You may not have heard of him but you have certainly enjoyed his shows. His name is Ben Stephenson, and he’s the BBC’s controller of drama commissioning, who oversees a budget of nigh on £300m a year and has brought hits such as Poldark, Sherlock, Wolf Hall, Call the Midwife, The Missing, Line of Duty and The Fall to your living rooms.
But they have certainly heard about this lean and likeable 38-year-old in America, where he has just been poached to run the TV department of Bad Robot, the company owned and run by Star Wars and Star Trek director JJ Abrams (it’s just been announced that his successor is the BBC’s current head of independent drama, Polly Hill). And being a man steeped in television, a medium he loves, he has given his one and only farewell interview to Radio Times.
“I flew back in from New York this weekend and of course the first thing I bought was Radio Times,” says Stephenson (left) sitting in a meeting room at the BBC, an institution where he has worked for ten years (seven as drama boss). Meeting room?
Stephenson, in true BBC (or rather W1A) fashion, doesn’t have an office. “I wouldn’t mind one,” he laughs. Los Angeles is likely to oblige.
He certainly deserves one. Stephenson has helped modernise BBC1 drama, introducing shows like Happy Valley and The Missing and proving the BBC could do so much more than lavish period pieces. “Sometimes there is a view that mainstream is a dirty word and you have to speak down to an audience,” he says. “But people want stories they can really connect with.”
His other achievements include the revival of drama on BBC2, with returning shows Top of The Lake, Peaky Blinders, Line of Duty and The Fall among his hits. “The BBC is now the best place for writers to work in the country,” he maintains.
Yet there have been critics. George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer (as we went to press), told Radio Times recently that BBC drama is being left behind in the US-dominated box-set market and that we should “run with our successes” more. Like so many people, Osborne loved Poldark and is keen to have more.
So he will be glad to hear that the outgoing boss firmly believes the drama that made Aidan Turner a major star will more than likely run for another five series, covering all 12 of Winston Graham’s novels (the first series encompassed two).
But in response to Osborne’s criticism, Stephenson says it’s not the British way to do long-running series like The West Wing – and he can’t see that changing. “The truth is the British system is the British system and the US has the US system,” he deadpans. “Both are brilliant, but financially we are not a country that can make 24-part runs.
“I believe it would be foolhardy. If you do 24 episodes of one thing you can’t do others. You wouldn’t make Happy Valley and The Missing. The budget of BBC2 drama is under £30m a year. We could make one 24-part series, and then all the other writers wouldn’t be employed.
“If we did 13 episodes of Sherlock a year it would swallow most of our budget and it would be worse at 13 episodes. And Benedict Cumberbatch wouldn’t do it. We wouldn’t do it. It isn’t what Britain is. We will do Sherlock as long as the talent want to do it. It’s such a compliment that Benedict and Martin Freeman want to do it. They don’t need to do it. They love the roles.”