Published on: 17 November 2014 in Longform

"TV will never be a director's medium" - directors respond

Reading time: 15 minutes and 51 seconds

On Thursday 13th November broadcaster, author and columnist, Mark Lawson published an article in The Guardian about directors in television under the headline "Why television will never be a director's medium", saying that "if film is a director’s medium, TV these days is a producer-writer-director’s medium".

On the occasion of the return of Babylon (the pilot episode of which was directed by Danny Boyle) and The Knick (directed by Steven Soderbergh), Lawson uses these examples to make the case that directors very rarely make an impression in conventional television. Directors UK clearly believe that the director is central to the creative vision of any audiovisual work, whether on film or television and we're troubled by the impression that that isn't always the case. 

Directors UK Chair, Charles Sturridge responds below (this piece was also published on The Guardian's site here). We are also pleased to publish responses from Directors UK board members Robin Sheppard and Philippa Collie Cousins as well as Directors UK members Toby Haynes, Gillies MacKinnon and Simon Phillips.

Great work needs vision which means exactly what it says: knowledge at the beginning of what the end will be like. This vision can exist in a single creative mind or be shared between several, but achieving it requires a unique mix of collaboration and leadership. The headline of Mark Lawson’s blog, ‘Why television will never be a director’s medium’, is both inaccurate and out of date. Inaccurate because its provocative use of the absolute denies many obvious exceptions, and out of date because it fails to acknowledge the revolution that is already underway in how we make and view programmes.

Any film (cinema or TV) is more than the sum of its parts. It’s not just money into light, as John Boorman memorably expressed it, but words, pictures, ideas, emotions, energy, inspiration and above all choices, stored within the sounds and images that we see on the screen. In a cinema film, and in some television programmes, there is only one director, and they are the only person who is common to every step of a complex process. Of course the film director is rarely alone as film-making is a series of intimate collaborations: director/producer, director/writer, director/actor, director/designer, director/sound mixer and so on; thousands of choices with one common denominator, which is why under UK law a director is considered an author, not of the script, not of the music, not of the design, but of the film.

Historically, early TV drama was live and studio-based, essentially a photographed play with the director locked in a control room which appears to the observer to emphasise writing and performance. However in the 1960s and 70s, as the medium matured with writers like Dennis Potter, Jim Allen, Arthur Hopcraft and Ian Kennedy Martin, there were also key directors like Michael Apted, Ken Russell, Mike Newell, Ken Loach and Jack Gold. Long-form television had specific requirements due to the industrialisation of the production process. A director who has to cast, prep and edit cannot shoot every day, so to keep the machine in perpetual motion, more than one was required. No single director could have the same influence on the whole and for many years this role was filled by the producer.

In the mid-90s, when broadcasters started to outsource creativity in the interest of economy, the producer joined the freelancers on the street and the balance shifted. The act of being commissioned became more urgent than the issues of physical production and the writer was the key component. The effect of this was more obvious in the US, where the writer started to take over some of the producer’s role, and the showrunner was born.

There is no monopoly on vision, and the move of the writer onto the production floor has created brilliant episodic television which has given new energy to the long-form series, the key economic determiner of many broadcast organisations. But great television, like a great movie, does not happen in the writer’s room alone. It is created by the same physical chemistry of word, image and performance that is the director’s art, and showrunners needed directors, and directors of course also started to become showrunners. Where once the traffic was one-way from television to features, now it goes in both directions, with Scorsese, Fincher, Soderbergh, Bay, Scott, Spielberg, Iñárritu and Cuarón all developing for television.

Today the market is changing again and the traditional gatekeepers of programme delivery, broadcast networks and cable, must now make room for a new wave of content-providers: Amazon, Netflix, Google, CNN, Al Jazeera ... the list goes on. No longer can we tell what a programme is like just from its transmission time, or which network it comes from; every programme must fight individually for our attention. In this market we scan actor, writer, producer and director with a more sophisticated sense of the personal choices of the creative group as we decide who will get our attention. The recently announced Netflix series based on The Queen is an alliance of writer Peter Morgan and director Stephen Daldry – great writing and great directing working together is what makes great television.

Charles Sturridge
Chair, Directors UK

Member responses:

Television is THE director’s medium of the 21st Century. Like the stampede back to real food and away from processed, the arc of drama for the next ten years is in the hands of creative directors and away from marketing formulas imposed by dodgy market research.

The Director’s visual authorial ability is the key driving force of Series, Single or Serials. This is largely unreported by journalists who are in the main totally ignorant about what happens during development, on set or in the cutting room. The public however are not so unaware.

As a society, we marginalise Directors at our peril - the moving image is made up of three things: words, the space between words and pictures. The Director is responsible for two out of the three. By marginalising the Director, we would damage our ability to tell relevant stories about ourselves, our culture and wider society. And sorry Mark Lawson, the television industry of the 21st century is alive and kicking with Directors at its beating heart.

