Excelling at the Mediocre
Middlebrow TV drama like Death in Paradise is what tired viewers want and British writers do best
It’s been a long day. You’re tired. Your partner is tired. You know that if you try to talk to each other, conversation will degenerate into pointless argument. You just want to watch something to fill the hours before bed.
What do you do? In theory you can see the best television and films in the world via Netflix or one of the other online rental services. But be honest, do you want art? Wouldn’t you prefer to catch a “quintessentially English” crime drama, instead? Midsomer Murders, maybe, or Lewis, or perhaps the BBC’s Death in Paradise, which is rapidly becoming a staple of the schedules.
Critics don’t talk enough about mediocre work. We either write raves — a new drama is innovative, exciting, the best you will see in years and so on — or stinkers that damn the show and the gormless audiences who watch it. Both styles have the unbeatable advantage of showing off our astuteness. The mediocre programmes that tens of millions watch barely concern us. The omission is a pity because if British television is good at anything it is good at producing mediocre work. I don’t mean to damn with faint praise. It is not easy to be good at mediocrity any more than it is easy to write a best-selling airport novel. Only a few can find excellence in the ordinary, and mediocre British television is very good indeed.
The first thing that strikes if you take middlebrow drama seriously is the absence of true feeling. The most successful series are crime dramas. Brian True-May, the creator of Midsomer Murders, boasts that ITV has sold his show to “230 territories — that’s more countries than there are in the world”. But the viewer is never frightened, let alone terrified. The victims, and there are many of them, are like collateral damage in warfare. The producers sacrifice them for the greater good of keeping the plot moving. There is no hint of tragedy about their deaths. The programme makers do not make you pity them or feel the agony of their final minutes. Nor do you feel a cathartic release when the detective identifies their killer.
Most viewers most of the time don’t want tragedy. They want classy tosh. Britain excels at providing it because of the lingering hold of le style anglais on the global imagination. Just as oligarchs want a town house in Chelsea and an English public school education for their children, so a slice of the world’s population wants to see murders set among the English upper class. The producers and writers respond with a kind of artistic integrity. The authors of Midsomer Murders in particular do not write to please an international market but take an ironic delight in spreading violence through the obscure corners of genteel rural life — the amateur dramatic club, village fête, civil war re-enactment society, organic cheese maker. Unlike with Downton Abbey, you never watch Midsomer or Lewis or a repeat of Lewis‘s predecessor Inspector Morse and think, “They’ve just put that in to please the Americans,” or “That’s a caricature Englishman only a German could believe.”
These dramas have another virtue you rarely find elsewhere: they are unafraid to show middle-aged love. Most television wants beautiful stars, particularly beautiful young women stars. The hero can be older and uglier, but his private life is invariably a mess, allowing him to seduce a new woman in every episode. By contrast, Inspector Barnaby in Midsomer Murders is happily married and Lewis has had a rather touching love affair developing between the widowed inspector and a police pathologist. Whereas television usually goes from first meeting to seduction in 30 minutes, here the writers have spread the tentative romance over several series. Death in Paradise follows a similar pattern. It has a comic relationship building between the strait-laced English detective and his beautiful sergeant from the Caribbean.
The easy thing to say is that British television is just updating Agatha Christie, the most successful mediocre writer there has ever been. They recreate her “Mayhem Parva” to use the crime writer Colin Watson’s happy description of the Christie school of village detective fiction, and over-complicated plots. The result, however, is not quite as benign as Christie would have wanted.
If the British public and a slice of the international audience want to see murders set among the English upper-middle class they also want to see the English upper-middle class murdered. The people in Midsomer Murders are rotten, almost without exception. It is not just the murderers. The victims usually deserve their punishment, and the supporting characters are just as bad. In the last episode I saw, elderly aristocratic parents did not care about the death of their son. His bereaved wife at once tried to seduce a rich neighbour for his money, even though the neighbour, a pathetic wimp, was already married to a woman who came across as a demented sexpot. You only have to see an Oxford don in Lewis to know that he is either a corrupt scientist illegally experimenting on human guinea pigs or an amoral intellectual who preys on his female or male students (and sometimes both). Meanwhile the guest stars of Death in Paradise play the English at their worst: the type of expat who provoked the subject populations of a quarter of the world to anti-colonial revolution. The pleasure of viewing Georgian rectories and Oxford colleges accounts for a part of the appeal of English crime, but so too does anti-intellectualism and class envy.
Along with Dr Who, they are the most popular middlebrow dramas Britain can make. I do not wish to knock them — how can I when my own weary eyes turn to them? But it is a shame that we cannot do better. In the second half of the 19th century, when the Germans had Wagner and the Italians had Verdi, we had Gilbert and Sullivan: clever, satirical, undemanding and safe. As opera was then, television drama is now: the most interesting art form of the age. Once again, the English don’t want to exploit its full potential.