The Pitch – BBC Scotland

1701

BBC Scotland’s headquarters in Glasgow

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.

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 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 comedy shows and local news. Everything, but everything is sent to London … if an independent producer is lucky. There it stops, 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. Unless, that is, she has my name in a wee black book. 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. 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.

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.”

I boost my pitch. “I have one of his Glasgow-set novels filmed to good acclaim, “Best Screenplay” from the American Film Critics, so 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-“

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 “Pride and Prejudice XV”.

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 spiel about 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 in being ignored culturally.

(See sister essay: BBC Scotland – Cultural Tollbooth.)

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31 Responses to The Pitch – BBC Scotland

  1. bearinorkney says:

    It’s a deeply depressing read. I can only imagine how it felt to be the recipient of her disinterest?

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    My wife warned, “They’ll just humiliate you. Don’t give them the opportunity.” Hey, I knew the Controller and his lovely mellifluous voice personally. What could go wrong?

    I asked my American colleagues what they thought of the BBC’s response. They shifted in their seats uncomfortably, my nation’s broadcaster, and all that. Or so they assumed.

    “They’re inept.”

  3. London is the centre of the universe and the planet would implode without them!

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    Aye, but from what I hear of the corruption it’s only effluent that revolves around it.

  5. Iain says:

    I think we all (on this side of the debate anyway) see BBC Scotland as something other than a regional branch of the BBC in London, but we’re deluding ourselves. Why would someone need a knowledge of culture, history, language or society in Scotland to work for BBC Scotland any more than someone would need to be steeped in the life of the English Midlands to work at Pebble Mill? This story is deeply depressing, but only to those of us who expect something different and better, and that simply can’t come to pass without drastic change.

  6. Grouse Beater says:

    BBC Scotland has the same brief as London. They don’t need to have someone with a knowledge of Scots literary culture installed in Glasgow because they’re selling viewers the same hamburgers as any commercial broadcaster.

    The commissioning process, contrived to achieve fairness, is more Dancing With the Stars than anything remotely similar to a deal. It’s an elimination process. Worse, there’s no guarantee your idea won’t be lifted and used later, just not with you attached.

    The truth is, they are not interested in proposals outside London.

    Almost everybody working in the arts in any discipline, in any form, has the same experience.

  7. Hugh Wallace says:

    As I read your blog, and others like it, I am becoming increasingly angry, frustrated and upset about how our country has been treated in this ‘great’ union of ours. I always thought things were bad enough because (for one example of many) I went to a school in the highlands that prioritised classical music over bagpipes and fiddle. There is nothing at all wrong with classical music, let me assure you, and I played lots of classical piano but I also wanted to learn the pipes and the head of music at my school really didn’t care for anything so yokel (I mean, local). And this was a school which hosted the Gaelic Royal National Mod in 1991 and Feis Rois in 1993 (most likely over the objections of said head of music).

    I believe things (in a musical and cultural sense) are better now than they were 20 years ago but there is still a long way to go before our country celebrates its cultural roots (and not just the Gaelic ones either) in the way we see our Irish friends doing.

    Thank you, GB, for your writing and please keep up the great work.

  8. Grouse Beater says:

    Thank you for the kind words you have had to say.

    I am from a professional music background, all pioneers in classical music in Scotland, including founding the Musician’s Union. (There’s Irish in there too!) When I fight for a project set in Scotland it’s for writer, actor, musician, composer, crew, extras, and all the service industries, but above all, the right to express our culture using the medium of storytelling through film.

    If I related what was refused set on Skye, welcomed by Donny Munro, you’d never believe me … or perhaps you would.

  9. diabloandco says:

    Thanks for the insight – or should that be incite? Who do these folk think they are?

    How about dramatizing the Peter May novels – with Peter May of course .I fell in love with the Lewis books and what a backdrop it would give on film.

  10. Grouse Beater says:

    Good choice. You’re helping to prove the wealth of work there for dramatisation, if only we had a broadcaster willing with the shilling to promote it. I have a contemporary project on the Skye Bridge protests and all the skullduggery that went with it – so far, no phone calls returned.

