On not writing about what doesn’t get made

13th December 2012

Yesterday we learned that a performance project on which we had been working seriously since August will not get broadcast funding. This was to have been a television version of a thrilling production that I admired immensely in the theatre earlier in the year. Although we saw this as a continuation of our work with Hamlet (2009), Macbeth (2010) and Julius Caesar (2012), this time it was not a Shakespeare play.

When we proposed the idea the broadcaster responded with initial enthusiasm and asked the director and I to budget and schedule a screen version. We brought the cast and creatives on side, found a date that could work in everyone’s diaries and started to plan the details of the filming. But now we’ve been told that there’s not the money to make it – despite its two and a half hours bring budgeted at less than half the cost of an hour of standard television drama. Such things, of course, happen all the time, but I am struck by how rarely they are discussed, either in journalism or in academic writing – and I have been wondering quite why that should be the case.

Putting together projects that then either attract or, far more often, fail to attract funding is exactly what producers do. Yet why do we know so little about the ones that never get to contract stage? Might an awareness of what doesn’t get to the screen not be valuable in better understanding what does? Perhaps learning something about the paths not taken might, for example, illuminate the values and priorities of the funding systems. It could be that discussion of the failures could help us all make better successes next time around. And such a debate may even impart a sense of accountability in relation to those who make the funding decisions.

Yet I can think of only one or two projects – apart from our own or those of friends – that I know were developed in detail but then not taken forwards. We know when a series is cancelled or, sometimes, when a sequel is mooted but not then made. We can see pilots – some of them really great – that are never picked up for a series. But which producers own up to the ideas that never reach the screen in any form, and why do they fail to do so?

No-one, of course, wants to advertise failure, and there is always the sense that a decision not to fund will be seen to be because the project is not sufficiently “good” or “compelling” or “necessary”. Or that the producer has failed to understand quite what the requirements of a funder may be. Then there is the notion that the producer could take the idea elsewhere – although this is often illusory. Certainly in the case of comparatively high budget adaptations of classic performance the market, whether in Britain or the world, is vanishingly small. And anyway while self-pity may be a comforting private emotion there is something a touch unseemly about parading it in public.

Fear plays a part too, as perhaps you can tell from the fact that I am avoiding all the specifics of the production and the potential broadcaster. Relationships with those who hold the purse strings of life and death over projects are fragile, delicate. No producer wants in even the most minute way to irritate or annoy the executive who might, perhaps, just maybe, help make the next project fly.

And then there is probably a factor that we can call habit. For at least a century producers have trumpeted successes and muted any and all discussion of the projects that never attract funding. Or perhaps saved such details for their autobiography. Yet I can’t help feeling that a more open attitude on the part of both producers and those who make the decisions might help us all – and might indeed make for a more transparent system of commissioning, a more accountable framework for funding and ultimately a better television system all round.


  1. Helene says:


    In expanding on my earlier tweet, I can honestly say that I feel your pain … I really do.

    In addition to being a producer, you’re a writer and journalist, like myself, so you know well that both professions are creative-based. We live at the whim of producers, editors, communication managers and corporate executives. And lately, in this dire economy, creative people are often the first to be cut from the payroll, or discounted altogether.

    I can appreciate the efforts you and your company have expended to prepare for your doomed project. Again, in the creative world, we often must show or do something before being hired to demonstrate our skill (showing previously published work doesn’t seem to be enough these days). We spend hours/days developing finished (or near-finished) products that almost always go unreimbursed.

    In my bailiwick, editors and companies frequently ask job candidates to complete writing assignments before being seriously considered. On several occasions I’ve spent quite a bit of time developing and editing various press releases, articles and pitch letters for hiring managers, yet rarely do I hear back, let alone get offered a permanent position (thank goodness for freelance work!).

    I often wonder if these advertised jobs for which I interview are veritable positions; I sometimes think companies are simply looking for people to satisfy their short-term writing needs — for free — and ask the top two or three interview candidates to complete various writing assignments, then select the best ones to use for themselves. The clueless job candidate never knows what happens to their submissions that could, in fact, be generating income for the interviewing company!

    This seems to be a profession-wide trend that started a few years ago here in the US, and I wonder if it’s the same way in the UK.

    If it helps, derive strength from knowing that your work is first rate … and try to remain hopeful (at least I’m trying to!). In spite of it all, I wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas.

  2. Paul Tickell says:

    John, you have my sympathy but asking for a ‘more transparent system of commissioning’ is you whistling in the dark. The current climate militates against any such transparency as does the way television is now structured and managed – incredibly authoritarian and top-down. Taking a long view, the Birt ‘revolution’, like New Labour ‘modernising’, really did work because the programme-makers have lost what little power they once had, and the control freaks – to adapt the poet Ian Hamilton Finlay – have inherited the party. They have padlocked the drinks cabinet of course – probably mindful of a Melvyn Bragg article extolling the good old days in tv and execs like Donald Baverstock when copious drinking was in direct correlation to creativity of output. While recognising that my Lord Bragg of Wigton’s theories are open to debate I warm to this kind of nostalgia and grow fanciful encouraged by the season of Bah-Humbug and one glass of Corbieres too many this week.

