theartsdesk Q&A: Director Peter Kosminsky, Part 1 | reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Director Peter Kosminsky, Part 1
theartsdesk Q&A: Director Peter Kosminsky, Part 1
The campaigning film-maker discusses his long and distinguished career
The name will never trip off the public tongue. Millions watch his work, but there is no hall of fame for television directors. It’s only on the big screen that they get to be big shots. The difference with Peter Kosminsky (b 1956) is, although it’s the title he takes in the credits, he's not really just a director. In the last 20 years he has researched, storyboarded and painstakingly cajoled into existence a body of work which, for sheer linearity of purpose, stands comparison with, say, Anthony Powell’s 12-volume portrait of English toffs or Martin Scorsese’s lifelong study of Italian-Americans. But because he works in television, there is no sense of him as an author.
He has nonetheless been accorded the accolade of a season at the BFI. The season includes films from all corners of his career, from The Falklands War: The Untold Story (1987) through to Britz (2007). He has made film after film about institutions and their consciences, about the moment where public policy impacts on private lives. Shoot to Kill was about the John Stalker affair. 15: The Life and Death of Philip Knight told of Britain’s youngest prison suicide. Walking on the Moon homed in on bullying in schools. No Child of Mine reconstructed the story of a girl, abused at home and then in care, who was turning tricks by the age of 11. They are true stories all, reconstructed in the contentious form of drama-documentary. Innocents reported on the scandal of the Bristol Royal Infirmary, where an unacceptably high death rate in paediatric heart surgery was allowed to continue unchecked until a group of parents, prompted by a whistleblowing anaesthetist, mobilised a campaign for change. From 2000 onwards, he turned his attention to New Labour.
He certainly has a holy air about him, a monastic admixture of iron will and humility
I first interviewed him in 1999 when he was filming Warriors in the Czech Republic. The determination in his hawk-like physiognomy grew even grimmer as that very week NATO started raining bombs on cast members’ relatives in Belgrade. Subsequently, visiting him in his eyrie in Wiltshire, I was put in mind of St Augustine alone in his study. He certainly has a holy air about him, a monastic admixture of iron will and humility. He talks of his own imperfections like a monk penitently flaying himself. There is a joyless monasticism in his dogged conquest of stacks of research. But on subsequent meetings – oddly, given how unclubbable he professes to be, in the Groucho Club – he is bonhomie itself.
This two-part Q&A is a conflation of those and subsequent conversations covering a span of 12 years. In the second part of the interview Peter Kosminsky talks to theartsdesk about Warriors and the trilogy of films he made about the New Labour era. But this first instalment focuses on the earlier part of his career when he made documentaries and moved into factual drama, diverting briefly towards Hollywood for the one and only disaster of his working life.
JASPER REES: Where do the Kosminskys come from?
PETER KOSMINSKY: My father was born in London. I think prior to that they are probably Poles, but I don’t know anything about it. My grandfather came to Britain when he was three. My dad’s a cockney. He was born within the sound of Bow bells. He was a salesman. He sold plastic car seats, that kind of thing. I certainly wouldn’t say that we were poor. I didn’t have a scholarship, as far as I remember. I actually can’t remember. I think my grandfather helped a bit. My parents decided that was a priority for them. I think they made sacrifices so that I and my brother could have that education.
Were you always destined to work in drama?
I spent four years at Oxford reading chemistry, Worcester. I was there from 1976 to 1980. I have to say that I didn’t do a great deal of chemistry. I got interested in drama and became involved with the drama societies there. I didn’t direct drama at all. All I did was a bit of lighting, and I was involved on the organisational side on some theatre tours. I was at Oxford with Rowan Atkinson, Tim McInnerny, Hugh Grant - in fact, I produced a tour of Twelfth Night in France which he appeared in. Then I was a general trainee at the BBC, a two-year graduate training scheme. There were four in my year: Peter Salmon, Kevin Lygo, Ann Morrison. They are all big exec-type figures within broadcasting now.
