Sunday, May 08, 2011

Making Dramas After A Crisis

On the few occasions I’ve bothered turning on the television during the past week or so I’ve been constantly assailed by the trailer trumpeting the upcoming ORIGINAL BRITISH DRAMA on the BBC. It even appeared after an edition of the utterly brilliant Petworth House: The Big Spring Clean on BBC4, unless I had mistakenly flipped over once the credits were rolling and had mixed up whatever channel I was watching. Either way it seemed to be bloody everywhere.

By promoting the fact that this was BRITISH DRAMA, it may have been a riposte to the remarkably irritating Sky Atlantic trails featuring the remarkably irritating Dustin Hoffman. Trumpeting the new British Sky Broadcasting channel launched back in February after the company snapped up the exclusive TV broadcasting rights to the HBO archive, the spots heralded the arrival of the rather disappointing Boardwalk Empire, the rather disappointing Treme, and the thoroughly nasty swords and misogyny nonsense that is Game of Thrones.

Then again, this big push may be a consequence of the BBC Trust’s annual review from July of 2009, in which it told the BBC to basically get their act together and produce better drama. And, of course, a couple of days before that report was made public there was the email from the distinguished producer Tony Garnett in which he voiced his concerns over the Corporation for stifling creativity and it’s continuing failure to commission any quality drama. If the Trust had fired a warning shot across the bow of Television Centre, Garnett unleashed a long deserved salvo right into the empty heart of the BBC’s drama department. In a wishy–washy response Ben Stephenson, the Corporation’s drama commissioning controller, invited anyone who shared Garnett’s unease to pop round to his place for a coffee and a chat while he hid behind the testimonials of his best mates.

Whether the bins regularly put out on Wood Lane overflowed with empty Nescafe jars or someone from the top floor threatened to tear little Ben a new arsehole if he didn’t get his shit together, who knows. Either way, two years on, some of the dramas at least look intriguing. Of course any trailer, especially when it’s just clips put to music, is essentially a greatest bits package, held out to attract us like moths to a flame. I suppose some could quibble that since The Night Watch is an adaptation of Sarah Waters’ bestseller, and the six–part Case Histories is based on Kate Atkinson’s detective novels, they’re not exactly “original”, but at least it shows that someone, somewhere in Television Centre has decided to lay off having yet another go at an Austen or Bronte, so things are looking up.

That said audiences still had to endure the recent version of Women In Love, once again indubitably confirming that DH Lawrence is best confined to the classrooms so children can learn to loathe him at an early age, but at least it was quickly swept aside by The Crimson Petal and the White. Featuring great turns by Romola Garai and Gillian Anderson, a revelatory performance by Chris O’Dowd, and Mark Gattis on fire as his brother, it was like experiencing Michael Faber’s doorstop of a novel while in the throes of an all–consuming fever dream. It continued to prove that the BBC does the past better than the future, even if it involves marvellously unsavoury Victorian grime, insomuch that it made me completely forget that we had only recently been callously inflicted with the deplorable Outcasts.

As the trailer continues to play on the first of the offerings have already begun to appear. Doctor Who got off to a cracking start. If this weekend’s pirate episode wasn’t particularly up to snuff you have to feel sorry for writer Stephen Thompson whose episodes for both Doctor Who and last year’s Sherlock had the unenviable task of following immediately after a spectacular opening story from Steven Moffat. But as I said about the previous series, even if I’m not enamoured by the self–contained story within every episode there’s always something intriguing going on with the overall story arc. The woolly liberals over at The Guardian have already started a debate as to whether this new series is too scary for the kiddies. Granted most of the scenes in the abandoned orphanage were creepy, and the brief glimpse of The Silents suspended from the ceiling even made me recoil, but it looks like Moffat is out to introduce children to one of the scariest things they can experience in the whole wide world, which is heartbreak.

Over the May Day Bank Holiday Weekend, which began with a wedding I managed to avoid and ended with a well–deserved funeral, the BBC served up Exile. While it may have gotten some good write–ups I can’t say that I was overly impressed, and by the end it felt like I had missed an episode somewhere. Then on Thursday we got our first sight of The Shadow Line, which has nothing to do with the Joseph Conrad novella of the same name. Depending on which newspaper you peruse this is supposed to be either Britain’s answer to Forbrydelsen or The Wire. In interviews the writer–producer–director Hugo Blick has name–checked Edge of Darkness and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. After getting through the somewhat tortuous opening scene that seemed to drag on interminably, the stylization started to remind me more of The Avengers, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Unfortunately that wasn’t particularly a good thing.

Perhaps it didn’t help that the BBC had decided to schedule it on the exact same night as the imported conspiracy drama Rubicon, a clear descendant of the likes of Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View and All The President’s Men, which placed intrigue ahead of smugness and wasn’t filled with characters who appeared to have accidentally stumbled out of a Pinter play. Even in the context of home grown drama, any new conspiracy drama will, whether unfairly or not, find itself compared to the all time television great, Troy Kennedy–Martin’s Edge of Darkness, which, a quarter century after its original transmission has still never been bettered.

