Why Britain can’t do The Wire

Prospect Magazine

Why Britain can’t do The Wire

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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 Simon

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.”

But everyone missed the glaring issue: why are these questions being addressed to only one person? In 1994, I worried about the cultural power of four network controllers. Now you can forget Channel 4 and BBC2: they can make decent one-offs, such as Red Riding and Freefall this year, but both have basically dropped out of adult dramas. ITV has fared no better. In the 1990s the powerful baronies of Granada, Yorkshire TV, LWT and Thames had some autonomy. But their amalgamation into one corporation, followed by a catastrophic fall in advertising revenue, has turned ITV drama into a shadow of its former self. Whatever your view of public service broadcasting (and I support it) the near-monopoly of the BBC in drama commissioning is disastrous.

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One argument used to defend management from this drive to centralisation is, bizarrely, competition. We live in an increasingly competitive multi-channel, multi-platform world they say; the BBC must concentrate its power to survive. Yet across the Atlantic, we see a much more competitive market, with a move to “smarten up” rather than dumb down. The cliché about US television, “160 channels and nothing to watch,” now looks snooty and out of date, at least with drama. Starting with HBO a decade ago, we’ve had The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under—ground-breaking dramas that explored the depths of character and the dynamics of group or family, against the larger context of a city, profession or social milieu.

Not only is the quality of the output high, but so is the diversity of style and genre. This has to be connected to the break-up of the old US network cartel. In the last decade the four major US broadcasters have had stiff competition from free and pay-per-view cable channels, turning US television into a seller’s rather than a buyer’s market. The creative people have more control and the commissioning process is more open. In 2002 an American producer, Anita Addison, saw some episodes of In Deep, a show I had devised for the BBC. She took it to Paramount and they flew me to Los Angeles during the “pitching season.” I went to studios and spoke about my project for 20 minutes. I didn’t need a track record—the presence of a producer, writer and a good idea was enough to have a pilot commissioned.

In Britain, however, the quality of an idea will have little to do with getting a green light. Internal politics and “who’s up and who’s down” will decide. The fate of independent producers is just as bad, turning domestic drama production into a court, with its favourites, intrigues, and sudden disgraces.

One reflex reaction to the decline of British television is to blame it on “chasing the ratings.” But US drama proves that the descent to the lowest common denominator isn’t the only way to get audiences. Nielsen ratings are still king on the major networks, but HBO nurtured The Wire through years of obscurity until it became a hit. With the rise of DVDs and the importance of foreign sales, channels are earning a large proportion of their income from the “long tail.”

In Britain, The Wire was first shown on the FX cable channel in 2005, but BBC2 recently screened all 60 episodes. The fifth series got around 600,000 viewers per episode, 100,000 more than the sitcom that had previously occupied the slot. Total DVD sales for The Wire in Britain are forecast to go past the 1m mark by the end of the year. But to reap these rewards, shows must appeal to the highest common denominator.

The Americans excel at making shows which bear occasional watching, devoted following or repeat viewings. Think of an episode of ER, say, in its heyday. In those 46 minutes there will be teasers and hooks and a strong stand-alone story to keep you gripped through the adverts. But there will also be a syncopated beat of other B and C stories which unfold concurrently (see the diagram on p52), perhaps over several episodes, sometimes over a season or longer. At their best, especially in Mad Men and The Sopranos, US television dramas have evolved into an art form which explores both the inner psyche and the social world continuously but discretely, so that each fragment contains the fractal beauty of the whole.

Apart from a radical restructuring of our own broadcasting industry, what lessons can we take away? The most important, as David Simon points out in the interview (below), is that in US television drama “the writer is God.” This is not because of literary cachet—it’s arisen out of aesthetic, technical and commercial need. Drama is incredibly expensive to make and economies of scale kick in when stories are told over 13 or 24 episodes. They cannot be written by one person alone, nor can they be effectively controlled by studio executives, actors or directors, whose talents by definition lie elsewhere. It requires a team of writers willing to develop character and narrative over a long haul, keeping it focused and fresh. It’s not the writer, singular, who is God in US television drama, but the role of the writer, generic, in the process.