  11. FergusMac says:

    When, please God, Scotland regains her rightful place among the nations after a Yes vote, I sincerely hope that the local branch office/store front of the BBC, the ironically and flatteringly-titled BBC Scotland, does not miraculously rebrand itself as the SBC, with a public franchise. The whole institution is a disgrace, from top to bottom. In the old days, if a house had been the site of the plague, it was burnt down, and a new house built – the infection was too deep and too serious to chance eradication. They have shown themselves totally devoid of integrity and professionalism. The ineptitude identified by your American contacts is the final nail in their coffin.

    I suggest starting over, using the talents the Referendum campaign has shown we have in profusion. Employment by the BBC would not be an advantage in an interview, rather the reverse, with some honourable exceptions.

    Those who have shown their undying devotion to the Empire, to the Labour Party and to the Union had better hope that their masters are suitably grateful, and will not forget them in their hour of need, as they head south with the bitter taste of defeat in their mouths. They should ponder the fact that history does not bode well for them, even though they fought their corner with total dedication. They will find that they have alienated their fellow Scots, and a Westminster struggling to come to terms with the unthinkable may be a little short on gratitude, and long on displeasure.

  12. Grouse Beater says:

    Most eloquently expressed, Fergus. Thank you.

  13. Bugger (the Panda) says:

    There was a simple reason why, upon devolution that broadcasting was the number one reserved matter for Westminster.
    We see examples of the consequences, deliberate I say, despite what Derek Bateman says publicly, in the current output of the BBC News and Current Affairs (Scotlandshire) and the dead hand of the Londoncentric control over culture in Scotland. Scottish culture is inferior to that of Mother England and we Jocks can only do the blackness of drink, drunks and desperation, but only when it suits them. The BBC is the last vestige of the Roman Empire.

    If we vote No they will take it as a open season to destroy Scotland – a Northern wilderness, further North than Newcastle.

  14. Steve says:

    They also read the London scripted continuity at every junction. Why? No dought conributes to their locally produced annual broadcasting hours output! TV in the UK has £20 billion anual turnover. Regions have the crumbs. What do you do with BBC Scotland? What’s its pupurpose other than an unchallenging daily Metro style news magazine thing. River City can’t even get a back water UK network digital channel slot!

  15. questions need asking about the way the bbc is being run.

    my morning paper tells me that george entwistle was paid £450,000 for fifty-four days’ work and then resigned.

    lord patten approved this payment, according to the report.

    when there is bad management in an organization, very little is decided on merit.

  16. Grouse Beater says:

    Nigel

    BBC mandarins are under the same delusion as our new criminal class, the “banksters.”

    By paying themselves and cronies high salaries and stupifying bonuses they create a cabal, a clan, one supporting the other as if a Mafia family. That in turn causes them to believe in their own worth as superior to the rest of us. Money is status, they say. They must be revered not reviled for their (non-existent) service to society. In BBC’s case the culprits who activated gargantuan salaries for little brains and less creativity were John Birt and Michael Grade.

    I might write about both later -a squib to throw at the BBC.

  17. Capella says:

    I’ve read that you can get film and drama financed in Scotland. All you have to do is depict the Scots as a nation of junkies, alcoholics or benefit scroungers and the money will magically appear. Cultural hegemony!

    Thank you for an interesting and thought provoking post.

    I hope you will develop this theme so that, come Independence, we can use the £300m licence fee, currently siphoned off to London, to generate real drama and arts in Scotland.

  18. Grouse Beater says:

    Capella

    My post appears to have gone “viral,” as they say. Somehow or other it articulates what many in Scotland think but didn’t have evidence of. Watch this space. And, aye, perhaps all protagonists in drama should be conceived as if Rab C. Nesbitt. That way lies success.

  19. Helena Brown says:

    As someone who gave up on anything the BBC produces these days, but who obviously see what is on offer on the planner. I have worked out what you did wrong. I could not hear the words Great British in any of your ideas.

