by Simon Woods

Birmingham To Be or Not To Be?

Since Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, suffered the self-doubt that was his tragedy, the Danes have developed a self-confidence and ambition that has made them more creative than the British.

The evidence is compelling.

The West Midlands and Denmark both have populations of 5.6 million and while Copenhagen is about half the size of Birmingham, Denmark boasts a much bigger film and TV industry.

Not only has the Danish equivalent of the BBC, DR, found enough local creative talent to commission, write and produce TV for the six million Danish speakers, its dramas like Borgen, The Bridge and The Killing are screened in over 70 countries and are being remade by HBO for the US.

Compare this with the West Midlands where the BBC cannot find enough talent to commission a single programme. All its commissioning is now in London and even when it does make a programme here it’s for daytime TV, unless an outside company produces it.

Sadly this appears to be a belief shared by some, but not all, of the region’s MPs and councillors. When new director general Tony Hall was persuaded to review the BBC’s Midlands output, the region’s elected representatives presented him with its digital manifesto.

This document did not name a single Birmingham owned production or post-production company. It presented a vision for the city as the industry’s trainer and an ideas test bed.

Without any mention of local commissioning or increased production it was left to Birmingham City University, through its new media centre, to display any ambition.

When challenged to demand more, a Birmingham MP, failing to grasp that democratic ideal that drove the American Revolution of ‘no taxation without representation’, was horrified that we should demand anything from the BBC.

The result has been the BBC’s announcement that it will create up to 80 jobs in the city, which will become its centre of digital excellence, creating apps for mobiles and undertaking some coding.

This is important work but unlike commissioning and production does not create a supply chain of other jobs and support businesses that producers need, the myriad of professions from actors to post production, graphics to legal services that will help the region’s graduate retention.

The idea that the region is a wasteland of creative talent is a narrative that ran through the former agencies of Advantage West Midlands and Screen WM, who repeatedly favoured transient outside productions shot here, over films made from here, by local producers.

This was epitomised by the bankrolling of a Rupert Murdoch company to shoot a series for the BBC in Birmingham, pretending to be London, with the key decision-making remaining in London.

When the series finished, its most significant legacy for the city was a lingering irony that it was called Hustle and was about a group of confidence tricksters.

Hustle was filmed on location in Birmingham - but pretended it was London
Hustle was filmed on location in Birmingham - but pretended it was London
 

This is the difference between the West Midlands and Denmark.

They are not more creative than us but the Danes look to themselves and invest in their own talent. We too have talent. The Producers Forum, the region’s key film and TV organisation, originally set up to oppose Screen WM’s strategy is stuffed full of local up and comers.

In recent years local producers have made fantastic films and documentaries shot both here and abroad, but crucially all produced from here.

The brilliant Insatiable Moon was shot in New Zealand and The Last Projectionist has been screened internationally, two gems amongst many. The real issue for the region is ambition. Our film-makers have it, but it appears lacking in our elected leaders and potential regional investors.

Such ambition also seems lacking in the BBC, as I know from my latest project, From Ithaca With Love The Odyssey, based on a play by Malachi Bogdanov that I produced at Millennium Point in 2006.

During the production of this modern retelling of Homer’s 700BC, The Odyssey, I met Jana Bennett the then head of BBC Vision.

Suggesting to her that it would make a great film she confided that BBC had been discussing for years whether The Odyssey could be filmed.

Seven years on they are probably still talking about it but tragically, like Hamlet, the BBC seems unable to act.

My ambition is to make it from Birmingham and shoot it next September in Sardinia, setting the movie in the modern day but making it in Ancient Greek and Latin, subtitled into 40 languages and distributing it free to every school in the world, with any profits going to educational charities and financing it by finding 450 like-minded philanthropists who will give us £1,000.

The budget of £450,000 is far lower than Jana Bennett’s severance pay from the BBC. We are also looking for a Ferrari we can blow up, a 100ft yacht we can film on and a helicopter we can put a camera in.

Despite my criticism I am a keen supporter of the BBC and the licence fee.

I have a lot of sympathy for Tony Hall who must pay for the £1.04 billion redevelopment of Broadcasting House undertaken by his predecessor Mark Thompson. This money has to come from somewhere but should it be from the regions?

After all, the last time BBC Birmingham had commissioning power it produced Boys From The Black Stuff and discovered new talents like Andrew Davies and even now BBC Drama Village gives London a run for its money because given its budget, Doctors really is remarkable.

P.S. – we won’t really blow up your Ferrari, it’s the movies and it will just look like it. Look us up on www.fromithacawithlove.com

  • Simon M Woods is a producer at European Drama Network, a Fellow of Birmingham School of Acting and has an MPA from Warwick Business School. He was the original manager of UB40