This doesn’t lead to “writing by committee.” My experience is that four minds are four times more inventive in a team than if each works alone. But this requires a conductor to keep the voices to tempo and tune, and the key to this is the showrunner—the head producer who has creative control of the series. Showrunners like David Chase (Sopranos), Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues) or John Wells (ER) helped carve out a space for collaboration. Time and money is also invested. In the US, beyond your individual scripts, you are paid a salary to come into a “writer’s room” and help the work of others. The Wire is a good example of the result. Conceived by David Simon, a former journalist, and homicide detective Ed Burns, the collaborative ethic allowed them to bring in voices from film writing and crime fiction­—such as Richard Price and George Pelecanos—without losing coherence.

This ethos has made US television the preferred destination for a generation of great writers. After winning an Oscar with American Beauty, Alan Ball eschewed the big screen and created Six Feet Under for HBO. In the DVD commentary to the pilot, he describes handing in the edgy first draft to the head of the channel. Having been through the Hollywood studio mill, Ball expected the worst, but the only note he had back read: “Can you make it more fucked up?”
Although we are blessed with a tradition of great television dramatists, there’s no way that Alan Bleasdale, Dennis Potter or Jimmy McGovern could have written a dozen episodes of a show alone. We have recently imported the idea of showrunners for the resurrection of Dr Who and Survivors, but their power is limited, and the principle of collaboration doesn’t penetrate the lower echelons. Script editors and producers take a dim view of you talking to another writer without tight supervision. There is no financial incentive either. Why make someone else’

s episode great when it might make yours look less good? Given that the running order can be changed at the last moment by management fiat, those collectively crafted character developments and story arcs will be binned anyway. Just write your own episode and cash that cheque.

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And there is a bigger problem. How can you commission a show if you haven’t defined the metrics of success? Should we be chasing audiences or pleasing regulators? When I started working in television an audience of 10m was deemed a success for BBC1 or ITV primetime drama. Now it’s 5m. Thanks to the growth of DVDs, personal video recorders such as Sky Plus, satellite, digital, online and on-demand services, the broadcast network can no longer monopolise home entertainment and the audience are leaving en masse. The worst thing to do at such a moment is to play safe—yet that has been the tactic of British television drama. It’s understandable that ITV cuts everything to the bone except Emmerdale and Coronation Street—they need the advertising revenue. After The X-Factor, these soaps are the channel’s best performers, bringing in audiences of around 7m and 9m respectively. But why does the BBC devote most of its drama budget to three soaps: EastEnders, Casualty and Holby City?

Tony Garnett calls this a “dereliction” and the output “formulaic, repetitive, machine driven, emotionally dishonest junk.” Having worked on that assembly line, I can only concur. I wrote a season opener to the hospital drama Holby City before it became a soap, to prove myself “by ordeal” as a BBC writer. For my sins, I got involved in two more episodes which count as the most dispiriting experiences in my 25 years as a dramatist. Soaps squeeze the creativity and innovation out of you. Your characters will be controlled by a remorseless weekly production machine, subject to the whims of its personnel, or the unavailability of an actor. Your dialogue, mainly confected out of procedural clichés anyway, will be rewritten in-house. A producer may send you a script the day before shooting begins with the instruction to turn it around overnight and “make it funnier” or “more in your voice.” It’s a paradox of our public service broadcasting that soaps are primetime viewing here, while on US television they are a daytime interest. Soaps lock us into 1960s kitchen-sink naturalism and outdated platitudes of class, character and aspiration. In comparison, the inventiveness of Potter or Bleasdale looks like it comes from a different age, and the hyper-realism of The Wire from another planet. Even a middlebrow US drama such as Damages, set in a law firm, takes risks with form: dream and fantasy sequences, montages, flashforwards, flashbacks. It plays with genre and expectation, and its anti-hero, played by Glenn Close, provides a compelling portrait of the contradictions of character.

One response to all this is to admit defeat. Why should we dream of competing with the US? We should accept that we no longer punch above our weight and resign ourselves to being a medium-sized country with limited aspirations.

But our dramatic talent is still flourishing elsewhere. Our reality television formats dominate (or is that tyrannise?) US primetime. In comedy, the US version of The Office is a success, and the edgy improvisational style of The Thick of It inspires envy. And our actors and directors pick up Oscars and Golden Globes, as do our screenwriters such as Ronald Harwood, Peter Morgan and Simon Beaufoy. All three were trained in television drama. Could they, like Alan Ball, be enticed back to the small screen in Britain? I doubt it.

