All to Play For by Heather Peace

“We should be emulating the U.S. Look at the quality of their shows.”

If you feel that there’s a lot of crap on television these days, then All to Play For by Heather Peace, an insider’s look at the politics inside the BBC during the 1990s, is the novel for you. While BBC television is admired the world over and held up as the standard to aim for, this novel shows the death of the Old World Order of the BBC and the rise of aggressive new management aimed at cutting costs in a battle between Art vs Commerce.

All to play forThe book begins in 1985 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, a time “when art and commerce were the left and right of clashing ideologies.” A group of people are arrested, and as it turns out these 6 people become major characters in the drama that plays out at the BBC. While the story focuses on the careers of these characters, the plot includes many other figures in television, some that become successful and some that do not.

  • Feminist Maggie whose frank opinions win secret admiration but no friends at the BBC
  • Jonathan, good-looking, with the background that puts him on a BBC career track that should take him to management
  • Jill, full of ideas, a writer who can think on her feet, but who is naïve and taken advantage of
  • Nik, the son of a disgraced policeman who reinvents himself as a coke-sniffing, bisexual executive of Magenta Television Productions
  • Chris Briggs, the newly appointed Controller of BB2 “being groomed” for Director General and “possibly” the House of Lords
  • Rhiannon, the Welsh narrator
  • Andrea, a black woman, former secretary for the BBC who joins the production company Sisters in Synch & whose article argues that “The BBC risks remaining stuck in its past, hobbled by the imperialist culture which originally gave birth to it.”
  • Selina, Chris’s PA, blonde, impeccable, whose mediocrity is masked by her icy efficiency
  • Basil Richardson & Stewart Walker BBC drama producers and bastions of the Old Order World

From the debacle of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the story jumps forward to the “dawn of the nineties.” With the Thatcher government on its way out, privatization the word of the era, and the license fee under threat, Chris Briggs takes the helm of BB2 with the goal to please shareholders by making significant budget cuts. Told primarily from the viewpoint of the drama department, the novel, which alternates from Rhiannon’s first person to third person narration, shows how Briggs takes over the nervous staff at BBC2 and begins to make his imprint. Chris doesn’t understand creativity–he’s more interested in “a scientific basis for choosing programmes. … based on American systems,” and he’s ambitious enough to not be concerned about a body count of fired employees. In the background, New Labour (or “New Tory” as one character calls the party) rises seemly in parallel with the new market forces at the BBC.

One of our main characters, Maggie joins the BBC, initially with a 3 month contract, as a trainee script editor. Given the task of reading unsolicited scripts, Maggie soon learns that she works in shark infested waters, and that all the scripts, regardless of quality are uniformly rejected in this insider’s “Olympian” club. Maggie discovers that “because of the public service remit,” the BBC is required to read these scripts which are referred to as the “slush pile.”

Evidently she hadn’t been employed because they valued her opinions; they merely wanted her to stand at the gates of the BBC with a metaphorical riot shield, turning away the thousands who mistakenly believed that the “Auntie”  affectionately referred to by Terry Wogan was a kind, friendly organisation with writers’ best interests at heart and a sympathetic interest in their work.

And this is one of the best aspects of the book. The author shows that while BBC produces quality programming–albeit expensive programming–it’s programming of a certain ilk. There’s one marvellous scene which takes place during the Drama Discussion Group. Maggie, who’s enthusiastic about The EastEnders, and considers it one of the best things on television, picks up the vibe that the programme is held “in low esteem” by the Drama department. The meeting is basically run by insiders for insiders engaged in a circle jerk of praise. The BBC is a place where skill and intelligence are not enough– you need the “social expertise to navigate the arcane traditions,” and it’s essential to know “the ropes, the rules, the manners, the language, and most importantly, the right people.”  Criticism is  not welcome, and attitudes towards programmes reinforce patronizing snobbery and sexism. During the Drama Discussion Group, Maggie complains about a programme set in Bradford, Maggie’s “home ground.” No one is particularly interested to know if the programme presented an accurate picture or how people in Bradford felt about it. Maggie’s comment about the programme results in a cutting rejoinder:

“Unfortunately neither the ratings nor the audience appreciation figures are broken down by regions as small as that. Of course, we do know that inner city viewers are inclined to select ITV or BBC1 as a matter of choice, so given that Death went out on a Saturday night, I rather doubt whether we succeeded in diverting very many council estate inhabitants from more urgent affairs down the pub.”

From establishing that the BBC needs modernization in its processes and attitudes, the author shows the seismic changes that occur are not all positive.

The irony was that the poor old Beeb desperately needed reform and modernization in its working practices, no-one could deny that–but what we got was closer to Napalm.”

