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We must be less respectful to the classics

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1978-01-12 Stage and Television Today.jpg


BARRY LETTS, producer of BBC-1's family serial, wants to see a more adventurous attitude to the books he produces, as he tells a Television Today reporter while talking of his work and his policy

BARRY LETTS, currently producer of BBC-1's classic serials, was once a "sixer": not in this instance, a junior leader in the Boy Scout movement, but an operative at Walls ice cream factor at Acton.

He explains: "You had to pick up six ice creams at a time, wrapped ones, as they came off the wrapping machine and put them into a packing machine. You did about one and a half minutes till your fingers froze and another chap took over.

"After a couple of weeks you could hold a conversation and be doing it without even looking — and last for ten minutes. That was the low spot in my career."

That low spot came around 1953 after he had been working as an actor in rep with an occasional radio broadcast: he played the lead in a north regional production of the serial By Greta Bridge shortly before his Walls period.

Then, in 1954, he began to act in television. "1 was fascinated by the medium." he says. "I used to go into the gallery whenever I could and pick up tips from anyone prepared to talk. By 1960 I was sure I had the ability to direct. I took the first act of Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea, got hold of a studio plan and worked out a complete camera script — lenses, angles, everything — and sent it to Michael Barry who was then head of drama."

Michael Barry was quick to reply. There wasn't a hope of him ever becoming a director. They'd received 400 applications for the two places on the current training course and he had too little experience of television and of directing. As for the camera script, it was hardly worth looking at.

Barry Letts' reaction was immediate. "I wrote back and told him I'd do it if it took me ten years. Actually it took me six. I went on acting in television and I started directing amateurs at the Northern Polytechnic. I was also writing for television.

"So when I got another interview in 1966. an actual board this time, they could hardly turn me down for the same reasons."


They didn't. He took the training course in 1967 and has been directing and producing ever since. All his time has been spent in serials, apart from a brief period about three years ago when he left producing Dr Who. which he had been doing for five years, to produce Marie Curie for series department.

The series fell through at the time (it was transmitted recently with Peter Goodchild producing) and he asked Ronnie Marsh if he could work out the remainder of a short term contract as a director. He directed one of the Ten From the Twenties and then John McRae asked him to direct The Prince and the Pauper.

It was then that McRae unexpectedly became head of drama for TV2 in New Zealand. Barry Letts was offered the job of producing the slot — the family classic they call it, to differentiate it from BBC-2's classic serial — and he has done it since 1975.

Treasure Island. Children of the New Forest and The Prince and the Pauper all came from his unit in the 1977 season. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is running at present. A mixed bag but, possibly, a predictable one.

He doesn't disagree. "I do feel we could be more adventurous, not necessarily in subject but in attitude: and I'm not saying anything about BBC-2's classic serials. It takes a producer three years to make his mark in a long-running strand. The first year he'll be doing what he has inherited, the next he is finding his feet. It's in the third year he has a chance to do something.

"I wouldn't say that any of the last year's output was old-fashioned. I do think we can go further next year in being a little less respectful to the classics, tackling them as good stories that we will put on the screen with every technical advance that television' has developed. I don't think you will see a startling change; what is needed is a change of attitude.

"You can make two mistakes with this slot. First, you can be too respectful in adapting and directing. We get castigated sometimes for changing books, but there is no gainsaying that many of the 19th century books we do have a loose narrative structure that has to be changed to make it right for television.

"The majority of these books aren't literary masterpieces, they're masterpieces of storytelling, which is why we do them. The people who wrote them wanted to tell a good story and it's our job to see that we are telling a good story. even if it does meap making some alterations.

"The second mistake you can make is not following the intention of the author perhaps taking something he intended to be a searing indictment of society in his time and turning it into a love story. So we try to write the story as the original author would have written it had we commissioned him to do it for television.

"Although this sometimes worries people, when we manage to do it properly they don't notice. It's only when we've gone wrong somewhere that the complaints start coming in.

"We had lots of letters about Lorna Doone, congratulating us on keeping strictly to the book. In fact we made vast changes to the structure and. I believe, improved it no end. Blackmore, like a lot of authors of that time, started at the beginning, wrote it through to the end and never went back to rewrite anything to make if fit in with what went on before or after. Carver Doone, for instance, is the villain for the first part of the book and again at the end, but in between he's forgotten about."

Barry Letts boldly attempts to define what he and the BBC mean by a "classic." "In our terms, what we are doing are old best sellers. They've been best sellers for years. The titles are recognised — and, to a large extent, that is the criterion in our case.

"If a book was a best seller in its time and afterwards, then there must be something about it that readers found absorbing. If we can discover what that something is and turn it into television terms, that's fair enough. Even if we have to do a certain amount of inventing to make it work."


The family serials are intended for an audience ranging from eight to 80 years. As far as it is possible they are written on two levels: sophisticated, but not so sophisticated that the children are lost. An involved investigation into a complex relationship. entailing long scenes between two people. is definitely out. Given that, the serials are written for adults.

"Grown-up serials which children can watch" is the keynote.

Barry Letts offers two explanations for the fact that the old favourites come round again every seven or eight years. "It's partly because there aren't all that number of family classics. But it's also because a new generation is coming up and it's only fair to give them a crack at it. There's a new generation of actors and directors, too, and it's only fair to give them a crack at it.