Philippa Collie Cousins
Directors UK Board Member

To follow on from Alan Parker there is another French word for a director - a 'realisateur' and this term more accurately encapsulates the unique contribution TV directors make - the ability to realise the script from page to screen. With flair and vision. To elicit the best performances with their knowledge and experience of working with actors. To communicate the look and feel of the show to the crew, shot by shot, and bring all the talent on set together to create and rich and authentic world.

Directors have a unique set of skills to make the transition from script to screen ideally collaborating with the writer and the producer to render the story in precise and compelling detail, making it compelling viewing for the audience.

The director's credit is up front, along with the writer and producer. It is this creative triangle that is the heart of brilliant TV drama. Ask any actor and they will tell you they are in the director's hands during the shoot - the director calls the shots on set.

So why are directors not given acknowledgement for their creative contribution off the set? Why is it the exception rather than the rule? What can we do to rectify this imbalance? We should be celebrating the unique vision the director brings, not ignoring it.

Robin Sheppard
Directors UK Board Member and Fiction Committee Chair

Dear Mark, 

I was fascinated to read your blog on "Why television will never be a director's medium'. It is something that I have wrestled with in my career for some time, but I do feel times are changing. 

My name is Toby Haynes and I have been directing television drama for the last ten years. I started out on Hollyoaks, before progressing through MI:High (a successful CBBC show running for 9 series), Being Human (directing the first two episodes), Doctor Who (5 consecutive episodes including a Christmas Special), Sherlock (The Reichenbach Fall) and an episode of Wallander. More recently, I've had the pleasure of developing and directing all seven episodes of an adaptation of Susannah Clarke's novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for the BBC. I am also serving as Executive Producer on the series. 

When JS&MN was first commissioned I think I was the first director in a long time to be trusted with directing a whole series. I remember my executives at the BBC talking about David Yates being the last to do so with State of Play. Producing such an ambitious period fantasy drama has taken several years and in the meantime I believe a positive trend has developed towards single directors taking on whole series - directors such as Hugo Blick, Yann Demange and Tom Shankland. I think the BBC in particular is beginning to trust shows to a singular vision, which is hugely exciting after years of slogging away at 'blocks' of drama. 

It is gratifying to read your blog as the British media in general have been slow to pick up on this. The director is rarely mentioned in articles, reviews or blogs. As you point out, a show is usually publicised on its star or writer. I feel directors in TV are seen in the eyes of the media - and thus a large proportion of our audience - as technicians as opposed to artistic contributors. 

However, with advances in technology there is very little to differentiate what we do in television with our counterparts working in film - quite often we have comparable budgets, bigger audiences and these days more complex storylines and character arcs. Thanks to the influence of American drama and other foreign imports, our TV shows have bigger and bigger ambitions and the audience's expectation of what quality drama looks and feels like is much higher than it used to be.

Indeed, I find myself more excited about television offers than I do about film.  It feels from my perspective that sadly, cinema is in a creative recession right now, whilst TV is enjoying a renaissance - the place you go if you want to tell ambitious, intelligent stories, develop rich three-dimensional characters and still have your work seen by a large audience. Artistically, television has caught up with cinema and in some cases surpassed it. It is interesting how many film directors are turning to television, as well as film actors. 

Right now, television is an extremely exciting medium for directors, as it is for writers and actors alike. The industry is beginning to recognise the artistic contribution directors can make from a project's very inception. We are working hard to achieve equality with our better known and better paid collaborators, both individually and collectively (through Directors UK). What we need is greater awareness of our role. This is somewhere the media can help us perhaps: speaking of us in the same breath as writers will help audiences understand our artistic contribution and ultimately help us shake off our artistic anonymity. 

Yours sincerely

Toby Haynes
Directors UK member

If you have worked with actors whose early careers overlapped with Alan Clarke you will find the most passionate loyalty towards the director. To these actors he represents the best of original and inspiring British directors, one who defined and changed television drama. Mark Lawson would be correct in saying that the role of director is almost institutionally watered down in contemporary television, but he would be wrong to maintain it has to be like that.

When I started making films, television was a great place to begin. There was BBC Screen 2, where many actors, writers, producers and directors working today began, making distinctive and often unlikely single dramas. For my own part, a story like The Grass Arena from John Healy's novel, featuring the first film role for Mark Rylance - who was a complete unknown at the time - playing opposite the wonderful, now-deceased Pete Posthelwaite, was a perfect opportunity to make a director led film - sadly a single drama which wouldn't have a bat's chance in hell of being made today. A single drama based upon an obscure story with no TV stars in it? And yet this film won awards wherever it was shown. These Screen 2 TV single dramas were made because they seemed a good idea, out of passion not as a commodity, and not as a deal done between the network and the production company, considered a product designed to attract an audience.

The attitude towards the TV director was very different then. My first outing was on Jimmy McGovern's first single drama Needle, produced by an up and coming young producer, George Faber. The exec was Michael Wearing. He met us and invited us to contact him if we had problems. As executive producer it was his job to decide upon the subject of the film, the producer, writer and director. After that he left us to get on with it. There were no other voices at large beyond George, Jimmy and myself. The point is that this older and simpler television culture gave every opportunity to young directors to dig deep, really test themselves and create something unexpected, not be assigned as illustrator of the grand plan.