I’ve got one of your general trainees here, Kosminsky or Trotsky or whatever he calls himself
How did you get onto the drama department with your scientific background?
Two years of training at the BBC’s expense. It is the kind of training of which one can only dream, really. And they would pay a reasonable salary and you would be welcomed because you’d be a free extra pair of hands. This was in the days before work experience. For two years I trotted round the various drama departments of the BBC. I made radio plays, I was a script editor in the plays department, I worked at Pebble Mill at a time when they were making Boys from the Blackstuff.
I was determined to get into drama. That’s what I wanted to do despite my science degree. And having accepted me onto the course they then had to accept me doing the attachments I had to do. At the end of the two years you were required to find a job and I got a job as a script editor in what was then called the plays department. And within three months I was fired.
Why? Because I was grossly incompetent at what I was doing. That was what I was told. I don’t think I was. The specific reason I was given was I sought to pass off my work as the work of a writer. I was working with a producer called Brenda Reid who had been a script editor for many, many years, and literally the day I became a script editor she was made a producer. I was given to her, she didn’t choose me. We were working on a series of short dramas for BBC Two written by writers who had never written for telly before. She was the grande dame of script editors and she told me, “The most important thing about your job is you are there to be the friend of the writer.”
She wanted to commission a writer called Tunde Ikoli, who was a theatre writer from Poplar in the East End. I had followed her advice and got to know him. She wanted to commission him, it was all agreed, but we had to fill in a commissioning form to be rubber-stamped. And attached to that had to be one page of his synopsis, his prose version of what he wanted to write. Now this guy could barely spell. I hope he won’t mind me saying it but it’s the truth. He asked me, if he dictated it would I type it? So I typed what he wanted to say on the same old manual typewriter with the carbons that I typed my script reports to Brenda every day.
There was no attempt at subterfuge. Brenda basically didn’t want to work with me which was fair enough, and the reason she gave was that I had attempted to pass off my work as his. Once I explained to the head of department what had happened he said, “Well, clearly that’s reasonable. So we’ll continue to pay you. But Brenda no longer wants to work with you. We’ll give you the balance of your contract but there’s no job for you here.” So I went to current affairs for free and at the end of six months they took up my contract.
You accidentally were sent towards your vocation.
It was worse than that. When I was fired I got a job at British Aerospace as a satellite salesman selling telecommunication satellites. My then wife met Brian Wenham who was the controller of BBC Two at the time in the bar at the ICA. I had worked for Brian. It was the only non-drama attachment I had done as a general trainee. She knew Brian because we had socialised while I was working for him and she said, “Do you realise that Peter’s out of the BBC and is about to take up a job at British Aerospace?” He said, “We spent thousands training that idiot. What are you talking about?” So he called me into his office and he was vicious. He was one of the most impressive men I’ve ever met. Extraordinary intellect. The greatest DG the BBC never had. And he was withering in his contempt for me. “How have you allowed this to happen, you pathetic piece of shit?” was the thrust of it.
He then didn’t consult, didn’t ask what I’d like to do. He’d sit there in his stockinged feet – he was an unusual guy – he picked up the telephone and asked to speak to Roger Bolton who was the editor of Nationwide. “I’ve got one of your general trainees here, Kosminsky or Trotsky or whatever he calls himself,” which is what he used to call me. “A royal fuck-up” is what called me. “He needs a job. We’ve wasted all this money on him, so we’re not letting him go to British Aerospace. He’s paid for six months. Will you give him a slot on the show?” He said, “I’ll see him.” So I was literally sent from Television Centre round the corner with my tail between my legs to Lime Grove, where I went up to the sixth floor where Nationwide has its offices in the old Gaumont and Gainsborough studios there. Roger Bolton was sitting at his desk. He said, “We’ll use you since you’re free, but if you’re not any good at the end of that time it’ll be bye-bye.”
I remember my first proposal was that we should do an item on Nationwide on why VAT was levied on tampons
What was it like working on Nationwide?
