Meet the BBC drama boss who brought us Sherlock, Call the Midwife, Poldark and Happy Valley

Ben Stephenson on the BBC's greatest shows, criticism, budget cuts, and why he can't commission 13 episodes of Sherlock a year...

Still, he’s happy that Sherlock is coming back for a special that will air this Christmas, with three more episodes planned for 2016. And – take note Poldark fan George Osborne – he believes that keeping people waiting (sometimes for more than a year) for their favourite shows “is a good thing”.

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In drama he doesn’t really see the BBC as having any major rival other than ITV, noting that Sky’s recent thriller Fortitude cost around £2m an episode – in the region of £25m for the 11-part series (with added marketing costs) – almost the entirety of the annual BBC2 drama budget. For one Fortitude we get The Fall, Peaky Blinders, Line of Duty and so much more. (Sky admits that the total figure is broadly correct, but says the cost is also shared with co-producers.)

“I think we make the best programmes,” he adds, insisting that he has not “lost a show I have wanted” to his rivals.

It is interesting to hear him so punchy. Most BBC executives tend to speak from the back foot, and he has come in for stick, some of it personal. “Criticism is all part of the job,” he says. “I do believe we [at the BBC] should be held to a higher account, and if you can’t deal with criticism you shouldn’t be in this game.” However he does admit that early on it took some getting used to. Did anything ever sting?

“My mum was thrilled I was called a ‘nincompoop’ in the Daily Mail,” he laughs. “I think it was a leader column. But no one cares about that stuff if you deliver good shows.”

Still, he doesn’t put through expenses any more because he “can’t be bothered to be put through all the rigmarole of it it. I was done for… I think I bought a book.” (Newspapers reported him buying “several” in 2010 on expenses, including the children’s story The Silver Sword, which cost £4.49, and crime novel Skinner’s Rules, for which he paid £13.98).

Despite his decision to leave for America, he remains passionate about the BBC and is known to be baffled at the amount of criticism the Corporation receives in the press. He also insists that the BBC cannot be cut any more. He agrees that a freezing of the licence fee – it has been capped at its 2010 level of £145.50 until 31 March 2017 – presents a real-terms decrease when you factor in inflation, and must stop.

“It really can’t keep cutting… and the truth is the market isn’t going to fill the gap of the BBC. There will be less drama and fewer jobs. It doesn’t make sense on an economic level. We do need to increase the licence fee… but I am leaving the country so people have to decide what they want to do.

“There isn’t TV in this country, there is the BBC. It wasn’t TV that started, it was the BBC. Someone invented the TV but it was the BBC that invented British television. You can’t just pull the rug from under that and think that nothing is going to change. And the BBC will be the poorer for it.

“We are funded less than we were in 2000. That’s not a moan, it’s a fact. So you look at your slate in a different way – it’s a reason why you don’t have lots of ten-or 20-part runs. You make the money go further by having lots of different dramas. But we are at a tipping point.” He says the cuts have required some tough choices. He needed to free up money to make more dramas, which is why he was forced to axe the popular Ripper Street, the Matthew Macfadyen drama that was picked up by Amazon Prime following an outcry from fans.

What about a long-running drama set around a single location, like Holby City or former ITV drama The Bill? Doesn’t the BBC need something new to complement long-running favourites like Casualty and EastEnders? The BBC is launching Cuffs, a midweek 8pm cop drama, at the end of this year, “but if I were here I still wouldn’t want it to be a 30-episode show, because I think you would quickly run out of story”.

As for other bugbears, he understands viewer concern about voiceovers blaring out over the credits, but says that he doesn’t have a “particular problem with it”. He says that it is avoided if it jars with the tone of the programme, but navigation is also important and the BBC has “other fish to fry. If we tell people what’s on next, more people will watch.”

He seems bemused about viewers who complain that some dramas are too dark, joking that “we didn’t have electricity in the olden days.”

And he says that the “silliest” moment of his tenure was appearing on the news reassuring viewers that audibility was a good thing after the Jamaica Inn mumbling storm. “Obviously I do think that. I do understand it.”

Stephenson loves the BBC so much he reputedly turned down £500k a year to defect to ITV (he won’t be drawn on whether this was true); but he will admit that he couldn’t resist the challenge of working in the US, where he expects to be joined by his partner, the novelist Tom Rob Smith, author of the hit novel (and now Hollywood film) Child 44. Smith is also currently writing a five-part BBC2 drama, London Spy, starring Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling.

“I will miss the BBC. It’s an amazing place to work. It’s an amazing job, to be able to broadcast to so many people.” He has admitted to being scared of his American odyssey but is relishing “a whole new adventure” and going somewhere “where you have to rely on your gut and your instinct”.

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He might return to the UK one day – but not as director of television or director-general of the BBC. “I would want to be making programmes, whatever it would be,” he says. “I would never want a job that wasn’t based in drama.”