British TV would be a much poorer place without Verity Lambert. David Benedict meets the woman behind Minder, Doctor Who, GBH and...er, Eldorado
Thursday June 21, 2001
A lan Bleasdale wants Verity Lambert's blood. Correction: for one week he did. Lambert, who was then executive producer on Bleasdale's Channel 4 series GBH, sat him down on a sofa and suggested some script cuts - 200 pages' worth. "All week he sat glaring at me, getting redder and redder in the face," she recalls. "Later he rang Peter Ansorge at Channel 4 in the middle of the night, saying, 'I'm going to kill her.' He told me later he'd really meant it."
Although that tale risks pandering to the chauvinist image of women in TV as ballbreakers, more importantly it illustrates Lambert's famously exacting eye for scripts. If anything unites the four decades of Lambert's astonishingly diverse career, it's her passion for writing.
When she ran the independent production company Euston Films, she picked up a first script by actress Lynda Marchal, thus giving the world Widows by the smartly renamed Lynda La Plante. As head of drama at Thames she was responsible for Philip Mackie's dramatisation of the hitherto unknown life of Quentin Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant as well as Howard Schuman's ground-breaking Rock Follies and Leon Griffiths's Minder. She is currently executive producer on a Christmas special of Jonathan Creek. But first up is The Cazalets.
This lavishly produced six-part series is her latest collaboration with screenwriter Douglas Livingstone, who has adapted the first two volumes of Elizabeth Jane Howard's quartet of novels. Howard's substantial career - 13 novels and counting - has too often been eclipsed by those of her former husband and stepson Kingsley and Martin Amis, but her profile rose in 1990 with the first volume of her engrossing, quasi-autobiographical study of a family before, during and after the second world war.
More than one of the first volume's rapturous reviewers lauded it alongside Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga, so it's small wonder that it has made it to the screen. Just 24 hours ahead of an equally eager Joanna Lumley, Lambert nabbed the rights before the quartet was completed. She and Lumley teamed up - they had previously collaborated when Lumley starred in Lambert's Class Act - and took it to the BBC. Howard's quartet has sold over a million copies, mainly to women. "Men on the whole don't read books by women authors," observes Lambert. "They'll cite Jane Austen and Iris Murdoch but that's about it."
The Cazalets is startlingly acute on class and change, most vividly seen through the eyes of three girls struggling to make sense of the world and their place within it as they climb from adolescence to adulthood. Initially it's a slow burn, but as the narrative is screwed down it makes for far more interesting viewing than most current TV drama, in which characters are kept within the stranglehold of dreary dependability.
It's also a cut above Lambert's great flop, the sun, sand, and sangria soap Eldorado. "I maintain it was a very good idea," she insists. "It was about Europe, about the difficulties people face when they leave their roots and set up elsewhere. We made mistakes. The chief one - and I take full responsibility for it - was allowing it to be put out on air too quickly." Indeed, a three-month production delay meant there was no time for a pilot, so all the mistakes were played out in public. She also agrees that "having everyone speak in their own languages was a serious error and some bizarre casting would have been changed". She's keen not to speak ill of the late producer Julia Smith but it's clear there was friction between them.
Her otherwise sure touch for characterisation and structure developed early, thanks to an inspirational English teacher. "She was very tough and would never tell you anything. She would make you read Shakespeare and then tell her what you thought a speech or a scene was about without any clues from her. That meant learning to look at dramatic writing in an analytical way." These days, Lambert's reaction to scripts is instinctive. Only after an initial emotional response does she re-read analytically.
"I am not a writer, so I try not tell a writer what I think is wrong. I try to ask what he or she wanted to say in a scene. Then I can say, well, maybe you're not saying it yet, or maybe I am missing it for some reason. The most negative thing you can say to a writer is, 'I don't like this scene but I don't know why.' " If I'm any good at it - and I'm sure writers who didn't like working with me would say not - it's because I believe the person who has written it has to provide the answer."
This acuity led to a fairly swift TV trajectory from hopeless press office secretary to keen production assistant on ABC's long-running series Armchair Theatre. Like everyone else, she wanted to direct - but this was the early 1960s, and her bosses thought nothing of informing her that they didn't want to hire more women directors. But when Sydney Newman defected to the BBC he called her to ask what she knew about children. "I said, 'Absolutely nothing.' " Still, he had clocked her unconventional, anti-authoritarian attitude - "I was always questioning things" - and gave her a job that can't have looked too promising. She was to produce a brand new children's series - called Dr Who.
Four decades on, at the age of 65, she remains forthright. She offers unbridled praise for the BBC drama executives on The Cazalets and Jonathan Creek but is sceptical about BBC drama as a whole. "Over the years it has lost its nerve. There is less choice and less originality."
She's unimpressed by the make-do-and-mend policy that stitches together elements of previous hits and sews them all up with a soap star. "Now what happens is that people are being put in totally inappropriate parts simply because they're there. Some of them - and I'm certainly not going to name names - can't walk and talk at the same time whatever they're in." Channel 4 doesn't emerge unscathed either. "Their remit seems to have been, well, remitted. They can now have Richard and Judy and be exactly the same as everyone else."
In the 1970s and 1980s a head of drama like Lambert would commission scripts and series and then present them to the station controller. "We would offer, say, 20 programmes, knowing we needed 15 and the controller would pick and choose for their schedule. Now the controller wants to read all the scripts. That isn't what they should be doing - they shouldn't even have the time. Controllers should trust the people they've hired to bring them stuff of a certain quality. If they make a huge cock-up, you fire them and get someone else. But if you don't trust them, then why employ them? Power now rests with two or three people and if they're not up to it, there's going to be a problem."
These days she watches mostly news and documentaries. Drama, she feels, is being squeezed out, not least by the onslaught of gardening and DIY programmes. Fine in moderation, she says, but they have gone way beyond their entertainment value. "When you felt something was truly boring you used to say it was like watching grass grow or paint dry. Now that's all we see."
The Cazalets is on BBC1 tomorrow at 9pm.
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