TV festival-goers attending a session about the role of the director in TV drama were treated to a trailer of an HBO production called 'Vinyl' which is to be broadcast next year. The series, which is being created by Martin Scorsese, boasts British director S.J. Clarkson among its roster of talent and she was joined by Peter 'Wolf Hall' Kosminsky and chair Martha Kearney in a discussion that provided some fascinating insights.
Kosminsky and Clarkson opened the session by describing how they'd got to where they are. Kosminsky – who studied chemistry at university – was originally being groomed for a managerial role at the BBC before he finally found a role that actually suited him: directing segments for the daily magazine show 'Nationwide' (younger readers should picture 'The One Show'... minus the searing wit).
Clarkson was a director on dramas like 'Doctors' and 'Eastenders' before graduating to the giddy heights of 'Footballers' Wives' and then moving to the US to ply her trade where she worked on shows like 'Dexter' before Scorsese came calling.
Clarkson says of her job: "You learn it by doing it". And because of the rapid turnover of a programme like Eastenders that means you're doing a lot of it in a very short space of time. She recalled having to shoot 33 pages of script in a single day... an almost unimaginable toil. Working in this environment proved invaluable if only because "everything that followed seemed so reasonable".
Peter Kosminsky's quiet speaking style creates the impression that everything he says is incredibly carefully considered and it helps him project a tremendous sense of authority. He revealed that working with talented crew on those early 'Nationwide' days had taught him what he called 'the secret of directing': "If you tell an experienced crew what you want, there'll give it to you and you might be quite disappointed... but if you tell them what you're trying to achieve, then they'll really help you to do it."
It turns out this was more of 'a' secret than 'the' secret because he had another similarly labelled piece of advice to dispense before the end of the session which was: "Get the script right and get the right people." He said the casting process was an opportunity to rehearse at length and for free... a description Clarkson clearly felt was only relevant if you were a director of his status – a point she made with a certain amount of thinly disguised exasperation.
Both directors were adamant that a light hand was all that was needed to steer actors if you'd made the right choices in casting. But as Martha Kearney pointed out, Clarkson has faced a different directorial challenge after being parachuted into ongoing series and needing to adapt to the existing culture. She described breaking the ice with Dexter's Michael C Hall by offering guidance he welcomed and Kosminsky endorsed her view that starry actors are often "hungry for direction".
Kosminsky said he'd been as surprised as anyone when he was asked to direct Hilary Mantel's 'Wolf Hall' and revealed that it was the author herself who had championed him for the role. Only when he saw the contemporary politics of the books, did he realise that it was right for him.
When asked what he made of the festival's keynote address, Kosminsky said he'd been "inspired" by Armando Iannucci's MacTaggart lecture and revealed that he wants to find a way of responding directly to its call to arms. Clarkson – who had been unable to attend Iannucci's speech –was more measured in her verdict... if only because in this, as in all things, she was wary of her fellow director's certainties.
Jason Stone is a media writer and editor of David Reviews. Follow our live coverage from the Edinburgh International TV Festival here