Any sector that has lost both market share and talent at such a rapid rate as British television drama should start examining its practices. Drama is about dialogue, opposing points of view, clashing perspectives. Any structure that diminishes this diversity undermines the basis of the form.

Last year Ben Stephenson’s predecessor Jane Tranter, who until recently was BBC controller of fiction (yes, all BBC fiction), gave a speech about drama at the Royal Television Society awards. She spoke of the role of the executive: “In the modern world of endless media possibilities we can help a drama to succeed by encouraging it to be succinct, to declare its intent, to make its premise clear… ensuring that the heart of the drama is not only true, but is not opaquely or perversely hidden.” I came across her speech as I was reading Stephen Greenblatt’s essay on Hamlet, which demonstrates how Shakespeare added a “wilful obscurity” to the original tragedy to increase its emotional power and depth. I couldn’t help feeling Tranter’s stand was a misunderstanding of what drama is, what a writer does, and what the audience wants.

If writers knew in advance, with no opacity or perversity, what the true heart of a drama was, they wouldn’t bother to write it. If this principle of “making the premise clear” had been applied to The Singing Detective or Edge of Darkness, let alone Twin Peaks or Lost, none of them would have been made. More importantly, if the audience is held by the hand and told where they are going, they will go elsewhere, abandoning the programmatic and obvious for the unpredictable, dark hearts of Tony Soprano or David Simon’s Baltimore.

  1. October 29, 2009

    wirehead

    Great article. I look at my DVD shelf and the TV is all American – ‘Six Feet’, ‘Deadwood’, ‘The Shield’ etc etc. The last mainstream BBC drama I watched was ‘Cambridge Spies’ and I thought it completely unbelievable and trite.
    And its not even about budget – ‘In treatment’ is made for almost nothing yet grips like a vice.
    The dissatisfaction with the BBC is growing to the point where it is endangering its survival in the future.

  2. October 29, 2009

    Buddhaman

    Totally agree. I had more freedom when writing ‘The Bill’ years ago than I have now as a much more experienced screenwriter. The trouble is the execs think they know everything, even the writer’s craft, and insist on calling all the shots. Explaining to exec producers exactly why their barmy ideas/notes won’t work increasingly makes me ask how in God’s name they have reached their elevated status.

  3. October 29, 2009

    Amy

    A good article on how writing for television works best, but setting the BBC up against series that clearly could only have happened in the more inventive culture of American cable television, rather than the hidebound major networks, is a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison. Just ask the creators of Southland, an excellent cop series recently canceled to shove middlebrow, middling funny Jay Leno down America’s throat for one more prime time evening.

  4. October 30, 2009

    Patrick

    I hope you’re not saying Murdoch should have a go, instead…

  5. October 30, 2009

    Derek

    An inherently engaging, interesting piece, and quite a reversal of perspective for me here in Hollywood. I found it via a link tweeted by Shawn Ryan, creator of The Shield, The Unit, & etc who prefaced it appreciatively, “Nice defense of TV writers…” Pursuant to the point about the exporting of UK acting talent, it just occurred to me that Ryan’s current series, Lie to Me, stars the brit Tim Roth.

    Here in the U.S., some have begun predicting the extinction of scripted drama from the Big Four broadcast networks. I am not inclined to go that far, but such a pronouncement does indeed feel like much less of a stretch than it would have been even five years ago. Yes, there are many very good shows being produced on the cable outlets. However, big-network shows are (usually) bigger paychecks for writers, actors, directors, etc who work on them; with the ever-shrinking number of scripted dramas on the major networks comes a growing sense of cynicism and economic anxiety.

    A good illustration of this was the recent “Emmy” Awards for Primetime Television. One of the more profound laughs of the evening was elicited by presenter Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who said that she was “honored to be presenting on the last official year of network broadcast television.” Later, in a reference to NBC’s decision to sacrifice the 10 o’clock hour on all five nights of the work week to the vanilla Jay Leno chat show, Tina Fey accepted the latest of a multi-year slew of awards for her comedy series 30 Rock by saying, “We want to thank our friends at NBC for keeping us on the air… even though we are so much more expensive than a talk show.” On the other side of the coin, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner expressed excitement over working during a time when so many new outlets and new media channels are coming into the mix, saying that he sees it all as a source of more quality TV for the viewer. He has a point — it would be a shame to be involved in a television renaissance and not realize it until afterward.

