Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Detecting Common Ground

Dragging out the viewing figures for Torchwood to sneer at unfortunately opened up a whole different can of worms. While it may be a series that I turn my nose up at, the dramas that I do watch aren’t faring any better either in the ratings.

The conspiracy thriller The State Within initially garnered 5.2 million viewers. By the halfway point the ratings are in serious decline. It could simply be folk gave up on a conspiracy thriller that demanded they pay attention to what they’re watching. But it’s still depressing to think that it started out with only slightly higher numbers than ITV’s recent spy thriller The Outsiders, which wouldn’t have strained the intelligence of someone with the IQ of an aubergine.

MI5 drama Spooks spent its fifth year wobbling between 5.5 million and 6 million, which is slightly down on last year when the fourth series was broadcast on Thursdays instead of Monday. The supernatural thriller Afterlife which I caught sporadically hung around the 4 million mark.

All of them trail behind the BBC’s sluggishly-paced hospital dramas Casualty and Holby City which should have had a DNR note posted years ago. Then had a pillow pressed over their faces to hurry up the long overdue demise. They work because they’re more soap opera than drama and inoffensive, by which I mean bland.

The same can be said for ITV’s nostalgic drama series like Heartbeat, which has been on air for so long it should, by rights, be covered in moss by now. Shows like that are the equivalent of comfort food. For an audience that eats their meals through a straw. They leave their audience with a warm fuzzy glow and a yearning for a lost Albion where nobody chewed gum with their mouth open or spat in the streets. The BBC are guilty of having one or two shows in the same vein which are scheduled for Sunday nights so that everyone can have a good nights sleep and then be up, fresh and early, for work the next day.

There are always the American imports. But Channel 4 have lost Lost but kept hold of the increasingly desperate Desperate Housewives. They gave up on Homicide: Life on the Streets and NYPD Blue, which was unforgivable, giving up on the former and finally scheduling the latter on their digital channels after a gap of however many years. Having bought CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami, and CSI: NY, Five might as well rechristen themselves CBS-UK.

The first part of Prime Suspect – The Final Act grabbed 7.9 million. The figure rose to 8.5 for part two, but that could have been because, given the advance publicity, armchair rubberneckers tuned in to see if Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison would go out feet first. Cracker brought in 8.8 million simply because it was the return of Cracker after all these years, where it was good or not. It wasn’t and I’d suspect any future episodes would gradually lose numbers.

So what do audiences like?

A couple of years back I interviewed Anthony Horowitz for an article on Foyle’s War. Beginning his television career writing episodes of Robin of Sherwood in 1986 before graduating to Poirot, Horowitz talked about why he had written little else except murder for the last decade.

I like puzzles and I like riddles. I like deception. I’m very much part of the English tradition of murder mystery. I very much like the way it slots into our national character. English country houses, English summers, bodies on lawns. Croquet mallets used as weapons and that sort of thing. It reflects the eccentric side of the English. It’s something very special and unique to our country.

He isn’t alone in his love of murder mysteries as the viewing figures for the likes of Inspector Morse, Foyle’s War – which was commissioned to replace Morse, and Midsomer Murders, which Horowitz created for television from the books of Caroline Graham attest. Is this what draws people together - mysteries with central characters that are more like old style gentlemen detectives than modern day police officers? Yes, there is still A Touch of Frost that touches on more contemporary social subject matters and is much more rough around the edges, but its popularity comes from the ongoing public veneration of David Jason than the content.

So what should writers look to write that has any hope of getting an audience?

Adapt the crime novels of a writer who isn’t Agatha Christie, PD James, Colin Dexter, Reginald Hill, Elizabeth George, RD Wingfield, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and whoever else has gone from page to screen. Or write something they want to write rather than write something they think the audience want to see. And hope for the best.


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