BBC Northern Ireland head of drama Robert Cooper has transformed the outpost of the BBC empire into a successful and controversial contributor to the network.
The dark and powerful drama Messiah was one of last year's big BBC 1 hits. Set against the backdrop of run-down east London, it told the story of a police hunt for a terrifying serial killer. It had all the hallmarks of a big metropolitan network commission, snaring an impressive 7.4 million viewers.But, it actually came from BBC Northern Ireland, as have a growing number of high-profile projects such as Ricky Tomlinson's hit Nice Guy Eddie and London-based Murphy's Law, starring James Nesbitt.Prominent dramas with little hint of their Belfast origins are part of a new breed of productions emanating from BBC Northern Ireland under longstanding head of drama Robert Cooper. This expanding slate complements Irish dramas such as Eureka Street and Amongst Women.Cooper, sitting on the set of Messiah 2 in a draughty and abandoned London town hall, says his department has bigger aspirations than simply being a parochial production house.'My first brief is to make good drama from Northern Ireland - then I think "just to do drama",' he says. 'At the moment we have in production Nice Guy Eddie which has no connection with Ireland whatsoever. We just thought it would be wonderful to do.'Over the 13 years Cooper has been at the helm of BBC Northern Ireland drama he has transformed it into a major player on the British and international scene. He currently has 40 projects in development and, despite being in the same post since 1989, insists he has no plans to move on. 'I want to do interesting work,' he comments, 'so I will be wherever that work is.'He has invested #40m over the last three years, #10m of which has been derived from co-production deals. American money helped make Messiah and Cooper says deals such as this have been one of the drivers of his department's success.'It is hugely important because drama is a very expensive business. You can't do it if you can't raise the money. We are fortunate that we have been able to explore a lot of co-production possibilities both in Ireland and elsewhere.'Cooper has made a long string of TV and film hits, from Ballykissangel to Truly Madly Deeply and Divorcing Jack. But as head of drama in the pressure-cooker of Northern Ireland, he faces unique demands, particularly when commissioning pieces that involve the Loyalist and Republican causes.Both As the Beast Sleeps, about how the paramilitary ceasefire affected a group of Loyalists, and the Picture Palace collaboration Rebel Heart, about the Republican Easter Uprising, caused huge controversy. But Cooper insists he tries not to let politics influence commissioning decisions.'I have to resist this pressure because it would then drive me into commissioning work for all the wrong reasons. I have to keep doing work that I believe is good drama and not good politics.'I have an interest in writers who write about much more universal things.The reason why I did As the Beast Sleeps was not actually because it was about Loyalists, but because those characters were put into an impossible situation. Drama isn't about politics. Drama has to be about the effects politics has on people.'However, the controversy that surrounded Rebel Heart was sharply political and personal. A number of newspapers accused Cooper of glorifying the IRA, while the Daily Telegraph quoted him as saying he was not aware of the Republican background of the drama's writer, Ronan Bennett, when Cooper insists he said no such thing. The paper was later forced to apologise.'I have suffered from a certain journalistic view of what drama is or should be which is that if I am doing a piece which is set among Republican characters then obviously I therefore sympathise with those Republican politics.'It is just such a narrow way of looking at drama. Trying to understand something is not to endorse it,' he argues, adding that he found the Fleet Street backlash 'upsetting'.More criticism was levelled from another quarter when the BBC failed to mark the 30th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in the way that both ITV's Granada and Channel 4 did, although Cooper insists it was considered. Instead, a drama based on the current Saville Inquiry into the infamous army shootings is planned.'Back in 1998 I thought we should be thinking about that (the anniversary),' he recalls. 'The person I thought would be great to do it was Jimmy McGovern, but he was already doing it (for C4)... and (it would not be) a great use of licence payers' money to do basically the same project with a different writer. Also, there was the point that the BBC has very strict editorial guidelines that are quite difficult for a writer to write drama around.You would have to get permission from everybody portrayed and that would be quite difficult.'One of Cooper's next major projects is Sinners, a controversial story set in the 1950s about how an intolerant Catholic Church and Irish state dealt with young unmarried women who got pregnant, by taking their babies away and sending them to convents to work.'It is a very strong (and) quite harrowing piece,' Cooper says. 'It is a terrible story and it happened to an enormous number of women in Ireland.'Despite his successes, Cooper is concerned about a TV industry that increasingly favours long-running series and films over innovative dramas and single projects. 'It is quite worrying that there is less space on television now for pieces that do not have a large audience appeal,' he says. 'A lot of drama exists on television to win big audiences (but) there must also be a function for drama which is not made to make the schedules work.'ROBERT COOPERPOSITION: BBC Northern Ireland, head of dramaON BALLYKISSANGEL: 'Ballykissangel was the first popular drama on British television set in Ireland. It stopped you seeing Irish people as Irish people and started seeing them as individuals'ON AS THE BEAST SLEEPS: 'The 1 million people who sat down to watch As the Beast Sleeps on a Sunday night with a tough week coming up deserve a medal. I am just bloody delighted that there are people out there who wanted to watch something about Loyalist paramilitary punishment squads' ON WHEN THINGS GO WRONG: 'There are dangers in thinking you know how to do things when in fact you don't. It doesn't get easier. It gets more and more difficult'