Sunday, August 07, 2005

The fall and rise of British drama

Single TV drama in Britain is a commercial dodo. Yes, we make them but we make about four per year per channel, as opposed to the 100+ that were crafted in the 60s. The audience just won't come to them. – Paul Abbott

That's fine by me. I mean, this is TV we're talking about, not film or theatre, and of the three, television is most uniquely suited to the crafting of narratives in serial form. There is often more seriousness of intent, development of character and grandness of vision in three forty-five minute TV episodes than in a movie of equivalent length. The capsule-like nature of individual episodes forces TV writers to compress their material mercilessly, so that in many cases more can be produced with less.

Well, at least in anything that's seen the hand of Aaron Sorkin, David Milch, Joss Whedon, Amy Sherman-Palladino, or David Chase. In this land of mostly anonymous drama we get the current torpid season of forensic-bollocks Silent Witness, where the dictum of "get in late, and get out early" was one of the first pre-credit casualties.

Nevertheless, I regard television as the foremost medium in our modern times for crafting, developing and telling stories.

So why is no-one with the visibility of the above writers creating multi-season serial dramas in the UK? Why can our output not match theirs in terms of variety of genre? Why is there so little output, full stop?

I mean, let's look at what we were treated to just last week. We have five national television channels, all broadcasting twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Between them, they have eight hundred and forty hours of airtime to fill. Looking through the schedules for July 30th to August 5th, first run British drama occupied twenty-two of those eight hundred and forty hours. And what grand drama it is: two and a half hours of Coronation Street over four nights, two hours of Eastenders, over four nights, three hours of Emmerdale over six, two and a half hours of Family Affairs, and a further two and a half hours of Hollyoaks. Fuck me. If you like your drama badly written, histrionic, lazily produced, lamely acted, and with no sense of pace or a narrative goal, then you must be as happy as a pig in shit, because almost 60% of drama in this country is created just for you. You cunts.

I know. You're thinking I looked through a whole week's scheduling at the beginning of August and have the gall to be upset that there's nothing on to watch. I'm ignoring all the original, brilliant drama we produce every year by artificially inflating the predominace of daily soaps during the middle of the summer season. What do I expect in August?

I expect not to have to download everything I want to watch from questionable sources, damn you! And don't accuse me of being impatient either; if I could rely on my favourite shows being bought in in timely fashion, and shown uncut at reasonable and consistent hours, I might just wait for them, but the fact is that despite the received wisdom that we only get to see the best U.S drama here, and that most of their stuff is even worse than ours, as of today, no terrestrial channel has yet aired a single episode of: Battlestar Galactica (now in its second season), Deadwood (two seasons under its gun-belt) The Wire (three seasons), or Gilmore Girls (FIVE seasons), which for my money ARE the best shows being produced right now.

So there, suckers. It's worse than you think, because not only are the shows we do get to see better than ours, most of the ones we don't are even better than those! That's right, at the moment we can't even produce anything to compete with the middle tier of American drama - you know, the hyped to the skies, Emmy winning, million pound imports like Desperate Housewives, Lost and 24 - all decent stuff but not, creatively, the top rank.

And even though the States have their October to May season, it's not as if there's nothing on the rest of the time. This week, I have been watching Charlie Jade, Battlestar Galactica, The Closer, The 4400, The Dead Zone, and Stargate Atlantis. Some of these are better than others. All of them are better than 60% of our production efforts and all of them are on now.

And I'm not the only one. God save the Queen, but we Brits are so dissatisfied with the shit that's shovelled at us every day that we lead the world in illegal downloading. According to Envisional, twenty per cent of all TV downloads end up on UK hard-drives. This despite us being the world's laggard in broadband adoption.

This was not an atypical week. There may well be five or six top class pieces of work produced each year and scattered through the schedules like mana offered to a starving man - and in recent years I'm talking about stuff like the new Doctor Who, Shameless, Spooks, Holding On, Casanova, Conviction, State of Play (I'm not hung-up on genre, I just demand quality), but we're talking about, what? Forty hours A YEAR. Let's be generous and say an average of an hour a week. How do the remaining eight hours typically break down?

Most of the drama in this country can be forced through the hacking off of a limb or two into one of the following pigeonholes:

1 - the soap (Eastenders, Emmerdale)
2 - the quasi-soap (The Bill, Casualty)
3 - high profile literary adaptations (they must be good, they come from a book: The Long Firm - BBC 2 stuff, what we pay the licence fee for. There was NO drama on BBC2 last week. Or this week, I've checked.)
4 - sensationalist cobblers (Bad Girls, Footballers Wives - generally on ITV)
5 - the fish out of water comedy-drama (these fuckers are everywhere. Originally Northern Exposure wannabes - like they ever had a chance - shows like Ballykissangel, Heartbeat, Thousand Acres of Sky and Monarch of the Glen are like cockroaches. You can kill off every single member of the cast and they'll still find their way on air.)
6 - one-off dramas. Mini movies that grey haired old bastards might remember as Wednesday plays or whatever, the stuff that Paul Abbott is so sorry to see go. Eventually became stuff like Sharpe and Inspector Morse that used to be great fun but have now destroyed all my good-will by transforming into the family detective story: The Last Detective, Rosemary and Thyme, Dalziel and Pascal, Midsomer Murders, will it never end?
7 - breakout vehicles. A cancer on the TV landscape; shows seemingly conceived for the sole reason of allowing shit soap/quasi-soap actors whose characters have become inexplicably popular to entertain the notion that they have the chops to carry a series by themselves. I'm talking about you, Ross Kemp, Mr Ultimate fucking Force. Utter follies, one and all.
8 - anything with Martin Clunes or David Jason. John Thaw is dead now, but would have been here.

