New series starring Adrian Dunbar and James Nesbitt lead charge of dull detective dramas
Rewatching Our Friends in the North on BBC4 last week for the first time since its original broadcast in 1996, I was struck by two things.
First, how brilliantly it holds up as both drama and state-of-the-nation social commentary. Its then-rising young stars may have aged, but the series hasn’t.
Even though I know how it works out, I’m finding it every bit as riveting and emotionally involving now as I did 26 years ago.
The second thing that crossed my mind was how small British television drama has become in the intervening quarter-century.
Not small in terms of budgets; those are bigger than they’ve ever been — although still far short of the USA, where HBO can splurge $20m on an episode of House of the Dragon, Amazon can afford to blow three times that on an hour of The Rings of Power and even a series like Succession, which doesn’t require elaborate CGI, is rumoured to cost $90m per season.
Where British drama is small — puny, in fact — is in terms of two things more important than budgets: ambition and imagination.
Perhaps that should be amended to “two things that used to be more important”, because ambition and imagination are commodities in desperately short supply right now. And where there’s no ambition or imagination, there’s no originality, no willingness to take risks or buck trends.
The British terrestrial channels’ drama offerings over the weekend just gone were about as depressing an illustration of playing it safe as any I’ve seen.
ITV led the charge of the mediocre with Ridley, starring Adrian Dunbar as a singing detective (alas, the series is nothing like Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective).
Over on BBC1 was the even worse Bloodlands, featuring James Nesbitt’s scowling, squinting detective/murderer engaged in a war of the eyebrows with Victoria Smurfit’s femme fatale.
Tuesday sees ITV’s daft psychological thriller The Suspect go head to head in the 9pm slot with BBC1’s new thriller Crossfire, which is being stripped across three nights.
I can recall only one major British drama series from the last year that was a genuine, even radical, departure from the dispiriting norm:
At the time of writing, I haven’t seen the latter. Who knows, it could well turn out to be great. But the quality of an individual series is neither here nor there. The point is that all of them, and many more besides, are cut from the same narrow strip of genre cloth. None of them is even trying to do anything remotely new.
The huge success of Jed Mercurio’s thrillers Line of Duty and Bodyguard has led to a slew of inferior series in a similar vein and with a similar visual style. Some of them, including Bloodlands and Trigger Point, are even made by Mercurio’s production company and credit him as executive producer.
I can recall only one major British drama series from the last year that was a genuine, even radical, departure from the dispiriting norm: It’s a Sin, Russell T Davies’s heartrending five-parter about a group of gay men and their friends living (and dying) through the worst years of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
The BBC and ITV both turned down the chance to make the series, which tells you a lot about how risk-averse they’ve become. Channel 4 didn’t make the same mistake.
I’d have to reach back to 2019 to find another example. As it happens, it’s also a Davies creation, the excellent Years and Years, which follows members of a family over 15 years during which Britain deteriorates into a dystopia.
What both series share, apart from the same visionary writer, is a desire to say something of substance about humanity, about society. Once upon a time, that’s what British dramas did, and did regularly.
It’s easy as you get older to claim things were much better back in the day. In the case of British TV drama, however, they were.
The 1990s gave us much more than just Our Friends in the North. There was also Between the Lines, The Camomile Lawn, The Buddha of Suburbia, the House of Cards trilogy, The Crow Road, This Life, Ultraviolet, Alan Bleasdale’s GBH and the dying Dennis Potter’s final two linked series, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, both co-produced and shown by the BBC and Channel 4, at Potter’s request.
This was just the tip of a very large iceberg, one that’s long since melted.