Wednesday, March 25, 2009


There was a time, in the last century, when you could say anywhere in the world that British Television produced the best drama series on the planet, and no-one would bother to argue with you. The Boys from the Blackstuff, Brideshead Revisited, Quatermass, Edge of Darkness, Inspector Morse, The Singing Detective, The Prisoner, Tutti Frutti, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Elizabeth R, I Claudius, The Biederbeck Trilogy, A Very Peculiar Practice, That’s Life… the list never ends.

Except of course, that it does end. In about 1995.

These pieces of work are worthy of standing alongside any of the great films of that era. And if you think some of those films qualify as Great Art, you have to accord that accolade to the TV productions as well. Picking two at (relative) random, “Edge of Darkness” is a mid Eighties stunner about the Nuclear World and the limits of power of Governments vs Multinationals, written by Troy Kennedy Martin – he of Z Cars fame. “Tutti Frutti” is one of the blackest comedies you’ll ever see, about a “has-been” Scottish Rock band on their Silver Jubilee tour of the less well known parts of Scotland. It popped up on BBC2 when I suspect I was the only viewer, and then a few weeks later, was repeated on BBC1. Since then, nothing. No video, no DVD. If I had my way, I would make it a Capital offence, punishable by death (or something very similar) if the BBC could not organise to show it again within a year, starting from today. There are people dying today who will go to their graves never having seen it. It’s that good.

Now it may be my creeping senility, or some form of critical Brain degradation on my part, but since that time, the TV series which have captured my attention have been almost exclusively American. I can’t think why, but it’s as black and white as you can get. Before 1995 – Britain, after 1995 American.

Actually, I don’t think it’s me, I think it’s them. The BBC and the other UK TV companies. They suddenly decided that taking artistic risks was not a good idea anymore. Maybe it was tied in with the way the political climate in this country changed with Blair and his accolytes, and the way the pervasive influence of Health and Safety ground its nasty little way into the sinews of our life, but the stuffing seemed to go out of the collective TV artistic departments in the UK almost overnight.

And in America, almost the exact opposite happened. Why?

Things like HBO happened, and blossomed, and the major networks followed suit. Home Box Office is a USA wide, subscription channel which has consistently pushed drama boundaries and produced programmes of the highest quality in the way that the Beeb and the other UK channels used to do, but don’t do anymore. They’re independent, so they can go their own sweet way artistically. They’ve got a lot of money – almost 40 million subscriptions in the USA, so they can afford to throw some serious cash at their programmes. They’re not alone, but they are probably the leaders in all this. The results speak for themselves.

Looking at my shelf of DVDs, the ones which take pride of place are The West Wing, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, 24, and my latest viewing Marathon, The Wire. There’s no British DVDs of the same era on the shelf anywhere, which is really rather sad.

I’ve bleated on about the West Wing before on this site. Six Feet Under is a distinctly acquired taste about a dysfunctional(ish) family who run a Funeral Home. The series addresses one of the great No-Nos of our age – Death, and Dying. But it does it startlingly well.

The reason I’m scribbling this down now is that I’m having a mid series break from The second series of The Wire. Set in Baltimore, the series addresses the crimes of the city in a graphic and often depressingly realistic way. You see it from the side of the Police and the legal authorities, but interlaced with the view from inside the criminals’ minds. You quickly realise that not all the cops are good, and not all the criminals are bad. They’re human and real, and that’s what gives it its edge.

I sat and watched the 13 episodes of Series 1 in two evenings - which made my wife very happy, by the way. But it was riveting stuff.

All I can say is if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I’m going on about, and if you haven’t and don’t mind the sometimes unpleasant realities of life being shown in an effort to explain the real complexities and subtleties of life in a sprawling urban environment, then you have a real treat in store for you.

But don’t take your eyes off it. There are no helpful introductions, or plot set-ups. They don’t even tell you which actor plays which role. You have to work it all out on the fly, and heaven help you if you blink, or pop out to make a cup of tea. It’s a densely composed piece of work which treats you like a grown up.

Anyway, watch it, and let’s hope that someone in the Beeb has enough balls and power to stand up and say “That’s what we should be doing – Sod Dancing on Ice and The X Factor”.


Whitenoise said...

I'm not much of a tv-watcher, but I'll have to investigate your recommendations. Interesting commentary.

Joe said...

Right on the money. I'm an American that lives in Britain. Every night I look at the line up on your television and wonder 'what on earth did I just pay that tv license for'. You got potted histories of Ikea, for God's sake, programs about bodily functions, and those are the good shows! The rest is just cooking gardening, home/DIY, and talent shows. I could make them with a fiver! Thank God for DVDs.