  6. October 30, 2009

    rich thrift

    Great piece, thanks for writing it.
    I am a promo maker who has cut trails for The Sopranos, CSI (in all its incarnations, more more dubious than others…), Lost, Fringe and Lie To Me to name a few. Aside from a few duds (NCIS L.A. my current dartboard drama) the U.S output can only be described as being in a different league to the U.K.’s output.

    Exceptions to this have been Dead Set, The Take and Skins, again (and sorry if i sound like i’m name dropping, i’m not, just giving context to my comments) shows i have developed promo campaigns for.
    Life On Mars / Ashes To Ashes were close contenders, they looked great but ultimatley they were built on the period without the drama to back that up. Their stories were not always predictable but it always felt that at their heart they were retreading paths already explored.
    It was the BBC’s Criminal Justice though that recently gave me hope that we would as a country be on our way to great drama again.
    It looked fantastic again, and was full of good solid performances.
    However, the ending was hurried and completely uninspired, betraying the graceful build of tension evident in the first 4 of its 5 episodes. I asked too much it seemed.
    A sophisticated audience deserves and wants better, as the sale of U.S. box sets attests to. Does this not prick the ears of tv execs? Even amid the current lull?

  7. October 31, 2009

    michael woodhead

    This is a brilliant analysis of the mediocrity that runs the BBC. Tranter was typical of the management style that has come to dominate the corporation. They make pretty speeches, declare their mission to nurture new talent, usually throwing in words like relevant and cutting edge, or challenging and investigative. Yet the end product is dire, dull and devastatingly dumb. I think there must be a booklet on management-speak among the many booklets the BBC produces as guidance for its senior managers. Because they all quote from the same vocabulary.
    Even so why is Jukes complaining about something that by and large never existed except in notably few and individual cases, some of which he mentions.
    The British can’t do The Wire because Britain does not have as vibrant and diverse a culture as the USA. No matter how much lip service is paid to the notion that we can culturally match the USA stride for stride, we can’t.
    The Wire and the talent that writes it, springs from a society still in the making. Martin Amis made this point many years ago in relation to the novel. Just look at the sheer muscularity of American speech patterns for a start. British English sounds half-dead and effete in comparison. Only among the ethnic minorities does something similar to the USA exist.
    The Thick of it sounds robust mostly because there is a lot of swearing and reliance on gimmicky speech metaphors and similies. It is bolted on to the characters whereas watch The Wire or even Boston Legal you know this is how such characters would speak even if you met the likes of them in real life.
    So Jukes no amount of team writing is going to change things. No amount of double digit story lines can cover up the fact that Britain is culturally an old passe society.

  8. November 1, 2009

    Peter Jukes

    Thanks to everyone for their supportive and insightful comments on my piece. Happy to engage here further in any discussion – it might be a little easier to follow, and less filled with strawmen, than the Guardian thread.

    Taking some points in reverse order:

    1. Michael. In the fifth from last para I hoped to touch on the question whether this was inevitable cultural decline. We can’t do The Wire, plainly, because we don’t have Baltimore – but don’t you think it’s odd that the US (with British actors and directors) has so vividly depicted the decline of its inner cities?

    Though I think the stories we have to tell the world are different, by necessity, there’s no doubting the acting and directing talent we have because of their success in Hollywood. I’d also say we have the writing talent – or least we did have, at the quality end, a couple of decades ago.

    Cultural decline and representations of it are interactive in my eyes. Because our media is in the state its in, we actually contribute our malaise by not being able to see ourselves clearly, and diagnose some of the problems. A healthy, sceptical and exciting national narrative is part of the solution

    2. Rich Thrift. As is mostly the case, practitioners of TV storytelling are most acutely aware of the relative decline. You can see it in the edits and the mise en scene. I agree with you too about Criminal Justice being let down by the last episode (I would say the same about State of Play). These last minute breathless sequences of ‘tying up story’ suggest to me the heavy hand of the executive, who wants everything signposted and packed up. You see that much less in the enigmatic suspended discords that conclude the best USTV dramas. You do find it, however, in Hollywood – where once again the writer is low down in the pecking order.

