My paper the Observer has now got stuck in with a debate between Boyd Hilton, who argues that British TV has no problems, and Euan Ferguson, who says the Brits are years behind. Boyd supports his argument by saying that the BBC made The Office
I've met many an American TV producer/writer/actor who talks in the same misty-eyed manner about Gervais and Merchant as we do about the creators of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Mad Men. And even though The Office is a comedy rather than a brooding, intense drama, if the question is "have we produced anything of similar quality?", rather than "have we produced anything similar of similar quality?" I think you'll find most American TV types would point to The Office (the final two episodes of which were pretty much comedy-drama anyway).
This is to miss the point,as Boyd half acknowledges. As I said at the start of this, no one doubts that British television news is superior to American news and that British comedy can still be good. The problem is with drama for grown-ups. Euan Ferguson gets to the root of it when he describes the didacticism of British television.
"Why can't we do politics?" he asks. "You can't say there's no interest in politics, but watching anything in the last 10 years about Iraq, say, or Bush-Blair has been like being knocked over the head repeatedly with a heavy, mis-spelled pamphlet from the Stop the War Coalition. No complexity.... Think of racism. The Wire's character McNulty captivates because of his very modern, honest, human racism: he believes the stereotypes, trades the lazy taunts, but actually likes black people. It's a complexity, and an honest reflection, which British programme-makers would shudder from. As for gangster films, with their dreadful middle-class cringe, and uniquely distasteful celebration of working-class criminal mores, the less said the better, which is why The Sopranos was such a breath of fresh cordite. Similarly, the misogyny of Mad Men, not condoning it, but examining it. Why do I know in my heart that British committees of executives would not, in the end, have trusted their viewers to know the difference?"
I think Euan is hinting here at the almost Victorian sermonising that cramps British television. American dramatists are not public service broadcasters. They can make dramas, which are far worse than anything we see, and far better. British television is a part of the establishment, with public-service obligations set by a state that gives knighthoods and peerages to senior station controllers on their retirement. Broadcasters seem to think that they have to show that at the end of every story the virtuous are rewarded and the wicked punished. They have to pretend that there are no problems with, say, multiculturalism or suggest that all decent people share the outlook of an upper-middle class human rights lawyer or Liberal Democrat MP with a healthy trust fund and tender conscience.
Yet public service broadcasters operating under the same establishment guidelines produced excellent dramas from the 1960s to the 1980s. Why they cannot now is still something of a mystery. My gut instinct remains that British television has a structural problem (discussed in this post) stemming from too much power being in the hands of too few commissioners, and an unwarranted self-esteem stemming from its production of formulaic programmes, which sell well internationally but which are ultimately pap.
PS Willard Foxton has sent me a description of a BBC blue-sky-thinking seminar he attended for wannabe writers and producers here. It is well worth reading, and confirms the impression of institutionalised mediocrity.
First, The Controller (sinister title for nice lady) talked about what makes a good TV idea for BBC one, and the secrets behind the evolution of our best-loved shows.
Slightly depressingly, this boiled down to "BBC one aren't going to commission anything that doesn't have a celebrity attached to it already". The example of Richard Hammond's Invisible Worlds was used as an example of a TV format that had been kicking around for ages, but apparently "only worked" once it was tested with someone with Hammond's enthusiasm.
PPS Simon Heffer in today's Telegraph makes essentially the same point as Euan.
Perhaps worst of all, from the point of view of our maintaining high standards, the days when American television programmes were almost automatically "rubbish" and British ones inevitably superior have long gone. It is 30 years since Brideshead and Jewel in the Crown, nearly 45 since The Forsyte Saga. Meanwhile, a series like Mad Men - set in a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960s - is praised for its superb scripts, meticulous attention to detail and fine acting (using players largely unknown before they had this break). I find it hard to believe we would have the confidence to make such a series ourselves, or to portray the period accurately, or to avoid cliché and superficiality in the way that this series or The Wire or The Sopranos have done.
Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom (Fourth Estate).
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