Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Drama Out Of Crisis

I’m always being reminded of the drawback to the BBC’s iPlayer by forgetting there’s only a week to catch up on the television programmes and radio shows I missed first time around. Come Monday evening I remembered I still had the third episode of Moses Jones to watch and just managed to catch it, even if it meant the action was broken up by a half-hour interval for the final of University Challenge.

Even with that interruption it turned out to be a damn fine drama, with one of the most appalling acts of violence that was far more affecting than all the hack-and-slash Jack the Rip-off antics on the other side. That makes it more of a shame that only a fraction of the television audience watched Moses Jones compared to the millions who tuned in to the utterly farcical Whitechapel. Still, to be magnanimous for a change, the above average audience for the latter did at least boost the ailing ITV. The channels’ ratings success continued this week with Law & Order: UK.

This time around I didn’t bother watching more than the first couple of minutes. Not because I didn’t think this English adaptation was up to snuff, but because I’ve never been a fan of the original franchise. It wasn’t that the format didn’t work for me: dividing each episode between the investigation of a crime and the criminal prosecution. To fit everything into the episode running time meant not just paring the story down but omitting any real character development. Frankly that never did it for me, even if great character actors like the late Jerry Orbach were drafted in to make up for that fact and keep it interesting.

Maybe the thirteen episodes ordered by Laura Mackie, ITV’s Director of Drama, will go some way to helping ITV Drama claw its way back from the brink, but there’s still a long way to go. Where did it all go wrong for the channel? If you look back to the turn of the century the BBC’s drama output was seen as woefully lagging behind its competition’s output. How did ITV let that lead slip from its grasp? Was it down to the highly publicised “golden handcuffs” deals with actors like John Thaw, Robson Greene and Ross Kemp, mistakenly putting the onus on the stars rather than the quality of the material to carry it off?

I haven’t stuck around for an ongoing one-hour ITV drama since Cold Feet came to an end because there was nothing that had the same, smart writing. Everything since seemed to exist in quiet desperation between the somnambulistic nostalgia dramas like Heartbeat, which has finally, mercifully, been knocked on the head, or the over the top antics of tacky nonsense like Footballers’ Wives that were only culled long after they had become an embarrassment. Between the extremes everything seemed to be so... horribly mainstream.

Whatever made the channel fall behind, also everything they’ve commissioned since they went into decline appeared to be a frantic, and mainly futile, attempt to catch up with the competition, reaching a nadir with the totally dreadful Demons. Of course when you hit rock bottom, the only way to go – if you’re lucky – is up. Now that Peter Fincham has replaced Simon Shaps as ITV’s Director of Television, he’s made a start by commissioning new episodes of Anthony Horowitz’s ratings-winning drama Foyle’s War, which the idiot Shaps idiotically canned.

While bringing that back, should Fincham and ITV have the guts to let Midsomer Murders go when John Nettles finally retires from the role of Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby in two years time? Horowitz, who initially adapted Caroline Graham’s crime novels for television back in the late 1990s, is being brought back to write the character’s swansong. Brian True-May, the show’s producer, believes the brand is strong enough for a new actor to successfully continue the investigations, but there’s always the nagging worry that it might become an equivalent of the wishy-washy, piss-poor Lewis that limps along in the footsteps of Inspector Morse.

Hoping that ITV does manages to pick itself up because all the channels need decent competition to keep them on their toes, it was worrying to read a comment from Lee Bartlett the Managing Director of ITV Global Content. Previously employed by FOX TV, which certainly has a spotty history when it comes to nurturing drama, Bartlett was in favour of ITV dropping a proposed adaptation of EM Forster’s A Passage to India even though they had shelled out £225,000 for the rights and ploughed a further hundreds of thousands of pounds on pre-production. His reason for knocking the lavish three-hour drama on the head: Costume dramas don’t sell well outside the UK.

Since the term “costume drama” is a little bit of a broad term, covering any number of genres, I hope he wasn’t using it in reference to literary adaptations. Because that would put A Passage to India in the company of The Jewel in the Crown, also set in the days of the Raj, or Brideshead Revisited or the Andrew Davies’ 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for the BBC. I’m sure they managed to rake in a few pennies here and there from foreign sales.

Still, while somebody gets Bartlett his coat, what can we look forward to if Law & Order: UK becomes a hit? Are we going to get British versions of American hit shows flooding the schedules as an easier option to taking a punt on something new and different and, perhaps, difficult? In which case, I’m looking forward to Magnum PI set on the Isle of Wight.


At 5:21 pm, Blogger Lee said...

Perhaps that wouldn't be a bad idea. We've seen Life on Mars, Eleventh Hour, Ab Fab, Blackpool and The Office all make their way to US screens, so why not let that door swing the other way?

Of course, we're all much more likely to have seen the parent US show than your average American is to have caught one of own, so there might be a certain amount of "what's the point" to a translation, and certainly no mileage in remaking something like BSG, Lost or Deadwood. On the other hand, I could quite get behind an eight part adaptation of Season One of Veronica Mars.

At 6:57 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Well, we already have Doc Martin, which is essentially Northern Exposure in Cornwall. Cold Feet was our version of thirtysomething. I’m sure that Lark Rise to Candleford would be a whole lot better – and something I’d watch – if it had that Deadwood vibe to it. Especially if Dawn French was fed to the pigs. (And I’m not talking about her character in the show).

Actually, over the past week or so I finally, belatedly, got around to watching the first season of Veronica Mars. Fuck me, it’s absolutely brilliant! Would it work over here? I suppose they could set it in Poole, with Sandbanks standing in for the 09er enclave.

At 9:05 pm, Blogger Lee said...

Love it. All the rich kids live in tiny converted garages and the poor folk in five bedroom farmhouses. It would be uniquely British.

At 2:07 am, Blogger Jaded and Cynical said...

How hard can it be find a decent original script, bring together a handful of people who can act and film a watchable drama?

I hope the L&O thing suffers the standard ITV fate, which is reasonable initial numbers (thanks to curiosity and hype) folowed by a collapse as people realise just how crap the programme is.

God help us if it's any sort of a success. We'll be wall-to-wall with CSI:Brighton from now until the Olympics.


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