    So much for the good old days but, as Brecht put it, we have to start from the bad new ones. There are certainly some very good people in commissioning but for every good one there’s a duffer – in fact moronic when it comes to some of the areas in which they are commissioning. Fictionalising a little but certainly not exaggerating I am thinking of the kind of tv people who can’t distinguish between Old and New Testament, who think that Duchamp is still alive and well and in menswear in Notting Hill, and who have never even heard of Slavoj Zizek. Such sub-mediocrities will not have transparency high on their agenda. Buy they should heed the words of St Paul (New Testament): Take a little wine for they belly’s sake… Happy Xmas, all you Illuminati out there! Our day will come, it just won’t be this year.

  3. Paul Tickell says:

    [Sorry for the typo Buy which should be But – and ‘corporate’ would have sat well in front of ‘control freaks’]

  4. Anna says:

    Of course now I’m trying to remember which stage productions you tweeted about earlier in the year that you particularly enjoyed. Yes we want to know! The whole process intrigues me because at times I’ve left a theatre thinking a production is far too good and perhaps groundbreaking to exist only in the memories of a few thousand people, and other times I’ve questioned why this production rather than that superior one, perhaps of the same play or by the same company, has been the one selected for filming (my personal taste in such matters being impeccable, obviously!). Surely it would make sense for those doing the commissioning to have some insight into what the viewers actually want, because of course I’ll watch any theatre production that finds its lonely way onto my screen, but that doesn’t mean it’s the one I really want to see.

    If you had blogged back in August that you were putting together a bid for “that play” for “that broadcaster”, there would have been a reaction from people who loved the stage version, or hadn’t been able to see it but were excited about the chance to watch it on film, which might have given the broadcaster more confidence when budgets were limited or whatever went wrong went wrong.

    If you’d blogged about putting together a bid for Boyd’s Histories and then blogged that the BBC were instead going for just 4 brand new films there would have been a campaign to go back to Plan A (or do both!). And might I point out that Sky Arts broadcasting the Globe’s Henry IV plays at about the same time simply meant that I had more to watch – not that I only watched one version.

    I can understand you not wanting to upset people who might commission you in future, but I see nothing wrong in either you or particularly the broadcasters of getting a sense of how much interest there is at the early stages. Isn’t that one of the benefits of social media? Someone with the money to make it happen saying “I know you’ll watch whatever theatre we give you, but what would you actually like to see?”

    • Helene says:

      Anna, I think a lot of this is inherent in what John said about not wanting to advertise a failure.

      Nobody wants to tell how many times they’ve been shot down and, frankly, those who do the shooting down aren’t interested in hearing what the ‘shot-downs’ have to say anyway. They’ve made their decision, and they’re sticking with it.

  5. Anna says:

    Helene, I think we need to differentiate between someone failing because they put together a bad bid, which no-one wants to hear about, and someone “failing” despite putting together a good bid and having a strong portfolio of work to back them up.

    I didn’t read John’s blog and think that he’d done a bad job! I would very much like to know what this production would have been, and which broadcaster he’s talking about. If it’s the BBC, as licence fee payer I feel that I have a (tiny) stake in what’s made and have no qualms in telling them if I think they’ve made a bad decision. If it’s Sky, I pay my subscription, so ditto. If it’s one of the others, I’m part of the target audience so again would contact them to complain. There are all sorts of reasons why bids might be turned down – general budget cuts, clashes with similar shows, changes of personnel higher up the chain of command. Who knows? But with so little theatre on TV despite the riches of theatre being played up and down the country, it would be very interesting to find out if broadcasters are regularly rejecting good bids for the best of new writing or more radical workings of the classics, or whether they’re only being approached with offers of fairly traditionally produced classics.

  6. Paul Tickell says:

    Anna and Helene, sorry but your debate remains pretty anecdotal, agonising over the respective merits of this or that pitch or proposed production. Unless you take far more account of the power structure – and how it works and in whose interest: take into account the nature of the power structure which deals with these proposals, then you are, like John, whistling in the dark.

    Anna, as for the concept of “what you’d actually like to see”: I’ve made this point before in the blog – ideally the work should form its own audience, not vice versa (Sartre). I actively welcome work which I’d never have thought of asking for – like ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA. Admittedly this is a film rather than a tv production but both industries are far too in thrall to ‘what the audience want’ and to the focus-group mentality. Remember that what came out loud and clear from the very first test screening ever conducted was the advice to cut Over the Rainbow out of THE WIZARD OF OZ… David Mamet has pointed out that one of the major flaws in test-screening is to take ‘ordinary people’ and turn them into judges. In the process they immediately become self-conscious feeling the responsibility of their new role and so stop in fact being ‘ordinary people’ rendering the exercise pretty much useless. Mamet recommends that someone from the studio should follow the test-audience to the pub to listen in incognito. Then they might get the opinion of ‘ordinary people’. Questionnaires will always be at one self-consciously judicious remove and, given that it’s the powers-that-be posing the questions and setting the agenda, further reinforcement of an exercise in pseudo-democracy. The only gain is for market research companies.

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