We hear the claim that this is a golden age of British film, but check back 20 years to the UK Sunday reviews and you will find most films were British. This is certainly not true now, despite the legions of young people who are encouraged to choose film making as their career. I have spoken to young film makers who have been refused on the basis that they have not done enough workshops and I wonder if film in the UK has become institutionalised. I do wonder how many film makers of the originality of David Lynch, Lyndsey Anderson, Satyajit Ray, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky or our own Shane Meadows would have emerged from this recent preoccupation with workshops.

After years of making feature films, I have been working in television again in recent years, largely because of the collapse of the middle budget film in the UK. As a director, you can either spend your life going to meetings about films which are not happening, or continue to work in TV. Television single drama hardly exists now and a very different culture has taken over. There is now an obsession with viewing figures, which results in a far more commercial mentality. From what I hear, directors are often regarded as someone to do the awkward bit - working on set, looking after the visuals, getting the film in on time, working with actors - but these are only the most basic skills and what is missing now is the expectation that the director is more than a competent facilitator. The idea that the director is there to bring a special and perhaps unpredictable mind to the story seems to have been elbowed aside.

For my own part I would not complain as I have been fortunate enough to work mainly with people who still respect and understand the director's role in the process. But I do recognise that drama as a commodity is the thing now, a culture which is not likely to produce many surprises. Some years ago a TV  executive was constantly blocking our decisions and vital work on set had ground to a halt for want of his approval. Time was running out. When I explained to the executive the dire need for his co-operation (he was back in London in his office) he said, "If I listened to you that would be the tail wagging the dog". I was astonished to hear that he, a person who had no awareness of the state of the production, considered himself the dog and the rest of us the tail. That was my first insight into a change in the mentality of some TV executives - thankfully not all of them I may add, and it needs to be stated that a good, responsible, communicative producer is a gift to a director.

British television was once considered a leading spirit but has more recently been relegated to imitator of America and even Scandinavia. I do wish television would create space for something completely innovative, free of so many conditions, free of knitting patterns, formulas, tried and tested theories and safe ideas spiced up to titillate and excite. An American producer once said that the American public don't want to see something new. They want to see the same great drama they saw last week, but with different actors in it. I hope that hasn't happened here too.

Gillies MacKinnon
Directors UK member

I agree with Robin Sheppard's comment [on the Guardian's website], as this is not just about celebration of individual directors, or if a director's name is used in either; pitching a proposed project or marketing the finished product. One of the reasons we are starting to see the true creative role of the director being eroded is because few people understand the nature of the work we do. That is evident in the article comments - but also of the whole industry. Partly that is because it is shrouded in terms such as “flair and vision”. The intuitive talent basis of the director's contribution are part of why the real professional requirements to doing a good job, such as: scheduled time for planning, rehearsal etc. are being cut more and more.  

Simon Phillips (of Tools of Directing)
Directors UK member

Have Your Say


I think this question can only be addressed by engaging with the concept of 'ownership' and ownership today is only understandable as an expression of power. During the era of the rise of the television auteur (people like Ken Loach, Ken Russell and the rest) the industry was new and evolving. Essentially there appeared to be space for creatives to go out and colonise this new territory and invent the form. Power wasn't so big a part of the equation. Those privileged with the fabulous duty to direct were pretty much allowed to go out and get on with it. In those days one could reasonably call television drama a director's medium. While I agree with much of what Charles Sturrage has said, the directors he cites to support his argument are all conspicuous power players. It is difficult to imagine Martin Scorcese engaging in any creative process where he wasn't in charge. These fabulous senior directors occupy a very privileged position in the industry and are not really representative of the vast majority of directors working today. In my experience of working in episodic drama the director's role has become more proscribed over time. This has happened for a variety of reasons but a key factor is the concentration of 'ownership' amongst producers and executives. Also, as freelancers engaged to shoot individual 'blocks', directors often spend less time in specific production environments than the in house crew who see their primary loyalty to the production manager and by extension the producer. In these circumstances directing can be less a matter of leading than getting on with the cast and crew. And then of course there is the emergence of the edit producer. An anecdote. At a recent interview with a producer she outlined my job on her production as she saw it. It was a high profile costume drama on the BBC. 'All I want you to do, is this,' she said while holding her hands up to make a square, like a cartoon director framing a shot. I thought she had mistaken me for the DoP. Sometimes in recent years I have felt my job amounted to little more than, as Orson Welles put it, calling 'action' and 'cut'. Actually, I don't even call 'action'. My 1st AD does that. Sometimes, joyously, I am actually able to do my job properly but that is increasingly rare these days. So, from my experience and those of others I know, ownership of the medium has indeed moved away from us. I would go further and suggest that this is evident on screen. Today the script is king. One result of that is that sequences are increasingly rare. The vast majority of television drama today is people talking in a room. An endless procession of master shots and medium close ups. ...

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