Why are there no business dramas on television?

Here’s a piece I wrote in 2007 for Management Today that I hope remains relevant today, especially for aspiring TV writers like what I am.

The mood in the boardroom is tense. The young man in the chair addresses the meeting: “I am proposing a change in the reporting procedure for board meetings. It will save a lot of time in future if we can have written reports from the various department heads.” The department heads grumble, before moving on to the next item on the agenda. “We’re having something of a bottleneck with our container traffic through Geneva to Milan,” says one.

It doesn’t sound like a recipe for excitement, but The Brothers, the BBC drama in which this scene appeared, was essential Sunday evening viewing in the 1970s. People rushed home to see it. Vicars cut short their sermons. The cast were regularly mobbed, especially abroad; they even released a Christmas record in Holland. Indeed, drama series set in the world of business were a staple of British television from the early 1960s right through until the start of the 1990s, when they disappeared from our screens. The loss is television’s: business is a world of colourful characters and dramatic stories, but you wouldn’t believe that from watching the box, where it is represented only by The Money Programme, the shenanigans of The Apprentice, the bear-pit of Dragons’ Den, and an occasional, villainous role in paranoid dramas like The Whistleblowers.

Things used to be very different. In the 1960s, the years of Harold Wilson’s supposed technological revolution, industry was considered  exciting. In 1963, The Plane Makers, made by Associated Television, dealt with the development of a new British aircraft. It began with scenes of shopfloor conflict, but ATV’s boss Lew Grade found them boring, reasoning that viewers –  who might very well have worked in manufacturing – did not want the noise and grime of the factory when they were at home. The result was a new and more glamorous spin-off, The Power Game, which ran until 1969. In it, former plane-maker John Wilder, now Sir John, became a rapacious merchant banker.

In 1965, the BBC launched a rival series called Mogul, about an oil company of the same name. After one series, it was renamed The Troubleshooters and focused more on oil exploration, but it still found time for boardroom struggles. It was followed by The Brothers, featuring a family haulage firm called Hammond Transport Services. A soap, in essence, with a lot of bedroom action, it still featured stories about the company’s expansion plans, union conflicts, and struggles between the three Hammond brothers and their late father’s mistress for control of the company.

Then came Howards’ Way, created by the same producer, Gerard Glaister, as a similar family saga, but more aspirational, with boats replacing trucks for up-market appeal. A cut-price British Dallas, it was heartily mocked by the critics – “a Kentucky Fried Series, in which ingredients are selected by computer and blended in a Moulinex” – but watched by a weekly audience of 12 million. It came off the screen three days before the resignation of Mrs Thatcher, and, in a sense, marked the end of the business drama in Britain.

What live on are workplace-based comedies, many of them – The Smoking Room,  for instance – following the lead of The Office, in which Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant depicted the petty tensions and dramas of working life over 14 episodes while scrupulously avoiding showing anyone doing any work. And there are also, of course, the ‘reality’ shows, factual soap operas set in real workplaces, for instance ITV’s long-running Airline, based on the day-to-day travails of EasyJet and its passengers . Such programmes have the undeniable advantage of being cheap to make.

What’s missing, though, is straight drama that takes business and entrepreneurship seriously. Agent Mark Berlin says the television writers he represents are simply not coming up with those ideas. “It’s just fashion,” he says. “Something isn’t perceived as an area that you should write about.” Partly that may be due to a lack of relevant experience. Wilfred Greatorex, creator of The Power Game, had been a successful journalist and had at least mixed with business people. Today, says Berlin, “most people who are writers have started out as writers. They write about what interests them, and business just hasn’t arisen. Most writers probably feel so removed from that world that it doesn’t  particularly occur to them. They don’t know it.”

Helen Farrall, a successful writer of series television, confirms writers’ reluctance. She recalls working on Emmerdale when a storyline arose about the inheritance of a farm, a perennial plotline in family business series: “We would sit in story conferences and none of the writers liked writing business stories:  they thought it was boring. They thought the audience weren’t interested in it.”

But does this prove that, as is sometimes suggested, that the whole creative world has a deep-seated antipathy to business? “I think you could make too much of that,” says acclaimed drama producer Tony Garnett, whose CV runs from Cathy Come Home in the Sixties to This Life, the quintessential series of the Nineties. “Writers will take a story from wherever they can find it.”

But Garnett points to problems with depicting business in television series. Drama depends on what they call “the precinct”, which is where the action happens. A place of work can be a good precinct, but it has to be “sexy”, and business is no longer seen that way. Secondly, the characters have to be people the television audience can identify with. When business features today, it is seen from shopfloor level, looking up, as in Paul Abbott’s factory-based drama Clocking Off. And business stories are only a means to an end: generating emotion. “I think the perception, rightly or wrongly, is that viewers want sex stories, they want affairs, they want intrigue,” says Farrall. Interestingly, though, while big business and the boardroom have effectively disappeared, entrepreneurship –  of a sort –  is a staple of the soaps. But it’s a poor shadow of reality. Real life has Philip Green; television has Ian Beale.

In general, though, the boardroom is shunned in favour of more immediately exciting precincts: hospitals, doctors’ surgeries, police stations, vets’ practices, legal firms. “It’s no accident that cops & docs are the mainstay of one-hour series drama, and have been from the beginning,” says Garnett. “The leading characters can be made very sympathetic. And the stories walk through the door every week. There is a crime, it has to be solved, our leading character can solve it. He solves it and there’s closure at the end of the hour. It’s very neat and satisfying.