"The techniques of television are changing all the time and the audience is becoming more sophisticated — and incredibly quick.

"We have had discussions in an attempt to widen our brief. Sam Goldwyn is reputed to have said, 'What we need is some new clichés.' What we need is some new classics.

"This year, for instance, we're doing Sexton Blake. Just how that is a classic in terms of this slot I'm not quite sure. Only the name and the characters have any continuity. It's been written by hundreds of different people since it started in 1892. I suppose you could call it a tongue-in-cheek classic.

"We've got Simon Raven to do the dramatisation by taking the characters and writing new stories for them. He's a very witty writer and he's tried to do a pastiche of the Sexton Blake stories of the middle twenties.

"It will be fun for the youngsters and. I hope, intriguing for the grown-ups."

As an experiment this year the family classic is going back to the idea of having shorter episodes for all its stories — 26 minutes instead of 50. Even this year's Dickens. The Old Curiosity Shop, will be, done in ten 26 minutes episodes rather than in five at 50 minutes.

"It's better to leave people wanting more," says Barry Letts.

Although he has worked entirely in serials department for practically the whole of his 11 years with the BBC, he admits that the strict compartmentalising within the BBC's drama group might be inhibiting. He also sees the problems that hamper flexibility in this direction.

"Heads of department are always saying that they want as much interchange as possible in terms of staff directors and, indeed, staff in general," says Barry who has himself now gone on the the staff after working on two- and three-year contracts "But the sheer logistics of putting on programmes makes this extremely difficult.

"Normally one is constantly overlapping and to be working in plays department, which has a totally different time scale, when in the middle of planning a serial would be an almost impossible situation. You would probably find yourself with horrid gaps on either side of the play. So no one has anything against the idea in principle, but it doesn't happen very often in fact.


"Years ago I was at a working dinner that management gave with Huw Wheldon in the chair. One drama director tackled Huw Wheldon very seriously. 'It's all very well talking about cross-fertilisation.' he told him. 'but I've been trying for ages to get into light entertainment. I've got some marvellous ideas for comedy.' And Huw Wheldon said, 'That's nonsense. All you have to do is ask for an attachment.'

"The next thing we knew was that he'd gone over to light entertainment. He's never come back, except for a very occasional play. That director vas Ian MacNaughton who went across to do the Beachcomber series and then Monty Python. But it only happened after a direct approach to the director of programmes."

He welcomes the experiment the BBC is to try of multi-discipline production units that can offer any kind of programme, and would much like to take part. But he is doubtful whether the experiment will work.

"People get specialised." he says, "they are set in their ruts. There are a few who could do documentary or light entertainment or a play, but only a few. On the other hand it has worked in the past. in the regions. I remember Brandon Acton-Bond. down in Bristol, used to do drama series for television and at the same time documentaries on radio and anything else that came up.

"I'd like to experiment with it myself. I have an idea that I won't talk about — it was dropped from this year's offers but may be done when the situation eases — that could be done equally well by drama or light entertainment."

The sheer quantity of material that the BBC produces obviously makes flexibility a problem. Production planning becomes an almost impossible jigsaw. Anyone who is working hard in his own department has his time fully occupied.

Barry Letts envies the large ITV companies who. as he says. are producing one-fifth of one network apiece while the BBC, a single unit, is producing two networks. He also (though he doesn't actually say so) envies them their money.

"In the 'old day'," he contends, "we had a surplus of money and a surplus of time, so there was a chance to experiment. Now it's not just the money for pilots, it's the studio time, the machine time. Everything is much more restricted.

"The stringency has been extreme in the last two or three years, but seven years ago we were told that we had reached a plateau so far as money was concerned and that we had to become more efficient.

"And we do manage things more efficiently, in real terms. For instance, at one time the drama department would be lucky to get two minutes of film time shot in a day: now the average is about five or six minutes."


He is anxious to explore the use of the lightweight camera and minirecorder for inserts into programmes, rather than using the film camera.

"At the moment, when you cut from film to studio. it's very obvious, unless you have immaculate technical transfers and a clever director who uses 'misdirection,' as the conjurors call it. to stop you noticing."

What Barry himself notices today. possibly because television is more a child of the theatre and radio than of cinema. is a tendency — especially in the approach to the classics — to feel that if you are in the studio you are concerned more with words than with images.

"Think of some of the exciting things that have been done, like Rock Follies," he says. "That is all studio, but they're dealing with images in the way that films do. I don't despise words and dialogue. but we are dealing in images — images on the screen or images created in the mind by the words — and we must think in those terms."

We put it to him that the job of the producer in television consists basically in picking the right writer and the right director and the right cast and then sitting back and letting them got on with it.

"To some extent that is true," he admits. "If we were working in the best of all possible worlds the producer could sit back and do nothing. It has happened once or twice, but it's very rare.

"You get writers who have good ideas and can write exciting dialogue. but they are not necessarily the ones who can turn out a tightly constructed script. There are directors who are brilliant technicians and full of marvellous ideas of what to put on the screen, but haven't a clue about actors,

"So what the producer is doing is sitting back and being an informed audience; making sure that what was intended is, in fact. getting on the screen. Sometimes he will have to step in and do something radical: like getting a new writer.

"But when it really works then you can truly say that it's a very easy thing to be a producer."

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