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.