just how good the scripts really are," said the exec. Freeman will play Chris, who must tackle a series of six night shifts on the beat in Liverpool in six hourlong episodes. Said the actor: "Tony Schumacher's script for The Responder resonated with me immediately. It felt like nothing that I'd read or seen."

My Name Is Leon (BBC One)
The adaptation of award-winning author Kit de Waal’s novel, adapted by Shola Amoo writing his first screenplay for television and directed by Kibwe Tavares, will be a one-off film. Set in 1980s Britain and the race riots of that time, it tells the story of 9-year-old Leon, a mixed-race boy whose desire is to keep his family together as his single-parent mother suffers a devastating breakdown.

Chloe (BBC One)
The six-part drama comes from creator and writer Alice Seabright and is her first original TV series commission. She most recently directed episodes of Sex Education season two. "Becky thinks Chloe has the perfect life," according to a plot description. "Years after Chloe abandoned her when they were teenagers, Becky still obsessively watches Chloe's life through her picture-perfect social media. But when Chloe dies suddenly, Becky's need to find out how and why leads her to assume a new identity and infiltrate the enviable lives of Chloe's closest friends. Who was Chloe? What happened to her? And why does Becky think Chloe was trying to send her a message before she died? Through her alter-ego Sasha, Becky becomes a powerful, transgressive heroine, trapped in a dangerous web of lies, only some of which are her own."

Superhoe (BBC Three)
Nicôle Lecky’s first original drama is based on her one-woman show and follows 24-year-old Sasha Clayton (Lecky), who dreams of being a singer and rapper but spends most of her time in her bedroom smoking weed and stalking her ex-boyfriend on Instagram. When she is kicked out of her family home, Sasha is forced to fend for herself by sofa surfing and eventually moves in with the enigmatic party-girl Carly, who introduces her to a glamorous world of social media influencing and partying, as well as making money through cam work and sex work. The series will consist of six episodes of 45 minutes.