Spotlight: Matthew Robinson (Part 1)
Part 1 of a 2 part interview, in which Ellie caught up with the former Executive Producer from 1998 - 2000.
Picture: Matthew Robinson with the Cambodian team trained from scratch to produce quality Soap Opera (2003)
Matthew Robinson was Executive Producer of EastEnders from 1998 until he stepped down from the role in 2000. Ellie recently caught up with Matthew to reflect on his time with the show and to talk about what he’s been up to since leaving ...
What have you been up to in the ten years since leaving EastEnders?
I spent three years as Head of Drama, BBC Wales. My team produced several memorable dramas for both BBC1 and BBC2, and innovative dramas and comedy for BBC Wales. I was also Executive Producer of the 5-day-a-week Welsh-language soap opera, Pobol y Cwm without understanding a syllable. That deficiency set me up nicely for my next assignment ...
... to devise and produce a Khmer-language 100-episode soap opera for Cambodian TV about health issues, particularly HIV. British Government funded, it was managed by BBC World Service Trust, the BBC’s charitable arm. The three-year contract meant moving to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, and self-immersion in the history and culture of a far-off country about which I knew little.
(Details of this show, Taste of Life, can be seen on at this website)
The project ended in 2006 and, discovering I’d fallen for Cambodia in a big way, I moved lock stock and barrel from the UK to Phnom Penh, selling my London house, to set up a TV & Film production company, Khmer Mekong Films (http://www.cambodiafilms.com). We’re now busy with all-sorts – dramas, comedies, documentaries, commercials, quiz shows, reality TV shows, corporate films and videos. Today, KMF’s permanent staff is 40, 39 of them young Cambodians, trained to professional broadcast standards.
’Matthew’s directing technique changed little with his move to Cambodia (2008)
You were Executive Producer at EastEnders for 2 years which is a long time. Looking back now, do you remember any personal highlights and how do you view this period of the show?
As an exciting rollercoaster. When interviewed on radio or TV, I used to say that running EE was like being at the centre of the universe and that, if one wanted to work in British TV drama, there couldn’t be a better job. Every minute of every day was crammed with problems to solve, creative and managerial, constantly in the eye of the public, press, politicians and broadcasting fraternity.
On my first day, a dazzling array of flowers arrived from Will Wyatt (BBC Broadcast CEO). His embossed card announced that EastEnders was the BBC’s most important programme and, now the BBC had entrusted me with it, I was to “look after it carefully and develop it to the best of your creative ability”. Mal Young (BBC Drama Serials Head) sent a pot plant inscribed “EE is YOUR train set! FOR NOW!! Don’t break it!!!” I hope I fulfilled the BBC’s faith in me, alongside the talented new storyliners, script editors and directors I assembled. It was their input that took the show to new dramatic heights. Perhaps the two BAFTAs (1999 and 2000) for Best Soap (a new award in 1999) are proof that the new team’s excellence was recognised by its professional peers.
The Matthew/Steve/Saskia storyline was a big story at the time and was well received by the audience who felt for Matthew’s plight. Do you wish you’d expanded more on Steve and Saskia’s relationship before the fateful valentine’s episode?
No. I come from the school where less is more. What my editorial team came up with was the perfect balance of exposition and fancy.
There’s been talk on our forums of a proposed spin-off. Was such a spin-off ever talked about during your time there?
As for spin-offs, there was more talk of them every week than washing machines in the laundrette. Easy to spin a spin-off: hard to bring one to earth.
The Carol/Dan/Bianca affair storyline was pretty big too. You must be proud as an EP when storylines take off in such a way...
When Patsy Palmer announced she was leaving – probably in sympathy with the grievance her real-life best friend Martine McCutcheon felt about our nuking Tiffany – we had a PR problem. “Yet Another Big Star Set To Quit Top Soap” screamed the headlines. The task was to turn that negativism into something positive. Storyliner Gabbie Asher and writer Simon Ashdown, geniuses both, came up trumps. The triumph was theirs, plus superstar director, Tom Hooper, now one of Britain’s top movie directors. I’d hired him to direct the key episodes in that amazing saga. Yes, together with the Matthew-Saskia-Steve murder, directed by another highly gifted director, Paul Annett, I take particular pride in that emotionally-draining tale. Full credit, though, is due to the talent of the editorial team and, of course, the actors.
The show marked its 15th anniversary whilst you were there. You must have been proud to be a part of that...
I attended the 15th anniversary celebrations in Kensington, London, with pleasure and pride. It was a vivid occasion, the show riding a high. I felt privileged to have led the team that rescued it from its previous doldrums.
Back when you were Executive Producer, the internet was still in its relative infancy. Did you think it was going to become such a large media outlet?
