Read screenwriter Peter Jukes’s article on why Britain can’t make a show like The Wire
It’s not that David Simon, co-creator of The Wire, thinks that British television is bad. He’s a fan of Prime Suspect, for example. “I saw the first series of Shameless, I thought it was very darkly funny,” he says. “It doesn’t seem that it’s a complete wasteland.”
But Simon is clear about why American drama is dominant now in the way that US comedy (Friends, Seinfeld, Frasier) was in the late 1990s. The Wire is one of several successful shows from cable channel HBO. There have also been innovative programmes on the terrestrial networks such as Lost, 24 and The West Wing—shows that challenged the audience and won. And on all these shows, the writer is God.
“In American television, even network television, the showrunner’s the writer,” Simon explains. He’s referring to the US term for the head producer. Directors can run away with the show and make it an exercise in style, or the star can make it a vehicle for themselves. “In television, at least in my country, this rarely happens because it’s recognised that the continuity of story is paramount,” he adds. “The writing and directing and acting are all tools in the toolbox. The point is not to exalt any tool over another, the point is to build a fucking house. That’s the dynamic that works in a healthy television show.”
Simon himself worked as a journalist on the Baltimore Sun. It took him years to get to make The Wire and say the things he wanted to. Simon’s vision is a vast and expansive take on the decline of inner-city America, specifically his hometown of Baltimore. When was the last time someone from outside of the television industry tried to make a British production of such ambition about Glasgow or Liverpool?
Simon wouldn’t be able to function in the British system, where many shows are written by only one or two people. “Sometimes the other writers I’m working with are smarter than me and argue me down,” he says. “Because there’s five or six of those guys in the room at any given moment, better things happen.” The writer’s room is the engine of great drama, where the showrunner is constantly challenged. Television writing is a team sport in the US.
Once the studio has found the right team, the trick is to give them a budget and leave them alone. “I answer to two people at HBO,” says Simon. “The head guy and the person in charge of serial programming.” At places like HBO, there are fewer layers between the showrunner and the authorisation to get the show on the air. Part of this is because HBO has no advertisers. But then neither does the BBC. When Simon asks if the BBC has adverts, I tell him it is funded by the licence fee. “Then the BBC doesn’t have much of an excuse,” he replies.
In the US, there’s been a trickle-down effect. The success HBO has had, especially in terms of DVD boxset sales, has encouraged the free-to-air networks to let writers take risks and come up with unusual, complex forms of drama. Success breeds emulation and, in HBO’s case, it’s led to a loosening of the hand-holding between the executives and creatives that has yet to happen here.
“I’ve never worked for the BBC, but it scares me when I hear about that sort of bureaucratic method,” Simon says. “If the BBC is doing content without advertising, then it seems to me that they should be able to take chances. If they create something that doesn’t get maximum audience but it’s good, then that brings people to the BBC tent too.”
Simon’s latest show, Treme, set in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, debuts on HBO in November. No doubt it will be a far more exciting prospect than anything the BBC or its domestic rivals line up for the autumn.