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Writers Blocked
September 2011

Tangled love life: Romola Garai and Dominic West in "The Hour" 

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.

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September 22nd, 2011
4:09 PM
Abi Morgan has never managed to write a single minute of drama that wasn't so absurdly right-on as to induce feelings of nausea. She's a prime example of a person so unable to escape their own world view that they sabotage every programme they make with it. And frankly blaming the bureaucrats is taking the easy route. The audience and the writers are also complicit. The reason for so much crime? Because audiences love it. The same is true for the Americans. Just look at Five USA which is packed with US crime programmes. And the same is even true for the intellectuals with Wallander, The Killing and Spiral all being hugely popular on BBC4. Crime sells. It is as simple as that. As for your examples. Doctor Who is hardly the only science fiction programme on but it is the only successful science fiction (with Torchwood), largely because it is the exception. People who wouldn't watch SF will watch Doctor Who - it's an institution. As for fantasy - thank goodness we have so little. This is a genre best suited for children's TV. Admittedly it is a shame that so many brilliant children's books have yet to make it to the screen but this is a result of low funding and lower priorities. What about romance? Well, there have been quite a few recently, largely historical in nature. They've all been rubbish but then it isn't a genre that tends to work as anything better than comfort TV for women. As for war, that is very expensive and very difficult to do right(the war scenes in Downton Abbey are risible). The really big problem though is that war is seen as childish and violent by executives. Consequently you get the occasional message war series (Occupation, Mark of Cain, The Promise) but nothing else. TV bureaucrats are quite biased against this genre. Even Sharpe only worked because they accidentally hired a writer who loved G.A. Henty and wrote the scripts unironically (they hired him for being Irish, thinking it would mean he was a good anti-imperialist). Bravo Two Zero also worked but only because Troy Kennedy-Martin (and Tom Clegg) had the clout (combined with the success of the book) to do their own thing. And literary fiction - it is expensive to get rights, many TV execs barely read (or can't be bothered to read anything not published in the last decade) and the prospective audience is generally too small. Now all of this isn't to say that it couldn't be done. C4 and the BBC have enough tax payers money to do it but are scared of low ratings and crippled by over-management, a lack of risk taking, a very limited pool of writers and a lack of ambition. It is worth remembering that the population of the UK is much smaller than the US (harder to make money with risky subjects) and that only the huge, creative forces like Granada (that don't exist today) were able to take on such ambitious, risky projects as The Jewel in the Crown and Brideshead Revisited.

September 18th, 2011
10:09 AM
I thought perhaps Nick Cohen's review would be something I would agree with; wrote a review here:

September 15th, 2011
1:09 PM
As long as people still watch them etc... I see the sad fact that TV nowadays is so fractured that dependable genre output is a simple necessity to stay afloat. I liked Injustice - Horowitz used his high concept premise to explore to a certain degree social stereotypes - and how the lawyer's actions affected disadvantaged youth in the justice system. For the record I loved Horowitz's other 5 part effort last year 'Collision', which wasn't a crime story at all... My biggest hope is that enough people watched 'Monroe', a real gem of a medical drama that managed to fend off the cliches but suffer from lazy critics comparing it to House (it was nothing of the sort). It was smart, low key, and very very funny.

Peregrine Pigeon
September 6th, 2011
7:09 PM
The same is true of the hierarchical Booker engine and what it does to literature: look at where its dinner party is tonight. Kensington Palace. Look at the Chair of the so-called judges: Dame Stella Rimington. Central, orthodox power and control. That's what the Booker is about. ITV looks loose and playful by comparison. And Appropriate Adult was, bizarrely enough for ITV, brilliantly intense drama.

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