Friday, November 11, 2005

Closer to home

You wouldn’t think, from my last post, that I actually live in the UK, would you? Are there any shows on at home that I would risk going to prison for?

Frankly, no. Although I have really enjoyed this last series of Spooks, am loving the Bleak House production values and think Bodies is utterly, squalidly magnificent, nothing, but nothing, can stand alongside Veronica Mars, Battlestar Galactica and The Wire. The difference in quality is one thing, but the gulf in the variety of tone and genre on offer is embarassing.

Danny posts today about the MA module, Writing for Existing TV Series, he teaches in Leeds:

The students nearly always choose American dramas to write instead of homegrown UK fare (which always baffles me - surely you’d want a sample script of a UK show to get some work after you graduate?). To be fair, the course has some foreign students who have no interest in writing for UK soaps like Coronation Street or EastEnders but it is interesting to witness the disdain and cynicism towards UK drama from those who say they want to write TV in this country...

But the one thing that students learn every year is that writing for TV is much, much harder than they ever realised and by the end of the module have acquired a whole new appreciation and understanding of what it takes. They sometimes reevaluate their criticism of UK shows and realise that the same talent and craft is being used but that it’s usually a different style and tone that’s in place because of the specific tastes and culture of this island.

So, come on, let’s hear it for UK TV writers. To name but a few: Paul Abbott (Shameless), David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave), Jimmy McGovern (Cracker), Ashley Pharoah (Where the Heart Is), Tony Jordan (EastEnders), Russell T Davies (Queer as Folk), Stephen Merchant (The Office). Style, talent and kudos to rival the best of what the US has to offer.

Should we really celebrate mediocrity, just because being excellent is so hard, and we don’t have the resources or the will for it? Isn’t it alarming, rather than baffling, that students would rather write a spec West Wing than a spec Hustle? Isn’t it a terrible shame that Danny’s roster of national treasures could never team up to produce and control the UK uber-series, a socially-aware, blackly-comic, fast-paced, thrilling, sci-fi drama about a well-intentioned British loser, because the production industry is geared towards a one writer per series or serial mentality?

I, for one, certainly have no ambition to write for Coronation Street, Eastenders, Emmerdale, Hollyoaks, The Bill, Casualty etc, although I realise that doing so would most likely be a very valuable experience that many would give their eye-teeth for, and I would never watch any of them unless forced to. Neither can I bear to watch - and no offense to Stephen if he’s reading - yet another feature length ITV drama about punningly named detectives. Or yet another vanity vehicle for Martin Clunes - oh, I’ve said all this before.

There is, no question, an abundance of massively talented writers over here (although Paul Abbot’s been keeping quiet, David Renwick’s latest is not my cup of tea, and McGovern appears to have retired), slogging their guts out producing the same old tired formula, slaves to the whim of producers and Controllers. The only area in which there seems to be any innovation is the sit-com. Compare the last decade of dramas to Father Ted, Spaced, Coupling, Black Books, Phoenix Nights, Green Wing, League of Gentlemen, Little Britain, Marion and Geoff, I’m Alan Partridge, The Office - the UK sit-com is in better shape than it’s ever been, while most drama languishes in the same old ghetto.

So, no, I don’t watch much home-grown drama. It throws up the occasional gem. A mini-series that keeps everyone happy for six weeks, before disappearing and coming back a year later, the same writer finding not quite the same inspiration to do as well the second time around. I am honestly grateful for these oases of brilliance, but I cannot pretend to find satisfaction in shows that have been chewing up promising writers for over twenty years and denying them the chance to find their own voice, forcing them to pen yet another mundane Slater bitch-fight when I am sure they would rather be weaving their own magic.

I don’t care for the product and I care less for what I know of the system that creates it. And yet I want to work in it.

Quite a conundrum, eh?

Category: Movies and TV


  1. Well argued Lee.

    The UK system doesn't work like the US (mainly because of money) but I would still like to see UK writers honing their talents on existing or new British shows rather than trying to reach the holy grail of their favourite US series. I think critics or curmudgeons dismiss UK shows too easily because of their tone or reputation (there are some eps of Eastenders which are sheer class).