    3. Patrick. Of course I’m not saying Murdoch would be any better. A private monopolist would be worse than a public one, and it’s unfortunate that, though I conceived and wrote the bulk of it before Murdoch Jnr’s attack on BBC online news, it could be seen in that light.

    To me, the key issue is the centralisation of power, and then the danger that a small clique of people pick their own winners. The output gets stale, self referential, and reflects too narrow tastes. Ownership is less important to me than the institutions are changed, as they have by competition in the US, into becoming gate openers rather than gate keepers.

  9. November 2, 2009

    Fred Hoyle

    If only Shakespeare had attended a BBC Drama Executive training course. Think what he might have achieved!

  10. November 2, 2009

    Rob

    I used to believe the myth that British TV was the best in the world. But having lived abroad for the last 3 years I can say it really isnt. HBO and a host of US channels are far superior. British TV is dross and the sooner the BBC is privatised the better – im so glad im not forced to pay a license fee for such televisual poverty.

  11. November 3, 2009

    Mark

    The thing is Rob, doing away with the licence fee will only exacerbate the problems rather improving matters. You would simply turn the BBC into another ITV, and have you seen the quality of output from that shower?

  12. November 3, 2009

    AM

    Some interesting points, and I do agree with the sentiment calling for better quality UK output, but I do think you gloss over a couple of important issues:

    1. HBO is a paid subscription niche broadcaster, which gives it more flexibility to invest in edgy, provocative drama. What constitutes a ‘good’ audience on the network is very different to a mainstream channel; they aren’t reliant on either advertising revenue or public funding as UK channels are. 3-4 million viewers on HBO is a big success; not so for a BBC prime-time program – Emma scored 3.3m and was deemed a flop. The economics can’t be ignored, and while yes, as a public service broadcaster, I would hope and expect the BBC to invest in great British drama, the HBO model isn’t strictly applicable because it never claims to be a mainstream channel catering for majority interests.

    2. The complexity, cliff-hangers and pace of US TV is a wonderful thing, but let’s not forget that it’s caused by writing the story structure to fit the ad breaks. They’ve taken the necessity of multiple story beats and used it to fuel great storytelling, but US writers are always operating inside that fixed framework, and while as a DVD viewer it’s easy to forget the constant ad breaks, those moments of tension are there for a reason: to stop you switching the channel during the break. UK writers often don’t have that same structure demand hanging over them, and it definitely has shaped the evolution and pace of episodic drama – whether for good or bad is a personal taste!

  13. November 3, 2009

    Anon Writer

    A wee sofa monkey named Ben,
    Sipped his latte, had a scratch, and right then,
    Called his old friends at Shed,
    Said the shite he’d just read,
    Was ace, you’re commissioned again!

  14. November 3, 2009

    Clive Davies-Frayne

    I agree… the state of UK TV drama is dire.

    A couple of months ago I wrote a piece about how the lessons writers and producers learn in UK TV are finishing off the British Film industry, where the trend is currently for making expensive looking British TV and then wondering why it looks so poor in the cinema environment.

    It wouldn’t be so bad if the only effect of the current set up was poor TV drama… but the knock-on effects in the industry are agents whose income depends on supporting writers who are lack luster and de-skilled and an infiltration of greyness into the British movie scene, where the cult of the mediocre and the small vision is played out again and again.

    The irony of all this is that with the current digital revolution in production technology, this ought to be a time for a break out of new voices and innovative new drama. My sense is, however, that it isn’t going to be the UK TV industry that champions that breakout.

  15. November 3, 2009

    John Ellis

    I am a great defender of the BBC but the demise of the good dramas of some years back is noticeable, and regretted.

  16. November 4, 2009

    selecta

    Frank Cottrell Boyce described British soaps as ‘the narrative equivalent of morris dancing’ in an interview with Alistair Owen (Story and Character; Interviews with British Screenwriters, Bloomsbury 2003).

  17. November 5, 2009

    Ian H

    I am agree with much of what Peter Jukes has written. In our household (2 adults) I am sure that in the past couple of years the vast majority of “destination TV” has been US drama either broadcast or DVD box sets. I think the one area we can still stand toe-to-toe is “bitter-sweet” in which I include Love Soup, Sensitive Skin and probably Life Begins.

  18. November 9, 2009

    Eoin

    <>

    AM, while this is true for some shows, how come HBO’s output is so good despite having no ad breaks? I don’t think Showtime does either.

