Meet the showrunners: How did writers end up seizing the reins of British drama?

Boy, everybody’s discovering showrunners these days. Writers are the new auteurs!

Take that, French film buffs!

The Moff! Again! Yeargh!
The Moff! Again! Yeargh!

by Gerard Gilbert

Behind hit dramas such as Sherlock, Line of Duty and The White Queen is a new superbreed of TV executive. They create the idea, cajole the talent and control the money. But is the showrunner the presiding genius or a dictatorial micro-manager?

Last October , ‘The Hollywood Reporter’ published its sixth annual list of the Top 50 Power Showrunners – a roll call that includes television titans such as Vince Gilligan (‘Breaking Bad’), Matthew Weiner (‘Mad Men’) and Terence Winter (‘Boardwalk Empire’) alongside newcomers Beau Willimon (‘House of Cards’) and Jenji Kohan (‘Orange is the New Black’).

There were even some British names on the list: Julian Fellowes (‘Downton Abbey’), Armando Iannucci (‘Veep’) and Steven Moffat (‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Sherlock’). ‘The Hollywood Reporter’ knows exactly what it means by ‘showrunner’, and yet there are no Emmys or Baftas for any showrunner category and you won’t see the name on any programme credits or contract of employment. Subeditors often query the term when I use it in my copy, and even the spell-check on my Microsoft Word underlines the word in red. So what, exactly, are showrunners?

“The showrunner has become semi-formalised into a name,” explains Steven Moffat. “The showrunner is the creative force behind the show… a term for head writer who’s the executive producer… the kind of writer who wants to engage in the production process.” And being a nebulous position, the specific duties of the showrunner often depend on the interests of the individual showrunner.

Matthew Weiner on Mad Men knows his 1960s world inside-out and likes to be across every single decision, from the cut of Don Draper’s suit to the music that ends each episode. Jed Mercurio on Line of Duty takes a deep interest in the technical aspects of filming – the cameras and lighting and editing – while Steven Moffat is primarily interested in the scripts. “I’m in charge of the ambition of the narrative,” he says. Showrunners of Moffat and Mercurio’s stature, while rare in British television, are almost the norm in the US.

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