“There is, perhaps, no more dangerous man in the world than the man with the sensibilities of an artist without creative talent. With luck such men make wonderful theatrical impresarios and interior decorators, or else they become mass murderers or critics” - the observation from my esteemed client Barry Humphries.
My concern is whether our broadcasting gatekeepers and commissioners fall into the impresario or murderer category when it comes to fostering creativity. The ability of gifted individuals to give vent to their imagination in order to surprise and provoke us out of our routine is the most precious commodity in our game. Currently there are a number of forces at work which are in danger of turning them into creativity killers.
Threat one: Fear. Creativity thrives in an environment in which talented writers and producers are trusted and supported. Well-motivated, creative individuals must be allowed to make honest errors without the fear of retribution.
One of the dangers of the current trust agenda is the creation of a climate of fear within the broadcasting citadels as draconian measures are put in place to address perceived problems, the gravity of some of which have been blown way out of proportion. Zero tolerance diktats can all too easily lead to miscarriages of justice. Broadcasters are in danger of alienating the very people on whom they rely to serve the public properly - their creative staff.
Threat two: Money. For the creative process to be successful sufficient time to develop, hone and test is of the essence - and time costs money. With most broadcasters pleading poverty, the right decisions need to be made about how best to deploy the resources available.
The creative decline of the BBC on John Birt’s watch, when he starved core programme-makers of adequate funding while expanding largely unwanted services, is an object lesson on how not to foster creativity. Do less better and more efficiently if needs be but do not keep thinning the gruel. Viewers will be attracted by the best content.
Threat three: Commissioning. Commissioners can attract the best content by focusing on the new and the exceptional, not by being prescriptive and primarily research-based in decision making. All broadcasters proclaim to want the next big thing but often do little to help creative folk find it. When confidence and vision co-exist the results will flow. BBC1 and ITV2 gained their channel of the year plaudits recently because their bosses respected the creative process and backed it consistently and confidently. Peter Fincham has since been rewarded by being unnecessarily sacrificed. Not a great message to the creative community.
Threat four: Impartiality. In its worthy attempts to protect its audiences from outside influences there is a danger of the regulators neutering output, especially around areas perceived to be contentious.
Although nobody would deny that partiality needs debating, especially at the BBC, the recent Trust Report on the subject had the side effect of damaging the corporation by unnecessarily handing over to its commercial enemies a stick to beat it with. It will take a bold management to continue to commission controversial, issue-based event coverage and drama in its aftermath. We need more intelligent, provocative television, not less.
My message to help achieve this: be bold with the creative process and leave the murdering to the critics. There is always the option of a second career as an interior decorator for the timid.
Peter Bennett-Jones is chairman of Tiger Aspect Productions