Armando Iannucci came out swinging at the British government, cheap television and, in a not-so-veiled reference, the Murdochs, as he delivered the prestigious MacTaggart Lecture at the Guardian Edinburgh TV Festival this evening. The focus for the Veep creator was the fate of the BBC which is under intense scrutiny from politicians as the Conservative government last month announced a strategic review of the Royal Charter under which the BBC operates. It is due to expire at the end of 2016 and the broadcaster is now facing a review of its values, scale, scope, funding and governance. This is the issue that is on the minds of the British industry, fearful that “a diminished BBC would simply mean a diminished Britain.” Iannucci offered his view of the situation saying, “We’re being told to break our table up for firewood.”
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The MacTaggart is a speech that can set the agenda for the UK industry in the year ahead. Past speakers have included three Murdochs, Kevin Spacey and Channel 4 chief David Abraham last year. Iannucci, announced his departure from Veep in April citing the toll producing a series in the U.S. had taken on he and his London-based family. He’s next working on a David Copperfield feature adaptation with BBC Films.
He told an enthusiastic audience tonight he had titled his speech, ‘We’re All in This Together’ and said he wasn’t being ironic. “Playful, maybe, but deadly serious. British television needs to be at its strongest: with a big global fight ahead, we need to consolidate all our talent and expertise.”
“This place is a mess. We are a mess. We don’t know what we want. So, trying to be specific and prescriptive in this unknowable landscape is a fool’s errand. It would be a fool indeed who would try to quantify precisely what, say, our broadcasters should do: he or she would be really mad if they tried to define the purposes and scope of certain TV channels. Madder still if they did it by say some sort of panel of experts, and a mad mad system that would then take these expert findings and enshrine them in law. Oh dear.”
The government, by focusing on their dealings with broadcasters, Iannucci said, has taken to marginalizing the creative community that drives production. “If we don’t do something to redress the balance, to allow the voice of the creative and production community in TV to be heard loud and clear, the politicians will become our masters rather than partners and supporters.”
Iannucci made a not-so-veiled reference to the historic BBC skeptics Rupert and James Murdoch when he asked where the “spooky force” comes from that’s “bending the ear of Chancellors and Ministers and civil servants and asking them to cull the BBC? Let’s for the sake of argument call this force M, for Mysterious,” he said. He also read back passages of their past MagTaggarts. (Culture Secretary John Whittingdale this morning called suggestions that Rupert Murdoch had been consulted on the future of the BBC by the government, “Conspiracy theory gone mad.”)
The good news for the creative industry, Iannucci said, is that consumers will seek out quality, wherever it is and “everyone wants to make television.” The bad news is, “everyone wants to make television. Cheaper, user-friendly technology, means we’re living in both the Golden Age of TV, and a global bucket of swill. For every Sherlock and Breaking Bad there’s a billion more people filming their brother squirt baked beans from his nose and anus.”
Here are some key excerpts from Iannucci’s lecture:
“So, in this cacophony, it’s more important than ever that we have strong, popular channels, highly respected for their quality, that act as beacons, drawing audiences to the best content available, and providing a confident home for the best program-makers. Faced with a global audience now, British television needs its champion supporters, it needs its cheerleaders.”
“Who will they be? The government? Not while they consistently talk of reining in our greatest network. The broadcasters? Not while most of their energies are dissipated fighting off political attacks on their impartiality or finances.”
“Why do politicians not talk to us creatives?… Talk to us. No one comes into contact more regularly with the hard economics of making a budget work than a production team. Every time I make a show, I’m a small businessman, responsible for hundreds of employees, in charge of a budget of millions of pounds. And of course if the project isn’t successful, the work won’t come back. In America, the key production personnel, the writers, the First AD, senior researchers, are credited as producers. They’re rewarded for their key creative input. On my HBO show Veep, which we shot in Baltimore, we had a set visit from the state Governor, who came to thank us for the work we were bringing to Maryland. Our true, essential, role in the business of making good television was acknowledged.”
“Recently, it’s been the biggest source of pride to me that Veep, a show made primarily for an American audience, that this show was very much a British production. It was written in the UK, edited here, scored here, post-produced here, and using British directors.”
“The best US shows are modelling themselves on what used to make British TV so world-beating. To have a broadcaster have faith in you and leave you to get on with it, was the very essence of British television, not just under the public service remit, but in the commercial field as well. ITV, and then Channel 4, and now Sky, are channels that have hoovered up not just the BBC’s executives to run their own channels, but its template. Quality. Because quality brings audiences.”
“Look where that faith brings rewards now all across our domestic output, from BBC1 to Sky Atlantic, Happy Valley, The Tunnel, Broadchurch, The Fall, Line of Duty, shows that place trust in the creative process. And the viewer. UK television is copying the US formula that was copied from UK television.”
“If the license fee is under strain, then let’s supplement it not carve it up, by pushing ourselves more commercially abroad. Use the BBC’s name, one of the most recognized brands in the world, and use the reputation of British Television across all networks, to capitalize financially oversees, be more aggressive in selling our shows… Protect public service broadcasting at home by displaying the arrogance of our convictions abroad.”
“And if public service broadcasting… was a car industry, our ministers would be out championing it overseas, trying to win contracts, boasting of the British jobs that would bring. And if the BBC were a weapons system, half the Cabinet would be on a plane to Saudi Arabia to tell them how brilliant it was.”
“The British are very good at calling out nonsense. So if the British public feel they’re being bullshitted at, if they get the slightest whiff that what’s being done to the BBC is purely political, then I urge the relevant Ministers to leave the country for they really don’t know what’s about to hit their fan.”
“Politicians, say what you mean. Broadcasters, argue back; don’t adopt a position of automatic compromise that concedes everything. And to those in Production, we owe the public a duty to defend, whether by continuing to come up with challenging, provocative shows, disruptive and eccentric, the sort the world expects from us, or by reporting flaws in political logic, forensically analyzing any weakness in argument, or by going out there into the wider world and winning the praise and the prizes we deserve, to make the point that a significant British industry, of global standing, is being harmed by wooly thinking, thinking that simply isn’t good enough and that doesn’t meet the quality standards the country expects from this industry.”
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