Transcript of Julie Gardner session as BBC Production Unlocked Oct 2023

Production Unlocked was held at Tramshed Cardiff with an exciting programme of masterclasses, panel discussions and practical skills sessions focusing on production.
In conversation with Julie Gardner MBE – from Wales to LA and back was held on 17 October 2023

Gwenan: Now I’d like to give a very warm welcome to Julie Gardner. I’d be really interested to hear about your career… I know that most people will see you nowadays as an exec producer and from co-founding Bad Wolf with Jane Tranter in 2015. But you’ve come such a long way. I’m interested in how you got into the industry in the first place.

Julie: I mean, people sometimes say it’s accidental and it never quite is, there’s always maybe a bit behind what happened. But I graduated with a master’s degree in Renaissance Studies, which was completely useless in terms of getting a practical job. And it was a recession, living in London, couldn’t get a job. And so I ended up going back home to live while I was home. I managed to get work as a lecturer in the university.

Okay. Because my master’s degree, yeah. But the thing that really saved me was I grew up in Glynneath and there was a training centre there and I learned to type and it was that basic! And so while I was learning to type, I was applying for jobs at the BBC. And eventually got taken on as a secretary.

So did you think at that point right, okay, I’ve got into this, I know where I want to go here?

I didn’t really know anything. I grew up in Glynneath. No one was really getting into the TV industry. The way I thought I would do something interesting was academia. I was a real kind of bookish child. And I thought for ages I’d be a lecturer, but the whole time I was too much of a talker.

I used to get bored in the library and keep wandering off and having cups of coffee. And the whole time I was watching TV and movies. So that was where I knew I had a real passion. And it was the Glynneath Training Centre and then my first step on the ladder at the BBC that really helped me.

But I didn’t know anything about TV and I was Charlie Pattinson’s secretary on Our Friends in the North. Nicola Shindler, who is very well known as the founder of Red Productions – it was her first assisting producing job. And I knew absolutely nothing. I was hopeless. I was constantly muddling up, you know, the scripts, but at that time it was marvellous because Peter Flannery, the writer on Our Friends in the North was rewriting as he went.

And this was before email. So he was faxing rewrites and I was sitting next to the fax machine. And that was how I realized that this was my power moment. He was sending rewrites through to the producer, and because I genuinely didn’t know the etiquette at all, the producer would be at lunch and he would come in and say, has Peter delivered those rewrites?

And I’d be like, yes, he’s just rewriting page 12. And the producer would be like, why? And it was because Peter had phoned me to see if the pages had arrived and I’d have thoughts on them. And I didn’t realize that that was not appropriate because no one told me. So that was how I kind of started. I became a script reader and a script editor and a producer and everything else from that.

Then you moved up the ladder and you worked at LWT for a while as well. But I’m just trying to sort of get an idea of what production was like at that sort of time in Cardiff in Wales. What was going on?

I rejoined the BBC as Head of Drama for BBC Wales. I think it was 2003, 2004. And at that time, BBC Wales was very successful in local programming, particularly the show Belonging and obviously the ongoing success of Pobol y Cwm, but BBC Wales did not have network shows, and all the other nations and regions were doing very well. They had Monarch of the Glen, they had Ballykissangel, but Wales didn’t have that big network show.

And so I was employed to come in and find that. And it really started with Casanova, which I was developing at LWT with Russell T Davies. And LWT were wobbling about whether they should make it or not. And when I got offered the job to come to the BBC, I said, again, it’s like the fax machine example. I said, okay, I’ll come, but can we possibly make Casanova? Could I bring that with me? And that went to Red Productions.

It was made out of Manchester, but that was my first relationship with Russell. What I didn’t know was at the time, Jane Tranter, who was the commissioner of drama, was also thinking about rebooting Doctor Who. And she and Russell, they were kind of circling each other, they kind of knew there was a passion there. And obviously Russell was Welsh, and he’d never worked for BBC Wales, but he had a relationship with me. It started to fall into alignment.

So this contact element within the industry. I think we all know fundamentally it’s really, really important as well, but that can be a strong contributory factor.

I think that’s right, but I think that grows over years because it’s about relationships. It’s not transactional. It’s not, oh, he knows, she knows, it’s about who do you trust because the work is long and the work is hard. The work is often very personal. It’s increasingly specialised.

I don’t think we would be making Doctor Who now in the way that we do if Jane Tranter hadn’t made His Dark Materials for Bad Wolf. You know, there’s the skills and experience there. So it kind of all builds, its all kind of like an onion. There’s lots of layers building on top of each other.

