The BBC has a tendency to repeat itself. It has a strange costume-drama fetish; anything by Dickens or Austen is worthy of adaptation. And it has a knack for producing crime and hospital dramas, all of which do convincing impressions of one another.
Its new flagship show, The Hour – whose pre-match hype likened it to AMC’s Mad Men and suggested it might take TV drama in a whole new direction – just couldn’t do without another of the BBC’s stubborn traditions. The tradition of the ‘maverick’. Freddie Lyons (Ben Whishaw) is the star of The Hour, Abi Morgan’s six-part drama about the coming-of-age of British television journalism. And Freddie fancies himself as the latest in a long line of irritating maverick types, from the fast-talking Doctor Who to the frankly ridiculous Luther.
The year is 1956, with the Suez Crisis boiling up nicely in the background but getting very little coverage on television news, a bland and reassuring affair modelled on cinema newsreels. “We are calcifying in television news!” howls Freddie. Determined to shake things up a bit, he takes on the execs and the state single-handed, and even finds time to solve a murder mystery. At this point I’m slapping my forehead and wondering why everything seems to be so silly in this ‘intellectual drama.’
Next thing we know Freddie’s getting the unlikeliest of clues from a cockney newspaper vendor – “sorry I couldn’t be of more assistance, Sir” – and then he transforms into Louis Theroux, interrogating politicians to within an inch of plausibility, and then he’s Stevie Wonder, solving a Braille crossword on a cigarette filter. It’s all a bit too cloak-and-dagger for me.
So I was foolish to think The Hour was going to be a drama about the birth of the news and current affairs delivery we see today. Perhaps that was the original intention, but a lack of faith in the viewing public led them to believe that without plenty of sex, violence, glamour, mystery, and murder, no one would be interested. All the comparisons to Mad Men were specious and a bit daft really. Any resemblance between the two shows is superficial at best; both have lots of smoking, vintage clothes, and sexism.
I cannot speculate as to how accurately the show depicts the fashion and the lingo of the 50s. I can barely remember the 90s. But none of that stuff really bothers me too much anyway. What does concern me is that all the characters seem to be fluent in the clichés of our own day – including “Freddie, you really need to focus” and “an exciting journey” to describe a new TV show. The dialogue is very patchy. Ruth (Vanessa Kirby), for instance, seems to have wandered in off the set of a pantomime. She comes into the BBC studios to give Freddie a wincingly melodramatic tip-off: “They are everywhere. They will kill me if they know I’m talking to you.” Thankfully, Ruth gets what’s coming to her by the end of episode one.
On the evidence here, then, it’s clear that British drama is in a spot of bother. There was a time – I’ve been told – when our small-screen fiction was the envy of the world. Many of our greatest writers and directors (Mike Leigh, Alan Bennett, Ken Loach, Alan Clarke) all made classic TV before moving on to bigger projects. But now polls of the greatest ever shows are dominated by The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and other awe-inspiring American imports. Why is US drama suddenly light-years ahead of us?
Money obviously has a lot to do with it. The BBC has around £200 million to spend on 250 hours of drama per year, whereas just the first hour of Boardwalk Empire – HBO’s latest flagship show – cost a whopping $20 million. All this cash means that HBO has the funding and confidence to back the big vision; committing to 13-episode runs with quick-fire options on further runs. In the UK, commissioning is too often short and cautious, so when a hit emerges – step forward, Sherlock – we are faced with a lengthy wait before our next fix. Yet, paradoxically, once a franchise is established we refuse to let go of it. Which means that hit shows which jump the shark (Skins, Shameless, Midsomer) are needlessly kept running on life support.
Another big problem is that drama execs have no balls. Tried-and-tested formulas reign supreme; I’ve already mentioned the Beeb’s costume-drama fetish. Yet notice that the recent American shows have unlikely settings (a funeral parlour, a 1960s ad agency, the streets of Baltimore) and unconventional heroes: mafia bosses, druglords, corrupt politicians.
Part of the reason we’re so lacking in imagination is, presumably, because viewers are dumb. How can we possibly make great shows if TV executives are constantly throwing in chase scenes and expositional dialogue to keep the average viewer spoon-fed? (The Hour is a prime example.) HBO only has to please its subscribers, whereas the BBC has to appeal to a mass market. People are stupid, basically. How else do you explain the popularity of Miranda?
As to how we solve the problem, I suggest we look no further than Shane Meadows’ This is England ’86, the best British drama I’ve seen in recent years. Let’s identify the talented writers, directors and cinematographers working in independent film and encourage them, like Channel 4 did with Meadows, to bring their craft to the small screen. And then don’t bother with all the bureaucratic fumbling designed to please the average viewer. Just let the clever people get on with it.