On the Hunt for Cheap Thrills

In broadcasting, as in literature, cynical writers devoid of self-belief are doomed to fail

Nick Cohen

When I talk to creative writing students, I try to make them understand one point before their eyes glaze and minds wander. You can’t fake it, I say. You can’t write a book you don’t believe in, and expect it to do well. The first person a writer must sell an idea to is himself. If he doesn’t believe in it, no one else will.

I am sure my idealism sounds foolish. The most casual knowledge of fiction belies the notion that artistic integrity trumps all other virtues. Writers plagiarise plots and styles with abandon. They write to order, and to make money and become famous.

Yet if they do not believe in their work, they will never succeed. The political columnist who tells his readers what they want to hear, the academic churning out papers to hit her department’s research tar- get, or the novelist who lets the moneymen dictate his themes, write badly because they have no real interest in their subject, and are punished by readers accordingly.

The need for self-belief applies as much to the producers of popular as literary fiction. Bridget Jones’s Diary is my favourite example because I knew Helen Fielding slightly. It began its march to sales of two million and more in 1996. True to form, publishers persuaded women writers to chase her market with hundreds of “chick-lit” rip offs. Not one of them came close to matching Fielding’s success. Her imitators did not have her comic talent, to be sure. But talent on its own cannot explain their failure. When she wrote Bridget Jones, Fielding was a jobbing journalist, in her thirties and single. However much Bridget Jones was an exaggeration, Fielding knew something about desperation and loneliness—and it showed. I am not saying that she made readers think that Bridget Jones was real, any more than Ian Fleming made readers think that James Bond was real. But at some level they believed in their characters, and hence their readers did too.

Today E.L. James is the author publishers want others to imitate. I cannot explain her popularity. But women who have en- joyed her tell me that she has managed to dress up the oldest romantic plot of all in pornographic clothes. The heroine meets a man who is completely unlike the readers’ husbands and boyfriends: a Prince Charm- ing, who is handsome, sexy and, above all, rich. James somehow made the yearning of women for something better than their mundane men credible, and millions of readers have responded. Needless to add, publishers have now persuaded nearly every lady novelist of my acquaintance to turn out utter filth—to the amazement of their husbands and profound embarrassment of their teenage children.

The follow-ups will flop, and hardly any- one will notice. But while books fail in private, television fails in the spotlight. The BBC’s thriller Hunted was the most cynical piece of writing I have seen on television, and a great warning of the dangers of faking even trashy drama. The producers and writers thought they could confect a hit by stealing other people’s ideas and get pouty actresses to strip on camera and muscular actors to play moody killing machines. Trying to ex- plain their plot is like trying to explain the ramblings of a drunk, but I suppose I need to try. The heroine works for a private security company. As has been the case since the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, the villains are enemies within: shadowy corporations that murder to make money.

The good or goodish guys in the security firm learn that their employers are in the pay of the evil corporation. At its behest, they are targeting an East End gangster, who has moved up into the big boys’ league—think of Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday. The director uses hand-held cameras to create an air of realism—think of the Jason Bourne trilogy. The writers use political correctness to cover a piece of work that is cheap, derivative and sloppy. (The villains gassed peasants in Pakistan so they could flood their villages and build a dam, they reveal, as if that was meant to make all that follows fine.)

In truth what followed was not even comprehensible, let alone fine. Good thriller writers go to some trouble to explain why the police don’t intervene to solve the crimes early in the story. In police dramas, the police are the heroes, and their bafflement is the readers’ bafflement too. From Conan Doyle onwards, others have made their mysteries credible by showing the police as plodders, who do not know what to do. In the Bourne trilogy and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels, malevolent cliques in the security services control the forces of law and order, and prevent an early solution to the case. Other writers from Alistair MacLean to Lee Child have tried a different tactic, and set their stories in remote places, where there are no gendarmes to hand.

Hunted made no effort and thus made no sense. Bodies piled up across Greater London and the Home Counties, and the indifferent Metropolitan Police barely showed its face. By the final episode it became clear that no one else was going to explain what had gone before either. The writers left so many questions unanswered they displayed contempt for their story, their characters, their viewers and—justifiably—themselves.

And the audience knew it. Viewing figures collapsed from 5.69 million to 2.59 million. Faced with popular indifference to their lavish production, the BBC cancelled the second series. “Hunted hasn’t found the mainstream audience it was hoped,” a BBC spokesman said. He had no right to be surprised.

In class-ridden Britain, the parvenu is a stock figure of fun. The social climber or pseudo-intellectual with “ideas above his station” is always good for a laugh. More ridiculous are university-educated commissioning editors and book publishers with ideas beneath their station. They think when they slum it that popular culture is so debased and easy any fool can rattle out a hit. They may be right about the debased nature of much popular culture, but they be- tray their ignorance when they assume that success is easy. If you want to succeed in pop culture, or indeed any culture, you have to attain a state of mind that is very hard for the ironic upper-middle class cultural bureaucrat to achieve. You have to believe.

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