I want to talk about your move to LA because it sounds terribly glamorous.

Yes. It’s not.

Like everything in reality, I suppose, you’ve got to get the job done, haven’t you. But talking about BBC Worldwide Productions can you tell us a little bit about that move and how that came about? And what it’s like?

Well, I always laugh with Jane and Russell that we had to leave the country when we left Doctor Who, that it was such a big, emotional experience to make that show in the years between 2004 and 2009/10, that I needed to leave the country to do something else.

I don’t know why we moved to America. I think it was my fault because I, and I know this sounds really ludicrous, but I think it’s because as a kid growing up, it was like a special treat to watch Dallas with my dad. And I think I had this idea that America was like Dallas and it was going to be all marvellous and swimming pools.

I had always wanted to go to America and there’d always been something. It’s crazy to think, but I watched a lot of American TV. I’d done co-productions with HBO. I was kind of interested in what it would feel like to be there. And so we had this opportunity, Jane and I, to go to LA and run BBC Worldwide Productions.

And BBC Worldwide Productions in America is now called BBC Studios, but it exists to make money to send back to support the license fee. So the most successful show there is the long running Dancing with the Stars. So the operation was successful in reality. And the BBC at that point wanted to do more scripted programming.

And that’s what we did there. And it was this extraordinary experience. I loved it because it’s tough. The town is tough. It’s very competitive. It’s very chaotic. It’s very welcoming, but I think it’s also quite tribal because people have grown up with each other, and there’s a real hierarchy of people starting in the mailroom and they become assistants and then they join writers’ rooms.

I think I was quite naive when I went there for what it would be like, because I was making these rash statements about, you know, I want to start over and then you realize, God, it’s hard work starting over. It’s really not easy, but it was never boring. We made a US version of Getting On, and then we made some original programming like Da Vinci’s Demons, which we were able to bring back into Wales.

How difficult was it to persuade them in the US that something like that could be produced here in Wales?

Without Jane and I in LA, it would never have come to Wales, because there’s just too much choice. When we moved Da Vinci to Swansea, we did budgets all around the world. We did budgets looking at Vancouver for the tax break. We did budgets in Eastern Europe because of the stages and the craftsmanship for period. We did budgets in the UK and Wales. You know, we really looked at everything and it was Jane and my knowledge of Wales and our passion to bring things back here and knowing how great the crews were that we were able to win through.

I think people like to dramatise. It wasn’t like there was resistance to Wales. People just didn’t know in America. It’s very, very competitive and the choice about where you locate a show is a massive consideration financially.

So a lot of flying the flag.

Yes, I love a bit of that. When you are abroad you become more Welsh, it’s really strange. I’ve got this (I’m really embarrassed) Union Jack doormat. I’d never have that if I lived here. But you kind of do in America. It’s kind of okay and kitschy.

I want to talk a little bit about The Winter King.

So, it’s a King Arthur series, based on Bernard Cornwell’s trilogy of novels The Warlord Chronicles. We got it funded through MGM+ as the US broadcaster, ITVX as the UK broadcaster, plus the tax break and Sony as a distributor. So you put all the money together to make something like that. And in that example, the Americans had the premiere. So, it’s already gone out on MGM+. It’ll come to ITV in December.

It looks very spectacular.

Yes. I mean, it’s nerve-racking because Game of Thrones casts a very long, big shadow. And we had nowhere like the budget of a show like that. So, you have to be really focused on where you spend the money and how you focus and how you tell, hopefully, quite an epic story, but you make it quite intimate and quite emotional.

And we worked with brilliant crew, we were based out of Bristol and we shot in Wales and in the West Country. And I think the landscapes that we were able to access really plays a character in the piece. It was amazing to be here.

So the financial aspect is always quite a challenge.

Oh, always. Yes. You never have enough money. You always want to spend more. It’s like, no matter how much you earn, you always could spend your salary, can’t you? So, you can always spend a production budget.

But how do you pull it back on a practical level? Is it a constant decision making as you go along with that side of things?

Yeah, it’s what you do up front. It’s how you develop the scripts in the first place. You go into that development feeling realistic or targeting a broad budget. You make decisions along the way. You work out which episodes are going to be cheaper than some others, so some others might have guest characters or might have a range of locations or a wider amount of stunts.

