Television drama may be costly to make, but great offerings from both sides of the pond are giving reality shows some competitionby Peter Bazalgette / March 19, 2010 / Leave a comment
It’s all over for television drama. Reality shows like The X Factor (ITV) and The Secret Millionaire (Channel 4) deliver more compelling storylines, cost far less to make and can be produced quickly, while telly fiction needs a minimum of two years from conception to screen. Who can afford to continue investing in primetime television drama? Well, that’s how this column was going to kick off. But the past few weeks have revealed a distinct pulse still beating in the body of screen fiction. It can find a viable audience if it’s clever enough—and it has been.
EastEnders marked 25 years on air with a dramatic and ingenious live edition on 19th February, in which it was revealed who killed Archie. Not Archie Norman, the new chairman of ITV, but Archie Mitchell, the celebrated wife-beater of Albert Square. The producers made the actors rehearse multiple endings and kept them in the dark as much as the rest of us. Shrewdly stealing the clothes of reality entertainment, there was a genuine sense of revelation as the episode built to its brilliantly-executed climax. The BBC was rewarded with an extraordinary audience of 16m. Even the fanzine show which followed on BBC3 beat the audience of the struggling talent show, Popstar to Operastar, on mighty ITV1. And viewers were treated to a vintage collection of classic EastEnders dialogue. I will reproduce just a flavour of it so Prospect readers are not deprived of this cultural royal jelly: “I’ve got nothing to say to you… Why this, why now…Don’t you walk away from me… He raped me too… You try and stitch me up and I’ll kill you… Has anyone seen my husband… You’re my Stacey and I’m going to look after you.” Stacey Branning does indeed need looking after, since it was she who bumped off Archie. Coronation Street, meanwhile, seemed just a little tame the same night. All it could muster was a body in a lake and Nigel Havers (the two were easier to distinguish than you might have imagined).
Then, in the first week of March, the BBC pulled another trick with Five Days. This was a drama spread over a week with five consecutive episodes between Monday and Friday at 9pm on BBC1. It received good ratings and demonstrated two things. First, how interminable the gestation period of such productions is. The initial series of Five Days was broadcast in January 2007, more than three years earlier. It had a different storyline but the same writer, Gwyneth Hughes. Second, good writing and clever scheduling can still capture a healthy audience for screen fiction. The five-day strategy has now been tried several times (Criminal Justice on BBC1 in October 2009 and Collision on ITV1 the month after), and it has worked every time.
This second helping of Five Days started with a 16-year-old Afghani illegal immigrant, dressed as a woman, falling from a railway bridge into the path of a train in north Yorkshire. It took until Friday to unravel the mystery via prostitution, an abandoned baby, delinquent schoolboys and copulating police officers. The bucolic Dales obviously have more to them than ramblers and real ale. But Hughes also used the drama to explore our neurosis about Islam. She had a forgetful old lady dismissing an Asian doctor, who quotes Keats as he sympathetically tends to her, as a “terrorist.” Then there was a disaffected youth who is a terrorist. Or is he? He foolishly dressed as a gun-toting jihadist in Pakistan, but regretted it later. So did his sister, whose husband was a white train guard who had become a devout Muslim in order to marry her. And as for the abandoned baby, a white foster parent wanted to adopt him but the Asian doctor seemed to scotch that by quoting a Koranic prayer over its crib. It was a thoughtful and suspenseful piece of work which sustained well across the week. And it confirmed the lead actress, Suranne Jones, late of Corrie, as a major talent.
Away from the killing fields of primetime, Channel 4 and E4 have two strong dramas, both targeted at younger audiences. Skins, into its fourth series, is now officially “not-as-good-as-it-used-to-be,” according to the generous folk in the media. But the casting remains as enterprising as ever, with Mark “Bez” Berry from the band Happy Mondays, Simon Day from The Fast Show and pop star Will Young. In episode five Freddie McClair (Luke Pasqualino) was wrestling with a drug-addicted, suicidal girlfriend and something far worse: an essay crisis.
The other series is the E4’s cult American import, Glee: a campfest in the tradition of Desperate Housewives with an equally solid following. If you saw Kurt, the gay character, lead his school’s all-American football team in gyrating to Beyoncé’s hit Single Ladies, you’ll have got the picture. Rumours of television drama’s death have been exaggerated.