Writers Blocked

The odd script may show promise but TV executives are stifling British dramatists

Nick Cohen

An inhouse ad for ITV that ran this summer unintentionally revealed why British television drama is as stale as musty air in a locked basement. “Without villains,” intones a grim voice as images of shifty men flick across the screen, “we wouldn’t have heroes.” The picture changes. We see the faces of the crime fighters, who have filled or will fill the 2011 schedules, as they have filled the schedules for so many years before.

James Purefoy starred as a barrister in Injustice, a five-part series that asked how can a lawyer “live with himself if he discovers that the client he is defending is guilty?” As all defence barristers assume as a matter of course that their clients are as guilty as sin, the only way ITV could find drama in its hopelessly naive conceit was by having Purefoy murder his clients when the poor fool discovered that they had done it after all. Because he couldn’t live with himself for getting them off, he decided that his clients should not be allowed to live with themselves either.

Silly?  No matter. If Injustice failed to please, ITV offered Scott & Bailey, a compendium of cop clichés. Scott (or maybe Bailey) was an impulsive and flamboyant defier of convention. Bailey (or was it Scott?) was the sober, serious partner, who played by the rules. Together the stereotypes made a great team, as they invariably do. But there was a twist: the cops were chicks. Their love lives were, of course, a mess-adultery, workplace affairs, anything to hold the attention of the bored viewer-but Scott and Bailey never allowed their romances to get in the way of bringing criminals to book.

Coming soon is Appropriate Adult, in which Dominic West stars as the serial killer Fred West. Anne-Marie Davis, Fred West’s daughter whose mother and half sisters were among his victims, said the programme will do nothing but cause distress to the families of the dead. “No one should kid themselves — the object of this programme is to make money.” We must wait to see if it is anything more than a celebration of the pornography of violence. But Dominic West has already confessed that playing the serial killer gave him nightmares, and I suspect that viewers will soon be sharing his experience. ITV is also offering Law & Order: UK, a story about the rough, tough life of lawyers in the Crown Prosecution Service; a new series of Midsomer Murders, which can waste a few hours of the day if you’ve nothing better to do, and Single-Handed, about a lone Irish officer policing the wilds of Connemara.

Of the eight dramas in ITV’s summer season, six were crime stories. The seventh was Doc Martin, an amiable and undemanding romantic comedy. The eighth was Downton Abbey, which is not a crime story but is most certainly a crime. The mystery of why Britain with its thriving theatre and unsurpassed literary tradition is so bad at making television drama becomes easier to solve when you look at the schedules. Soap opera aside, fiction on television means crime fiction. Medical and comic dramas follow far behind. Science fiction is represented only by Doctor Who and its spin-offs; fantasy only by Merlin. Romance, war stories and the television equivalent of literary fiction barely appear.

Television drama, like film-making, theatre and net start-ups, thrives in creative hubs. Yet when they try to produce intelligent and original work, British writers find that the commissioning editors and channel controllers they need to encourage and guide them are not there. Instead, they meet cultural bureaucrats who have wasted their careers churning out hack work, and do not have the talent or the artistic integrity to schedule dramas that can compete with the best American work. When they try, the result is an embarrassment.

The BBC described The Hour as Britain’s answer to Mad Men. It was nothing of the sort, but not only for the reasons the critics gave. They have been hard on the series because it showed the 2010s telling off the 1950s for it fuddy-duddy attitudes. No viewer of The Hour can feel the slightest concern for Bel Rowley, the heroine. She is the equal of the men around her and damn well knows it. Rowley is a BBC producer, who begins a current affairs series — The Hour — just as the Suez crisis is looming in 1956. She never looks nervous or daunted by the prospect of breaking into a man’s world. She is not a feminist pioneer, but a bright, 21st-century career woman who has stepped into a time machine. Contrast The Hour‘s phoniness with Mad Men. For all the elements of make- believe, its women feel as if they are a part of Madison Avenue before the second wave of feminism. Sexism is normal. The writers do not lecture us about it. They just show it, and thus create suspense. The viewers wonder whether the men around the talented copywriter Peggy Olson will casually destroy her career without even thinking about it because she is an interloper in a world that has never been meant for women. They worry about her in a way they never worry about Rowley.

If didacticism — the curse of British writing — was The Hour‘s only problem it would be bad enough. What makes the series symptomatic of the wider troubles of British television, is that after failing to create a coherent fictional world, the programme-makers overwrite in the hope that a frenetic plot can distract attention from their shortcomings. They have Rowley and her tangled love life, the first stirrings of the decline in deference to authority in the BBC that anticipate the arrival of the 1960s, the Suez crisis, the collapse of empire and the Eden government trying to cover up its folly. All that is not enough. The BBC has to throw in — what else? — a crime story as well. An impulsive flamboyant, convention-defying reporter working for Rowley realises that a beautiful woman has been murdered by dark and dangerous forces working for the state, which…well, you can probably guess the rest.  

The sadness of it is that Abi Morgan, who wrote The Hour, and Anthony Horowitz, the author of Injustice, show flashes of dramatic ability. Yet the superficial and cowardly hierarchies of British television prevent them  from flourishing. In future critics should not hold writers and directors to account but persecute a generation of television bureaucrats who have wasted creative talents that they are unfit to command.

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