British television today is rubbish. But boxed sets — especially those dramas from America — are like bottles of fine wine, waiting to be consumed at the perfect moment
It is a common complaint of my generation — those of us who will never see 50 again — that television today is rubbish. I watch so little of it I hardly feel in a position to comment — if I find myself at home with a recreational opportunity my first choice of broadcasting outlet would always be Radio 3, and I am not usually disappointed. My wife observed about a decade ago that television no longer catered for people like us — which was not a class-based comment (though I think it probably should have been) but for anyone in middle age. This is perhaps not quite so true as it was — BBC4 often has programmes on it that send me reaching for the Sky+ button, and we have orgies of television on certain evenings thanks to our favourite channel, something called Planner.
The other televisual obsession of our age is the Boxed Set, and it was only by subscribing to that that we realised that, actually, television is not as bad as we thought — or, rather, American television isn’t. I happened to be in a hotel room in New York a few years ago when I accidentally caught part of an episode of the first series of Mad Men. I was immediately captivated by it — the attention to detail, the excellence of the script, and the bravura immorality of the character Roger Sterling, played too perfectly for words by John Slattery. I have watched every episode of all six series, and have the DVDs of the first five. In a few years’ time, when it is all over, I shall sit down on winters’ evenings and watch it all again. The DVDs are like bottles of wine in a cellar, waiting to be consumed at the perfect moment. Television is, once more, properly cultural.
Mad Men caused us to realise that in our determination not to watch television we had missed out on an important phenomenon: that American television, which in the 1980s and ’90s had turned out a juggernaut of crap, had suddenly in parts become exceptionally good. We followed the herd, unashamedly; our first boxed set was The Sopranos, which apart from the magnificence of its acting and its scripts had a sort of moral greatness that filled me, by the 86th episode, with a sense of awe. The herd then took us to what appeared to be the next most-acclaimed series, The Wire, and that proved an equally compelling experience. Homeland, inevitably, came next, and we await with eagerness the arrival of the third series on British television this month. In the cupboard is the complete Breaking Bad, given to us by a thoughtful friend, and which promises to be a treat for the dark winter evenings to come.
I travel to America frequently and have done so for years; and though I have never worked in advertising, run with the Mafia, dealt drugs in Baltimore or been an al-Qaeda sleeper, what strikes me about the series that depict such things is their alarming sense of realism. Few concessions are made for the audience, either. The message is that if you want something more anodyne, go somewhere else to look for it. And the audience is treated as grown-up in one particular sense above all: no one blinks at the prospect of a 13-hour series, with a few more of equal length following afterwards. Here, as one television executive told me not along ago, the British public are deemed not to have the attention span to go beyond six weeks. Even Downton Abbey, which we are told would be watched endlessly by most of the British public (and, indeed, the world) if only Lord Fellowes had the time and the energy to write hundreds more episodes, is restricted to seven or eight parts.
There is, however, something wrong here. The British public will happily watch American imports for 13 weeks, so why won’t they watch British serials of a similar length? Is this some sort of admission that British serials are so terrible that it is a job to stretch them out for a quarter of a year? I tried the first episode, earlier this year, of The Village, set in a Derbyshire community in 1914 but telling the story, over several series, of the succeeding century. Its advance publicity rejoiced in its apparently authentic grimness. It was a caricature grimness, of course, showcasing all the horrible things that happened in 1914 but wouldn’t happen now because We Are More Enlightened. There seems to be a revenge unit in the BBC that uses period dramas to go back in time to highlight, and right, wrongs: and if that is what you want from drama, good luck to you. I gave up on The Village after one episode for reasons that would doubtless have me condemned as an elitist: the marching band that sped the men of the village off to the Western Front in August 1914 played “Jerusalem”, which was not written until March 1916. I just couldn’t take it seriously any more.
Those who could had six episodes to watch — with, as I say, more planned. It is a long haul from The Forsyte Saga, that ran over 26 weeks in 1967-68 (on BBC2, which was then the cultural channel), to be repeated on BBC1 the following year. The BBC thought nothing of dramatising the first six of Galsworthy’s nine Forsyte novels over six months, with a very literal adaptation, and the public rejoiced. Have we really become so thick, and acquired such short attention spans, in the last 46 years that we cannot cope with more than six episodes at a time, and those composed in a fashion that is easily digested for the hard of understanding? I know there are other distractions — the internet, for example — but they apply to the Americans too. If they can do it, why can’t we?
I rather fear not that the television audience in this country has been infantilised, but that too many of the people who decide what it will be allowed to watch consider it to be infantilised. BBC4, which I really do like, smells more and more like a ghetto. Our snobberies may prevent us from wanting to learn from America, but in this instance I think we can. Or, we can stop watching domestic television altogether, and let our home entertainment revolve, probably quite satisfactorily, around the boxed set.