Excellent Drama? Elementary

The BBC doesn’t know how to recognise a good series like Sherlock any more

Screen TV
Celebrity status: Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes

A quibbling critic ought to pick the BBC’s Sherlock apart. Admirers of Arthur Conan Doyle would expect nothing less than a fanatical concentration on minute flaws, after all. “The little things are infinitely the most important,” says Holmes in A Case of Identity. His 21st-century successor accepted loose ends and unexplained solutions with a nonchalance the master would never have tolerated. 

In the opening episode, a taxi-driver forced his victims to choose from two pills — one deadly, one safe. Holmes never explained why the victim always picked the fatal poison and the driver always swallowed the harmless pill. In the final programme, Moriarty set Holmes multiple challenges and storylines careered across the screen with dizzying speed. Holmes tried to save pensioners and children from being turned into human bombs, unmask an art fraud, stop an insurance swindle, find stolen government secrets and solve an old case of a murdered teenage swimmer. Television’s fear of allowing a plot the time to develop was on display once again. The action had to be relentless to stop the feckless viewer reaching for the remote.

Yet quibblers must learn to sit back and take in the show on occasion if we are not to turn into lawyers. The BBC made Sherlock to be enjoyed. The scripts by Steven Moffat, Stephen Thompson and Mark Gatiss were witty and beguiling — if you took your eye off the screen for a moment, you would miss a joke or clue. The actors in the minor roles were as good as the leads, always a sign of a well-made drama. Andrew Scott played Moriarty as a camp demon, alternately insinuating and frightening. Rupert Graves made Inspector Lestrade a dry observer of Holmes’s frenzied theorising rather than a plodding copper.

The collective achievement of actors and production team can be summarised by saying that on Sunday evenings in the summer of 2010, millions of Britons revived a ritual I thought had died in the early 1990s. They cancelled all other engagements so that they could watch an exciting British drama.

A while ago, I asked in the Observer why British television cannot excite more often. In the 1970s and ’80s, Britain produced world-beating dramas — Brideshead Revisited, Paradise Postponed, Jewel in the Crown, Boys from the Blackstuff, Inspector Morse and many others — and exported them. In return, the Americans supplied glitzy soaps — Dynasty and Dallas — and game-show formats. Now the roles are reversed. We are world leaders in exporting trash — Pop Idol, Strictly Come Dancing, Wife Swap, Top Gear — and take our quality drama from America: The Wire, House, Mad Men. My conclusion was that media grandees do not realise that they have presided over a precipitous artistic decline because many of them have become rich in the globalised TV market. Their financial success prevents them acknowledging their artistic failure, and seeking to rectify it. They cannot accept that their inability to create stories that will stay in the national memory means that little will be remembered of them when they are gone.

It was as if French chefs had replaced haute cuisine with Big Macs, and congratulated themselves on their good taste.

Inadvertently, Sherlock proved that the BBC still cannot recognise a good drama when it is in front of its nose. It made just three episodes and broadcast them in the dog days of summer. It messed about with the transmission time — 9pm one week, 8.30pm the next — as it always does with unloved programmes. Only when Sherlock was a critical and popular triumph did it announce it would commission more episodes.

A friend with ambitions to break into the media discovered how unimaginative today’s executives were when he went to a training session for aspiring producers. He swiftly became disillusioned after he bumped into Jay Hunt, the controller of BBC1. She told him that her station was reluctant to commission anything that did not have a celebrity in it. Ms Hunt may know what works for light entertainment, but she does not understand drama. At the same time as the BBC was running Sherlock, it was showing The Deep. Minnie Driver was the female lead, but she couldn’t breathe life into a dead script. Running alongside it was Mistresses, a bloodless Aga saga which even the presence of the divine Joanna Lumley could not save.

Gore Vidal’s assault on the auteur theory of cinema is a help here. Contrary to the French theorists of the 1960s, he pointed out that the films of the Hollywood golden age were not the work of directors, whom the French took to be creative geniuses on a par with the greatest novelists and artists. The studios handed a director a script and heaven help if he did not follow it to the letter. The best director in the world could not turn a bad script into a good film, said Vidal, with the authority of a man who had worked at MGM with Dorothy Parker and William Faulkner.

The same applies to stars. Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Watson) were hardly unknowns before Sherlock. But they were not celebrities — although I am sure they are now. One argument I hear a lot is that British television companies cannot compete with the Americans because they lack the financial base of a mass audience and so cannot afford the talent. Its proponents do not understand that the producers of a television drama do not need to spend a fortune on hiring stars. When they come up with a new idea, they can look in the large pool of underused acting talent, instead. As the Americans know, new television drama makes stars, but it does not need them. It needs writers.

I may be being unfair in criticising Jay Hunt. The internal market at the BBC means in effect that one man has the ultimate authority to approve ideas, which he then offers to the channel controllers. His name is Ben Stephenson, the head of drama commissioning. Even if had the discernment of a Medici prince — and if he does he keeps it well hidden — he is far too powerful. Equally, it is certainly unfair to concentrate on the BBC. Sky is now the richest broadcaster in Britain. But because Rupert Murdoch buys business favours from Labour and Tory governments by offering them the support of the Sun, venal politicians have exempted Sky from the regulations governing public-service broadcasting. As a result, Sky produces no drama worth mentioning.

Whichever way you look, however, you always see the poverty of the ambition of the current generation of media managers. Good television, like any other good art form, needs money. But more important than money is the will to make good television and in Britain that will isn’t there.