Blog

Page Eight and the ‘newsworthiness’ of film on TV

July 12th, 2011

David Hare in conversation. Image courtesy Museo Reina Sofia

David Hare’s Page Eight, which premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival (on 18th June) before being shown soon after on BBC2 (28th August), presents us with the opportunity of looking at some aspects of television’s role in commissioning feature-length film that has the option of theatrical exhibition, partly using Hare’s own, frequently vented, opinions on the subject as a sort of medical test of the success of the blood-infusion. A political spy thriller starring Bill Nighy and Michael Gambon as agents of the British intelligence services, Page Eight is Hare’s first directorial effort for 14 years (since The Designated Mourner in 1997), and was described by Andrew Pulver of The Guardian as “something of a major event”, with the rider “even though it is aimed at TV transmission, rather than cinema release”. This phrase is a reminder that the television premiere can never be as newsworthy as a theatrical release, despite the huge audiences that television can reach. For one commentator, the fact that the film is seen as a major event is simply a statement on what they perceive to be the sorry state of this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival (despite the film’s star-studded cast). Clearly cinema still possesses all the attributes of prestige that television lacks, despite (or even because of) television’s resurgent emphasis on what we might term serial spectacle (The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing) or the fact that the British film industry as we know it today would not exist without money from television.

The review also points up the fact that we still lack a critical tradition of reviewing films which are shown for the first time on TV. This has wider significance, as film criticism in the national press has historically represented a springboard for overseas sales. This cannot be provided by television criticism as long as it is not taken seriously by the majority of national newspapers. Would Page Eight have received as much attention if it had not been shown in Edinburgh?  To be fair, Page Eight received significant publicity from the Beeb (in the form of trailers and an extensive article in the Radio Times) as Hare’s return to the medium as writer-director. The film also featured as the first of a kind of screenwriter double-bill on the night it was shown (on BBC2) , as it was followed by The Hours (the film of the Michael Cunningham novel, adapted by David Hare and directed by Stephen Daldry). As Mark Lawson observed recently, however, the impression gained was of

…a clever and interesting piece of scheduling that failed because the presentation and publicity parts of the operation didn’t understand why it had been done….Hare’s name was not mentioned by the continuity announcer; only actors’ names were invoked – Nighy, Weisz and Gambon for the TV play, Nicole Kidman for the movie. The listings page in Radio Times also gives no writer credit for The Hours.

It is interesting and telling in itself that Lawson refers to Page Eight as a TV play rather than a film. Another issue which has emerged from reviews and comments about the film relates to whether it is truly topical for the film to examine the implications of intelligence information having been received through American rendition, or whether it is already ‘out of date’ due to the exposure that this controversial issue has already received in television current affairs and documentaries. The way in which Ralph Fiennes’ performance as Prime Minister is clearly modelled on Tony Blair reinforces the notion that the film revisits ‘recent history’. As an otherwise positive review in Variety notes,

No one will be very surprised by Hare’s suggestion that the U.S. runs black sites for the interrogation of renditioned suspects on foreign soil, or that the British premier [sic] might put his belief in “shared values” with his ally ahead of his duty to obey his own country’s laws.[1]

The same review notes that there is nothing terribly new or urgent about Page Eight, despite a car-radio news report of the Arab Spring in one scene, which was “presumably dropped in late in the day to signal contemporary relevance”. We can pose the question here of whether Hare’s film is judged rather harshly on this count due to the fact that it is political and topical rather than contemporaneous, or due to the expectation that the television film, with its ‘fast turnaround’, and immanent insertion into the television schedules (amongst news and documentaries), should reflect what is happening in the world at the time in which it was made. The same review noted rather witheringly that, as an “upscale British period drama” the film will suit the up-market Brit-drama outpost PBS Masterpiece, where it is to receive its premiere in the US.

