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Stephen Arnell: Commissioning Skinner and co as first-time playwrights is an own goal for the BBC

Katherine Parkinson and Frank Skinner. Photos: Shutterstock Katherine Parkinson and Frank Skinner. Photos: Shutterstock
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BBC Arts’ decision to launch first-time playwright initiative, Debut, to create work for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, was something of a PR own goal for the corporation.

The BBC has a proud history in promoting new and young writing talent via the Writers Room, International Radio Playwriting Competition, Young Writers Award and other worthy programmes and projects.

But the launch of Debut with comedy promoter Avalon has caused a stir among the playwriting and TV communities. Why? Technically, the four first-time playwrights selected have never written a stage play, but rather than choosing up-and-coming writers looking to get a break in the theatre, they have chosen the opposite.

To back comedian and television personality Frank Skinner, actor Katherine Parkinson – who won a Bafta for her role in The IT Crowd – television director, writer and producer Beryl Richards and senior Buzzfeed editor and Guardian columnist Bim Adewunmi, seems extraordinary. They are all successful in their fields and have very little need of a leg up from the BBC.

‘The BBC unfortunately comes off as rather clueless in championing these productions’

Even more galling for many shocked at the announcement is that apparently none of them actually expressed the desire to write plays for this initiative. From the statement it seems they were approached by BBC Arts and Avalon with what looks like a gift-wrapped opportunity that aspiring playwrights would give their eye-teeth for.

Skinner, who incidentally is managed by Avalon, unconsciously rubbed salt in the wounds with this particularly tin-eared statement: “This is such a brilliant initiative. Thirty years in comedy and I never knew I was only one encouraging phone call away from writing a play. I put down the receiver and picked up my laptop. Suddenly, I feel like a man of the theatre. I am hankering for a fedora.” Good for you, Frank.

Parkinson blithely added: “I would never have thought to try and write a play unless asked to do so and I am delighted that the BBC and Avalon did ask!”

What was the BBC press office thinking when they issued the release, or for that matter what does BBC Arts believe it will get from the project? Certainly not the whole-hearted backing of the artistic community, if a sample of social media comments from playwrights and commentators can be taken as representative.

Playwright Suzette Coon, whose work has appeared at Southwark Playhouse, the Arcola and the King’s Head, wrote on Twitter: “These people are already hugely successful. New writers are just going to look at this and think what’s the point?”

Poet Andrew Blair added: “To encourage new writers the BBC has given playwriting opportunities to Frank Skinner, demonstrating what anyone who is one of the most famous comedians in the country can achieve.”

Journalist, playwright and producer David Levesley tweeted that he could not “fathom the logic” of the BBC’s thinking, which seemed to suggest the only way to find a new play was to commission big names “and not look to develop exciting voices that already exist as playwrights and are desperate for the opportunity”. Playwright Lulu Raczka added: “Stuff like this makes young writers think what’s the point – if Frank Skinner is getting the things I’m applying for – why bother?”

Avalon seems to be the winner in this scenario, as it can be seen, superficially, to be sponsoring the work of first-time writers and enjoying what positive publicity there is. Meanwhile, the BBC unfortunately comes off as rather clueless in championing these productions – which also has the effect of taking the spotlight off the corporation’s long-established work in encouraging new writing talent.

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