    Eoin

  19. November 13, 2009

    Mandy Mandrake

    I don’t get this obsession the chattering classes have with THE WIRE. It’s good…. but it’s not that good. Also, the American industry is structured so differently from ours. HBO, AMC et al are funded by subscribers, so they have neither a public broadcast function or a need for ratings.

    THE WIRE has tiny audiences in the US. So to compare the two systems is naive and smacks of that ghastly ah-remember-yesterday when Play For Today was always brilliant and England were 303-3 at Lords.The Golden Age that never was.

  20. November 18, 2009

    jellybongbong

    It is perhaps somewhat naive to bemoan the demise of TV drama as it is a rule of thumb that more accessible something becomes the lower the quality it attains. Or rather the lower the common denominator it attains. Let us not forget that The Sun is the biggest selling newspaper in the UK, and those same readers, who are most representative of the largest part of the population, are who most execs are catering to, rather than those (such as most of this website’s readers) who are sophisticated and educated in drama. In this age of increasing brand domination of world culture, viewing figures are all that essentially matters to channels fighting for a slice of steadily shrinking revenue. TV drama was at its most interesting when the number of TVs in existence was small. Now that it’s a global phenomenon, it should only come as a surprise to the deluded that sophistication and innovation is less evident – those have always been the preserve of the minority. We shouldnt confuse our own desires for what we want to see with what a broadcaster is tasked with providing first and foremost – ratings. They would show a blank screen if it would get high figures, sorry, they already do – its called the X-Factor.
    Also TV does not exist to keep drama writers employed. And for that drama has to take its chance with every other show vying for nation’s attention. If drama cant stand the heat it had better get out of the kitchen.
    Personally I’d much rather watch a film any day.
    And I disagree that drama is dialogue. That’s radio.

  21. November 19, 2009

    Barry Larking

    Mandy Mandrake correctly points out that while ‘hit shows’ in the U.S.A. draw large audiences by British standards, they are a minority taste there. This phenomenon, successful American made serials which sweep all before them is a cultural manifestation of political realities. Their appeal is that sense one always has as British person viewing American life of something familiar but somehow very different. The American television drama series is also a ruthlessly defined product supported by advertisng. Ratings are crucial to finance. Shows which were still being shown worldwide had frequently been long since cancelled at home for failing to hold the audience.

    Earlier British televison dramas such as Mandy Mandrake mentions above like the ‘Wednesday Play’ were extraordinary for airing stories and characters at once common to every day experience yet completely abscent on screen. The very first episode of ‘Z Cars’ introduced this teenager to domestic violence – and not a pair of French windows in sight. The writing talent was also supported by a new wave of British actors eager to drop their aitches. Television drama actually had rather good support for a while from filmakers. The shock of ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ made ‘Look Back in Anger’ seem very middle class when it slapped us in the face.

    Partly the decline of home grown television drama is that politically no one wants to be confronted by pressing social issues for entertainment unless distanced by a discernable margin of reality (‘Life on Mars’ is a case in point – safely in the past). A British version of the ‘The Wire’ (which I know only by repute) would depress British audiences. We are a kind that can bare only so much reality.

    I notice no one has mentioned comedy which replaced ‘drama’ on televison sometime ago as vehicle by which the British tell each other stories.

  22. November 20, 2009

    Nightsky

    (n.b./disclaimer/fair warning: I am not only an American but also a Los Angeles resident. But not in The Industry, as it is called here.)

    Boy, do I ever disagree. Let me count the ways:
    * The idea that US networks are somehow more likely to stand by struggling shows is false on its face. At least in the UK, shows seem to be filmed in complete seasons well before airing–the BBC (or whomever) has no incentive not to show them. Our pay-as-you-go system means that shows are dependent on ratings. Pathologically so. Everyone knows Nielsen is flawed, but everyone uses it anyway, and the end result is that daring but underappreciated shows are constantly under the proverbial sword-hung-by-a-hair. Witness \Firefly\, \Pushing Daisies\, \Dollhouse\… even cult favorite \Dead Like Me\ (which was on cable, even) got axed. Occasionally, the system throws up something that’s good AND popular, but that’s rare: IMHO, American TV is either good OR popular.

    * With respect to interconnecting storylines, you’re comparing short stories to novels. \Life On Mars\ ran sixteen hours, beginning to end. \The Wire\ ran sixty. Of course it was able to fit in more storylines.