I worked on its last show. We were based in a ramshackle attic office. I had never been a journalist, I wanted to do drama, I was clear on that. They put me on the daily desk and I remember on my first day they were asking for ideas and I remember my first proposal was that we should do an item on Nationwide on why VAT was levied on tampons. I thought they were a necessity. VAT wasn’t charged on food and books. The look on Paul Woolwich’s face I will treasure forever. He didn’t even know what to say, it was such a stupid idea.
So very quickly I was released from my obligation to work on the desk and they shoved me into making little on-the-day films because they couldn’t think what else to do with me. I didn’t want to be a director but I didn’t have many offers. I had failed horribly and I was out on my ear. The great thing was that you got whichever cameraman was on rota, so you could get the guy who’d just shot the big costume drama the week before. I did hundreds of films within that first year. I learnt a huge amount. That training programme doesn’t exist any more, and I discovered purely by chance that that was what I wanted to do. I owe it all to Brenda Reid.
After Nationwide I went to Breakfast Time for a year. I used to write what we call the teases for Selina Scott. It was probably professionally the worst year of my life. They used to switch you between night and day. I would fall asleep behind the wheel in the traffic jam on the Westway coming into London. It was no life at all. Then I went to South-East at Six, then a programme called This Week Next Week which became known later as On the Record, then Newsnight and then I left. Newsnight was a very serious programme in those days. I loved it.
Around that time there was a programme made by Paul Hamann called At the Edge of the Union. It involved interviews with a member of the DUP and Martin McGuinness. Leon Brittan, then Home Secretary, asked the BBC governors not to transmit it. He obviously hadn’t seen it. When there was a big fuss about the Home Secretary leaning on the BBC independent governors, he said he was writing in a private capacity, which was ludicrous, but the governors pulled the programme and we went on strike. All ITN and IRN journalists came out. The World Service went off air, and even Adolf Hitler wasn’t able to do that. There was no broadcast journalism of any kind on that day.
It worked in the sense that the BBC transmitted the film with very minor changes. I was one of the ringleaders of the strike and it was made fairly clear to me afterwards that I didn’t have a great future within the organisation. Warriors was my first time back 15 years later. I went to Yorkshire TV to work on First Tuesday.
You made a series of documentaries including the one about the Falklands War (pictured right).
The film about the Falklands War grew into a two-hour special. In some ways it’s the precursor to Warriors. Five years after the event it was the untold story - at least that’s what we claimed for it.
The Untold Story really looked at the emotional side of being involved in that conflict. We filmed on the Argentinean side as well. It was very much the contrast between the British soldiers who just saw it as a job and were surprised at how emotional they eventually became and the Argentinean conscripts for whom it was a uniting nationalistic cause in a young and disparate nation. The response very much divided into two camps. There was the marines-don’t-cry response. I actually showed it to the Army prior to transmission. There was a very angry response from some what you might term old school officers. And then people I had worked with directly in the MoD, a much more restrained response, which was that we have to be realistic about what it’s like, and actually wanting to recruit a less clichéd type of young man.
I‘ve never had an emotional feeling on a drama film set to match the intensity of that moment. Never
I remember when we were recording the interview with Dorothy Foulkes, the lady whose husband was killed on the Atlantic conveyor by an Exocet missile, I remember sitting there in her sitting room when we did that interview in Wales. The piece had been relentlessly anti-war. You had Chris Keeble who took over from H Jones at Goose Green saying, “There’s nothing good about war. We should never allow ourselves to go to war. It’s basic killing, it’s disgusting.” It was the opposite of what you’d expect from a serving officer. And then Dorothy came on at the end and she said, “He did it because of pride. If we didn't go out there what pride would Britain have left? Nothing. No one will ever know the price my family paid. Perhaps it was worth it for Britain’s sake.” The hair went up on the back of my neck because it was so clearly the end of the film and it raised a very awkward question for all the anti-war stuff, the unlikely stuff that had been coming out of these soldiers’ mouths, to end it in that debatable way. I‘ve never had an emotional feeling on a drama film set to match the intensity of that moment. Never.