While both Edge of Darkness and The Shadow Line began with policemen holding torches but whereas the former briefly introduces the freight train carrying the nuclear waste of IIF – a visual clue that will eventually lead to Northmoor – before effortlessly establishing the character of Bob Peck’s resolute Yorkshire detective Ronnie Craven, the latter spent far too long letting David Schofield’s police sergeant come across like one of the three witches at the beginning of Macbeth, muttering his oblique prophecy to his bored–looking protégé. Although I’ll no doubt see The Shadow Line through to the end, well before the end of the first episode I knew which of the two dramas I would much prefer to be watching.

As for the rest, both Luther and Torchwood are shows I couldn’t give a hoot about, so when they pitch up I neither know nor care. The Hour, following the lives and careers of a trio of television journalists working for a nascent topical news programme, looks intriguing even if some elements of the press are implying the 1950s setting suggests it was commissioned by the BBC to replace Mad Men, which has now been purloined by the evil Murdoch empire. Although the one I’m waiting for is Page Eight, David Hare’s contemporary spy thriller coming to BBC2 later in the year, which I doubt will disappoint.

Between now and then, who knows what else there will be. Next week BBC4 starts its Wonders of Iceland series and now that the channel has introduced us to the Swedish Wallander, the Danish Forbrydelsen and the French Engrenages, whose third series ended last night, there may even be some Icelandic crime drama heading this way if we’re very lucky. I guess we have to wait and see.


At 2:06 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

I still maintain that the BBC as an institution haven't got a clue why Doctor Who works, and are smiling and clapping along with everybody else while glancing around to check how they're gauging the mood.

There have been a couple of occasions when I've been involved in developing child-friendly drama pitches for the BBC, and it was a dispiriting experience. Juvenile leads only. Juvenile storytelling, this time in the pejorative sense. Social issues in a reassuring context.

But where children's drama is supposed to be the TV equivalent of the educational toy, Doctor Who is a Hawkin's Catalogue of exhilarating novelties and honest-to-God nightmares.

So people are arguing that the show is too scary for kids? Fine, don't make them watch it. Just don't deny them the opportunity to sneak back in and switch it on. If you're lucky you'll raise a Doctor Who writer and he'll be rich beyond his wildest dreams.

(OK, that's a joke)

I got two episodes into Game of Thrones, then they killed the dog and I was out.

At 8:19 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


Back when Doctor Who first appeared, having been pitched as an educational show – at least until the homicidal pepper pots trundled on screen, I suppose the executives could get a handle on it. Having endured so long now – so much so that kids who watched the original incarnation, have a strong desire to revisit it, whether alone or to introduce their offspring to the show – it has become an anomaly that defies all the conventions. At this time, where everything appears to be so compartmentalised, maybe it doesn’t make any sense to them, especially when these executives seem to be so focussed on producing drama that fits into the most predictable genres.

Personally, I don’t really remember ever watching “juvenile” drama, unless early Grange Hill fell into that category. Up until sitting my O-levels I was a “straight home from school” kid, where I would immediately start my homework or sit and read. In my teens I don’t really remember watching any late afternoon children’s television because I had already leapt to watching evening adult dramas. I guess the same thing happened to literature back then. After working my way through the Ladybird books at primary school, I can only remember Ted Hughes The Iron Man and Treasure Island before I was reading Alistair MacLean and then having my James Bond books confiscated at prep school. Of course instead of Young Adult fiction back then it was reading Warlord, Battle Picture Weekly, Action and Commando comics.

Oddly enough a couple of weeks back Dick invited us to the BFI Southbank for special screenings from ITV’s Dramarama strand, which completely passed me by because at the time it began in the early 1980s I was pissing around at art school and in the pub. Of the examples they showed between talks from the exec producer and a kids’ TV historian, one was issues-based and a touch clunky, but the first episode screened was a ghost story employing two actors and a single set, which was pretty unsettling in places.

I thought the argument that Doctor Who being too scary for kids was nonsense. I was chatting with the old dear when she phoned up not long after the second episode to talk about her bowls and bridge wins. I mentioned the shot of The Silents in the orphanage had creeped me out, which made her chuckle. This is someone in her eighties who used to rescue the frogspawn from the farm’s brook during hot summers, but she was quick to remind me how she used to read the Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales to my sister and I when we were very young. And, as soon as we were over the Tamar on our way to Padstow for our summer holiday, she would gleefully recount the most horrible ghost stories.

Although I can’t remember the specifics, one about people being spirited away and replaced by cormorants has stuck in my head, even it the story specifics have become vague over time. I’m sure that if the pair of us were told it was too scary for us to hear, we would have demanded that we were told the whole tale. The moment you’re denied something you want to experience it however young you are.

It was pretty much the same for me with Game of Thrones. I can’t say I’m a big fan of these epic fantasy things and once the direwolf got it in the neck, I was done. I did enjoy the scenes with Peter Dinklage but that was about it.


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