In My Opinion: David Strachan: To Edinburgh and its festivals (especially its TV one)

THE weekend before last, the International Festival. Scottish Ballet and Christopher Hampson’s The Rite of Spring. Ever since I was introduced to it by an enthusiastic lecturer at university I’ve wanted to see The Rite danced rather than just played. I’d not expected to enjoy a modern reinterpretation, but this was terrific.

Last weekend, the Fringe. I love its intense and bizarre mix of ideas which are just bursting for attention. What you see here, even in a small hall with a couple of dozen in the audience, often makes it into popular thinking a couple of years later.

The God Particle – science and religion in an one-hour play, which was actually a romantic comedy. The Magnets – sheer indulgence, an acapella hour which included God Save The Queen performed with an energy which made the Sex Pistols look half asleep. Best of the Fest – comics trying to persuade us to join the not quite shared illusion that they are funny. The fabulous Craig Hill – who really was funny, and can sing too (great impressions of Madonna, Barbara Streisand, Brittney Spears, and then quietly and shyly shaking all our hands as we left). Lovely, talented guy.

Also the Edinburgh International TV Festival. A place where new ideas do occasionally make it into the public domain, but generally don’t escape beyond the trade press. It’s a closed gathering of TV professionals, sometimes reassuring themselves, occasionally tearing each other apart.

This year’s was fairly benign. Channel controllers trotted out their wish lists. We were pleased to hear National Geographic talking about our new series, ‘Vinnie Jones’ Toughest Russia’, as one of their big launches.

They have spent a whopping three million on promoting it around the world which, I assure you, is far more than it cost to make. However it, and one other series, have meant that a third of our income this year has been from across the Atlantic.

A session on how ‘talent’ and their agents and producers can get along, in which Graham Stuart, Graham Norton’s business partner and producer, proved himself one of nicest and most sensible men in television – which surely partly explains Norton’s success.

There was much carping about the commissioning process. Commissioners are gods. Their tastes and choices determine what we mere mortals get to see on TV. They have to decide how to dispense millions of pounds based on a few conversations and bits of paper, so interactions with them are under intense scrutiny.

The trade magazine, Broadcast, had run a survey, and the festival commissioned short films of annonymised comments by producers and commissioners on what they think of each other. Sadly, the voices were so annonymised you could not hear a word they said.

A great session on The Worst TV I Ever Made, in which highly successful producers told of the TV ideas they wished had never made it on to the screen – including There’s Something About Miriam, where a bunch of blokes competed for a couple of weeks for the attentions of what they thought was a gorgeous woman but who turned out to be a transsexual. I remember thinking at the time that this was the product of someone with a fairly unpleasant agenda, and was relieved to hear the development producer, who seemed a decent-enough man, saying his original idea had been completely reformatted.

But the lesson was we should take risks in TV, and sometimes risks fail, and when they do that’s not the end of the world.

Closed sessions they may be, but occasionally, just occasionally, someone says something which changes the landscape.

The Question Time session on Saturday was sparsely attended because it was the morning after the big party. Feeling somewhat sorry for my friends and colleagues on stage before a near empty hall, I thought I should think of a question to keep the show running.

“Given the growing success of the independent sector, how long can vertical integration and the BBC in-house quota survive?” In other words, the big broadcasters commissioning from within. The BBC’s Alan Yentob’s comment that it would all change within five years was astonishing.

There may have been few people in the hall, but the deputy editor of Broadcast was there, and the answer made headlines, which is what matters.

Every conference has a goodie bag of course.

Previous years have included a condom branded with sponsor’s name (on the wrapping). This year, we had a bottle of water from ITV (thanks guys) and a pair of headphones from YouTube. Nice.

There was also a glossy A5 book celebrating creativity in Scotland. Writers, actors, artists, ballet, short film makers, everyone who does anything creative was there being lionised for all the TV executives in the UK to see. Everyone, except… TV production.

No mention of that at all. No pride in the steady growth, proven internationalism (see above), originality and cultural significance of what we do.

I wonder what message that sent to our visitors from south of the Border?

Independent production seems to be like a bastard child, sitting somewhere between creativity and business, unloved by the public agencies which focus on one or the other. And with a referendum in the offing, the lack of mechanisms for communication between government and production are surprisingly poor.

It seems hard to demonstrate that there is more to TV than broadcasting. But thank goodness, as the other festivals reminded me, there is more to life than TV.

David Strachan is managing director of Aberdeen, Glasgow and Belfast-based Tern Television.