Over the last few weeks, I have been watching two very different, but equally good, TV drama series on DVD: Granada’s extraordinary 1981 production of Brideshead Revisited, and HBO’s The Wire, which has been showing over the last few years on the American cable channel, and is now in its fifth season (and was described by Charlie Brooker in last Saturday’s Guardian, not unjustifiably, as “the best TV show since the invention of radio”).
In many ways, the two series couldn’t be more different: one concerns English aristocrats in the 1930s and 1940s; the other is about drug dealers, drug addicts and police in Baltimore. But it strikes me that they have one important thing in common, a quality missing from almost all British TV drama today: they take their time. Granada devoted all of 13 hours to the story of Charles Ryder’s entanglement with the Flyte family; and the novel isn’t a long one. The Wire, too, is deliciously, audaciously digressive; you can watch a whole episode and realise that, basically, nothing has happened. This is the one great advantage that television has, or should have, over cinema: time is not of the essence. But in Britain, producers have forgotten this. Costume dramas these days fly by in minutes. The idea of a 12-part adaptation of a novel seems ridiculous. If television wants to get good again, it should resume its old stately pace.