“And with cops & docs, it’s a matter of life and death. People in business think it is, but it ain’t.” That said, Garnett is more open-minded than most about the possibilities for business drama. His company World Productions created Attachments, the most recent home-grown attempt, which dealt with the rise and fall of a dotcom company.  It was not a popular success. Heads of Drama and others with commissioning responsibility have since reverted to their most conservative instincts. “People are playing it very safe at the moment,” confirms Farrall, who is currently working on the daytime soap Doctors.

Garnett himself is more open-minded. “Because you can’t do every show about a cop or a doc or a lawyer,” he says, “we are always trying to think where we can find a new precinct that will give us some drama and allow us to show people where the world is going.” He notes, for instance, that there has never been a series drama that reflects the rise of women in the boardroom, or anything that represents Britain’s shift away from manufacturing towards financial services.

“But it’s a difficult nut to crack. How do you make those rich flash bastards sympathetic to the audience?” And yet, as we talk he warms to the idea. “A really good machiavellian power-hungry villain would be a great character. Look at J.R. That might get an audience. Haven’t the last few years been about aspiration and conspicuous consumption? You’d think that it was in the air to do a show like that.

“You’d better write it,” he suggests, “and we’ll do it. There is a gap in the market, as your readers would say.”

Television tycoons.

John Wilder (Patrick Wymark).

In The Plane Makers  (1963-65), Wilder was the hard-nosed managing director of Scott Furlong, manufacturers of a new aircraft. But ATV boss Lew Grade found the format boring and brought Wilder back as a merchant banker and corporate predator in a new series, The Power Game (1965-69). Wymark, a mild man in real life, was sufficiently convincing that several companies offered him a seat on their boards.

Brian Stead (Geoffrey Keen).

In the BBC’s Mogul (1965) and then The Troubleshooters (1966-72), Stead was a ruthless and shrewd operator who rose to be managing director, while battling health problems. Keen’s young daughter found his character so unappealing that she would sit on the stairs with her hands over her ears rather than watching.

Paul Merroney (Colin Baker).

Paul Merroney arrived in The Brothers (1972-1976) as a Machiavellian financier who seizes control of the Hammond brothers’ haulage company and tries to drag it into the 1970s. Baker was once punched in the street by a man enraged by his character’s behaviour.

Ken Masters (Stephen Yardley).

In Howards’ Way (1985-1990), Masters introduced a new kind of businessman, a medallion man (it was the 80s, after all), lecher and all round wide-boy who struggles to get the better of the series’ old-school businessmen, like Charles Frere (Tony Anholt), who consistently underestimate him. Britain’s answer to J.R. Ewing.

Mike Baldwin (Johnny Briggs)

Owner of Baldwin Casuals, the clothing factory in Coronation Street, as well as a nightclub, a garage and various other businesses. A terrible employer and a notorious lecher, he apparently had 25 girlfriends and four wives before being written out with Alzheimer’s and a heart attack.

Ian Beale (Adam Woodyatt)

The sole survivor from the first edition of EastEnders, Beale has at various times owned a knitting business, a mobile disco, a catering company, a café, a loan sharking business, a fish and chip shop, a bric a brac shop, a property empire, and a garage. He also found time to marry three times, make a suicide bid, and to survive a murder attempt. Regularly voted one of the most hated characters on British television.

C.J. (John Barron). In The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-79),  David Nobbs’ satire on business life, C.J. was the overbearing boss of Sunshine Desserts. Nobbs apparently intended him to be an entrepreneurial figure, but Barron played him as an old-school manager who could only speak in clichés: “I didn’t get where I am today… ” he would begin, employing the catch-phrase more than 60 times in three series.

J. R. Ewing (Larry Hagman)

The most notorious villain of the 1980s, J.R. was a monstrously greedy and egomaniacal oil baron in Dallas (1978-91). Originally a minor character, he rapidly took over the show, especially when he was the target of a murder plot. The identification of his assailant – “Who shot J.R.?” became an international obsession.

Alexis Carrington Colby (Joan Collins)

In Dynasty (1981-89), Alexis was a female J.R. Ewing. Head of Colby Oil, her scheming and double-dealing character was apparently modelled on Livia in I Claudius. Credited by creator Aaron Spelling with turning the show around. Dynasty always had a distant relationship with reality. At one point Alexis’s daughter was abducted by a UFO.

Peter and John (Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry)

In a series of sketches in A Bit Of Fry And Laurie (1989-1995), Peter and John were a pair of shirt-sleeved businessmen, struggling with John’s ex-wife Marjorie for control of Derwent Enterprises, knocking back giant Scotches, and booming business clichés at each other with the assistance of the sort of maiden-aunt oaths that were heard only on early-evening television: “Hell, Marjorie would float her own grandmother as a holding corporation and strip her bare of preference stock if she thought it would hurt me. Three pints of damn and a chaser of hell blast!” A thinly-veiled parody of Howard’s Way.

Mike and Luce (Justin Pierre and Claudia Harrison)

In Attachments (2000-2002), Mike, a DJ, and Luce, with a publishing background, are a well-meaning couple who try to turn a hobby website into an Internet business. In the process they find themselves turning from heroes to villains as things fail to go according to plan and they have to adapt to commercial realities. Mocked by the geek community for its supposed inaccuracies, it was scuppered by bad timing: the dotcom boom that inspired the series was over by the time it hit the screen.

David Brent (Ricky Gervais)

In The Office (2001-2003), David Brent is manager of the Slough branch of paper merchants Wernham Hogg, although he prefers to think of himself as a “chilled-out entertainer”. Vain, self-deluded and self-interested, he convinces himself that he is both liked and respected by his staff – “A friend first, a boss second” – when his petty dishonesty and thoughtlessness ensure he is neither. A comic creation on a par with Basil Fawlty and Captain Mainwaring, he is also an object lesson in how not to manage.

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