After that I seemed to do wars and specials. I went to Afghanistan and Cambodia and then was asked to do One Day in the Life of Television. It was 40 film crews covering television on one day and I edited it into a two-hour film.
How did your first drama-documentary come about?
It was during that time that I developed this idea of doing a film about what happened to John Stalker. It started as a documentary and eventually we decided to make it as a drama. It was two two-hours. It ended up getting us all sued and leading to statements in Parliament and led to all kinds of complexities that we hadn’t expected. Shoot to Kill from my point of view was in many respects a disaster. First of all John Stalker wouldn’t talk to us. He wanted a great deal of money. I’ve never paid for a story ever. So I went and found his deputy, who’d never spoken to the press before. We talked for months. Eventually he agreed he would help us. He was very reluctant but he did eventually agree.
The truth is that it’s a pretty ropey drama, but it touched a nerve and it made a little mischief
But I learnt a very, very tough lesson on Shoot to Kill. If you have a fairly unpalatable message, and the message was not a comfortable one for the British government, then a smokescreen will be deployed. A huge row blew up over incidental matters. That film was as thoroughly researched as any I’ve ever worked on. But a huge row blew up over the form of drama-doc. Every scene in that could be defended by factual research.
The first thing that happened was the film was banned by Ulster TV. Then there were threats of litigation by a number of RUC men depicted. Then the newspapers started and a very intemperate row focused on whether it was legitimate to tell this story using this technique. I found I was entirely spending my time defending the form. I had virtually no opportunity to encourage people to discuss the issues. We’d uncovered material that had never been in the papers. I learnt a very hard lesson: be careful if you are raising issues of concern that you don’t allow yourself be side-tracked by people in the press, primarily, who are not in sympathy with the issues you are raising, into discussing peripheral matters.
The truth is that it’s a pretty ropey drama, but it touched a nerve and it made a little mischief – ultimately that’s what I see my job as, making mischief, not for its own sake but where mischief needs to be made. It’s the only pleasure I really get from my job. There is so much grief involved.
And yet oddly it gave birth to your brief career as a Hollywood director.
Immediately afterwards I was courted by Paramount Pictures and I went off and made a feature-film adaptation of Wuthering Heights (pictured below). It wasn’t successful for a number of reasons but the main one was I did a really bad job. It was only the second drama I had ever made. I am afraid I let ambition overtake my good common sense. A number of people warned me that I was getting into bad company, but I think the major mistake I made was technical. I just didn’t do a very good job as a director. I learnt a great deal from it - the craft level of people working on those big films is somewhat higher than we’re used to in television. But it set me back professionally a long way and took quite a long time to come back from it.
In my industry you are very much as good as your last film. People have very short memories and they forgot about Shoot to Kill and they remembered Wuthering Heights, which was not a good film. It was also a bizarre film for me to make given my track record of documentaries. So the movie world was closed off to me and it was difficult to come back to television and try to remember what I personally was trying to achieve professionally.
I suppose the other factor is that my own morale and self-confidence really took a knock. I had worked in documentaries for 10 years with a certain amount of success and I’d ignored advice and believed that I could pull off this big movie. Everyone from my agent to friends to people in the industry advised me not to pick that particular film. I was arrogant and burdened with an overweening ambition. I was romanced by Paramount Pictures and I grew up as a film buff - maybe I should say film bore - movies were the thing I loved most, and here I was being driven in a limo through the famous gates of Paramount Pictures in Melrose Avenue. It would be extraordinary if someone’s head wasn’t turned. I was being offered the opportunity to do the full story of Wuthering Heights, not just half the story. But common sense should have told me first of all that some of the promises that were being made to me would not be kept. Secondly that I should have asked myself, “Are you really ready for this?” I was in my early thirties.
Could you tell you were getting it wrong?
Yes. That was the tragedy of it. Wuthering Heights is a classic example of the dangers of hubris. I’d done a series of quite successful documentaries. Let’s just say I was joyfully lacking humility, to put it politely. And I’m not seeking in any way to lay off the blame for what was not a good film in any way, but I had less artistic control on that film that on anything I’ve made before or since. Right down to the casting of the female lead, which was not my casting.