    Don’t you know that is not allowed. Do you not have something which depicts the Brits at War, that sells very well to the Beeb presently.

    As for Scottish Lit, heavens man, you will be stirring up the Nats, and that is not allowed. As for Scottish History, it is official, we don’t have any.

  20. Thanks for the blog post. I’ve shared it on Facebook. It’s an utter disgrace – I’ve tried several times to get a meeting at BBC Scotland Drama and after a farcical exchange of emails over 4 months I just gave up trying. How can a department with so little in production be so busy?

  21. Grouse Beater says:

    You have it in a nutshell, Helena.

    On agreeing to another project a different broadcasting executive of a different company looked me in the eye and said of the programme content, “Remember, one third, Scotland, two thirds England.

    I’ll repeat that for the slow of learning:

    ONE third Scotland, TWO thirds England.

    The project was Scottish-created, Scottish driven, Scottish staffed, and Scottish-international in application. Its content could easily fill the entire programme. But I was tactfully reminded the broadcaster was not Scottish, nor was its potential audience. In other words, he asserted English viewers would not wish to watch Scottish originated material.

    That is what we are up against.

    You can be sure I have more to say about the sidelining of Scotland’s culture.

  22. DreadUK says:

    Gee…….ONE third/TWO thirds……..that’s a pretty good deal considering there’s around (very roughly) 5M Scot’s, 5M Welsh and Irish and 50M English, that means were (hold on let me take my socks off) about 20% ahead of where we should be. Result!

  23. Grouse Beater says:

    The material is Scottish-international. (The clue is the word “international.”)

    DIRECTOR: “Jonathan, I have this great project for an epic drama about the Tay Bridge disaster!”

    PRODUCER: “Great! Love it! But we’d want it one third Tay Bridge, and two thirds Severn Bridge.”

    Does that concept sound stupid to you? – because it should.

  24. Helena Brown says:

    Well here I am so sick of English History which is thrust down our throats but then we are only one third of the population. I wonder if the English think that we have no history. The number of times they must get confused, a few wee trips ower the border for the Time Team, and the Tony Robinson, to be fair to the man has been up and done a wee bitty.
    I have been watching PBS America and it is amazing what I have learned. IT would do the English good to hear their history as they see it from the “other side”.
    A wee bit of Welsh as seen from Wales, a bit from Scotland made in Scotland showing just why we invaded them, the number of times I have had that flung in the face from those who should no better South of the Border.
    Nae wonder they think we have no Culture as well. Education is needed, but will old Auntie dae it, not one bleeding chance.

  25. Helena Brown says:

    Damnation, know better, and I should also.

  26. Boombox says:

    Who is this female Head of Drama? Isn’t it Christopher Aird?
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2012/aird.html

  27. Grouse Beater says:

    He took up his role full-time mid-2012. A new head honcho operates under prevailing policy and funding. He’s as hamstrung as the last, and the next.
    (See sister essay, “BBC Scotland – Cultural Tollbooth.”)
    Also, it is important not to have readers assume an individual’s statement quoted is attributal to a current incumbent. Nonetheless, even if the new brings a different mindset to the post that person does not have the brief to exercise it. You are appointed partly because you agree with ethos and aims.

  28. Sadly I have similar stories about the BBC attitudes to presenting Scottish drama, culture and history.
    I remember once talking to a top BBC Scotland producer at a party not long after Braveheart came out and asking if he had ever read the original.
    “What original?”, he said.
    “The one by Blind Harry”, said I.
    “Never heard of him. What was his second name?”, came the reply.

  29. Grouse Beater says:

    Much obliged for your anecdote validating what I know to be true, namely BBC Scotland has a “pretendy” drama department. I suspect the weekly Riverside soap takes up all the investment London is prepared to offer. And whilst its good to see something set in Shetland – a detective thriller? – you just know its a token gesture.

  30. Oh, you mean the Mississippi Black Blues singer Blind Harry Potter?

  31. I’ll get ma fur coat

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