Yes, and, as proof, I set up the first live webcam in Albert Square in mid-1998 (having crossed swords with legions of suspicious actors and their agents). In 1999, we added two more. I also worked closely with Linda Davidson (“Mary Smith” in a former life) whose odd moonlighting rocketed her to the editorship of the early EE website.
You had worked on EastEnders as a director before landing the job as Executive Producer and, most notably, you directed the show’s first ever episode. Do you have a lasting memory from those early years?
Yes, posters of bare-breasted pin-up girls plastered on the walls of the Queen Vic, and characters saying “Oh My God!” when calamity struck. Those true-to-life days are long gone in our over-sensitive easily-offended world.
You’ve worked on other continuing series before and after EastEnders. Would you say you have a soft spot for the show, or was it just another job to you? How do you feel EastEnders compares to other British Soap Operas?
It would be difficult NOT to have a soft spot for a show that encompassed key periods of my career. In fact I have fonder memories of EE’s first three years as lead director than I do of the two years when I was at the helm – and that despite the tricky taskmasters that Julia Smith and Tony Holland undoubtedly were. Intellectually, solving the show’s non-stop challenges of the late 1990s was a blast. Identifying and hiring the right people to deliver a classy show delivered personal rewards. But, half a dozen sublime stories excepted, I was rarely emotionally gripped by what we put on screen.
In the good old days of the mid-80s, EE came from-the-heart. It was raw, non-synthetic, genuine, original. Once the show became iconic, some of those who made it started to believe the hype – certain idolised actors and veteran scriptwriters believing in their own brilliance. The show gradually lost its simplicity, often parodying itself. Unable to restore the halcyon days, I also joined the roller-coaster triumphalism – buckets of fun but, literally, out of this world.
Production teams and actors involved with other British Soaps don’t have such inflated ideas of their own importance, and turn out their shows with less fanfare.
Going to three, then four episodes, a week didn’t help either. Precious resources and real talent were spread far too thin.
You started your reign as Executive Producer by axing several characters. Is this something you felt you needed to do for the show to move forward, and are there any characters you regret including as part of that cull?
No regrets at all. The characters that left in that cull, dubbed “massacre” by the fevered press, had run their course. When I arrived, the cast had been allowed to swell to over 50 actors*, making effective storylining impossible. I reckoned 35 characters was about the right number.
If I’d had a completely free hand, more would have gone. But had the cull been deeper I’d probably have been strung up from an Albert Square lamppost – either by certain entrenched writers or the actors themselves.
(*Do the maths yourself: Excluding opening titles and end credits, one episode lasts twenty seven and a half minutes giving fifty characters an average screen time of thirty three seconds per episode each. Assuming the average actor speaks an average two words a second, a figure that includes wordless actions, meaningful glances and pauses, that’s one hundred words per episode each, the same number of words in this bracketed paragraph. I could go on to calculate the pounds per word per episode the average actor took home as pay, but that might embarrass the BBC so I’ll stop right here.)
During your time there several big names decided to leave the show such as Patsy Palmer, Ross Kemp and Martine McCutcheon. What was the feeling this created behind the scenes, and were you happy with the way those characters were written out?
Martine McCutcheon didn’t “decide to leave the show”. She demanded the BBC allow her to come and go within the series at her behest, making it impossible for storyliners to write coherently for her character. So we had little choice but to kill Tiffany. Yes, the character was popular; yes, Martine had talent. But no one is bigger than the show – Executive Producers included. It is true that Ross and Patsy decided to leave. But we saw these exits as opportunities to strengthen EE, to take it forward, not disadvantages. Judging from the subsequent viewing figures, our audience agreed with what went up on the screen.
Martine claims she heard about Tiffany’s being killed off from the radio. Is this true?
It’s likely. Following a brilliant spoiling headline in the Daily Star “Tiff’s A Stiff”, all the radio stations were talking about it within an hour.
Isn’t this a harsh way for an actor to find out she’s having the book closed on her?
Certainly, but this was not our fault. We’d hardly made the decision and were planning how and when to tell Martine when the news was leaked (NOT by me). Leaks are part and parcel of the lives of both Soap stars and Soap production teams. Why do I think of heat and kitchens?
Do you feel killing Tiffany off may have been a hasty decision in light of Bianca’s return to the show?
Not in the least. Far from hasty, the decision was carefully made, not just by me, but by the trio of Mal Young, Peter Salmon (BBC1 Controller) and me. We knew exactly what we were doing and it was exactly right for the show at the time, whatever Martine continues to say about it. Sometimes, actors want to have their cake and eat it. This is not possible in a streamlined production factory, like EastEnders.