Nevertheless Page Eight might symbolise a ‘major event’ of another sort; another sort of milestone in Hare’s career. It is also a rapprochement of sorts between him and the BBC, which part-financed the film. Page Eight was commissioned by BBC Two Controller Janice Hadlow and Ben Stephenson, the BBC’s Head of Drama Commissioning. For David Hare, it represents evidence that Hadlow, the former BBC Four Controller, has a commitment to “turning BBC Two back into what it once was – the channel where you can see new British drama and documentaries” (see the Q&A with Hare in the Herald Scotland).

Hare has often chided the BBC for its concentration on news-gathering at the expense of original drama, and the consequent privileging of fact over imagination. In 2008, Hare launched a stinging attack on what he perceived to be the Corporation’s lack of support for the television play, furious at the failure of representatives of the BBC or the press to attend David Rose’s career retrospective at the National Film Theatre in July that year. (For more on David Rose, see Justin Smith’s blog article here, and the video of Rose in conversation with Jeremy Isaacs at the NFT here, which took place in April 2010 when Rose received a BFI Fellowship for his contribution to television and film). In Hare’s article (for The Sunday Times, 25th August), he paid tribute to Rose’s distinguished career nurturing talent and producing drama for the BBC and for Channel 4 (as Head of the English Regions Drama at BBC Pebble Mill between 1971 and 1981 and Commissioning Editor for Fiction at C4 between 1981 and 1990), and decried the absence of the single play in contemporary television:

Even in the days when single plays were allowed on majority channels, drama was identified as a conspicuous source of mischief and expense. How could anything which cost so much be so infuriatingly unpredictable in quality? Little wonder, then, that controllers chose to steer their investment away from individual stories that could never be repeated into long-running series with familiar characters and cliff-edge endings that would keep the ratings ticking over nicely.[2]

Now Hare believes that the BBC is emboldened by the success of nuanced and complex drama series imported from abroad like Mad Men and The Killing to put more resources into ambitious drama, although he is concerned that the BBC should not seek to directly imitate these examples. BBC Films is now an established major player in the British film industry, but it is actually a relatively recent arrival on the scene. The BBC’s historical emphasis on studio drama and protracted negotiations with trade unions and exhibitors, determined that BBC’s move into film-funding was a slow and rather tortuous process. That the BBC should have its own filmmaking arm was almost inconceivable 30 years ago. When Hare’s directorial debut Licking Hitler, made in the Pebble Mill Drama Department (Birmingham), was  first shown on BBC TV in 1978, it got an audience of eight and a half million, which Hare notes is unimaginable today for a single drama lasting 75 minutes. Nevertheless, on the occasion of its first broadcast BBC executives in London were more concerned with criticising the on-screen credit “Written and Directed by David Hare”, which was thought to be indulgent, ‘auterist’ and not in-keeping with the Corporation’s public service remit. This attitude was also a reflection of the view that investment in film was too expensive compared to what could be achieved in television studios, which led the BBC to believe that the future of television drama resided in the studio. When Channel 4 was launched it took the opposite view. Jeremy Isaacs invited David Rose to become the channel’s first Commissioning Editor for Fiction, and the new channel committed itself to commissioning original drama on film (with the possibility of limited theatrical release, as exemplified by the Film on Four strand); and as a publisher-broadcaster which commissioned work from independent production companies, it had no investment in ‘bricks and mortar’ studio facilities. As Hare observed at the time of the release of Wetherby in 1985,

When I insisted at BBC Birmingham on calling Licking Hitler a film, it was thought to be quite controversial because at the time they just didn’t recognise the category of ‘television film’. Thanks to Channel 4 that’s now changed, and indeed it’s Film on Four which has given the Channel much of its identity to date. [3]