I just need to tell you that had it been up to me this film would never have been commissioned
You were given Ms Binoche?
Well, I had a different casting. I was given that casting and I knew that the British public would always struggle to accept a French actress playing Cathy Earnshaw. And I should have walked away. But I was brought up not to be a quitter.
Paramount were probably not thinking about the British public.
No. I don’t know what they were thinking. On the second day of filming I received a phone call from John Goldwyn who had just taken over as the head of production at Paramount and was the grandson of the man who had made the original Wuthering Heights, and this was on the second day of shooting, we were up on location in Yorkshire, and he said, “I just need to tell you that had it been up to me this film would never have been commissioned. And you can have your $10 million but not a cent more.” And that was a promise that he stuck to when we got into difficulty later. So the studio was hardly four-square behind us.
So at the end of that experience which was bruising for me and for members of the cast – I had none of my own heads of department, I didn’t have a lot of artistic freedom on that show – I was thinking of calling it a day. Had I not been contractually obligated by Yorkshire Television to make The Life and Death of Philip Knight I think I would have walked away and gone back to documentaries or just left the industry all together.
Watch the trailer to Wuthering Heights
How quickly did you get back in the saddle? How big was the gap?
No gap at all, to the extent that I didn’t even attend the opening of Wuthering Heights. I was shooting in Wales at the time so my parents went on my behalf. I literally was forced straight back into the saddle immediately we finished editing. That was the deal with Yorkshire. And enough confidence came back as a result of that. It took a few films to come back properly, and it wasn’t really until No Child of Mine that I really properly regained my confidence.
Why were you so interested in various forms in the subject of the rights of children and their struggle to be heard, all the way through to Innocents, the drama about the Bristol heart surgeons?
Well, I’m quite a soppy dad. I know how it happened. Bear in mind that I wasn’t that far out from being a documentary maker. I was sitting in the documentary department at Yorkshire Television and although I had separate researchers working for me we sat among documentary researchers. So my approach was always the same as it had been as a documentary maker. So we would have feelers out in a number of areas.
I remember we had a series of meetings with about five children’s charities. They were Childline, Save the Children, NSPCC, National Children’s Home and Barnardo's. I went to see them all with my researcher individually – a researcher called Polly Renton who sadly is no longer with us. And what we said to each of them was the same: “What’s the issue in your world that we’re not seeing?” I wouldn’t say there was a consensus but the one that came out and a number of them mentioned and struck me as being of interest was this concept of conveyor-belt abuse. Kids who were abused at home, taken into a care home, abused in care and then end up as child prostitutes on the street. I’d never heard of this. We think now the idea of child abuse is common. In those days it was before the big Panoramas that really broke the story. We didn’t know this thing was going on. And so I got into it really as a journalist thinking, oooh, I didn't know that.
Once I’d done it and it caused such a fuss, I wanted to do more. I liked directing kids as well. Having come from a big Hollywood movie which was horrible, I liked the lack of artifice. Directing Brooke Kinsella in No Child of Mine (pictured right) was one of the best experiences of my life.
I think one of the many lessons that Wuthering Heights taught me was never again to place myself in a situation where I was on a set and I didn’t know more about every aspect of the production than anyone else there. It was my job as the director to know that and to be there for the actors with that information if they needed it. On Wuthering Heights I was just one voice. So by the time I got to No Child of Mine I was so immersed in the material that I could be a repository of information for anyone. Now, of course, when you’re doing all that kind of stuff, and fairly serious stuff it often is, you don’t really want silly histrionics on the set from actors playing stupid games. You want people who are involved, committed and hungry to be doing it, and that is often not the kind of A-list names.
Did one subject suggest the next subject? Was it as sequential as that?
