Anybody watching ‘The Loudest Voice’ on Sky Atlantic with Russell Crowe? It’s about the rise and fall of Roger Ailes who was responsible for setting up of Fox News and the running of it for twenty years. Never heard of the guy before this programme, but it’s fascinating stuff. Great performances by Russell Crowe and Sienna Miller.
I’ve been involved at the start and the set-up of a number of long running TV dramas, a couple of which are still running today. Being in on the ground floor is naturally exciting. But like the rest of writing for the screen it’s full of compromises, or as someone said to me the other day – “it’s just like life.”
When I set up Holby City, I was approached by the BBC to come up with a spin-off for ‘Casualty,’ which at the time was performing well for the channel. I hadn’t a clue where to start, but eventually I settled on focusing on a heart ward. I ended up at Papworth Hospital watching open heart surgery – a real privilege – and the series to begin with centred around a cardiac ward. The show still keeps going, but I’m not sure for how long. It has falling viewing figures, which is due mainly to outlandish stories and specious relationships that together adds up to bollocks. This was certainly not my intention when I set up the show. It’s hard work running those shows, trying to keep them fresh, meaningful … and real. It’s just like football – everybody thinks they could do a better job than most football managers, especially when their team’s losing, and with drama everyone thinks they could do a better job of making it interesting and a must watch show. Not that that’s a bad thing, everyone having an opinion is what makes both football and drama so very popular. The reality however is that the likes of Alex Ferguson come along as often as that winning jackpot ticket and the same goes for brilliant drama showrunners.
Few of those involved with running these shows realise that the majority of stories that appear on our screens weekly are bullshit. The majority are based in a world of improbability and not reality, which frankly makes them – bullshit. These shows were built on grounded stories, well constructed and relevant – not bullshit. Great stories coupled with great characters is what keeps the viewers coming back for more. The viewers have to fall for the characters, want to spend time with them, the good guys and the bad guys. I believe if it wasn’t for one character, Holby would not have survived past the first series. That character was Anton Meyer played brilliantly by George Irving. Meyer was a combination of a number of surgeons I’d met, plus the genius of the amazing heart surgeon Magdi Yacoub, a British Egyptian who I first read about in the Sunday times, decades before anybody mentioned Casualty spin-offs. Magdi Yacoub was responsible for restarting the UK’s heart transplant programme in 1980. The character of Meyer was unforgiving and didn’t suffer fools, not sure if Magdi Yacoub has those qualities, but where he and Meyer were definitely alike, is that they were both brilliant at what they did. But the interesting fact is that the powers-that-be didn’t want the character. They thought him unsympathetic and simply didn’t like the idea he listened to classical music whilst operating. I didn’t comprise, I stuck to my guns, and the show’s been chasing that character ever since he left. The real-life medics recognised him, they worked for him every day and the viewers were always going to admire someone who was so focused and talented. My pitch for him was – If it was your mother, father, sister, brother, son or daughter on that table who would you want operating? The answer never came back “I’ll take the shitty surgeon because he’s sympathetic.”
So yeah – it’s a world of compromise, but sometimes you need to dig your heels in and risk getting it wrong. I’m over half way through The Loudest Voice and I’m sad to say Roger Ailes, the man, is now getting a lot wrong, but the show’s still really good telly.