In fact, David Hare can claim a little credit for Channel 4’s eventual attainment of a groundbreaking agreement with exhibitors and distributors whereby films financed partly or wholly by television could attain a “theatrical window” and be shown on television after a reasonable length of time had passed. In 1981 Jeremy Isaacs had been met at the Channel 4’s temporary offices in Old Brompton Road by a ‘delegation’ consisting of Hare, Stephen Frears (the director of Hare’s screenplay Saigon: Year of the Cat), Richard Eyre, Ann Scott and Simon Relph, who argued that their films should have a theatrical release before being shown on television.[4] This was desirable for filmmakers for a number of reasons. Having invested so much time nurturing an idea from script to screen, they felt entitled to enjoy the fruits of their labour with a live audience (on a large screen, uninterrupted by commercials). However optimistically, writers and directors were also seduced by the possibility of box-office returns, and saw television rights as the ‘end of the line’ in terms of the film’s profitability. In general the notion of the ‘made-for-TV movie’ was seen as far less attractive than films which were ‘amphibious’ (which could accrue cinema and television audiences). Having accepted this proposition, Isaacs and Justin Dukes, the Managing Director of Channel 4 had to spend a great deal of time negotiating with exhibitors to arrange a crucial exception to the rule whereby no film could not be shown on television until 3 years had passed since its theatrical release. The compromise reached exempted truly low-budget work from this rule. For Channel 4 the theatrical window was typically not a profitable venture but one which would reap rewards in terms of recognition and kudos.

In the recent interview with the Glasgow Herald linked to earlier, David Hare spoke of how he found the 1980s British film industry a dismal, dispiriting and hierarchical place, implying a stultifying atmosphere of embittered technicians and restrictive practices. Oddly enough, in dialogue with Clemency Burton-Hill for an Independent article in September of last year, Hare had celebrated the permeability between film and television, and the spirit of enthusiasm and open-mindedness that have prevailed making films in the 1980s;

In those days, the early 1980s, TV and film were interchangeable. Stephen Frears made something like 25 films for television. Jeremy Isaacs went to found Channel 4 and decided that to make the channel distinctive he needed a policy of enlightened patronage. David Rose, his Head of Drama, came to people like me, Mike Newell, Stephen Poliakoff, Derek Jarman, Stephen Frears, Richard Eyre, and said: ‘We won’t have a channel unless you make films for us – we’ll finance them and show them on TV’. Wetherby [1985] was made on a huge wave of enthusiasm; you had people like Judi Dench and Ian Holm playing parts which were insignificant compared to parts they could have played on stage, TV or film, but they did it because everyone was excited about British film. They saw it as something important. People are much more calculating now. That spirit has gone.[5]

Why such a disparity? Obviously we have to take into account the obvious fact that the recent interview was conducted at the time of the premiere, and the other interview conducted before shooting began. It is more tempting to look back on a golden age when work seems to have dried up. Perhaps the recent, collaborative experience of making the film has induced him to now look askance on the more confining aspects of an earlier era. More importantly it seems that Hare was talking about, on one hand, working in the ‘traditional’ British film industry; and, one the other, working on the borderland between television and film, where cross-fertilization was taking place between the two industries. In this case this disparity can be explained in terms of the difficulty in determining how wide or deep an impact on film culture we can attribute – within the terms of a historical overview of the 1980s – to the agency of Channel 4 in particular. During this period Channel 4 upheld an enlightened and permissive attitude in commissioning new drama, and sought to break down some of the barriers between the respective industries. There is no doubt that the film industry was, to some extent, revitalized by Channel 4, due to the fact that feature films were now being made by new and emerging medium-sized independent companies (in addition to the established ‘players’), or by established producers, writers and directors from theatre or television backgrounds who were finally able to realize long-cherished, feature-length projects thanks to the Film on Four strand.