Other episodes might be more domestic, so you’re balancing as you go, so that you make the overall budget work. And I love all of that because I think sometimes people think there’s a division between the creative work and the practical work. And actually, that kind of budgeting is creative because you’re really making decisions about what goes on screen. So, I always feel like it really meshes together.

You wanted to talk about I Hate Suzie, which you worked on.

Yes. Now I always want to talk about anything Billie Piper’s in, frankly.

Yes. This quote, which I found where you said “Billie Piper has the kind of charisma to keep national grids ablaze. The camera simply loves her. She’s a rare talent and an utter privilege to work with.” Tell us a little bit about, about that.

Well, the reason to talk about I Hate Suzie is when people look at the breadth of what Bad Wolf does, on one hand you’ve got I Hate Suzie, which is a very British piece in some ways, quite a domestic piece. It’s saying very big things, but it’s quite intimate. And it’s an original piece by Lucy Prebble and Billie Piper. So you’ve got that at one end.

And then at the other end you’ve got things like His Dark Materials or The Winter King based on IP, or obviously Doctor Who and there’s a range so you’re using, as a producer, the same skills in very different ways for very different budgets, very different kind of production needs.

Also, I live in LA. I’m in the UK a lot Executive Producing those shows in the UK, but also as a Producer I work in a very different way in the US. So we’ve just made a show called Lady in the Lake for Apple in the US. It’s a limited series that shot in Baltimore last year, starring Natalie Portman. It’s not out yet. It’ll be out in 2024. And my job as a Producer in the US is very different to my job here. I kind of like the diversity of roles because there’s a very common thread in the work that I do, but being a Producer is not a one shoe fits all. Every show is bespoke, but with very common work.

I Hate Suzie is so different to something like The Winter King. That must be quite exciting and challenging in the same way.

Yes. I mean, everything Bad Wolf does, you’re trying to say something about how people live today and what our concerns are and what the human condition is, whether you’re doing a period piece, a fantasy piece or something contemporary set.

That’s the common thread. I think that’s why every Producer working in fiction ultimately works and does the job we do. But as I said, they all have very common needs. You know, you’re battling the budget on I Hate Suzie, just like you’re battling the budget on The Winter King. Or you’re trying to get a writer’s vision on screen. In a very similar way, your days are different. The conversations can sometimes be different. The focus of your stress can be different.

But it sounds as if you enjoy that huge variety.

I do. I don’t know anything else. I’m kind of institutionalised now. I don’t know how else to be.

We’ve got to talk about Doctor Who.

Have we?

Yes, I’m afraid we have. Sorry, Julie. Doctor Who coming to Wales. I mean, that was a huge, huge milestone and where we are now with it. But how do you look back at those days? Was it stressful, fun, challenging, exciting, all of the above?

It was all of the above and a thousand times more. I mean, the show is the great love of my life. It’s the thing that I will be remembered for without question and it dominated my life and dominates my life again. I just love it. I love, I love the show. I love the format. I love the kind of stories you can tell.

I mean, without question in my career, the two greatest influences in my life are Jane Tranter and Russell T Davies. And, you know, we worked in a particular way. Together in 2004 to 2009, and we’re back together in a slightly different shape, but the conversations are again the same but different. And it’s the same show, but slightly not. And, for me personally, it was a big thing to come back. I knew instantly, as soon as Russell called me, that we would do it together. There was absolutely no way I could ever have imagined him doing the show and me not being part of it.

But emotionally, it was quite a big thing to think about because, as I say, it defined so much of my career and it meant so much. And in that five, six-year period, we didn’t just make Doctor Who, we made Torchwood, we made the Sarah Jane Adventures, we did the concerts, we did the podcast, you know, we did so many other things that we had a family of people that I care about really deeply and we really built an infrastructure here.

When Doctor Who came to Wales the crewing side of things, the practicalities, was that a little bit overwhelming? How did it all come together?

Do you know, I was never overwhelmed because it was just too exciting and frankly, I was too busy. So, there was never time to be overwhelmed, but not everyone was happy at that time. You know, we look back and think, oh yeah, of course it was meant to be in Cardiff. People were moaning quite a bit. There was quite a bit of a sense of, ‘Oh, this is a London show. It’s not going to be a Wales show’.

The phrase I kept hearing was, ‘Oh, it’s been driven down the motorway’. And you’d be like, what does that mean? But I think, 20 years later, almost, I think we know it’s a Wales show. And, you go where the work is, and you go where the locations are, and you go where the crews are, and Wales has amazing crews and landscapes, and of course we should be here.

