Bring back the TV Tycoons

Once, scheming bosses and boardroom battles got top audience ratings. So why, asks John Morrish, have the colourful business characters been written out of the script?

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

The mood in the boardroom is tense. The young man in the chair addresses the meeting: 'I am proposing a change in the reporting procedure for board meetings. It will save a lot of time in future if we can have written reports from the various department heads.' The department heads grumble, then move on to the next item. 'We're having something of a bottleneck with our container traffic through Geneva to Milan,' says one.

It doesn't sound like a recipe for excitement, but The Brothers, the BBC drama in which this scene appeared, was essential Sunday evening viewing in the 1970s. People rushed home to see it. Vicars cut short their sermons. The cast were regularly mobbed, especially abroad; they even released a Christmas record in Holland. Indeed, drama series set in the world of business were a staple of British television from the early 1960s right through to the start of the '90s, when they disappeared from our screens. The loss is television's: business is a world of colourful characters and dramatic stories, but you wouldn't believe that from watching the box, where it is represented only by The Money Programme, the shenanigans of The Apprentice, the bear-pit of Dragons' Den, and an occasional, villainous role in paranoid dramas like The Whistleblowers.

Things used to be very different. In the '60s, the years of Harold Wilson's supposed whote-hot technological revolution, industry was considered exciting. In 1963, The Plane Makers, made by Associated Television, dealt with the development of a new British aircraft. It began with scenes of shopfloor conflict, but ATV's boss Lew Grade found them boring, reasoning that viewers - who might very well have worked in manufacturing - did not want the noise and grime of the factory when they were at home. The result was a new and more glamorous spin-off, The Power Game, which ran until 1969. In it, former plane-maker John Wilder, now Sir John, became a rapacious merchant banker.

In 1965, the BBC launched a rival series called Mogul, about an oil company of that name. After one series, it was renamed The Troubleshooters and focused more on oil exploration, but it still found time for boardroom struggles. It was followed by The Brothers, featuring a family haulage firm called Hammond Transport Services. A soap, in essence, with a lot of bedroom action, it still featured stories about the company's expansion plans, union conflicts, and struggles between the three Hammond brothers and their late father's mistress for control of the firm.

Then came Howards' Way, created by the same producer, Gerard Glaister, as a similar family saga, but more aspirational, with boats replacing trucks for up-market appeal. A cut-price British Dallas, it was heartily mocked by the critics - 'a Kentucky Fried Series, in which ingredients are selected by computer and blended in a Moulinex' - but watched by a weekly audience of 12 million. It came off the screen three days before the resignation of Margaret Thatcher, and, in a sense, marked the end of the business drama in Britain.

What live on are workplace-based comedies, many of them - The Smoking Room, for instance - following the lead of The Office, in which Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant depicted the petty tensions and dramas of working life over 14 episodes while scrupulously avoiding showing anyone doing any work. And there are also the 'reality' shows, factual soap operas set in real workplaces, such as ITV's long-running Airline, based on the day-to-day travails of easyJet and its passengers.

Such programmes have the undeniable advantage of being cheap to make. What's missing, though, is straight drama that takes business and entrepreneurship seriously. Agent Mark Berlin says the television writers he represents are simply not coming up with those ideas. 'It's just fashion. Something isn't perceived as an area that you should write about.' Partly, that may be due to a lack of relevant experience. Wilfred Greatorex, creator of The Power Game, had been a successful journalist who mixed with business people. Today, says Berlin, 'most people who are writers started out as writers. They write about what interests them, and business just hasn't arisen. Most writers probably feel so removed from that world that it doesn't occur to them. They don't know it.'

Helen Farrall, a successful writer of series television, confirms writers' reluctance. She recalls working on Emmerdale when a storyline arose about the inheritance of a farm, a perennial plotline in family business series. 'We would sit in story conferences and none of the writers liked writing business stories: they thought it was boring. They thought the audience weren't interested in it.'

But does this prove that the whole creative world has a deep-seated antipathy to business? 'I think you could make too much of that,' says acclaimed drama producer Tony Garnett, whose CV runs from Cathy Come Home in the 1960s to This Life, the quintessential series of the '90s. 'Writers will take a story from wherever they can find it.'

But Garnett points to problems with depicting business in television series. Drama depends on what professionals call 'the precinct', which is where the action happens. A place of work can be a good precinct, but it has to be 'sexy', and business is no longer seen that way. Secondly, the characters have to be people the television audience can identify with. When business features today, it is seen from shopfloor level, looking up, as in Paul Abbott's factory-based drama Clocking Off. And business stories are only a means to an end: generating emotion.

Says Farrall: 'I think the perception, rightly or wrongly, is that viewers want sex stories, they want affairs, they want intrigue.' Interestingly, though, while big business and the boardroom have effectively disappeared, entrepreneurship - of a sort - is a staple of the soaps. But it's a poor shadow of reality. Real life has Philip Green; TV has Ian Beale.

