The critically acclaimed US television drama could not be made here. We have writing talent in abundance, but its output is controlled by a stifling monopoly—the BBC. Plus, an interview with The Wire's creator David Simonby Peter Jukes / October 21, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
Read Prospect’s interview with The Wire’s creator David Simon, in which he explains why writing is a team sport in the US
It’s been a slow burning fuse. From its first broadcast on the US pay-TV channel HBO in 2002, it took seven years for The Wire to accumulate widespread critical recognition in Britain. And it has grown into something bigger than an artistic success. Like a great Victorian novel, David Simon’s epic portrait of the policing, crime and politics of post-industrial Baltimore is now cited by politicians and leader writers. But the success of this show and a raft of other imports such as The West Wing and Mad Men begs a question about the state of one of our key cultural industries. How come US television drama has captured the high end of the market and we have abandoned it?
It wasn’t always this way. Although America dominated postwar television drama from Bonanza to Dallas and Dynasty, Britain had a healthy export trade. Till Death us Do Part was transformed into All in the Family, and Monty Python changed US comedy. But our most important impact was not in quantity but quality. Epic historical series such as Jewel in the Crown or experimental melodramas such as Pennies from Heaven set a benchmark for US writers and producers.
But something has happened in the last ten to 15 years. In 1994, I wrote a tribute to Dennis Potter in the New Statesman about the decline of the single authored play on British television. The most obvious cause of this decline was the concentration of commissioning into a few hands. Despite the growth of the independent sector, just four men decided what millions would watch. The difference between 1994 and 2008 is startling. Instead of being the responsibility of four network controllers, most drama is now commissioned by one person.
That person is Ben Stephenson, BBC controller of drama commissioning. He has faced mounting criticism since last year, when he made ill-advised remarks about a “limited pool of talent” for television drama. First to speak out was the former head of drama in Northern Ireland, Robert Cooper, who said that the BBC’s £228m drama budget constitutes a “near monopoly.” A few months later producer Tony Garnett, whose 50-year track record includes launching the careers of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, accused the BBC of being a cause of its decline, having “hired McKinsey and ended up a McDonald’s.”