    Hollywood and American culture has given us the appetite and appreciation for slick plots and high-budgets but the if all the UK did was copy these templates, then we'd have far more dissatisfied viewers than we already have.

    Paul Abbott's finishing up State of Play II and writing a feature for Sam Mendes (I think) as well as a host of other TV projects. Jimmy McGovern's just finished a brand new drama for the Beeb called 'The Street' - each ep focuses on a different house in the street but with McGovern's edge & insight, it should be great.

    And you're right. Our comedy rocks at the moment.

  2. I too would prefer it if aspiring UK writers didn't have to look abroad for inspiration, and I hope that people out there are working on specs for Bodies, Spooks, Hustle, Shameless and, yes, Doctor Who.

    But, damn it, I think a student looks at one of these shows and sees that it's locked tight and defeats themselves before they can even get going. Maybe they love the intellectual thrill of writing but are not optimistic about actually getting a job. Perhaps what they think they know about the British industry has made them too cynical to want to try. Might as well write that completely pie in the sky Desperate Housewives spec. It's cooler, it'll probably be more fun and, most importantly, there's nothing at stake.

    Does that make sense? I guess it comes down to how badly one wants to succeed, whether one understands that writing is a vocation and believes one is good enough to make a living at it.

    Leaving aside that kick-ass idea for Lost and instead trying to work up a plan for Eastenders is most probably an important step, sorting out the glorified fan-ficcers from the truly dedicated and hard-working (uh-oh, did I just go there?).

    Still, after twenty years, it must be said there's not much left to get excited about. Faced with the prospect of being an Eastender/Corrie etc, drone is not that inticing is it? At least with the American system, there's always another hit coming along soon, a new show to get excited about and want to work on, not the same old lumbering beasts you grew up with.

    If you want to see students aching to write for UK TV then we need to start producing more shows in more genres and encouraging a speccing culture. As long as the only perceived options are "write for dinosaurs," or "come up with your own idea, 'cos you ain't getting a seat round this table", you won't see much enthusiasm for existing shows. We don't have to imitate US templates, but maybe we could learn from their methods.

  3. That was long, rambling and tedious, and can probably be summed up thus:

    Pragmatically, it's better to write Eastenders.

    Romantically, it's more fun to write Lost.

    Cynically, there's no point in writing Doctor Who.

    Which are your student?

  4. Neither can I bear to watch - and no offense to Stephen if he’s reading - yet another feature length ITV drama about punningly named detectives.

    'Zat mean me? No offense taken if so. I fell into Rosemary & Thyme by the weird route of dropping a note congratulating Brian Eastman on his ratings success and ending it, "and you know there's no self-interest involved in this because there's no f*cking way you'll ever see me pitching for a gardening show."

    Next time I was in town we met up for a drink, and somehow...

    There's no harm in any of the stuff that you describe and despair of, and which I rather despair of too... what depresses me is the way that UK TV drama has become like a diet of unrelieved carbohydrate with barely a trace of narrative protein to be found.

    Way back when human beings were driven to create drama it was by the urge to engage with the big fundamentals... the relationship between humanity and the gods, good vs evil, the nature of fate, the vast hidden machineries of the universe expressing themselves in human affairs. Truth, loyalty, friendship being tested in exceptional situations to reveal their absolute essence.

    Heavy stuff. But as adjuncts to the main event you'd get the gossipy social-comedy stuff in which people recognised themselves and their neighbours and were entertained by familiar dilemmas and everyday situations.

    It must have been a fantastic mix. Serious culture and light entertainment in a single package. Serious culture at the heart of all output, light entertainment for relief.

    But the extra appeal of the gossipy stuff is that it's something you don't have to rise to. It's easy to keep shovelling down cake, and people will; so we find ourselves in a restaurant where they'll make nothing else.

