We don’t do ‘drama’ here
The head of BBC Scotland drama kept me waiting over twenty minutes, an open area in the deathly mausoleum they call Pacific Quay headquarters. I’d come a long way for the meeting, from Los Angeles, my second home and place of work, my first still in Edinburgh. I called the meeting to sell BBC Scotland some Scottish talent.
Looking around me in that vast, wide, high empty interior space, office levels stacked around its four walls, I couldn’t help but think how bereft it was of anything that gave a clue to the creativity that is supposed to happen inside. Not a pot plant, sculptural bust, or artwork in sight. Nothing but generality, cold steel, concrete and glass, and an echo. The robotic architect, David Chipperfield, could do with some humanity.
The place needs a woman’s touch!
Entrance to the atrium, the inner sanctum, is by security gates, reminiscent of an airport. You are given a tag, expected to wear it until you leave. Whoever goes in, must come out. It’s a wonder I wasn’t asked to take my belt and shoes off.
Security? What secrets do they keep there? They hardly make a thing bar some low grade comedy shows and local news. Everything, but everything is sent to London … if an independent producer is lucky. There it stops, hits the buffers – London Central.
I wait. As time passes I know from experience it is not a good sign.
Out she comes. Preoccupied. A bad phone conversation?
Blast, she’s younger than me; won’t see me as of her generation, neither cool nor topical. Doesn’t matter I have a bevy of international awards, I’m an unknown to her. She might listen, unless, that is, she has my name in a wee black book. Paranoia, why does it rise to the surface? Wait, she was told to meet me by my old colleague now Controller of BBC Scotland. Be confident. You arrive recommended, a VIP.
Maybe. Maybe some other advice was given. “Placate this guy but offer no commissions.”
Must stay positive. Freelancer’s livelihoods depend on me achieving. People like me are continually pushed into a corner where we are left arguing for indigenous talent, but against faceless money men in London.
Calm down. Smile.
She sits in front of me, no apology for the lateness. The silence between us has me expect a lump of tumbleweed to blow by. She waits. Does she expect me to break into song, to entertain her? Okay. Deep breath – me first.
I open with the usual small talk, see her glance this way and that, (bored?) listen to her harden up her answers to let me know she carries limited authority, for she senses I am not convinced by her. I notice she was not educated in Scotland nor born here.
One by one she dismisses well researched proposals, all Scottish sourced material, some with funding attached, all with serious actors. Whatever way I pitch, with enthusiasm, prepared to fine tune, alter main character, offer compromise, back comes the negative. “No, London is doing something similar. No we have a project about women. No, I wouldn’t get that passed HQ London.” She hesitates on one novel for which I have the rights. “I’ll read this over the weekend and let you know.”
She then goes into a long spiel about how she has no power, all decisions are taken by BBC London. She exists merely to bring London’s attention to a project that has topicality or commercial worth. “I’m afraid I’m just a conduit”, she explains, with an apologetic flick of the head and shrug of her shoulders. She gives me a look that says she’s resigned to her fate. That one gesture renders the whole BBC Scotland a phony front. It’s like a fake stall set up to attract suckers. No doubt the place will have a few favourites, the meek, the compliant who will toe the line for the sake of a commission. The system is an elimination process, not a creative cooperation.
This, remember, is the same place that stole independent’s best ideas when told the BBC had to accept a percentage of their output from freelancers. The BBC sent a rejection note, passed the idea upstairs, gave it a different title, and then made it as an in-house originally conceived production. “They’ll just humiliate you”, said my wife as I set out that morning to be thoroughly humbled. She was right, in every respect.
Christ! What am doing here? I’m here trying to get work for others.
I try one more time. I boost my pitch. I lift a hardback novel from my satchel and hold it up, a detective thriller. “I have one of his Glasgow-set novels filmed to good acclaim, “Best Screenplay” from the American Film Critics. Please give him sound consideration.”
“I will, but nothing else you offer is of interest.”
Six mature projects, all contemporary material, all full scripts, and only a book held back. Is she patronising me?
As a last-ditch at solid Scottish material I blurt, “I have a project on the Highland Clearances, female led-” I stress ‘female’.
She cuts me short. “I’m not interested in historical costume drama.”
Jeezus. The Scots invented the bloody historical novel. There’s an entire national library of fine novelists specialising in the genre. Has she not seen “Braveheart,” “Rob Roy“? Where was she when Hollywood dramatised the novels of R. L. Stevenson?
Now what? Will she tell me BBC has committed all its drama budget to another obscure Trollope novel, “Barchester Chronicles“? Is that the excuse? Maybe it’s another version of “Pride and Prejudice”, the fifteenth.
I pause. “If I offered you an action man, fantasy series, how about that, you know, like a Scots Batman?” Her eyes light up. “Yes, I’d like that.” She moves into a a description how that sort of series is all the rage in the USA. I pause again, timing my riposte to hold her gaze. “Batman is a costume drama.”
Damn! That bit of impudence will alienate her.
What is a non-Scot doing running a major cultural department for BBC Scotland? Does she have any knowledge of Scottish literature? Did she study at a Scottish university, decided Scotland was the place to live and work? What is her criteria for selecting work? What are her standards?
I decide to test her.
“Tell me, what’s your favourite Scottish drama?”
I promise you, I knew her answer before she spoke it. She hardly hesitates and says, “Monarch of the Glen.”
“Ah” says I, “I can see why, light comedy, prat falls, stereotypes, very popular.” I take a deep sigh and throw caution to the wind. “I’d call that series sub-Compton Mackenzie.”
Back comes the shock reply confirming my worst fears.
“Who is Compton Mackenzie?”
We never met again.
Epilogue: The novel, a series of short comedic stories set in World War II army days, was rejected, but a BBC comedy series about the army has been produced – by BBC London, though set in modern times. And a USA-made Scottish costume fantasy series – “Outlander,” already a big success State-side – awaits clearance for UK transmission, presumably held back lest it fires up the natives’ anger at being ignored culturally.
(See sister essay: BBC Scotland – Cultural Tollbooth.)