Spooks returns to our screens next week, but its creator is returning to Oxford. The man behind the show, Stephen Garrett, has just been appointed Oxford University’s News International Visiting Professor of Broadcast Media. Having read his undergraduate degree at Merton College, he is now Executive Chairman of Kudos Film & Television Ltd, one of Britain’s premier television production companies, which, in addition to Spooks, produces Hustle and Life on Mars.
Law didn’t hold much fascination for Garrett at Oxford. ‘I think the degree’s called jurisprudence, which just kind of emphasises how detached it was from the real world. The aspiration for a career in law lasted about half a term and I realised that I didn’t like lawyers terribly much. The terrifying thing about law is that the people you study with are the people you’re going to be stuck with for the rest of your life, so the prospect seemed doubly grim.’ Instead, he filled his time working for and editing Isis, Oxford’s independent student magazine.
‘It was something I always wanted to do. At Freshers Fair I think I just accosted the Isis people and said I wanted to write. I started writing film reviews and got in that way, did some photography and writing features, became features editor and then editor.’ Garrett didn’t actually engage in any drama or film whilst at university – although clearly you couldn’t exactly pick up a camera and shoot for Film Cuppers in the same way that we can today. ‘No not at all, I didn’t do any drama or direction while I was at Oxford. I wrote about film, thought about film, but didn’t actually do it.’
His first experience of the TV industry was trying to get his first job. The standard route was to apply to the BBC, where Garrett actually failed to get in. ‘I got as far as an interview there, and there were three very grey men talking to me, and one of them was completely silent for about 20 minutes. And then he turned to me and looked up from his crossword or whatever he was doing, and said: ‘Hmm, you want to make films, don’t you?’ and with a kind of puppyish excitement I said yes. ‘Ahh,’ he said, and I realised I was dead. So I didn’t get into the BBC. I then wrote to the others – there were then a number of ITV companies around – so I wrote to some of them and ended up with them pretty much straight after leaving Oxford. I had four weeks off and then moved up to Manchester to work for Granada, where I started in local news. It was the late 70s and it was a really interesting time to be there, incredibly vibrant.’ Garrett’s enthusiasm about the industry has clearly endured throughout his career – his excitement when talking about the early days is palpable.
In his lectures, Garrett will address TV drama, which has formed the backbone of his career, although originally he had more ambitions of more Hollywood-esque proportions. ‘If I’m being honest, my aspiration when leaving Oxford was to work in the movies, and to work as a director. And I suppose around my mid-twenties I became much more excited by the possibilities of TV drama, and recognised that if I had skills they were probably as a producer rather than as a director.
‘The world is full of mediocre directors and I didn’t really want to join their ranks. Film is pretty much an impossible dream for most people. There are people languishing around Soho who call themselves producers who’ve literally never made a film and never will.
‘What’s great about television is it’s immediate, it really happens and even if it’s relatively unsuccessful it’s still watched by a lot of people. When you can make successful returning series as I’ve been lucky enough to do with Spooks, Ashes to Ashes, Hustle and Life on Mars, which will routinely be watched by six million people each week, you just feel you’re doing something worthwhile because you’re entertaining a lot of people. Television just seems to connect with the world better than a lot of film. That said, would I give my eye teeth to produce a staggeringly successful movie-sure-and we’re still trying!’
‘Pat yourself on the back for going to a university where they don’t do media studies’
On the subject of media studies degrees – which Oxford doesn’t offer, Garrett has mixed feelings. He will be attached to the English Faculty, despite his title of Professor of Broadcast Media. ‘I actually think the best people who work in film and television are those who come to it with a bunch of other ideas and stimuli from other areas. I think there’s something slightly solipsistic about studying media, particularly on an undergraduate basis. You know the expression ‘pop will eat itself’-I think the same is true of TV and film. If that’s all you know about, then what have you got to say about the world?’ I’m actually all for people studying completely random things and then coming into film and television because their brains will be excited about other stuff. I mean, would we turn down someone who did media if they seem interesting-no. But we’ve got a very eclectic bunch.’
