Sunday 17 December 2017

Pat Stacey: 'Don't blame dumbing down of TV on the viewers'

Line of Duty BBC1
Line of Duty BBC1

Pat Stacey

Viewpoint: The people who make TV, not the ones who watch it, are at fault

When it was revealed line of Duty would be moving from its old home on BBC2 to BBC1 for its fourth series, writer-director Jed Mercurio was asked in an interview with Radio Times if he'd be "dumbing down" to appeal to a broader audience.

He said no, of course.  He was hardly likely to say anything else, was he? True to his word, two episodes in and Line of Duty is as gratifyingly serpentine and unpredictable as ever.  But just think about that question for a moment.  Think about how many people it casually insults.

Well, for a start there's Mercurio, whose work, going right back to his first television writing credit, the darkly cynical and controversial mid-90s medical drama Cardiac Arrest - which he wrote under the pseudonym John MacUre (to protest his identity as a former junior NHS doctor) - has always been characterised by intelligence, complexity and adventurism.

And then there are the viewers - in particular, those who might be coming to Line of Duty for the first time.  What are they to make of it?  Are they to assume that watching BBC1 means they're somehow less smart, less sophisticated than people who watch BBC2?

Are they to take it the Radio Times interviewer believes they're so slow on the uptake that they need to be led by the hand through every single twist and turn of the plot, like small children being guided through a maze?  If that's the case, how must the broadcasters, the people who commission and produce the programmes the rest of us watch, regard their audience?


TV series fail for all sorts of reasons: bad writing, poor performances, sheer dullness - which is what did it for BBC1's high profile Sunday night thriller SS-GB - or the fact that the majority of viewers just don't warm to the material.

This was the case with another much-anticipated BBC1 Sunday night drama, 2015's alternative-history fantasy adventure Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell, about duelling magicians in 19th-century London.

The seven-parter appeared to have everything going for it, including a terrific cast, a large budget and the fact that it was based on a Booker-nominated best seller.

But, by the end, it was pulling in a pitiful 1.6 million viewers in the UK (Poldark had drawn between eight and 10 million in the same slot), which led one critic in Britain to suggest that perhaps it was more of "a BBC2-type programme".

Spy drama: Deutschland 83
Spy drama: Deutschland 83

Whatever the reasons for an audience failing to connect with a series - and I'm guessing in this case, it was because many people still have a strong resistance to all-out fantasy - it has nothing at all to do with their lack of intelligence or sophistication.  It doesn't mean they're too dumb to "get it".  All it means is they might not want it.

If anything, we should be questioning the smarts of broadcasters who still insist on drawing demarcation lines between channels and erecting artificial barriers between viewers, usually based on patronising assumptions about social class.

While there might have been some justification for this approach back in the Sixties, when BBC2 was set up with the specific remit of showing the kind of highbrow arts and culture programmes, weighty documentaries and foreign-language films not available on BBC1 or ITV, it's now an irrelevant and outdated mindset.  The highbrow and the lowbrow have furrowed into one.

We live in a completely different world to the one in which subtitled dramas, for example, were considered fit only for niche audiences who watch low-rated channels.  The first channel in these islands to purchase nad screen the excellent German dramas Generation War and Deutschland 83 wasn't BBC2, BBC4 or Channel 4, it was the determinedly mainstream RTE2.

Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell in True Detective season 2
Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell in True Detective season 2

The old rules don't apply any more.  Viewers have kicked down the barriers all by themselves.

It's no accident that series such as Game of Thrones, True Detective and Westworld - all of them complex dramas that demand a considerable investment of time and patience, and none of them available on the old-school terrestrial channels - are among the most talked-about television of recent yeras.

As for Line of Duty, the first episode pulled in 5.2 million viewers in Britain.  Not bad for "a BBC2-type programme" showing on BBC1.

Poldark series three returns to TV screens sooner than expected 


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