Thursday 19 October 2017

From Broken to Paula - why are British dramas so depressingly awful?

Anna Friel in Broken. PIC: BBC
Anna Friel in Broken. PIC: BBC

Pat Stacey

The sun may be coming out to play only intermittently at the moment, but at least things are looking positively golden on the television drama front for anyone stuck indoors on these long summer evenings.

We’re lucky to have three absolutely cracking drama series running at the same time: the hypnotically gripping The Handmaid’s Tale, the wonderfully warped Fargo (both on Channel 4) and the unfettered, wildly imaginative American Gods on Amazon Prime.

Apart from being based on pre-existing material (novels in two instances, a movie in the other), the three of them have something else in common: they’re all American.

Ever since The Sopranos burst onto screens in 1999, heralding a new kind of long-form TV storytelling, the lion’s share of critically acclaimed drama series have originated in the US: The Wire, 24, Breaking Bad and its spin-off Better Call Saul, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, the first season of Homeland, The Americans, The Good Wife, True Detective, Westworld — the list just goes on and on.

The BBC, for decades regarded with envious eyes by American broadcasters who gazed upon its classy period adaptations with awe, lost its position as the purveyor of top-quality drama a long, long time ago.

The Handmaid's Tale review: 'It succeeds spectacularly on every level'

This is hardly surprising. No British or European broadcaster can compete with the huge budgets their American counterparts throw at a series, and the rise of streaming services with bottomless pockets has simply widened the gap.

Netflix, for instance, can spend $10m per episode on The Crown — the kind of series many believe the BBC should be making — without batting an eyelid.

And yet, a lack of imagination and intellectual ambition, rather than a shortage of money, is the real reason why so much British TV drama is so deeply mired in mediocrity, endlessly regurgitating the same old themes, and more often than not the same old plots, in the same old flat, drearily familiar way.

Denise Gough in Paula
Denise Gough in Paula

Take the BBC-RTE co-production Paula, which concluded on RTE1 and BBC1 on Wednesday. Grim, gloomy, unconvincing and full of singularly unlikeable characters, it’s a particularly woeful example of the bog-standard psychological thrillers (none of them remotely thrilling) that have come to dominate schedules.

The BBC’s other big drama series of the moment is Jimmy McGovern’s Broken (BBC1, Tuesdays). McGovern is television royalty, and rightly so: Hillsborough, The Street and Accused are among the finest British TV dramas ever made; Cracker, starring Robbie Coltrane as brilliant but deeply flawed psychologist Fitz, rewrote the rules for television thrillers and has influenced countless TV series, films and novels.

But Broken, starring Anna Friel as a destitute mother-of-three and Sean Bean as a Catholic priest haunted by his traumatic past, is unrelentingly grim and completely lacking the mordant humour of some of McGovern’s previous work.It’s like being battered over the head with a misery stick. Viewers who stick through all six episodes are likely to end up feeling as broken as the characters.

ITV, meanwhile, continues to anaesthetise viewers with a drip-feed of boring detective series (the somnambulant Vera, the lifeless Maigret) and derivative serial killer dramas. There are so many of the things, they’re all beginning to look alike.

Denise Gough in Paula
Denise Gough in Paula
Paula review: 'A strange, confusing and inconsistent piece of work'

Leaving aside expensive international co-productions like War & Peace or The Night Manager, both of which were made in partnership with US broadcasters, it’s notable that two of the best recent British dramas, Happy Valley and Line of Duty, both adopt the American model of the showrunner, the single authorial voice whose vision controls everything. In the first case, it’s Sally Wainwright, in the second, Jed Mercurio.

Radio Times  recently had a preview of upcoming summer dramas. Of the British crop, Peter Kosminsky’s The State (Channel 4), about four Brits who join Isis in Syria, stands out. Otherwise, it sounds like more of the same. In the Dark (BBC1), The Loch (ITV) and Strike (BBC1), based on JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike novels, are all crime dramas, while Fearless (ITV), is another “crusading lawyer” yarn. Hardly the type of thing to make you skip your evening walk.

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