These are trying times for the BBC. The government talks about abolishing the licence fee. Certain newspapers compete to haul the programme makers over the coals for various crimes, from “woke” casting to “mucking around” with classics. There are rumours of declining ratings and mutterings about the muscle of Netflix and Amazon. Add to that a pandemic that has forced some of the corporation’s biggest dramas – including Line of Duty and Peaky Blinders – to cease production and it would be no surprise to find Piers Wenger in a pessimistic mood. In fact, the opposite is true.
“It’s been a really mad time,” says the head of BBC drama. “But it’s also been inspiring in terms of the ingenuity creators, producers and casts are showing to get their shows on screen.” He’s been holding “daily calls to talk about the longer term impact this crisis will have on the kind of story audiences are most in need of”.
There have been talks, too, about how to protect the BBC’s huge swath of freelance talent. “I’ve spent the day talking about how the BBC will support small and medium-sized production companies who will find the closedown particularly challenging – and how we work with established industry bodies to support freelancers, through a hardship fund or some other means. It’s something we’re taking seriously because, yes, people expect the BBC to do the right thing – and quite rightly, given the way we’re funded.”
Wenger is clearly pleased with the swiftness of the corporation’s wider response to the pandemic, from the extended news coverage to an array of educational, health and cultural programming, not to mention the decision to bring back old favourites such as Spooks to iPlayer. “We need to shape the output – whether you’re school age, seeking escape, looking for drama at 9pm, or want a comedy that really makes you laugh and reflects the soul of the nation, like This Country.”
That said, it’s clear the past few days have brought a sea change. When we first talked, pre-lockdown, Wenger stressed the importance of “drama for me”, as he called it. “Not me personally, but rather for particular demographics instead of a broad mainstream.” This is theme close to the 47-year-old’s heart. Since leaving Channel 4 as head of drama in 2016, he has worked hard to overhaul how the BBC commissions drama, shifting from the general to the specific, to fulfil “bespoke” viewer needs.
People take great comfort from watching together with the rest of the nation
“If you look at work we’ve got coming up this year and compare it with what might have been commissioned for BBC One five or 10 years ago, you would see how we are making drama for a very diverse range,” he said pre-virus. “We would never underestimate the power of communal viewing, but we have to be flexible in the terms of the way we platform our drama. I feel that our current slate is serving the whole population rather than just super-serving the heartlands.”
Speaking now, he admits to a different focus. “It’s very interesting to see the extent to which audiences are coming together to enjoy shows that have a really strong universal appeal. Whether it’s The Repair Shop or Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, I think people are taking great comfort from watching together, and knowing they are watching along with the rest of the nation – whereas up to now, the general trend was to seek out stories that were more bespoke. Audiences will continue to want those very particular pieces, but this period will also be a reminder of the sense of community that television can bring to the nation.”
So he’s particularly pleased about two upcoming adaptations: David Nicholls’ take on his bestselling marriage-in-crisis novel Us, starring Tom Hollander, Saskia Reeves and Sofie Gråbøl; and Normal People, which tackles Sally Rooney’s much-admired young-and-in-love second novel. “Us might not be a super-tanker of a show, but it has a lot of heart and a lot to say about family. While Normal People is both a thrilling ride and incredibly emotionally honest. I think audiences will enjoy losing themselves in the lives of its protagonists.”
Not that he’s back-pedalling his support of the year’s most innovative dramas, including the sleek period crime thriller The Serpent; Michaela Coel’s provocative contemporary drama January 22nd; and Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s anthology series about black British history. Interestingly, all will air on BBC One.
“Why should a voice like Michaela’s be confined to the margins?” Wenger says. “Stories like this and Small Axe haven’t been given the big platform they deserve. We’re looking to give the mainstream audience as much stimulation as we can. It makes sense to embrace the most diverse range of storytellers that we can. Having Michaela and Steve on BBC One in the same year is massive for the BBC.”
Is he concerned that the lockdown might lead to delays? “We’re in the very early stages,” he says. “With Small Axe, Steve has finished shooting and has been editing each episode. We are currently on course, although much will depend on how long the lockdown lasts. Steve has been incredibly pragmatic but there are also obviously things he’s going to be incredibly rigorous about. So it’s hard to say for sure, although the signs are positive.”
He is, however, prepared for a backlash when the shows do air. The recent adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s best-selling young adult novel Noughts + Crosses, about a world where black people rule over white people, was called a “recipe for division” in the Daily Mail. Meanwhile, the casting of Vinette Robinson, who is black, as Mary Cratchit in A Christmas Carol led to predictable complaints.
“Oh, the whole woke thing,” says Wenger laughing. “For us not to choose Vinette Robinson, who was the best actress put up for that part, is like saying there weren’t any black people in London in the 19th century, which is just historically inaccurate among other things.”
He pauses. “Some people like work to be adapted in a quite conservative way. But, you know, we do that as well. The adaptations of A Suitable Boy [due later this year] and Normal People are extremely faithful to the text because they haven’t been adapted before. There were complaints about A Christmas Carol and War of the Worlds but those stories had been adapted so many times. If we adapted them in their most faithful form, people might ask, ‘Well, why bother?’ It’s not so much about being deliberately woke as about having a range of approaches.”
While the pandemic has put talk of cuts and threats to the licence fee on hold, are there still concerns? “Of course. None of us can ignore the discourse around the BBC. For me, conversations about decriminalisation of licence fee non-payment and a subscription model for the BBC just point back in the direction of the importance of being a universal service.
“We serve the heartland, but you have to think about young audiences and diverse audiences and audiences across the whole nation to justify the licence fee. Quite often when I’m thinking about what to commission, I think who are the hardest people to convince? Which are the toughest nuts to crack? How can I give them a show that will be irresistible to them?”
Small Axe, a little-told history that speaks to an audience Wenger feels has been ignored, is crucial in this regard. The first episode of McQueen’s anthology series focuses on the Mangrove Nine, a group of black activists who were tried in 1970 for inciting a riot; they had been protesting against police targeting the Mangrove Restaurant in Notting Hill, London, a gathering place for intellectuals and activists. “It gave me the same visceral thrill as Hunger. It’s a defining piece of work from Steve McQueen, told with such purpose and drive and anger that you are stopped in your tracks.”
He hopes it will address the ongoing exodus of black British actors to America. “The more work like Small Axe, the more work like January 22nd, the more work like Noughts + Crosses, the more we send a positive message that they don’t have to go. Clearly this has been an awfully long time coming. We’ve got to sustain that supply line of work for a bond of trust to build up, so we hang on to that talent.”
This does not mean ignoring the BBC’s other shows, though. There will still be room for Line of Duty to get viewers across the country wound up, as well as such quietly beautiful family dramas as The A Word and Last Tango in Halifax, not to mention state of the nation shockers such as Years and Years, and epics such as World on Fire.
What about a show about a global pandemic? There’s ahuge laugh. “Well, never say never – though I have to say, a pandemic drama is not what I’d want to watch when I turn on the TV this evening by any means. But if Russell T Davies phoned me tomorrow and had a completely brilliant genre-busting idea for one, I’d find him very hard to turn down.”