LFF: Spotlight Conversation with Television Legend Jane Tranter

For the first Spotlight Event of the (virtual) London Film Festival 2020, TV legend Jane Tranter discussed her long and celebrated career as the producer behind many of your favourite series. As the former Controller of Drama Commissioning, and then the Head of Fiction, at the BBC, Tranter is possibly best known for being behind the 2005 revival of sci-fi classic Doctor Who, taking a risky chance that proved incredibly popular with critics and audiences alike.

Following success here, she left the BBC to become the head of the American arm of BBC Worldwide in 2009, responsible for developing both scripted and non-scripted series, given almost unprecedented control over BBC commissioning. Despite criticism for this, Tranter’s efforts were well received, though she later left this position to set up a production company based in Wales, Bad Wolf, with fellow former Doctor Who producer Julie Gardener. The company has gone on to produce dramas such as A Discovery of Witches and His Dark Materials, whilst Tranter herself has seen additional success as an executive producer behind HBO’s Succession.

All of which sounds very grand, but where exactly did Tranter get her love of, and passion for, television from? She began the conversation by discussing her childhood, and particularly what she used to watch, which she says was mainly comprised of authored and period drama, as well as an obsession with science-fiction such as Doctor Who and Star Trek. As a young girl, she states that this was an “often very lonely” experience, with sci-fi often geared more towards boys, though she is thankful that this is now changing – perhaps, in part, because of her efforts.

“You can tell a story in the 1960s-1970s-1980s and then tell that same story again in the noughties or in 2020, and there will always be a different interpretation on it” says Tranter, possibly referring to the longevity of Doctor Who, a series that she once loved and later was responsible for. The series came with a sense of modernity, and roles for women that were greatly expanded from the ‘screaming companion’ cliché that had dominated the latter years of the classic series. Now, 15 years later, the Doctor is played by a woman – a move that Tranter has undoubtedly played a part in through her work in earlier years.

Read our ranking of every series of Doctor Who here.

Tranter noted that the things she works on now still very much reflect her childhood, still sci-fi, still fantasy, still adaptations – things she loved growing up and would still want to watch now. Her love of episodic storytelling has always been her “driving vision”, which is no more evident than in her work, though she is glad she doesn’t “have to please anyone” anymore other than Bad Wolf, and after all, she’s the boss!

However, if you read this comment as a dig towards her former bosses at the BBC, you’d be sorely mistaken. Other than the infamous “don’t mess up Top Gear” advice, Tranter was given almost free reign, and reflects upon her time at the BBC, and the corporation in general, with warmth and fierce devotion. She notes that its great strength is its “interesting duality”, at once being the “people’s television” (through the license fee and the public services it provides) that can draw the nation together, but on the flip side, that the corporation has always had an “odd, outsiders, fist-in-the-air perspective”. This is in part because of the license fee, and what it can sell without advertising or subscription; yes it gets the license fee, but the BBC is still the underdog, and “this dichotomy keeps it honest and keeps it ambitious”.

She is reluctant to “announce [the BBC’s] death knell”, and wants to advocate for its continued future, but did have this to say about the current state of the corporation: “I do believe, in 2020, that we are beginning to move beyond a slightly sparked, affectionate, picking-over the BBC … to a ‘we are gonna pick the flesh off the bones of the BBC until there is a small, crumbling skeleton that is turning to dust left in its place.’”

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