Now, obviously, the expertise has built up, and the experience, and some wonderful crews are here now, but at that time, was it, was it more challenging?

Yes, it was, but that wasn’t so much about Wales. It was just very challenging to make that kind of show for primetime BBC or primetime anywhere. It really was, we had to learn a lot. We had to build from the ground up. You know, I remember our first block was four episodes and we were filming with the Slitheen, these massive kind of prosthetic monsters, and it was too hot. The heads were too heavy. They were on these platform shoes, you know, we’d miscalculated how long it would take to shoot that kind of day or week.

It was tough, we really did learn as we went.

But coming into the present are there different aspects to it now, which you think might be more challenging or you feel much more confident because now, we know where it’s at. We know how it works here in Wales and we know what fantastic crews here are.

I never, ever feel confident. I always go in worrying. I think, look, we’re very experienced now. We have an incredible team around us. We have an amazing infrastructure in Wolf Studios Wales. There’s a lot that we have that we didn’t have in 2004, but I think what also runs in parallel with that is the audience’s expectations will be huge because we’ve all seen extraordinary developments in VFX, you know, just the making of these shows.

We’ve got the Marvel Cinematic Universe and everything that that opened up. We’ve got Game of Thrones. We’ve got superhero movies. It’s a big world, and I think people’s expectations are big. So the bar is getting higher and higher.

How do you deal with that? How do you approach it?

I mean, Russell helps. We just run to keep up with Russell and you just have to keep it simple. You keep it simple. You do bite size chunks. So what I care about is the script. First and foremost, are we realising the script? Who are the team of people we have around to realise that story?

And then you have to try not to get distracted and not worry about the things you can’t control. You just do the best possible work you possibly can for that script.

How much of the crewing will happen in Wales?

Oh, a huge amount, a huge amount. So we’ll have a big impact again. Yeah.

Audience question: I was just wondering as a producer, when it comes to seeing different scripts, whether it’s from someone you know, or someone completely different, someone new – what draws you to that story or script? If you just kind of see it for the first time or just hear it pitched to you.

The ruthless answer is do I want to keep reading because my reading pile is huge. Doing this job is like studying for an exam that you are never prepped for. The workload never ever goes away. I’ve got literally hundreds of scripts, any time of a given month or week. So the first thing is, do I want to keep reading? Cause that will tell me something. Is there a story or character I’m compelled by?

People talk a lot about the writer’s voice. And I think it’s really hard to define that, but you kind of know it when you see it. It’s just like a cohesion. But it’s really, ‘am I engaged with it?’ And then you go to the place of whether can I get other people to care about this. Can I get a broadcaster to be interested? But initially it’s just, do I want to keep reading? And am I excited to keep reading?

Audience Question: You were talking about connections and who you trust, and I was wondering about hiring designers and concept artists and how exactly a newcomer can get in, because obviously you want to go with people you trust, but how do you break into the business if you are just starting?

We’ve got an amazing design team on Doctor Who at Wolf Studios Wales led by Phil Simms and we have someone called Joel Collins who is an Executive Producer on the show and was the designer on Black Mirror and then on His Dark Materials, and that team is huge. They’re always, always, looking for people. Bad Wolf, as I think you probably know, support Screen Alliance Wales. If you don’t know them, they’re a really good avenue into the industry. I’d say that of every discipline really, but we have a massive design team. So just keep going, keep knocking on the door.

Audience Question: Doctor Who’s obviously driven the development of the Welsh creative industries in a massive way. What are your hopes for where it goes next and how you’d like to see Wales keep at the forefront of the media industry? How does it keep up with the ever-rising bar?

Yeah. Well Russell T Davies always used to say to me work begets work. So, the more work you do, the more will come. And I think we saw that in the 2004 to 2009 period where it started with Doctor Who and Torchwood came out of that for two reasons. We had an opportunity where we could go to the broadcaster and say we want to do something else creatively. But also it came about practically because Doctor Who for us as Producers was a year-long effort from the developing of the scripts through production, through post, but for the shooting crew, it was nine months.

And what I could see was people started poaching the crew, and I didn’t like that at all. I liked that they were getting recognition, but I wanted to keep them in Cardiff. And so we developed that family of shows so that people could work the whole year round. So now I’d like to keep building. You see everything that Bad Wolf is doing outside of the Doctor Who universe but we’d like to keep building from there.