    There's a commission document for ITV4 in circulation in which one reads:

    The aim of ITV4 is to attract those viewers who do not sample ITV1. ITV1 is a family channel and is female skewed so we will be aimed at those viewers who are ITV1 rejecters. These are men, aged 25 to 44 who are light viewers. They enjoy crime drama, documentaries and movies but are not the type of people who sit in front of the TV all night. Therefore, if we capture some of them, they are a commercially valuable group.

    An ITV1 Rejecter! There's a name for it now!

    It goes on to say...

    Q: What else can we expect from programming on the channel?

    A: Crime drama that is not in the style of CSI. It will be darker and more gritty in the vein of Homicide: Life on the Street. Movies will range from vaguely mainstream to obscure and cult --­ the kind of thing you would not expect to see on other ITV channels, such as Salvador, Sid & Nancy, Full Metal Jacket or The People vs Larry Flynt.

    Q: How do you want the channel to be perceived by viewers?

    A: The medium to long term ambition is to be HBO for the UK ­ a channel that is considered innovative and generally respected.

    Which on the surface of it is great... the doleful part is the absence of realistic programme-making resources. ITV4 can buy in material or join a coproduction as a minor player... what it can't so is make the shows its manifesto calls for.

    But hey, it's early days. Who knows.

  5. I did mean you, Stephen, thanks for seeing my side of things and not being grumpy!

    ITV1 rejector - that's me for sure. I suppose I must catch the occasional moment, but the last thing I can remember watching on the channel is Lenny Blue which was, what, five years ago?

    An HBO for the UK is a major ambition - good luck to them. I've enjoyed the re-runs they've been putting out so far; it'll be interesting to see what they can produce once they start being able to afford original material.

  6. I often wonder how much of it is a "the grass is always greener" mentaliity, especially as it concerns series.

    I for one cannot STAND the whole CSI trend. To me, CSI and all its adjuncts are just horrible forensic porn.

    I think Canada's a special case, because most Canadians really do think themselves almost part of the US domestic market: we see the shows at the same time they do, whether we're watching Canadian channels or not...but even still, when I look at my students, the only Can show I would think worth even trying to spec would be DaVinci's Inquest. Generally, people who read specs here would rather see US specs.

    Now interestingly enough, there are British shows that I've found far more diverting than American counterparts. If I had a UK passport, I'd be more than comfortable Spec-ing Spooks (which is called MI-5 over here; we've only seen series 1 and 2 in horribly edited form) In the last few years, I've been blown away by things like The Vice, and Cracker (I know, long in the tooth now) but State of Play was just.... it was just so totally ripping, and so much better than an American treatment of the same material.

    I know that a lot of your hour dramas are plodding, lower budget affairs, and you've definitely got an edge right now with comedy -- but I just wish that you could get a Jimmy McGovern type to create a show that's great, and have him mentor other writers and do 22 of a great show rather than 12 good episodes over nine years.

  7. State of Play would make a brilliant ongoing series.

    The problem with speccing Spooks is that they tend to murder the entire cast every season, so anything one wrote would be obsolete very quickly...

    Perhaps one of the problems that makes so many shows so short lived is that actors cannot afford to commit to their roles - if they can only be offered six episodes every two years then pretty soon they're going to move on to something else. I'm sure a team of writers could pen a season of thirteen episodes faster than a single author could write half a dozen. Whether there would have to be any trade-off in terms of consistent quality is impossible to say.

  8. Re: murdering casts

    Yer dead on the money there. That's a problem in Canada as well -- along with the fact that the casting directors are pretty craven here.

    The low point this past season was when every single cast member from one of our network's only hit sitcoms showed up in guest or recurring roles on another show on the same network.

    It makes you think there are seven actors in Canada.

    The same is true with writers too, I think. If you're only doing six or seven, you're not just guaranteeing that there's no way to mentor other writers or bring up your industry -- you're also guaranteeing that even those who succeed don't make enough money to live for more than a year or so. So you're constantly on the grinder of development. I would love to be able to focus on one development project right now. But I simply don't have that luxury.

    Daddy has to pay the guvmint and his rent, too. And hopefully have enough money left to get some of the shiny precious.