With BBC flagship shows such as Casualty and Doctor Who relocating to a new base in Cardiff, broadcast writer Maggie Brown reflects on how the programmes are coping with budget cuts and who’ll feel the impact
As the 11th Doctor Who, played by the skittish, 27-year-old Matt Smith, launches a new era of time travel this Easter weekend, there is far more at stake than whether the public takes to his new garb of timeless fogey Harris tweed jackets, bow ties and braces - rather than the Jarvis Cocker-inspired sharp suits of David Tennant.
For those attending a glitzy premiere in Cardiff earlier this month - hosted by the cream of the Welsh broadcasting establishment - it also underscores the massive turnaround in the fortunes of TV drama production in the principality. And that in turn poses the question of whether it can be maintained long term, by genuine indigenous growth.
Less than a decade ago, remember, drama was mouldering, dependent on the Welsh language soap opera, Pobol y Cwm, which attracts tiny audiences for S4C. The revival was led by the huge success, in 2005, of the reinvented Doctor Who, pioneered in a venture between writer and show runner Russell T Davies, and the then BBC Wales drama head, charismatic Julie Gardner. It has led to an imaginative expansion, with Torchwood and CBBC spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. But these are based in a somewhat run-down and remote set of buildings in a hamlet called Upper Boat, on the way to Pontypridd, neither glamorous nor that accessible.
In January, BBC Wales, which also makes programmes at its Llandaff headquarters, announced it is backing an ambitious new drama centre at Roath Basin in Cardiff Bay, adjacent to the city centre and accessible by fast trains. The Welsh Assembly and Cardiff City Council are behind it and the complex has planning permission already. The artist’s impression projects a modern and sleek image. The site, some four acres, will have 170,000 square feet of space and the contract is currently out for tender.
As Menna Richards, controller of BBC Wales, said, the centre, which she resolutely avoids calling a drama village, would also house Casualty, Pobol y Cwm and other independently produced drama, once Upper Boat is shut, probably in 2011. She says she hopes other facility companies and post production experts will also relocate. The scope for crossovers, promotion and training is large.
When I visited the current Doctor Who set, where up to 450 people can be deployed, I was shown around by a former runner on Pobol y Cwm. The overseer of all this rush of business is Piers Wenger, the newish drama head of BBC Wales, who formally took over from Julie Gardner in January 2009 after shadowing her for a year. For much of the past year he’s spent the time recasting and revamping Doctor Who - the latest series, of 13 episodes, is the single biggest commission for BBC Wales Drama. As he mingled with journalists during the studio visit, he cut a stylish, nervous and reserved figure, quite different to Gardner’s chutzpah.
Wenger was personally recommended to the post by Jane Tranter, the all powerful controller of BBC fiction, before she went to Los Angeles with backing from BBC Worldwide, accompanied by Gardner, to develop new dramas there. Wenger has worked in drama development with ITV’s Granada, where Gardner’s career took off, and BBC drama production. Before that he was in glossy magazines. So it is a very big step up for him. The increase in BBC drama-making in Wales has been dictated by the out of London and south-east strategy headed up by Jana Bennett, the director of BBC Vision, outlined three years ago.
It is not without controversy - the decision to move Casualty from its home in Bristol to the new drama site has caused great bitterness. But the policy objective is that BBC Wales must double its output of networked programmes by 2016, and a decision was made to go with its successes - never has Doctor Who worked such magic.
Cardiff is also designated as the commissioner of the remake of Upstairs Downstairs - two film-length versions are currently being made for 2010, starring Eileen Atkins, with the scope for more series. These are written by Heidi Thomas, who scripted Cranford and also the film of Ballet Shoes, for BBC Northern Ireland - produced by Wenger in his previous post.
Also under production currently at Upper Boat is Sherlock, produced by Hartswood, the independent chaired by veteran Beryl Vertue, a modern updating starring Benedict Cumberbatch, with Martin Freeman as Watson. This eagerly anticipated production of four episodes was snapped up by buyers from around the globe at the BBC Showcase sales event earlier this year.
Steven Moffat, the executive producer of Doctor Who, is Vertue’s son-in-law and Vertue has nothing but praise for the high quality of Welsh-trained crews. But what the marketing hype surrounding the new series and Doctor Who doesn’t convey is that clearly, the production team is struggling to make ends meet on a reduced budget from BBC Vision. Despite its importance to BBC1, it is subjected to the annual BBC efficiency cutbacks, 5% a year, applied now for the third year. It is the same across the board - salami slicing that also afflicted Strictly Come Dancing’s last series. The strain is beginning to show.
“There is less money overall - the BBC don’t make a special exception for Doctor Who,” confirmed Wenger. “Steven’s writing often takes account of that. We just have to be clever, less spending on one episode, more on another, to make the money go further. It is not a precinct show.”
The new series includes a two-part episode shot in Croatia, featuring monster vampires and others at Stonehenge. They can also save money by reusing props in Torchwood and Sarah Jane.
Charlie Bluett of Millennium Effects, which makes the monster masks, from Cybermen to weeping angels, says they can take weeks to make, that it takes deep pockets to create ever more scary and unlikely monsters which will pass the test of high definition - one grim joke on the set was that Doctor Who will have to make do, some of the time, with invisible monsters.
Watching the first episode, in which the acting is compelling, and Doctor Who’s new helper, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) is successfully introduced, the monster in the first episode, a large eye, with a huge jaw, attached to a python-style frame, looked less than scary to me.
Also, the all-seeing alien power in the sky, hovering over a Welsh village green, resembled a cross between a firework and Christmas tree decoration to my cynical eye. But then, Doctor Who is a children’s series, appealing, as Moffat likes to say, to the eight-year-old in all of us. BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm, helps fund the series, because of its broad export potential, and is currently committed for a two-year deal. It says BBC Wales has asked for more cash, which it received, to meet a budget deficit. But globally, the programme market is in the doldrums, and DVD and merchandise sales are also weaker.
On the Upper Boat site, by the way, all eyes were directed towards the new interior set of the Tardis, three times the size of the previous one, and incorporating every gizmo from typewriter keyboards to Morse code tapper, plus a new sonic screwdriver.
That was clearly where some of the funding had been invested. But the big challenge now is for BBC Wales, which has received such favourable treatment, to develop its own momentum, and expand on the Doctor Who inheritance.
- The new series of Doctor Who begins on BBC1, Saturday, April 3, at 6.20pm