Mark Lawson’s a very clever man, but I worry that his Â little essay on the state of British television drama is in danger of missing a rather obvious truth about the state of our nation’s telly output.
Lawson says there are only three wrongs with British television drama: it’s too white; series don’t run for long enough; and there’s a uniformity of subject matter.
He says British TV drama’s strengths are: Sherlock; Kudos Productions; our actors; realism; and ad-free TV.
I’m summarising. But not by much.
Now, a good deal of this makes me splutter, but one thing makes me chuckle. What’s the one thing missing from both the debit and credit columns? The one thing (I would argue) that makes American television drama currently so very, very good, and British television drama so poor in contrast?
The writer. That’s all. The creator. The schmuck who came up with the thing and puts the words in the actors’ mouths. Some writers are better at this than others (hence the title of this post, courtesy of Harrison Ford).
These guys and girls are the heroes of American television drama. David Simon. Matthew Weiner. Terence Winter. Damon Lindelof. Aaron Sorkin. (Oh, crap, all men, must come back to that). Lawson names only two writers in his whole piece: Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss, for their work on Sherlock. Fair enough. But that also means that the best British television drama is actually just an offshoot of Dr Who. Although I’m beginning to think the whole of the BBC is just an offshoot of Dr Who.
In America, writers have power and scope and ambition. But the greatest of these is power. I agree with Lawson’s point about longevity of programmes, but that’s actually just a symptom of why our writers’ opportunities and renown are so stunted: the power of commissioning editors, and their fear of overreaching and losing their grip on the purse. Until a writer is made Head of Drama at the BBC, this is always going to be a problem.
Too much of our television drama is formulaic and safe, written to a format which won’t scare commissioners and which will attract just enough audience to ensure no-one loses their job. Lawson describes Spooks as combining “compelling narratives with serious political and psychological ideas”. Yet this is a programme whose narrative relies on people mishearing other people, interrupting them, and running out of the room while someone is warning them of imminent danger (“no, wait!”). In other words, it’s a soap opera. Not a serious television drama at all.
The interesting article to have written would have been one which examined Outcasts, the standout television drama failure of the beginning of 2011: how it was commissioned, how it was cast, how it was scheduled, how the writing team worked and what wasn’t made instead. That would reveal a lot more about what is wrong with British television drama than Lawson’s rather complacent trot around the stately homes.
Biggest television drama success in Britain in the last year? Downton Abbey. Oscar-winning screenwriter with a proven track record who was given the tools and the time to make something great.
Julian Fellowes. Russell T Davies. Steven Moffatt. Paul Abbott. More of those, please.