In a recent interview for this project, Peter Ansorge, who worked at Channel 4 initially as a script editor and later as Commissioning Editor for Series and Serials, observed that there was always an open, enthusiastic and creative mood on the set of a Film on Four or Channel 4 drama production during the 1980s and early 1990s, which wasn’t always the case at the BBC at the time (although the Corporation’s camera crews and technicians were incredibly talented and experienced, they were often resentful due to their feeling that they were taken for granted or overworked).[6] To give a specific example, in a recent interview for the Arts Desk David Leland (writer and director of the Channel 4 funded Wish You Were Here) described how, in looking for inspiration for how to shoot their film Made in Britain in 1982 Alan Clarke had taken him to the cutting room where Stephen Frears was editing Walter (the first Film on Four, screened on Channel 4’s opening night). There they viewed a sequence in which the cinematographer Chris Menges had created a “lived-in texture and depth” through the use of Steadicam (then a very rare piece of equipment) and what he termed ‘available light’ (shooting on location in office buildings).

So to what extent did this wave of excitement and innovation transfer to the screen, and to the audience? At the outset of Channel 4, when challenging and vivid films such as Walter and Angel were broadcast relatively quickly after being made, there must surely have been a degree of excitement amongst the audience about the prospect of Channel 4 acting as a new ‘home box office’, at least amongst the cinephiles. However, it could also be argued that, on occasion, Channel 4 later came to be the victim of its own success, as the extended theatrical windows for some of the later films deflected attention away from the importance of the television premiere. Chris Dunkley, television critic of the Financial Times, wrote in 1987 that the Film on Four films were often highly original and rewarding, but amounted to ‘very little’ as television occasions;

Indeed, the better they are, the more fuss will have been made of them before they reach the small screen, and the less television impact they have. Ironically BBC2’s “Screen Two” tends to be more exciting than “Film on Four” precisely because the BBC’s union agreement prevents their films being shown in cinemas.[7]

Dunkley here returns us to the notion of the ‘newsworthiness’ of the theatrical release – compared with the televisual premiere – with which we started. According to Dunkley all the excitement provoked by the film’s theatrical release had dissipated by the time of its television screening. This perhaps highlights the broadcaster’s need to develop public loyalty to a particular strand or season over an extended period of time. The large audience for Licking Hitler can partly be attributed to its recognition of the Play for Today strand in which it was broadcast, a strand which had existed since 1970, and which was a continuation of the Wednesday Play (initiated in the early 1960s). With the later box-office success of (Channel 4 funded) films like Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Trainspotting (1996), more substantial delays were incurred before such films could be broadcast on television. This led to a dwindling of interest in how films perform on television, and ultimately to the Film on Four season (as a regularly scheduled fixture on Channel 4) being curtailed altogether and replaced by a standalone film channel (Film4). But that’s another story…For now I can say that I look forward to the television premiere of Page Eight.

Ieuan Franklin.


[1] Charles Gant, ‘Film Reviews: Page Eight’, Variety, 2011 <http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117945486/> [accessed 21 June 2011].

[2] David Hare, ‘David Hare on How the BBC Killed the TV Play’, The Times (London, 25 August 2008) <http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/tv_and_radio/article4590364.ece> [accessed 21 June 2011].

[3] David Hare, quoted in Julian Petley,”The Upright House & The Romantic Englishwoman: A Guide to the Political Theatre of David Hare”, Monthly Film Bulletin, March 1985.

[4] We can also note that Jeremy Isaacs had invited David Rose to join him on Channel 4 on the strength of his work at BBC Pebble Mill, and foremost in his mind, as revealed in his professional memoirs of the period (Storm Over Four) were Hare’s television plays Licking Hitler and Dreams of Leaving (1980).

[5] David Hare, ‘David Hare: The Sort of Films I Write Have Collapsed’, The Independent (London, 24 September 2010) <http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/david-hare-the-sort-of-films-i-write-have-collapsed-2087663.html> [accessed 21 June 2011].

[6] Peter Ansorge, interviewed by the project team on 7th June 2011.

[7] Chris Dunkley, ‘The Isaacs Formula at Work at Channel Four’, Financial Times (London, 8 April 1987).

Leave a Reply