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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Bright Smiler & Studio Bound Dramas

Jane Asher risks killing Janet Suzman in ITV's 'Bright Smiler'

In the olden days most British tv shows were shot in studios and roughly looked like theatre plays. The camera would stay in one place – usually as the fourth wall, where the audience should be or was. Hundreds of dramas were produced that way from the 1930s, when television began, until the 1990s, when television finally – belatedly –  moved on.

Because I’m old and it’s so inextricably intertwined with childhood memories – studio bound dramas are the type I prefer. I wish they would come back, boring beige walls’n’all.

Some of those dramas were seen once, and apart from vague notions – would never be remembered. Some of them were seen, stuck in my mind, and were easily remembered – like Juliet Bravo or early Casualty or Dramarama. Some stuck in my mind – but after the fact were hard or impossible to track down. Of those – my favourites – the four that struck the hardest were three Open University set plays and one Jane Asher play whose name escaped me.  

The second earliest was ‘Endgame’ by Samuel Beckett, made in 1989.  I was only watching it because I was very ill, and couldn’t sleep. Everyone else in the house, even my rabbit, was in bed. It was an oddball of a play – with Stephen Rhea as the servant Clov, Norman Beaton as the master Hamm and Charlie Drake (the comedian – but I’d never heard of him) and Kate Binchly (I’ve still never heard of her) as the parents in bins, Nagg and Nell. To my 12-year-old self – it was all very mysterious. Nothing happened, nothing made sense and everything seemed to matter. On the other side was always the James Whale Radio Show – a tv magazine with lots of bands, drunks and controversy. Both symbolised the adult world to me – a load of old balls that was quite fascinating because I was doomed to end up there.

The next – although I only saw it twice, much later – was ‘Prometheus Unbound’, adapted by the poet Tom Paulin, in 1985,  from the greek original. This play I liked because it was on late, I was alone, and it had a cosy yet frantic atmosphere. I saw it in 88 and 90, and the Duran Duran jacket worn by the hero and the Marilyn Monroe get-up sported by some actress (I think she was famous at the time) who came on to be distraught and then buggered off – were already deeply unfashionable. I couldn’t tell you what it was about – but I knew it was somehow profound (or posh).

The last of the Open University plays was ‘Madmen and Specialists’  by Wole Soyinka in 1993. I was still ill, still couldn’t sleep at night – but I was older, a bit wiser (in that not remotely wise, far too arrogant, but completely miserable, teenage way), and considered all this sort of thing to be a ruse that the ruling class used to keep the rest of us feeling dim, but I was fond of it because I was still alone, and it felt as if it belonged to me, as if I was the only person watching. It was set in Africa apparently – although it starred that guy from Red Dwarf – a cult hit at the time – and it seemed very British. I think it lasted days. I certainly can’t pin-point an ending. They were in a war, angry and despairing. They sat around a lot. Someone might have been shot.

The last play turns out to have been the first or maybe second. It was shown in 1985. I thought it was a BBC ‘Play for Today’ type thing. I thought it lasted for two hours at least and was a serious examination of the effects of giving up a career for a man, only to be shunted aside for a younger woman. I can remember Jane Asher – looking older and exhausted – screaming at the man and his new girlfriend that she would never forgive them. I can’t guarantee that this scene ever took place – but just three days ago I discovered the name of this gem – ‘Bright Smiler’ by Fay Weldon in ITV’s ‘Time For Murder’ series. It only lasted an hour. Most of that hour consisted of an aged Jane Asher massaging an oblivious Janet Suzman, while telling her the story of her ill-fated love-affair and playing Russian Roulette with a gun pointed in Janet’s face. The punch line was that Janet – unthinkingly – convinced Jane that she was to blame for throwing her life away, and Jane trotted off to kill herself while Janet mused on what bastards writers are. All I remembered were the flash-backs of the young Jane slaving to repair a dilapidated home that would be sold as a spa without her making a penny. It obsessed me for years. I’ve rewritten it half asleep in the middle of the night. It was Proust and Shakespeare and Kubrick to me. And yet, of all the plays I’ve remembered, it’s the only one that realistically could be described as mainstream, or naff, or trash or pure entertainment.

Still, they were all fabulous things. Modern stuff just isn’t as weird.