Neil Jordan Riviera controversy: Writers don’t control TV

Analysis: It’s not the writer or director, but the ‘showrunner’, who controls TV drama now

Is it time to drag out the old saw about the ambitious starlet who was so stupid she slept with the writer? Too late. We’ve done it.

Throughout Hollywood’s history, writers have found themselves ignored, abused and trampled upon. A touching screenplay about the tenderness of young love becomes a space opera concerning giant killer lizards. A horror film about a female mummy gets battered into a baffling action vehicle for a middle-aged movie star. (This last example is entirely made up.)

This is not supposed to happen on television. The belief used to be that, whereas film is a director's medium, the small-screen form belongs to the writer. Anybody who knows anything about British telly knows that Dennis Potter wrote the Singing Detective. Only anoraks will remember that Jon Amiel directed that show. We refer to Sally Wainwright's Happy Valley. We talk about Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.

Yet Neil Jordan – a man of no small influence – seems to have lost control over his scripts for Sky Atlantic's romp-tastic series Riviera. In a frank interview, he has suggested that the episodes he wrote with John Banville had been dumbed down and sexed up.


“They were changed, to my huge surprise and considerable upset,” he said. “There were various sexual scenes introduced into the story and a lot of very expository dialogue. I objected in the strongest terms possible.”

John Banville, former literary editor of this newspaper, has not commented on the controversy.

There is a grand history of great writers objecting to the eventual treatment of their screenplays. In 1944, John Steinbeck, later a Nobel Prize winner, was credited for the story of Alfred Hitchcock's high-concept classic Lifeboat.

The film ingeniously finds a way of telling a complex tale within the titular isolated lifeboat. A political man, Steinbeck objected to what he called “slurs against organised labour” and the inclusion of a “stock comedy Negro” that he hadn’t written. He asked to have his name removed, but his request was denied.

Steinbeck ended up getting an Oscar nomination for a piece he wanted nothing to do with.

Gore Vidal had an even less pleasant adventure on the notorious Roman sex-fest Caligula. Produced by Bob Guccione, founder of Penthouse, the film famously gathered an implausibly starry cast – John Gielgud, Peter O'Toole, Helen Mirren – around the sort of lubricious activities normally featured only in "specialist" fare.

The film bore the ambiguous credit: “Adapted from a screenplay by Gore Vidal.” But the writer still felt insufficient distance had been placed between him and the movie. He subsequently sued to have his name removed.

In theory, as a continuing contributor to the creative process, the television writer is less likely to get shafted. He or she may return for further episodes or series.

In recent years, however, US television has moved further from the much touted “writer’s medium” of old. The real power in such recent hits as Game of Thrones or Mad Men has been the mysterious beast known as the “showrunner”.

Russell T Davies famously reinvented Doctor Who in that role. The showrunner is the presiding force who takes on roles previously held by head writer, executive producer, and script editor. He or she has more power than the director. The showrunner is often a writer, but that is not always the case.

Last September, Variety described Jordan a showrunner on Riviera. But, in that recent controversial interview with the Sunday Business Post, he appeared to put some blame the way of fellow executive producer Paul McGuinness. "Am I annoyed with Paul McGuinness? I'm surprised, let me put it that way," Jordan said of the former U2 manager.

“Making a show of the scale of Riviera is inevitably a team effort,” McGuinness told The Irish Times. “Neil co-wrote the first two episodes of the series with John Banville. The show is the most successful premiere on Sky Atlantic this year, achieving higher ratings than such international hit series as Billions and Big Little Lies. I couldn’t be more proud of what we have all achieved.”

Television is a peculiar business. Thirty-five years ago, John Mortimer received enormous credit for adapting Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited for Granada television. Much later, Jeremy Irons told this writer that the script had been largely junked.

"I tell you a secret. It wasn't Mortimer," he said to me. "He wrote an eight-hour script – or maybe a six hour one. We were shooting it, and then the financiers said: 'We don't like the script.' They felt it had lost the Proustian quality. They were going to withdraw their money. Our producer said to them: 'Don't worry. We understand'. We went to Malta and we just had the book in our hands. John really only did a bit."

If you want total control, write a novel.