‘Don’t worry about not studying media studies – pat yourself on the back for going to a university where they don’t do media studies,’ Garrett advises. ‘I think you just want someone who’s engaged with the world. You cannot believe the number of bland CVs I get, where no creative effort has been put into the presentation of a relatively useful past. And then you just want to see that someone’s already interested in the world. If someone’s got involved in student journalism or radio or tried to make their own short film or directed plays. If people come to you straight out of uni and they don’t seem to have made any attempt, during term time or during the vacations, to do something that might add value to their experience, you have to feel that they’re being slightly cynical in applying to you and not really that committed.’
When asked what work he is most proud of in his own career, Garrett struggles to pin down a specific production. ‘If I’d rubbed a magic lamp while I was at Oxford, and the genie had asked me for a wish, I probably would have said that if I could make one successful film or TV series in my lifetime I’d be satisfied. In a way, it all started with Spooks which of all of our shows, was the one that was my idea, my title and then a whole group of people came on board to make it as fabulous and successful as it now is. Growing a business and bringing a group of wonderful people together was extraordinarily fulfilling and not something I set out to do.’
Kudos originally pitched Spooks to Channel 4, ITV and BBC, who all said no. ‘ITV memorably said, ‘Well with the end of the Cold War, there aren’t really enemies – who cares about spies?” Garrett explains wryly. ‘We’d done quite a bit of research for storylines, and about half-way down our list was a guy called Osama bin Laden and the fact that he’d tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1994 – so he was on our list but not on the CIA’s. And anyway, eventually it coincided with a change of team at the BBC, so we re-pitched it and got it. So it almost didn’t happen. That’s true of almost everything we’ve done actually. Life on Mars was rejected for almost seven years. Things that in hindsight seem like no-brainers don’t seem like no-brainers at the time. There was no tradition of spy dramas. Weirdly, 24 was simultaneously being developed in the States as the show Alias. So there was something in the ether as these spy dramas all bubbled to the surface around the same time.’
‘Osama bin Laden was on our list, but not on the CIA’s’
Clearly the events of September 11th 2001 had great repercussions for a show about terrorists and spies that was in production. ‘Yes, as with 24, we were in production when 9.11 happened. We were initially writing a pre-9.11 show with a very different sense of who the enemies might be, and suddenly had to at very short notice recalibrate the show for a changed world. We thought at the time that the show would be a disaster because the last thing audiences would want would be a reminder of how scary the world has become. Oddly the very opposite is true; people seemed to take comfort in reality (albeit a very heightened version) thrust down their throats week in week out, when Spooks launched. I think it oddly helped make it as successful as it became, rather than hindrance.’
MI5, the real life organization that Spooks is based on, was initially helpful in the research process for the production. ‘Very uncharacteristically, when Spooks launched, MI5 leaked their approval to the press, which doubled their number of applicants. And obviously post 9.11 they needed to recruit. But then about 6 weeks later they recanted, because they said although they were getting more applicants, they were all the wrong kind of applicants, full of people who thought they could breeze around Britain in Armani suits saving the planet. Our amiable relationship faded away.’
Garrett’s favourite aspects of his job from day to day involve the dynamic, creative process of writing – although he’s clear that that’s not where his own skills lie.
‘When you’re exposed to as I am, day in day out, in some cases genius writers, you realise what your own limitations might be. But actually sitting in a room with a great writer, there’s probably nothing quite as thrilling as that. It’s watching imagination happen, literally before your eyes, is thrilling. Seeing a great idea at the start as a germ and watching that take fruit. It’s literally at it’s best, it’s the creative process in flower. There are times when that gets bogged down in the actual legal complexity of making anything. But when you can find those moments of pure creativity (other people’s not mine!) that’s very exciting.’