The next one was about bullying. You tend to get asked about grand plans but as a freelance in the TV world it doesn’t often happen that way. Let’s think about how I got to that point. I was working for Yorkshire Television. I’d been on contract for 10 years to them: started making docs and transition into drama. We got a commission for No Child of Mine from ITV Network Centre which was a very new beast, and shortly before we were due to go to script Bruce Gyngell took over at Yorkshire Television and the first day he arrived in the London office he fired me on the basis of, as he said, “We don't want this shit here,” referring to No Child of Mine. But in fairness to the late Bruce Gyngell, having declared that political position very openly, he then treated me very well. He gave all the projects I had in development to me in turnaround for literally what they’d just spent. He allowed me to take them.
What did he mean by shit? Well-researched documentaries about important issues?
What he said was, “I’m going to make a few changes.” I can see him sitting in his office now. And then he said, “I’ve had a look at the things you’re developing. You’ve got this thing about child prostitution. We don’t want any of this kind of shit here.” So it was specifically in relation to that film. And we had a free and frank exchange of views that I suppose lasted nearly two hours. And voices were raised, most certainly.
At the end of it I came away with three projects in turnaround, and I literally had signed a new two-year contract so he promised to honour the contract, so it was a perfect springboard to go out as a freelance. However at the end of the conversation he said, “I’m starting to wonder if I’ve made the right decision.” Because I stood up to him and I don’t think people often did. And I said, “No, I think you’ve made exactly the right decision.” I realised what a great deal he was actually offering me. If you are ever going to go out on your own – and I’d been working for TV companies for my entire career, first the BBC and then YTV – this was a wonderful springboard.
I mention all this because I took the idea of No Child of Mine that was just starting up: it was HTV, Anglia and the old Southern television, Meridian. It did very well, it won a BAFTA, and their attitude was, “We want something else just like that.” So I was looking for something else that was about children and that could be shot in the Meridian area as No Child of Mine had been, that came in its research from that area, and that the network centre wanted and would commission. That’s how the bullying film Walking on the Moon came about. I was interested in the idea of bullying in schools and I did quite a lot of research on it, but I was also looking for something that would fit the bill that they were seeking.
Watch a clip from No Child of Mine
Have other ideas ever been suggested to you?
Philip Knight (pictured below) came out of a conversation I had with the Howard League for Penal Reform. They told me about the fact that children were being held in adult prisons and a number of them were committing suicide, so we made a film about one particular boy who hanged himself in Swansea prison – we shot it in Wandsworth – and as a result there was a change in the law which said that children could no longer be held in adult prisons.
To what extent is there a small part of you that leaps on stories like Innocents? At the one end of the extreme you could be seen as a crusader, at the other as a vulture?
That’s a very fair question. Is there a part of me that leaps with glee? I wouldn’t like to be seen in those terms [as a crusader]. It’s interesting that you should say that question because it is quite similar to the initial response we had from the families when we first arrived to tell the story of what happened at the BRI [Bristol Royal Infirmary]. The accusation, admittedly from just one or two people, was that we were going to get rich out of their misery and that we were using the specious argument that something positive might come out of a futile death – in this case the death of their children.
You’ve got to bear in mind that we gave a guarantee that no parent who said they didn’t wish to be involved would be featured, and we bent over backwards to ensure that anyone who had implied however indirectly that they really didn’t want to be involved, we respected that. In that ballot there were three possible answers: no, I don’t think the film should go ahead; yes, I think it should go ahead; yes, I think it should go ahead but I don’t wish to be directly involved or approached. Of the 90 per cent who voted in favour, something like 50 per cent said I don’t wish to be approached, and we respected that. They never heard from us, except to be notified of meetings to see the film and to be asked whether they wanted their child’s name to be included in that list.
How many didn’t want to be included in the list?
There were only three or four who said no. But I don’t want to dodge your question. We had to deal with that accusation in those original meetings. There are two ways I’d like to answer it.