Audience Question: You mentioned earlier that there were some differences that you noticed working in the United States versus here in the UK. I’d be interested to hear more about those.

So in the US it’s a studio-based system. In the UK Bad Wolf has quite a big footprint because what Americans would describe is we’re responsible for a show “soup to nuts”. So all the way through. We’re responsible for the delivery of the show financially, we’re responsible for the production, we’re responsible for everything. So we have a very big production company unit here.

In America, because the deficit funding of shows is so great, I’m never going to be responsible for a show in the US because the risk would be too great. I’d bankrupt myself, which I don’t want. So I work as what is called a Producer for hire. So I work as an individual Producer. I work for a studio and it’s their funding of the show along with the network and they are responsible for delivery ultimately.

So it’s much more hierarchical in the US because you have so many more layers and the unionisation. So on the Lady in the Lake project I’m one of, I think, seven or eight Executive Producers and we all do key things. Here, it’s not quite that.

It’s a very different kind of rhythm and the idea in America is you can develop more things. The theory is you could develop more things because you’re not responsible in such a deep way, but oftentimes the shows are so big, you’re doing it, you’re in it in a big way anyway, almost by default.

Audience Question: One of the things I do in the industry is a well-being facilitator…With the explosion of production, going on, which is great, we need to make sure better health and well-being is a massive part of that… what can you see productions doing to ensure that health and well-being is an essential part of that?

I mean, all I can talk to on that point is Bad Wolf. We have very, very, very stringent HR policies, well-being policies, safeguarding policies. We have a very substantial infrastructure to look after people on our shows. We have a Director of Production that does exit interviews with Production teams at the end of each show.

So, I can just talk about our work in practice, but, as a company, we are here to employ local people as much as we possibly can and see their careers blossom through different roles and see people emerge through different roles across each production.

Audience Question: I’m Liverpool based and I’m a recent Master’s graduate and my dream is to work for Bad Wolf and that’s why I’m here today to see you talk. And I’ve got a Bad Wolf tattoo on my arm. My master’s thesis was about how Emily Cook’s Twitter rewatch era inspired the new era of Doctor Who. What advice would you give to someone in my position? Because it’s difficult to get my foot in the door up north. I’ve got the skills and qualifications. I haven’t got the industry experience.

And what specific area of production are you looking to?

I enjoy writing. I enjoy editing. Honestly, I’d do anything to be honest.

That’s the spirit. I felt exactly the same. I’d still feel the same. I’ll do anything to continue working. I would just keep banging the doors. It sounds like you’re doing everything right. Your passion is very, very clear. If you don’t know them already, go to Screen Alliance Wales, go onto that website, look at local postings that we’re often doing. And frankly, you just have to keep going. But well done!

It is really hard and I remember coming to these kind of events, well, I never had these kind of events, actually, when I was trying to get in, but, I remember feeling shut out of the industry, and I remember going to the Edinburgh TV Festival for the first time, and no one wanting to talk to me because I didn’t have a show. And then how different it felt the year after when I did have shows. It’s hard, but I think that’s true of almost any industry that’s competitive and you just have to keep going somehow. And I did lots of other jobs when I was breaking in, you know, I did the classics: I was a waitress, I worked in bars, you just keep going until you get to that entry point.

And do you think there is an element of that still, where you can start absolutely at the bottom row and work your way up, or is that less so now do you think?

I guess I’m out of touch. I don’t know if it’s still the same, because even when I did it, I had this kind of like working girl fantasy that I’d become an assistant at the BBC. And obviously I’d make it through. And when I got that, I was like, oh my God, loads of people haven’t made it through. They’re just stuck. And I just assumed as soon as I’m in, oh, then it’ll be fine. And I was lucky because it was fine. And I did. I demonstrated that I had a skill with scripts. I was a terrible assistant. And at that time I could easily have been fired. I mean, it is infamous how bad I was. But I did have one particular skill that helped me.

I just want to put this quote to you because I thought this was quite extraordinary and from the writer Andrew Davies. Do you know what’s coming? And he quotes, and I’ve got to say this, about you, ‘the best thing to happen to Welsh drama. Ever’.

I think he was drunk at the time. He might have been drunk with me. No, I love that quote and I’ve always been really grateful to him because the quote follows me around.

Are you sick of it now?

No, never. I would never be so churlish. I love that quote, and it was said in a very specific moment, when network television was opening up in Wales, and we just hadn’t had it before, and it was just, I was there at the right time.