Television is still (rather unfairly) seen as the poor cousin of most other creative arts. If you say you go to the theatre all the time or spend every weekend in art galleries it’s seen as a respectable past-time, but admitting to watching a lot of TV – regardless of what you’re actually viewing – is still met with derision, especially from those who claim they don’t own a TV at all. Yet, the last few years has felt like a golden age for drama in particular, and despite radical changes in the way we view and consume programmes, appointment-to-view television still exists building communities of people all sharing the same experience at once.
The Radio Times has long celebrated the art of television and the skills of the actors, writers, producers, directors and technical teams that make the programmes listed in its pages. In its articles, features and interviews, The Radio Times champions the intellectual and cultural value of television, making a strong case each week for its acceptance as a recognised and dignified art form. Yes the schedules are awash with repeats and mindless content but for every reality show there’s a Broadchurch, for every soap or tired sporting event, there’s a Night Manager, Planet Earth or Inside Number 9. All art forms have their churned-out nonsense, but like theatre and art there’s also bold new writing and innovative approaches.
After a very talks-based inaugural Festival in 2015 in various marquees in a field near Hampton Court, it makes sense that The Radio Times’s second weekend outing should decamp to the more suitable surroundings of the BFI – itself no stranger to holding exceptional festivals. And as you would expect from a magazine that loves telly, the schedule was packed over three days with something for pretty much everyone – from Call the Midwife, Dr Who and Line of Duty to interviews with Michael Palin and Maggie Smith, from Strictly Come Dancing to Sherlock, Poldark, Victoria and becoming a Youtube star there was much to see and learn. But I restricted myself to four key events.
One of the headline sessions, announced long before the rest of the programme, was a 90-minute tribute to Victoria Wood, who died last year, comprising a panel interview with some of the people that knew her well, clips from her many shows and songs, as well as an opportunity for the audience to share favourite lines and memories. Piers Wenger from BBC Drama sat on the panel alongside Maxine Peake and Julie Walters with a slightly too abrupt Paddy O’Connell as compere who cut people off and interrupted as though he were interviewing lying politicians instead of much loved actors discussing a missed national treasure.
Although slightly marred by the rather haphazard questioning, the warmth and affection for Wood, as well as her genuinely unique observational comedy shone through. Again and again the same words associated with her writing were repeated – “authentic”, “real”, “truthful” and “genuine” – as her friends and colleagues discussed her generosity in sharing great lines, as well as a style of writing that Peake and Walters described as musical, with each sentence honed and word carefully chosen to create the proper effect. Mixed with clips that bare endless re-watching, it was a celebratory as well as an emotional event as Peake wanted to give thanks for a role that launched her career while Walters poignantly remarked that she is constantly surprised at her loss, frequently wondering “where are you”. But it was an event, they all agreed, Wood would have been delighted to be part of having loved telly so much.
With programme-making now so diverse, the RT Festival also made time for one of the biggest success-stories of the past year broadcast entirely online – The Crown produced by Netflix. The astonishing series which covers the accession and early reign of Elizabeth II was discussed by Director Philip Martin, producer Suzanne Mackie and lead actor Claire Foy, in an excellent and insightful panel discussion overseen by ITN’s Tom Bradby who spent a brief period as royal correspondent.
While there was some talk about the mechanics of filming and the role of platforms like Netflix, much of the discussion actually took on a more philosophical consideration of our engagement with the monarchy, as Foy considered the way in which we project a picture of what they ought to be, that they then respond to as times change. The sense of responsibility to create something human and true to itself was clear, which, Martin explained would have been muddied by appropriateness of broadcast slots and their particular expectation had it been aired on terrestrial TV, while Foy spoke with real insight on the process and wider impact of playing such a well-known figure. And for audience members looking for series gossip, they did find out that the current cast will be replaced after Season 2 as the characters age, writer Peter Morgan has mapped out as far as Season 4, but intends six and we will meet Camilla Parker-Bowles in Season 3.
