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Why universities are long-running dramas

By Alan Pollock

There is, proverbially, scarcely a working actor who did not at some point work on The Bill. The same is almost as true for writers! For a decade I contributed episodes to the long-running ITV police drama, and to other long-running serials like A&E and Crossroads. Many hundreds of us worked on the show during the quarter century of its existence and it taught me, personally, an astonishing amount about how to tell a story quickly and effectively.

In the trade these shows are known as ‘Precinct’ dramas: long-running series (think Call the Midwife, currently) with large casts operating in a limited number of fixed locations, which survive the departure of characters and production staff because the show is bigger (occasionally older, occasionally much older) than any single person involved – either in front of, or behind, the camera.

Someone once described the perfect TV drama (in other words its most effective storyline) as …

… the Family under attack

Whilst there will be many other themes and stories, this is usually the primary one – the survival of – say – the Soprano family – or the fates of the officers at Sun Hill.

These long-running series have a great deal in common with other large enterprises – be they corporations, charities or universities. That is to say: mission driven enterprises, telling the world compelling stories about their values and ambitions.

Leadership can create a culture – across the whole organisation – in which everyone feels empowered to nourish and develop storylines that help tell the bigger story of the University’s mission and purpose.

Every few months at The Bill we would gather for what was called the ‘Long-term Story Conference’, where we would consider long-running storylines, old characters, potential new characters, and writers would nervously pitch ideas for ‘stories of the week’. The Senior Producers would also use these occasions to re-state fundamental organisational priorities. In our case: Increase ratings, get re-commissioned, and – Rule Number One! – stop people turning over to BBC1!

The ‘read-across’ with other large enterprises strikes me increasingly as instructive.

What are the ‘long-running’ narratives that animate particular institutions? In universities – where I have spent much of the last 10 years – the long-running stories tend to be recruitment, retention, the promotion of cutting-edge research, and reputation management. In the case of Coventry University the ambition was – and still is – to tell a story of modernity, diversity, engagement with the city, and, above all, unrivalled student experience.

What if the Senior Leadership of a University were to think like the Executive Producers of a long-running TV drama?  As with any precinct drama, the ‘show’ is of course bigger than any individual character or employee. But whose job is it to tell these stories? So that in every sphere of the University’s activity they are re-stated, re-affirmed and amplified?

Leadership can create a culture – across the whole organisation – in which everyone feels empowered to nourish and develop storylines (or, as it may be, stories of the week!) that help tell the bigger story of the University’s mission and purpose.

And in Higher Education, of course, there are strong ‘characters’ – stars, even! – to help do the job. Be they the research students who help make a breakthrough in food production; the star lecturer who is a ‘go-to’ contributor on news and current affairs shows; or the Nobel Laureate who hits the world’s headlines by identifying a new sub-atomic particle.

The success of The Bill depended particularly on being alert to new ideas and opportunities as they presented themselves. An opportunity to hook up with a German police show led to a thrilling series of episodes as our officers hunted for a missing girl in Germany.  At Coventry University, the awarding of ‘City of Culture’ status to Coventry during 2021 was a ‘story of the week’ that went on for a whole year – giving us unparalleled opportunities to collaborate with other city institutions, creating narratives around culture, diversity and inclusivity, and giving us the chance to tell, in microcosm, the bigger story of the institution’s raison d’etre.

For Senior Leadership Teams, viewing the operations of their enterprises by considering the mechanics of long-form storytelling can be a refreshing and revitalising way of inspiring teams and re-imagining organisational priorities. In universities, as in TV land, the trick is to keep both internal and external audiences tuned in – and coming back for more!

An award-winning playwright and TV writer, Alan has taught Creative Writing at the Universities of Warwick and Gloucestershire, and set up an MA in Professional Creative Writing at Coventry University. Alan has joined the Invisible Grail team as a Creative Collaborator and programme facilitator.