    * The UK has been turning out some *phenomenal* TV recently. Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes are both *stunningly* good. In fact, it’s so good that it sometimes seems like we’ve given up on new ideas ourselves, and just remake whatever you guys are doing: \The Office\, of course, but also \Blackpool\, \The IT Crowd\, \Life on Mars\, \Being Human\… We take the idea, suck out everything that makes it interesting, and make our own bastardized version. We’ve even remade \Little Britain\, for heaven’s sake. (It’s called \Little Britain USA\.) If anybody’s falling down in the ideas department, it’s us.

  23. November 21, 2009

    RH

    Thank you for this brilliant article. I’ve written telly drama in this country for twenty-odd years and now is the very worst of times.

    In the past month I’ve heard from two old veterans, both of whom go back almost as far as I do. One is now re-training as a teacher (at 52) and the other as a nurse. I don’t think I’m far behind. Bus driver?

    I’ve spent the past 16 months being mucked around by one of the Big Two, on a (commissioned) script. When they finally passed on it their reasons were quite shameless: it wasn’t a genre piece, nor did it echo any successes from the past. And this despite the fact that they knew it was good. Just not “guaranteed”, whatever the hell that means.

    A quick flick through the list of currently airing US dramas is enough to make a British writer’s head spin, and his heart sink. There are so few opportunities for original work in this country that we writers may as well give up. The only chance at a decent living is the soaps, and (unless you’re a hack with the hide of a rhino) that is a recipe for madness. I know, I’ve written for every single one except Hollyoaks – and I’ve done my time in a mental hospital to prove it. Truly.

    My advice to any talented young writer reading this: save every penny and get your backside to LA. I wish I had.

  24. November 26, 2009

    Helen Archer

    Superb article and absolutely spot on. There is an interview with Tranter on the BAFTA site and she is banging on about leading the viewer by the hand, on a journey. Is she for real? Surely, she will get found out now whe’s in the real world over in the US. The new bloke Ben is just ou of nappies and hapy to continue with the half-wit approach to British drama. Tony Garnett is so right with his views and, along with your article, it should be essential reading for BBC execs.

    They are so far off the mark that it might take a genearation to get back on the same page as the Yanks. Until the writer/creative is given the lead and the writing becomes KING, and the propect of potential failure banished from the decision to green light, then we are all doomed. Especially the viewing public in the UK which yearns for high end drama which is so fabulously devised and developed by the US networks

  25. December 1, 2009

    Kris Nelson

    Numbers are one thing here in America, but it is also the idea of being marketed to in very specific areas. While there is a lot of cross over appeal and open minded people, there are many sci-fi fans who wouldn’t be caught dead seeing the 500 CSI spinoffs in production. (Slight exaggeration.)
    In my experience, Britain DOES have the edge because the idea is entertainment, and not just selling things. Numbers aside, things like Friends and Sex in the City seem to appeal to a large number of the terminally clueless whilst Britain’s “Coupling” took the best parts of both of those shows and yet leaped beyond them making something with it’s own unique identity.
    Torchwood has recently shown that it can take an adult stance in the universe of Doctor Who and make it work. It’s ratings for “Children of Earth” were the best ever for BBC America – not the timeslot or the show, but for THE ENTIRE life that the channel has been running. That’s saying a lot.
    Shows like the Sopranos use a hell of a lot of cliches and stereotypical characters, while Britain seems to have a handle on unique situations and characterisation. Shows like Twin Peaks or Lost seem to be the exception rather than the rule here. One tiny light of real non-formulaic brilliance shines through here, and suddenly the “boys in marketing” make sure a hundred clones follow in it’s wake.
    As for Britain’s BBC controllers making good decisions, well, I can only cite Michael Grade’s axing of Doctor Who – shrinking their budget until what came out was fairly laughable. All because he “wanted to put that money into developing other dramas, and no one really wanted to watch long running science-fiction”. The next decade brought Babylon 5, 2 other Star Trek series set in the Next Generation universe (Star Trek was on the air in some form until 2004), Farscape, Stargate, Andromeda, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hercules and Xena, The X-Files, etc.