Returning on Sunday, the first session was an interview with Mark Gatiss discussing his career from The League of Gentlemen to Sherlock as well as his engagement with TV growing up. Interviewed by the marvellous Alison Graham, TV Editor for Radio Times, Gatiss explained that meeting Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson was “love at first sight” and it was a shared discovery that in entirely different locations they’d all missed bonfire night to watch Carry On Screaming that drew them together. Graham was unaware that the League are to reform next year for an already commissioned show to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Royston Vase, and while nothing has yet been written, Gatiss hopes it will revisit old favourites as well as introduce new material, before shocking everyone with the idea that Pauline would now be almost 70.
Much of the Sherlock discussion hinged around the idea of a ‘backlash’ with criticism of more recent episodes, but Gatiss neatly battered this away, suggesting instead that the British like to have a lull so they can then describe things as being “back on form”. He also confirmed that Sherlock’s future is open but scheduling Series 3 was so difficult given the success it brought to everyone that there are no immediate plans to write another.
Finally, thoughts turned to TV influences, and like Victoria Wood in the previous day’s discussion, Gatiss admitted to having watched huge amounts of television as a child being particularly influenced by horror writers like MR James and EF Benson. It was clear from Gatiss’s stories that well-made TV can leave a life-long impression, which led nicely into a final session on arguably the finest drama the BBC has made this century – The Night Manager.
Not many actors would have the power to necessitate a change of venue at a TV Festival but the late announcement that Tom Hiddleston would join a panel on adapting John le Carre for the screen meant swapping the 100 seater NFT2 for the 450 seat Imax which promptly sold out – and such is the appeal of Hiddleston that even a BFI mouse scampered down the stairs mid-session to get a closer view.
Last year The Night Manager proved that TV could be every bit as lavish, beautifully crafted and artistic as film, while keeping the nation home every Sunday night for 6 weeks. Led by journalist Samira Ahmed, this fascinating panel emphasised how completely the visual style and the raft of complex and troubled characters came largely from le Carre’s pages, and although it was modernised and relocated, it was the original novel to which they turned again and again for inspiration and insight.
Hiddleston quoted from memory a passage that described the character of Jonathan Pine with all the personas and contradictions that formed the basis of his interpretation, and le Carre’s exact words were something he returned to several times in discussion, giving an insight into his process as an actor and his ability to recall it in such detail a couple of years later. And Hiddleston spoke with energy about the “malleability of character” which attracted him to the role, particularly the soldiery in Jonathan’s past that is broken open and tested by the events of the story.
As expected some secrets were revealed – particularly by Alistair Petrie who played Sandy – including the numerous work-arounds that the technical crew accomplished to make things look considerably more expensive than they were by moving lightbulbs to mimic the sun and fashioning a private jet from cardboard, while le Carre himself who appeared as a disgruntled diner enjoyed improvising his annoyance so fervently that Hiddleston wasn’t sure he could placate him. Although a joke about Tom Hollander unexpectedly “manhandling” him during that scene got the biggest laugh and clearly made it into the final edit. And on the rumoured Series Two, Executive Producer Simon Cornwall wasn’t giving much away – it is being discussed but nothing has been decided and it will only happen if the proposed idea can live up to the extraordinary quality of the first he insisted.
Teaming-up with the BFI meant this second Radio Times event felt considerably more at home on the Southbank. What was clear from all the sessions is that the people who make TV really love it and have spent a lifetime watching it, are able to chart the influence of particular shows and genres on the type of performer or creator they became. This event celebrated the dedication, enthusiasm and pure craft that goes into making programmes, and made a strong case for recognising television as a proper art form. More than anything, the Radio Times is there to reassure you that if you watch 5 hours a day or one a week, there’s nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of.
The Radio Times Festival was at the BFI Southbank from 7-9 April. Look out for other TV-related events at BFI including episode previews and Q&As throughout the year.