Although some of these shows are watched by very large numbers of the switched-on and ironing public, they're more comfort, than essential, viewing. They are watched because they're on. No-one gives a shit. Do you think for one second that if they were only available over the web anyone would bother downloading them? Would they lead anyone to temptation and theft? Like fuck. Would anyone mourn if there were never another episode of Cutting It? Don't make me laugh. Or cry, or gasp, or care at all about your shitty shitty shows.

Our serialised drama lacks the confidence to go out and really grab its audience. It's unaware of its aims and ignorant of its audience. Until it gives us realistic characters, behaving in believable ways, who actually demonstrate things like intelligence and self-awareness, in long-form stories with compelling arcs, then those download rates are only going to rise. The idiots in charge will be left trying to understand why no-one's watching their gentle new two hour family drama about accidental investigator au-pairs. And they won't get it. They'll just order extra Coronation Street for Tuesday and Thursday nights.

But despite all this, there is still:

9 - the good stuff.

You know what I'm talking about. Is there anyone who didn't watch The Second Coming, Bob and Rose, Clocking Off, Shameless, Swallow, Holding On and think "fuck me, that was brilliant?" Not "that was just the right combination of anodyne and soporific to see me off to bed," but "how the holy christ can I sleep after that?"

Well alright, not everyone, but you get it.

Quality, novelistic television. This should be our nation's pride. We do it brilliantly - four to eight episode stand-alone mini-series. One writer. One story set in motion and played through to the bitter end. All loose ends tied off. No chance of a sequel. Thank you and goodnight. I watch stuff like this and I know that despite all the crap we put out, we are more than capable of making television with integrity.

But there is also a part of me that views these prestige shows with a certain cynicism. The fact that we're asked to see them as flagship productions, for one thing, gets on my tits. The thought that viewing something better than the day to day crap is some sort of treat and that it wouldn't do to expect that quality in everything that's shown feels like a sop. It's not right that we have to put up with outrageous shit like Midsomer Murders that will sell to every country in the world for millions of pounds so that we can have our forspecial television. It's bollocks that our best writers have to be broken on the wheels that are Holby City and Hollyoaks before being allowed to work on anything worthwhile. Most likely it's BECAUSE the pool of existing shows is so stagnant and fouled that no-one with a choice wants to work on them, but would rather shut themselves in their attics to write only their own short-term projects, instead of trying to create better serials with groups of equally talented writers that can stand a chance of flushing away the turds. So we're left in a situation where we do have quality television, but it wouldn't do to expect more because it's so very expensive to shoot on location day and night, and brand new sets have to be built all the time, and besides we've only got three writers in the whole country to churn them out.

And the funny thing is, they are all written by the same people. Pretty much the entire edifice of serious, risk-taking, taboo breaking, format smashing, dramatic television in this country is held aloft by the triumvirate of Russell T Davis, Paul Abbott and Tony Marchant, with assistance from the other Tonies Grounds and Garnett, and substitutes Bill Gallagher, Peter Flannery, Peter Bowker, Edward Canfor-Dumas and many others.

All the writers are there, but they've been led by a culture of theatre and single-drama by the greats like Potter and Bennett to believe that if they want to be taken seriously they oughtn't to do serials, except as a training ground. And there doesn't seem to be a producer out there willing to discourage them, because writers write and producers produce, and producers can't deal with writers unless they're under the cosh and already writing what they're told, or treated like an auteur and told not to worry themselves with the details. And I confess that is probably the most naive thing I've ever written. There's no scientific evidence for it, it's a fact. We've got actors, directors, photographers capable of brilliance, an audience that wants it, and knows it when it sees it, but a bunch of clueless producers and broadcasters who just aren't giving it to us.

What's their problem? Well it's fucking greed, isn't it? Rather than create great stories to entertain and amaze us all, they'd rather be creating flexible formats that can be sold for great sums of money abroad. In this we do lead the world, and the race is on for the next Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (sold to 107 countries) or The Weakest Link (75 countries). Far more lucrative than investing in new drama - Shameless sold to 15 countries in 2004.

I have hope that the massive, unexpected success of Doctor Who at home can lead to some sort of renaissance: not just in Saturday tea-time telly, but for drama as a whole. Not only has it been the most successful series of recent years, it's the only one that hasn't been about a bastard police officer whose name provides a cunning pun for the title. It's science-fiction, for fuck's sake, and no-one produced SF in a decade because "no-one wants to watch it." Not a clue, I tell you.

Despite what some may think, after sixteen years Who was never guaranteed an audience, but because it took the risk of following another country's established lead and eschewed the traditional British method of creating ponderous television, it found one. Russell Davis has said for years that he's a massive fan of what Joss Whedon did with Buffy. This may seem strange to our U.S. cousins, but I don't think we've ever developed a series where a writing executive producer assembles a writing team, has a clear vision of the season's arc, demands character continuity and emotional beats and builds a season around "sweep" episodes. And now I'm sure there'll be a lengthy reassessment of how we go about things. Season one hadn't even finished before two and three were confirmed. I have no doubt there'll be a fourth, and by the time it gets to the fifth or sixth I WILL BY GOD BE WRITING FOR IT. If my friend Louise can decide one day, with no experience, that she "wants to work in radio," and be producing John Peel four years later then, awesome as she is, don't doubt that I can do this.

I have a vision, where in five years the pages of the Radio Times will be wringing wet from the flood of new drama produced in this country. Where, HBO like, great writers are given leave to create and produce thirteen episode seasons that contribute to grand five season schemes, assisted by a staff of writers who later go on to glory with their own shows.

If I am not totally and utterly misguided, look for me to be one of them.

Category: Movies and TV

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