  26. December 17, 2009

    Brett

    I am an antipodean lover of British TV – from Brideshead on (still the benchmark). Pennies, Glittering Prizes, Prime Suspect, Cracker, The Lakes the list goes on and on. No one quite does gritty innovative “real” drama like the Brits. Until Sopranos, Wire, Deadwood etc. Its HBO what’s done it – the funding of the inspired artist – Hollywood did it in the ’70s. Commercial (not government) funding od the idea is the key. The talent is in Britain – you have the essesntial element and that is the writer, it just not the inspired leader/funder – the UK needs an HBO.

  27. February 2, 2011

    karen elizabeth

    I am British and have lived in the US for over 20 years. I am also a writer trying to get some of my work read. I had the bizarre idea that it might be easier to write for British TV, until I read this article! This is by far one of the most interesting pieces I have read in a long time – and so useful to me personally.

    Thank you Peter Jukes!

  28. March 29, 2011

    Sam

    Lots of people recently enjoyed watching The Killing – can you comment on why it was so compelling, how it stacks up against the wire and whether the system for producing Tv is better in Denmark?

  29. March 30, 2011

    Lance C.

    I’m used to reading variations of this article here in the U.S., except with “U.S.” in the place of “British” and “Britain” in the place of “America”.

    As some of the other American posters have mentioned, the U.S. TV you see is the best of what we produce, not the norm. Many of the critically-acclaimed American shows you mentioned also have or had tiny audiences (such as Mad Men, one of my favorites but a boutique show from a viewership standpoint). We judge each other’s TV by the gems that get exported. American genre programming is more like CSI or JAG than The Wire; British crime shows are more like Murder City or Murder in Suburbia than Prime Suspect or The Bill.

    Our four major broadcast networks and many of our basic cable networks are awash with reality shows (many cribbed from you lot) and formulaic genre comedies and dramas — just like your TV. As Nightsky mentioned, most shows that don’t fit an easy mold get cancelled quickly before they can find an audience. Lost was an anomaly, not emblematic of how American TV has a better system. The pay-cable networks have more money to spend on fewer viewers, so they can afford to appeal to niche audiences. Our network execs are just as risk-averse as you say yours are. Just as you say that Britain couldn’t make The Wire, I could argue that America couldn’t make Prime Suspect or Torchwood.

    I’m a great fan of British drama as shown on our Public Broadcasting System and BBC America. It occurred to me partway through Downton Abbey that no American broadcast network would ever consider making such a show, not because we don’t have the history (we were around in the Edwardian era, after all) but because it wouldn’t occur to them that anyone would be interested. The recent adaptation of Sherlock would probably have been cancelled after the first episode if it was on NBC or CBS. I’ve learned never to guess whether a lead character on a British series will survive any given episode, nor to expect the lead characters to be good or likeable or even honest; it’s rare for American TV to take such liberties with main characters (except on HBO, which is its own little universe). We don’t do political drama; British TV seems to excel at it. We don’t do historical drama; you set the standard for that, too. Yes, I know you have X-Factor (I’ve also seen gardening shows and really tedious chat shows on the Beeb), but so do we, in spades.

  30. April 15, 2011

    Jacob

    For a drama that takes the ‘hyper-reality’ of the Wire, sets fire to it and drives it full speed toward the fractal characterisation of Mad Men watch the BBC’s first series of Luther. I’ve watched the American dramas but nothing compares to this wildly unpredictable rehash of the ‘bad-cop who breaks the rules’ formula and Indris Elba is stunning as a strong man who makes mistakes and pays bitterly for them.

    I agree that British drama is in the doldrums but thought I would take this opportunity to briefly rave about an underrated and overlooked British classic.

  31. July 11, 2011

    John Bull

    However bad UK television may get, it will still be many times better than US efforts, which are all unwatchable because of the inability of yanks either to write or speak English.

    It is extremely sad how the young and/or undiscerning fawn on anything American. This review is a perfect example.

  32. November 4, 2012

    David

    Completely agree with the general thrust of this article – UK TV assumes that you’re doing the ironing, (the best) US TV assumes that that you’re paying attention.

    It’s not just HBO though, in fact in the last few years HBO have stepped back slightly into well made and entertaining but basically trashy shows like Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones while the real artistic cutting edge is with AMC (a less prosperous, advertising funded channel) shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad – why is that?

Leave a comment

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Peter Jukes

Peter Jukes writes for print, stage, television, radio, and now online 


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