Drama By Committee

Convincing and quietly terrifying: Sophie Okonedo (left) in the BBC’s “Mayday”

In the current issue of the TV trade magazine Broadcast, Jay Hunt, the Chief Creative Officer of Channel 4, responds to producers who complained that micro-managing bureaucrats had furred the arteries of British television. “We back people who have a vision and the ability to deliver,” she protests, and goes on to list examples of innovative work Channel 4 had commissioned.

She seemed to have a point, until she said, “Once a week, all of the genre heads has [sic] a breakfast meeting to discuss the best ideas in play. We talk about our successes and our failures. The sessions are robust and self-critical.”

Her terrible use of English — “genre heads,” “in play” — gave her away. The decline of British television — a medium, let us not forget, which relies on clarity — is matched by the rise of a tortuous managerial patois. Since John Birt’s reign at the BBC in the 1990s, executives have produced a thought-denying and life-denying bureaucratic code that only initiates can understand. As with Latin in the medieval church, its effect is to justify the status and salaries of a priesthood while excluding everyone who loves English and therefore everyone who can write a half-decent script.

I doubt that breakfast meetings of “genre heads” engage in robust self-criticism. You don’t get to be a “genre head” unless you are also a “ditto head”, who goes along with everyone else and pretends that television is marvellous. Look at the Edinburgh Television Festival. It never debates why Britain once exported quality dramas and imported game shows, and now gets its best dramas from abroad while pumping out lightweight and formulaic programmes. The executives who take the stage are as complacent and as self-congratulatory as bankers before the crash. The otherwise excellent Mark Lawson will never devote an edition of a Radio 4 arts programme to asking why Nicholas Hytner, the director of the National Theatre, can produce shows the world wants to see when Ben Stephenson, the BBC’s Commissioner of Drama, cannot.

You find an admission that America and Scandinavia are now producing better television only in the willingness of our companies to, well, “borrow” their ideas. I am not going to mock. I don’t mind British commissioning editors ripping off foreigners. There is no copyright on ideas, and originality is overrated. The real question is not whether a British company has stolen but whether they have stolen with style; whether they are cat burglars or muggers; whether they can make something new out of someone else’s idea or just smash and grab it.

The most obvious smash and grab was The Hour: the BBC’s — well, let us be polite — homage to Mad Men. But not content with having the arrival of questioning journalism in the television news of the 1950s, the arrival of women in the workplace, and the Suez crisis and the end of empire as subjects, it had to throw in spy and murder mysteries. It looked to me like yet another example of micro-managing by the executive priesthood, interfering in an art form it doesn’t understand. You could never imagine the producers of Mad Men telling the writers, “OK you’ve got the first ripples of the second wave of feminism, you’ve got our fascination with how swiftly our attitudes have changed in the last half century, you’ve got sex, you’ve got good plotlines, but that’s not enough. You’ve got to throw in a murder. You will have no time to develop the story, it won’t make sense, but don’t worry: it will keep the gormless punters watching. Everyone knows that detective dramas are the only dramas they watch.”

The patronised audience did not watch The Hour, however, but reached for the remote. Viewing figures fell to 1.24 million an episode by the second series. A baffled BBC did not understand why. “We loved the show,” a spokesman wailed, as he announced that the BBC had binned the third series.

The BBC’s Mayday and ITV’s Broadchurch are much, much better. Both are “indebted” to the success of Scandinavian drama — to put it mildly. Like the first series of The Killing, both begin with the murder of a teenager. Both follow the Danes’ example by showing grief and suspicion enveloping everyone the victims knew. The critics thought Broadchurch the superior effort, but as it is still running, I will look at Mayday. The critics were sniffy about it, I suspect, because it was too bold a work for their conventional tastes. There was hardly a sympathetic character in the five-hour show. After the 14-year-old May Queen disappeared in a small Sussex town, all the main male characters were suspects. Even the innocents were such sleazy men you felt that society should intern them just to be on the safe side.

The writers, Ben Court and Caroline Ip, did not stop their challenge to exhausted convention there. Although Mayday was a murder mystery, they ignored the detective format. The police barely featured. Instead, the wives of the suspected men worked out the truth for themselves. Leslie Manville was superb as a nervy, birdlike middle-aged woman who slowly realised that her husband was a paedophile and a fraud. Sophie Okonedo was as good as I have ever seen her as the wife of the police officer who killed the girl. The look of hard determination on her face as she decided to save her family by framing an innocent if repellent man was convincing and quietly terrifying. Court and Ip decided to resolve the drama by using magic rather than police work. Evidence against the framed man vanished from the police station. The murdered girl came back to life through her twin sister and terrified her killer, who thought he had escaped justice.

It sounds silly when I write it out. But the director Brian Welsh had made the Sussex woods look so eerie and built the atmosphere of ancient paganism surviving into the modern day so well that the apparently tricksy finale worked. In its willingness to experiment, Mayday showed that the sickly body of British television drama retains a flicker of a pulse. To restore the patient to health we need to recognise that in broadcasting as in so many other walks of national life, managers hold us down. To get back on our feet we must get them off our backs. 

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