Toe Dipped Back In Telly-Drama Water

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple - old school 80s drama.
Joan Hickson as Miss Marple – old school 80s drama.

I read lots of novels, I go to the cinema and the theatre, I have lots of DVDs of British dramas from the 70s and 80s written by greats like Alan Plater, Colin Welland, and Dennis Potter, I listen to radio dramas…  but I haven’t watched British television dramas on a regular basis since 1999 when the Reality T.V. boom began.

I don’t think the quality of t.v. drama dipped, I think its concerns stagnated. You still had black drug dealers, Jehovah’s Witness’s whose children needed blood transfusions and absolutely everyone had at least one speech in a concluding episode about being abused as a child.

Also a combination of Liberal melodrama, Marxist realism and fashionable nihilism had given serious drama a sort of blood libel feel. You wondered who killed Christ and who was going to get pogromed for it, if only we could work up the enthusiasm. Usually it was a police officer or a social worker.

And the cheerful trash was thrown for a loop by American dramas like E.R. Stoical British types joking over cups of tea in over-lit studio sets seemed old hat. The camera started to roam alarmingly. The lighting could be so dim you wouldn’t recognize your own mother, never mind Charlie from Casualty, and EMOTION became more important than plausibility.

None of which was as exciting as the high-stakes desperation of ordinary folk competing for attention – doomed to long-term failure – on intense social interaction-based game-shows and talent searches.

But Reality is dying (by which I mean I’m bored to death of it) and having been forced into watching slick US dramas from Lost to Homeland by my brother, I felt it was time to consciously start watching t.v. drama again.

There are some new norms to get used to. Digital has given everything a slightly distant look. Women very rarely get their boobs out (in the olden days if it was after 9 o’clock, there were definitely boobs on show). Action-adventure isn’t so much about lifestyle and consumption, it’s more about alienation and confusion. And there aren’t the same number of glamorous posh pundits on the telly discussing it.

Firstly I caught up with some of the output of BBC4 and BBC3. They’re quirky, so I like them the most.

BBC4 has decided to specialize in bio-pics of 60s and 70s light-entertainers and personalities. The bio-pics are very cheap, and hip-hop through the main events of the person’s life without quite making them real people, although they do capture a kind of sadness behind their happy showbiz personas. So far I’ve seen dramas about Fanny Craddock, Kenny Everett, Kenneth Williams and David Bailey. I’ve also seen a few BBC4 ghost stories for Christmas, and they’re as good as the classic M.R. James adaptations of the 60s and 70s. I especially loved Crooked House by Mark Gattis, a creepy anthology set in the one haunted location.

BBC3 led me to Funland, Catterick and Nighty-Night – all of which are brilliant dark comedies. The 90s and naughties were a golden age of dark comedy from Steve Coogan, through the League of Gentlemen to Julia Davies. Dark Comedy managed to do all the things drama couldn’t. They made well-rounded, flawed characters, caught in humdrum or outrageous dilemmas that defied conventional morality, and told us about the human condition. I also watched ‘Casanova’ with David Tennant. It clattered along nicely, the acting was great, but it did suffer from the entirely modern naffness of having a character spell out to another character what the subtext of their emotional involvement is… eg. ‘You’re only interested in me because I represent what you lost when your mother dropped you down a well as a baby’ (I made that up)… I blame this on ‘The Hero’s Journey’. Writer’s are far too knowing about archetypes and story arcs, and are possibly flagging them up to a producer “I’m not just wittering on, I’m MYTHIC!!!”.

Which is the main horror of BBC1’s New Doctor Who. Bits of it are brilliant. The pace, the characters… and bits of it are terrible. The villains, the plots, the milking of emotions, the relentless musical score, the turning of the Doctor into the Messiah, the bombastic direction that can make cheese out of good plot points. Every episode is marred by some sickeningly sentimental intrusion, and the Imperialism of it (I’m the Doctor and what I say goes) is incredibly simplistic and crass. But perhaps it reflects the mood of authority. The re-assertion of the right (and need) to impose and reject, and I’m just being nostalgic for the days when the Doctor battled green-painted bubble-wrap and took Intergalactic Enlightenment Principles for granted.

Robin Hood and Merlin have passed me by. But I did enjoy catching the trailers.

The backbone of the BBC schedule, things like Eastenders and Casualty and Holby City are settling down after that horrifying genre shift from basically social realism with melodramatic touches to basically melodrama with humorous touches. It was like watching ‘The Thing’ morph from dog, to alien, to plant pot – but it’s all fine now. Surgeons can slump crying to the theatre floor and you don’t wonder why they keep their jobs.

Call The Midwife is snuggly. The Secret of Crickley Hall made me cry. Both prove that cliches can work if you’re sincere enough about them. Sherlock is fabulous – apart from Sherlock taking two seconds to infiltrate a middle-eastern terrorist organization and save a crook he fancies from a beheading, and the old dancing around to classical music while executing some bit of action shtick which should never under any circumstances be stolen from Stanley Kubrick but constantly is. But two duff moments in two series’ is practically no duff moments at all.

And on the 23rd of December 2012 I watched ‘Mr Stink’ and ‘Loving Miss Hatto’ and I loved them both. New drama, for Christmas, that worked and was a treat. Like it’s 1972 again.

I’ve never entirely given up ITV dramas – mainly because I’m a Paul McGann fan and he’s always turning up as the potential murderer in something. I liked Midsommer Murders till the ‘keeping it white’ debacle and now I don’t even watch the repeats. Which is a shame because I thought it was a gentle satire not the last bastion of the National Front. But once you’ve been made suspicious of something, it’s impossible to go back.

What I truly love though is ITV crime dramas, the ones with two or three parts, where nice middle-class people look pensive and sad while the suspense ratchets up around them. The two most recent were ‘The Poison Tree’ – a kind of sub-Ruth Rendell about a man going to prison for his sister and then his wife killing his sister so she couldn’t take him away from her – and ‘The Town’ about a man returning home to find out why his parents committed suicide.

The Poison Tree worked the best. It was ridiculous but glamourous, and knew exactly what it was up to. The Town was probably meant to be more serious. Perhaps even an examination of contempory England through the medium of brooding close-ups. But it didn’t quite work. The set-ups were shoddy. Who goes into a florist to get a dress adjusted? The sub-plots weren’t needed. The milliu was ridiculous but unglamourous. And Martin Clunes is too big a name to have nothing to do without it being obvious he’s the villain.

It might have found a happier home on Channel 4. Channel 4 has a niche for derancinated lower classers – from Shameless to This Is England. A sort of Stephen Frears, Derek Jarman sensibility. Gritty realism with Catholic lushness. Their political thriller The Secret State was a bit too flashy, but I still enjoyed it. Teen soap Hollyoaks is still the British Beverly Hills 90210, but with sex and more shouting. Of all the soaps it’s my favourite. Maybe because youths really do have daily dramas in a way that most adults don’t. Not getting a like on facebook can cause a meltdown, without you nessesarily having mental issues.

I still wish t.v. would do more films and single dramas. I’m not loyal. I have the brain of a grass-hopper. I rely on box-sets. And I pray we don’t get too many Downton Abbey clones. It’s enough flouncy fun for one tiny nation. I also worry about who will do romping adaptations once Andrew Davies is gone. T.V. needs to start training. And Sky may be a channel to watch. It’s got subscribers and it needs prestige. Future gems may come from odder stations. Odd to me (I’m an 80s child).

So Farewell X-Factor, Hello Sally Wainwright. *

(*writer of ‘Last Tango In Halifax’).

Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock - new school 10s drama.
Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock – new school 10s drama.

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