With a rising body count of the now unemployed, nepotism continues to reign–just with a different crowd at the helm. The BBC remains a closed shop especially for anything that smells even remotely ‘controversial’ (Peter Watkins, here’s thinking of you). Meanwhile, Nik Mason, “a self-made man [who] possessed no old school tie,” rises to the top of the food chain by his sheer ruthlessness. The gates of the BBC open to Nik and he becomes one of the Olympians not because of class, or accent but because he has the same vision & values: emulating the model of American television with cost the bottom line. Nik is just as ambitious as many of the other characters in the novel, but in his case he’s not picky about who he treads on to get ahead. Nik, who reinvents himself and fabricates lies about his past, believes that his “public persona was the only one that counted. It dictated everything about your life. It was the real you, because it was the one other people related to. The inner you could be safely ignored, kept private.” But in Nik’s case the public and private persona don’t seem that different. He’s arguably the most interesting character in the novel as he moves up into the highest echelons of the television world.

he laughed when he compared himself to the ‘old school’ staff in the BBC’s own Light Entertainment Department, whose power decreased in proportion to the rise of ‘Johnny Come Lately’ independents like himself. Young BBC producers were even denied royalties on their own work nowadays. They developed shows for a pittance and argued for them until they were hoarse, whilst a guy like him strolled in behind their backs, secured the gig, and strolled out again dripping gold. He loved it. All those public school chins hanging open. He never showed it of course–that would be vulgar–but alone in his loft apartment he smirked into his mirror.

There’s some insider’s information here–for example, at one point a character mentions that the number of programmes in development are 14:1–a reference of course, to the lavish expenditure during better days. While I struggled at times with understanding some of the political requirements behind the BBC agenda, I loved the scenes which depicted the creative process, and the times at which we see an idea or even a few words develop into a story treatment, a screenplay and then the finished product.  The scenes with Chris ordering up what he’d like to see on BB2, even as he demolishes idea after idea, are brilliant and catch the helplessness & depression of the BBC Drama department as their world slips through their fingers. In one scene, Chris states, “I want you to bring me a better, cheaper idea,” while in another, when an idea for a Welsh programme is pitched, he asks a room of speechless, intimidated employees: “Is Wales interesting right now?” As the book continues, we see the Drama department eviscerated due to cost cutting even as many people seem unable to adjust to the New World Order. It’s clear that the writers upon whom this system depends are often the ones given the shaft–either with their ideas sold at a give-away price, royalties that are non-existent and little or no payment for shelved or rejected work. Fans of film and television should find this unusual novel and its insider’s view fascinating, and if you’ve wondered why BBC’s costume dramas are rare, or if you cringe at the following statement, you should enjoy this book:

If we’re not careful we’ll lose everything worth watching, all the new, experimental shows, our television will be exactly the same as in the US: unwatchable rubbish, wall-to-wall mindless nonsense sponsored by corrupt Bible-Bashers, with a five-minute advertising break every five minutes.

This is the only novel I could find written by this author, and I hope she writes another.

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15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Peace Heather

15 responses to “All to Play For by Heather Peace

  1. As TV is something I’m very interested in, this sounds like a book I might enjoy, only – it sounds so factual. I’m surprised it really works as a novel. My other question is – I’m not all that familiar with BBC, especially not with the 1990s. While I’ve heard of East Enders and have seen a couple of episodes (not my cup of tea) – I hadrdyl know any other long running shows.

    • It works as a novel as the characters are interesting. You see glimpses of Chris’s home life and Nik’s private, so it’s not all life at the BBC. I haven’t seen the EastEnders either, but I’d heard of (and seen) some of the programmes.

  2. This sounds fascinating, Guy – and has some resonance I expect with the challenges our ABC (our “Auntie”) has been facing. They struggle on to produce interesting TV but it’s a challenge. We find we are more likely these days to watch non-English language programs such as the Israeli Prisoners of War (inspiration for Homeland) and the Danish Borgen (great show), plus some French and Scandinavian crime shows.

    Of course, the US is producing some interesting stuff these days – but not through the main networks. Like The wire et al.

    For the record I’ve never seen an episode of East enders.

    • I think you’d like this Gummie. One of the points made in the novel is that costume drama is very expensive to make (I’d never stopped to think about it), and that goes a long way to explaining why we don’t see it so much any more. There’s one point in the novel where someone is hoping for a Gaskell or a Bronte production but Chris wants MORE Dickens.

      I picked up some names of programmes to try and get on DVD so that was valuable.

      You make a good point about watching non-English programmes. I have several Russian TV serials and then there’s always the French: Spiral.

  3. Brian Joseph

    Here in America at least for a time in some quarters there was an envy of the BBC and its perceived high level of quality. I have never been much a television watcher, so my exposure has been limited to a few science fiction shows here and there as well as snippets of things that my family and friends watch (for non Americans most of the popular shows have always been available here). The fact that this quality has been under attack and is illustrated in this novel is interesting.

    • Of course, Dr Who is a long-running programme. Are you a fan? But in this novel you see the rise of Sci-fi and game shows. The latter is cheaper to produce apparently esp if you use lesser known celebs. And the point is made that Detective programming takes over.

  4. I haven’t read the book, but I do remember her doing a Guardian op-ed piece about her time at the BBC which seems to reflect many of the themes touched on in the review:

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/nov/17/bbc-singing-detective-potter-managers

  5. I don’t know enough of the BBC programs to be able to follow this but it seems like a great read.

    PS: I don’t watch TV any more. There’s nothing worth watching anyway or it’s at impractical hours.

  6. How fascinating. As a BBC fan I would love to read this.

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