The boardroom is shunned in favour of more immediately exciting precincts: hospitals, doctors' surgeries, police stations, vets' practices, legal firms. 'It's no accident that cops 'n' docs are the mainstay of one-hour series drama, and have been from the beginning,' says Garnett. 'The leading characters can be made very sympathetic. And the stories walk through the door every week. There is a crime, it has to be solved, our leading character can solve it. He solves it and there's closure at the end of the hour. It's very neat and satisfying. And with cops 'n' docs, it's a matter of life and death. People in business think it is, but it ain't.'

Yet Garnett is more optimistic than most about the possibilities for business drama. His firm World Productions created Attachments, the most recent home-grown attempt, which dealt with the rise and fall of a dot.com company. It was not a popular success. Heads of drama and others with commissioning responsibility have since reverted to their most conservative instincts. 'People are playing it very safe at the moment,' confirms Farrall, who is working on the daytime soap Doctors.

Garnett himself is more open-minded. 'Because you can't do every show about a cop or a doc or a lawyer,' he says, 'we are always trying to think where we can find a new precinct that will give us some drama and allow us to show people where the world is going.'

He notes, for instance, that there has never been a drama series that reflects the rise of women in the boardroom, or anything that represents Britain's shift away from manufacturing towards financial services. 'But it's a difficult nut to crack. How do you make those rich flash bastards sympathetic to the audience?' And yet, as we talk, he warms to the idea. 'A really good Machiavellian, power-hungry villain would be a great character: look at JR. That might get an audience. Haven't the last few years been about aspiration and conspicuous consumption? You'd think that it was in the air to do a show like that.

'You'd better write it,' he suggests, 'and we'll do it. There is a gap in the market, as your readers would say.'

ACTING BIG TV TYCOONS OF YESTERYEAR

- John Wilder (Patrick Wymark)

In The Plane Makers (1963-65), Wilder played the hard-nosed MD of aircraft maker Scott Furlong. ATV boss Lew Grade found the format boring and brought Wilder back as a merchant banker in The Power Game (1965-69). Wymark, a mild man in real life, was so convincing that several firms offered him a boardroom post.

- Paul Merroney (Colin Baker)

Merroney arrived in The Brothers (1972-76) as a Machiavellian financier who seizes control of the Hammond brothers' haulage company and tries to drag it into the 1970s. The series was an influential prototype for many later business soaps. Baker was once punched in the street by a man enraged by his character's behaviour.

- Ken Masters (Stephen Yardley)

In Howards' Way (1985-90), Masters introduced a new kind of businessman, a medallion man (it was the '80s, after all), lecher and wide-boy who struggles to get the better of the series' old-school businessmen like Charles Frere (Tony Anholt), who consistently underestimate him. Britain's answer to JR Ewing (see below).

- Mike Baldwin (Johnny Briggs)

Owner of Baldwin Casuals, the clothing factory in Coronation Street, as well as a nightclub, a garage and various other businesses. A terrible employer and a notorious lecher, Mike Baldwin apparently had 25 girlfriends and four wives before being written out of the soap with Alzheimer's and a heart attack.

- CJ (John Barron)

In The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-79), David Nobbs' satire on business life, CJ was the overbearing boss of Sunshine Desserts. Nobbs saw him as an entrepreneur, but Barron played him as an old-school manager who spoke in cliches. Over three series, his catchphrase 'I didn't get where I am today ...' was heard more than 60 times.

- JR Ewing (Larry Hagman)

The most notorious villain of the 1980s, JR was a monstrously greedy and egomaniacal oil baron in Dallas (1978-91). Originally a minor character, he rapidly took over the show, especially when he was the target of a murder plot. The identification of his assailant - 'Who shot JR?' - became an international obsession.

- Alexis Carrington (Joan Collins)

In Dynasty (1981-89), Alexis was a female JR Ewing. Head of Colby Oil, her double-dealing character was said to be modelled on Livia in I Claudius and credited by creator Aaron Spelling with saving the show. Dynasty always had a distant relationship with reality. At one point Alexis' daughter was abducted by a UFO.

- Peter and John (Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry)

In a series of sketches in A Bit Of Fry And Laurie (1989-95), Peter and John were a pair of shirt-sleeved businessmen, struggling with John's ex-wife Marjorie for control of Derwent Enterprises and booming business cliches and maiden-aunt oaths at each other: a thinly veiled parody of Howards' Way.

- David Brent (Ricky Gervais)

In The Office (2001-03), David Brent 'manages' the Slough branch of paper merchants Wernham Hogg, although he thinks of himself as a 'chilled-out entertainer'. Vain and self-interested, he's convinced that he is liked and respected by his staff - 'A friend first, a boss second'. A comic creation on a par with Basil Fawlty.

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