Wolf Hall producer: “Freezing the licence fee would be death by attrition” for the BBC

Colin Callender, the former HBO boss turned executive producer whose magisterial Wolf Hall premieres on BBC1, issues a crie-de-coeur about the level of BBC’s funding

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Colin Callender, the executive producer of BBC1 drama Wolf Hall, has said that the BBC’s funding must be increased if the institution is to survive.

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Speaking to RadioTimes.com on the eve of the premiere of his long-awaited Tudor drama Wolf Hall starring Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis, Callender said that “freezing the licence fee would be death by attrition, death by a thousand cuts.”

He added: “That will impact the quality of work that’s being made and it will have a major financial impact on the independent sector, a large part of whom depend for their livelihood on commissions from the BBC.”

The fee, which stands at £145.50 was frozen in 2010 for the six year period of its current charter – the timespan allotted to the BBC by Parliament. The next charter determining the level of the fee after 2016 is currently being negotiated and Callender said that it would be fatal for the Corporation if it were not increased.

“The BBC remains the benchmark by which drama around the world is judged, there’s no question about that,” said the executive who was President of HBO Films from 1999 to 2008.

“The BBC is the only broadcaster in the world that could make a drama like Wolf Hall. The finest BBC drama stands head and shoulders with pride alongside the best that comes out of America.

“There is a lot of talk about American drama and how great it is. But the truth is, in England we only see the very very cream of the crop. For every Breaking Bad, and Mad Men and for every episode of The Wire there are dozens of shows that we don’t see in England that are nowhere close to that level of quality.

“Last year the show that won more Emmys than any other show was Sherlock. It won seven and Breaking Bad won six.”

Callender’s comments echo those of Wolf Hall producer Peter Kosminsky who delivered an impassioned defence of the Corporation at the drama’s UK premiere before Christmas.

“At its best the BBC is there to speak truth to power and that is something that every free society, every democracy badly needs,” said Kosminsky whose drama based on Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies have received favourable pre-publicity.

“And in my opinion that’s because of its unique funding because it is largely immune from the pressures of commercialism and because it exists at arms length, at least in theory, from government.

“To me at least it is a uniquely precious institution and one of the very few things of which we as a nation can be unequivocally proud and I beg you personally please don’t let us piss it away or, worse, let it go by default for some short term financial or political advantage. Because once it’s gone we will never get it back.”

On Wolf Hall, Callender said: “It is a very modern piece even though it is about people who lived 500 hundred years ago.

“It’s a historical drama for a modern audience. That’s what we hoped it would be from the get-go and I hope that’s how audiences respond to it.”

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Wolf Hall airs on BBC1 tonight at 9pm