One is: it is not an easy option. If I wanted to live a glamorous life and be very, very rich I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I wouldn’t be spending six years trying to make Warriors, four and a half of them completely unpaid. The way television drama works is that you’re paid virtually nothing at all for development and your entire fee comes for directing a film. So you find you’re being paid over a 12-week period for work that has taken years and years. And inevitably the fee never covers the time.
So without wishing to blow my own trumpet, this is not a route one would take either for self-aggrandisement or for wealth or for job satisfaction - because there is a lot of frustration, a lot of jobs bite the dust - or, frankly, to be popular, because certainly in recent years, although I do believe this is changing, banging on the doors of broadcasters, trying to shame them into doing this kind of programme which may not attract a huge audience, which will be expensive - the cost of a normal drama with a whole research period tacked on the front – which may win them some brownie points with the regulator but will probably end up with problems, hostile press at the end of it, possible litigation, is not an easy task.
Most broadcasters have turned their face against that type of material and tried to go for things that are a quicker and easier return. So this is not something one does for an easy life.
I’ve been left some kind of dinosaur, doing what I’ve always done
This is where it becomes personal, but I was brought up to believe in justice and that society should protect the little man, and the little woman, that there should be checks and balances within society to ensure that muscle and might wasn’t always right. When I joined the BBC as a general trainee in 1980 straight from university, broadcasting was full of places where you could make the kind of programme that applied, in a loose sense, those checks and balances. Play for Today, The Wednesday Play, serious current affairs programmes, many of which I worked on for the main channels, serious documentaries.
Little by little those have leached away, partly I think because they are so difficult to do, but also for commercial reasons. And I’ve been left some kind of dinosaur, doing what I’ve always done. It’s everyone else that’s changed, not me. I’ve just stayed on doggedly, perhaps stubbornly, making those same kind of programmes. I didn’t spend 21 years in full-time education and 10 years making documentaries and current affairs programmes to produce Scream 3 or Driller Killer. I’m in this very much on the educating and informing side of the public service broadcasting mantra. You wouldn’t come to me for entertainment. I see my job as part of public broadcasting, to look at areas of concern within society and to be one tiny Lego piece in the building block of a free press.
So although you could say, here’s a guy who’s ambulance-chasing, who wants to get his claws into every tragedy, who seems to get some kind of high out of seeing bereaved people, it’s not at all. If you look at the range of things I’ve done, they’re not all death-focused. They’re not all focused on grief. They’re focused on issues of public policy.
I don’t tend to do crime stories or miscarriages of justice in the criminal area. I’m interested in individual human stories that say something about areas of public policy. To me sitting where I sit, this seems to me to be the obvious and, I have to say, the honourable thing to do. Part of you just wants to say, "OK, I’ll go," because this isn’t easy. I don’t get any thanks from broadcasters for trying to do this.
People implying that one is doing it for some kind of devious motive, or worst of all to get rich - it’s first of all incredibly insulting and secondly just plain wrong. So it’s difficult to know how to answer that. To me it just seems to be the right thing to do.
Television is an immensely powerful medium. I could just show you a stack of letters I got after Warriors or No Child of Mine, or look at the log of calls that came in after No Child of Mine, or actually, come to that, after Warriors, to see how a drama can reach millions of people and can really set them off thinking in different directions. We can be judged by what use we make of a powerful medium. Do we use it for yet another series of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, or do we use it for more difficult subjects that may be slightly more uncomfortable for us as a society?
So it seems like a right choice of what to do with this very powerful tool. It’s difficult when people then, particularly people you’re asking to trust you, suggest that you have other motives. It makes you angry with your profession, with the docusoap-makers and the people who’ve allowed the documentary to be degraded and distrusted, because we then have to go in, try to do a fair job, and we’re distrusted and we are expected to deceive them and betray them, because that’s the impression that they get from reading and hearing about what’s happening on other programmes. It makes you angry in that sense. It makes you sad because your instinct is to say, "OK, I’ll go."
Would it be too simplistic to say that if we lived in a perfect world you’d be out of a job?
Yeah, absolutely, and I’d be very happy. I could become a novelist, which is what I’d secretly like to do, and write blissful fiction.
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