Abbott Appeals for Commissioners to Commit More to Long-order Drama

Television broadcasters lack the courage to commission long-running UK drama series – according to award-winning writer and broadcaster, Paul Abbott.

Delivering ‘The Alternative MacTaggart Lecture’ at this year’s MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, the creator of Channel 4’s ‘Shameless’ said the UK market faced a “glaring problem”, with British broadcasters refusing to take enough risks.

Declared Abbott: “It is high time we saw British television’s vision for long-running drama.

“Everybody wants it and everybody knows that it’s the thing with the most magnetic aspect of a television channel. But it’s the one thing we still haven’t attended to.

“I am not talking about rolling serials like Holby City, Casualty, The Bill or Coronation Street and Eastenders – but adult content drama, the likes of which we get from HBO and Showtime [in the USA].”

He continued: “We’ve become addicted to a really damaging level of safety valve now, especially in recent years. The past five or ten years, as far as I can estimate, everything has become far less expansive than I think we were at 20 years ago.

“We haven’t got the guts to blow the audience’s tits off – but that’s what we have to do.”

Abbott – who has won several awards for writing and producing, including the BAFTA Dennis Potter Award for Outstanding Writing in Television – claimed audiences crave a “five course meal” rather than a perpetual stream of pilots.

In the USA, he said, there was more a culture of committing to the making of long-order drama, including contracting actors – at the outset of a commission – for as long as seven years. He also said US scriptwriters seem happier to work in teams, which helps ensure the generation of ideas over the long term. 

His own experience with Shameless is that it has taken commissioners, Channel 4, eight years to feel sufficiently able to commit to as many as 22 episodes, as it has now. Television should take audiences to “places they have never been”, not have audiences tell them what to make, which is invariably going to be based on what they have already seen. 

He added: “We keep testing things in dribs and drabs – commission two or three episodes to see how it works and it just doesn’t work. It exhausts people and it exhausts manufacturers.

“The fad at the moment for commissioning pilots is an absolute waste of money. It takes a year to make a pilot and a year to make a series.

“I don’t think that a pilot will ever, ever demonstrate the power that one series can have. It’s merely pointless and is a bit like spunking money, as far as I can tell.”