Can TV be radical again?

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As a BFI season examines the golden era of political television, Gerard Gilbert meets some of the talents who made it, and asks where the cutting edge is today

How's this for an unlikely scenario? The 30th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher coming to power is being marked this autumn by a publicly-funded arts body. Not that the British Film Institute's United Kingdom! season is a direct anniversary salute to the prime minister who so drastically altered the broadcasting landscape in this country – it's more a handy peg on which to hang an overview of the proud tradition of radical British television drama, from Cathy Come Home to Shameless.

"The question is, has she won?" asks the BFI's Marcus Prince, who has put together the two-month season. "Because you could argue that radical drama is rather neutered compared with how it used to be."

How it used to be is illustrated in the first half of the season, which includes many of the single dramas that have become synonymous with the gritty, politicised era of The Wednesday Play and Play for Today – works such as Ken Loach's Up the Junction (backstreet abortions in mid-Sixties Clapham) and The Big Flame (striking Liverpool dockers take on their bosses, the union and the government), Roy Battersby's Leeds-United! (women clothing workers strike for better pay), Alan Clarke's Scum (a devastating critique of the borstal system, banned by the BBC) and former miner Jim Allen's tale of left-wing local government that lends its title to the season, United Kingdom.

Tony Garnett produced many of those dramas as well as Mike Leigh's first Play for Today, Hard Labour, and Trotskyite screenwriter Jim Allen's Spongers, which was about the effect of welfare cuts on the poor and disabled. Garnett says: "I remember Harold Wilson calling striking dockers 'a politically motivated group of men' – that's what we aspired to be." But he adds: "The sort of team I was leading, with writers like Jim Allen and so on, we were only on the air with political dramas a few times a year, so I think historical perspective can often exaggerate things."

For Garnett, the difference between then and now is to be found within the management – particularly at the BBC. "Back in the Sixties and Seventies they were sophisticated enough to manage through benign neglect," he says. "We mustn't exaggerate it however. I remember it as a time of incredible battles. Was it easy to make political films? It wasn't. But the atmosphere was much more benign. The present-day managerialism – of very, very tight control every step of the way – that wasn't there."

"There was producer control back then. Unheard of today," says GF Newman, whose 1978 Law and Order films about the police and criminal justice system led to questions in Parliament. "They were responsible and knew the buck stopped with them. As a result they exercised that power responsibly. When I delivered the scripts for Law and Order with the authentic voices of police and criminals, Tony Garnett had a dilemma. The scripts were full of the 'f' and 'c' words, and he said, 'We can film it with these authentic voices, but we run the risk of their not being transmitted as a result.' He asked, 'Is the language or the political content more important to you and do you want to run the risk of them not going out?' I chose the content – and got banned anyway."

Things began to change in the 1980s, although Tony Garnett says Thatcher's influence can be overstated. "Quite often you get a controversial government and that can provoke writers, such as Alan Bleasdale with Boys from the Blackstuff. I think the end came when Alasdair Milne (director general of the BBC until 1987) was more or less pushed out and Sir Michael Checkland and John Birt took over, and there was the sense that the creatives had got above themselves and it was time for management to manage."

Writer Peter Flannery thinks it's somewhat misleading that his 1996 BBC2 saga Our Friends in the North has been chosen as part of an evening dedicated to political drama in response to Thatcherism because it was originally a stage play he wrote at the Royal Court Theatre in 1980, and it ended with Thatcher coming to power. "I've always steered away from even wanting to be called a political dramatist because I think the personal and the political are the same – everything's always a moral case before it's political as far as I'm concerned.

"Dramas like Leeds-United, Scroungers and Cathy Come Home were more polemical. You couldn't have more polemic than Cathy Come Home ... it had an agenda, it had a social issue that it wanted to illustrate and attack. But its power was in the ordinary lives of the characters. I think that really is the way to do it."

Says the BFI's Marcus Prince: "There has been a shift towards a more psychological, more emotionally led radical drama than the hard-leftist old dramas by say, Alan Clarke, or Jim Allen, who were Trotsykites and pushing that agenda. If you look at programmes like Skins and Shameless, most of the writers come from a soap background and it tends to show in the way they write for genre. So in a way they have had to reinvent radical drama, and Paul Abbott is the master of this with The Street and Clocking Off and of course Shameless, because he's found a way of getting big social issues into the long-running series."

But is Shameless a radical drama? In a manner of speaking, reckons Peter Flannery: "It was incredibly fresh when it started, and I thought it was radical in the sense that it was merciless and unflinching in its view of a way of life that a lot of people had been pussyfooting around. You can imagine a series set on such an estate in the Sixties – the government would be getting it in the neck in every other scene for creating the conditions – whereas all Shameless did was say this how they live and they're quite happy with it ... that's quite radical."

What would the old Trots, like Jim Allen and Alan Clarke make of the underclass as depicted in Shameless? Would they recoil from it as the ultimate defeat of the working class? Penny Woolcock penned two Nineties dramas set on a sink estate in Leeds, Tina Goes Shopping and Tina Takes a Break, that directly inspired Paul Abbott's jaunty, survivalist style in Shameless.

"I'm not sure that it is defeatist," she says. "I mean, people have to do something, don't they? These estates have grown up around coal mines or steel factories or car factories and when those industries close down the people don't just evaporate – they're still there. They have to do things. If they just lay down singing "The Red Flag", that would be very sad. Some of it does have very detrimental effects – people dealing drugs that have devastated coal mining communities, and the like. But there is a huge amount of invention and bawdiness that reminds me of Chaucer." Then what of the overtly political dramas from the New Labour era – TV films like Peter Morgan's The Deal and Peter Kosminsky's The Government Inspector?

"They show us the problem," reckons GF Newman. "But I don't know if they bring us to a new conclusion that we hadn't got to already." During the past decade Newman has been smuggling his worldview into outwardly conventional genre dramas like New Street Law and Judge John Deed – even if two episodes of the latter are banned from being repeated because of their stance on the MMR vaccine.

Now, however, he is in the midst of updating his controversial (and until recently, unofficially banned) drama series Law and Order, for screening in autumn 2010. What's more it's for the BBC. "I think the reins are loosening," he says, although he's not sure whether they will be relaxed far enough for a putative series of one-off dramas, with subjects as touchy as sharia law, racism between Asians and people from the Caribbean, and a story seen from the point of view of a crack addict.

What does Tony Garnett, the grand old man of radical TV drama, think the future holds for his type of television? "If you want to make drama which seriously interrogates the society we have – engage through drama with the national debate – then you are probably going to have a difficult time," he says. "The BBC will do the odd show every year which they think does just that – it's one of those rare things which they can then tick it off [as having done].

"Channel 4 ... the jury is out. You worry about Channel 4 because they have given up except that they think that if they get a few stars and a serious writer they'll win a few Baftas ... that's all they're interested in. With the cancellation of Big Brother there is a chance for C4 to do more drama – but don't hold your breath."

The United Kingdom! season runs at the BFI Southbank from Wednesday 4 November until the end of December

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