Downton vs Spooks: A new age of British TV drama

This weekend's fireworks between Downton Abbey and Spooks herald an unprecedented parade of quality homegrown productions. Gerard Gilbert previews returning hits and striking newcomers

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The Independent Culture

You've got to hand it to the writers of Spooks – they're on the ball. In the same week that David Cameron flew to Moscow to press the flesh with Vladimir Putin, the first high-level contact between Britain and Russia in nearly five years, the 10th and final series of the BBC1 spy drama opens with a covert UK government détente with – yes – the Kremlin. Or as Simon Russell Beale's Home Secretary (more plausible than most real Home Secretaries) puts it to M15 counter-terrorism boss Harry Pearce (the splendid Peter Firth): "Get your head out of the Cold War, Harry. We're getting into bed with Russia... we're building a new special relationship."

Less timely, and more likely to cool any special relationship with fans of the show, is the decision to schedule Spooks at 9pm on Sunday, right up against the returning Downton Abbey, in which Julian Fellowes is once again striking the right balance between history (it's the First World War now)and domesticity, emotion and comedy. So while one minute Lady Sybil can make the tragic observation that "sometimes it feels that all the men I ever danced with are dead", the next minute Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess is complaining that American heiress Lady Cora's flower arrangements "always look more suited to a first communion ... in southern Italy."

Downton versus Spooks – or "bonnets versus bugs" as it has already been dubbed – is a clash of the titans – or an act of remarkable arrogance by the BBC. Spooks fans love a conspiracy, so perhaps the idea was to boost the economy by increasing the sale of TV recording devices. The official version is the BBC wants to make the final series of Spooks a "special event" by putting it in the prestigious Sunday night slot, and they don't see much of a crossover audience anyway.

Whatever the thinking, the clash has helped make this weekend's television the most eagerly anticipated of the new season. And that's the remarkable aspect of this kerfuffle – it's drama that people are talking about, and British drama to boot. Isn't our home-grown fiction supposed to be a pale shadow of its former glory? Isn't all the good stuff American now? And hasn't reality TV stolen drama's traditional cathartic role?

Or look at it this way: the last time that a TV scheduling clash became part of the national discussion was when Strictly Come Dancing went up against The X Factor. And it wasn't that long ago that people were seriously wondering whether the rapt observation of human interaction provided by Big Brother wasn't making TV drama look like an expensive waste of effort and money.

As it happens, you can still find Big Brother this weekend, giving Richard Desmond's Channel 5's a fair return on its outlay, but essentially the show has become a backwater in our collective consciousness. The largest beneficiary of Channel 4's brave decision to ditch Endemol's ground-breaking reality show has been the channel's drama department, and Camilla Campbell, their head of drama, was suddenly £20m richer – wealth that was invested in sumptuous dramas such as William Boyd's adaptation of his own Any Human Heart and the Red Riding trilogy, as well as Peter Kosminsky's intelligent saga of the Arab-Israeli conflict, The Promise, and Shane Meadows's first foray into television with This Is England '86.

And not forgetting Misfits, the E4 upstart that surprised everyone by winning last year's Bafta for Best Drama Series. This autumn and winter's Channel 4 schedules see the return of Misfits, as well as of Skins and Shameless, which marks its 100th episode later this month.

"It has a very solid audience that loves it", says Campbell when I suggested to her that, like Spooks, Paul Abbott's drama might be reaching its natural lifespan. "Also it's an audience that regenerates, so it's not an old audience, people are sampling it for the first time all the time." Meanwhile, after the ratings and Bafta success of This Is England '86, Shane Meadows has made a three-part Christmas special, This Is England '88. And continuing Channel 4 drama's interest in what's known as the "underclass", is Top Boy, about young gang members in Hackney. It stars Kierston Wareing (The Shadow Line) and Ashley Walters (Hustle, A Small Island), as well as rappers Kane Robinson and Tayo Jarrett – aka Kano and Scorcher.

Campbell is keen to downplay the "dark and challenging" aspects of her dramas and stress the "joy", saying: "Shameless is the archetypal Channel 4 series... it has stories about paedophile rings, but in the end everybody loves each other on some sort of level." And the need to send people to bed with a smile on their faces is the reason she is promoting that rare hybrid (in Britain at least; they are more common in the US), the comedy drama. This summer saw Sirens, about the loves and lives of ambulance drivers, while Fresh Meat, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong's comedy drama about first-year university students, starts this coming Wednesday. It's as good as you'd expect from the creators of Peep Show.

Longer-term projects include Coup, an updating of Alan Plater's 1988 drama A Very British Coup (based on the Chris Mullin's novel) and perhaps a new drama from William Boyd – Campbell is having lunch with the author next week, by which time Boyd will know whether his screenplay for Any Human Heart won an award at this weekend's Emmys ceremony in Los Angeles.

The Emmys provide a useful snapshot of the state of American TV drama, and while there were welcome nominations for Justified, the Elmore Leonard crime drama starring Deadwood's Timothy Olyphant, and which – in the continuing absence of Mad Men – is the best thing on television at the moment, this was not a vintage year Stateside. The lavish new big-budget shows seemed strangely familiar – in fact you could dub Boardwalk Empire (the Martin Scorsese prohibition gangster drama), "The Sopranos in spats", and HBO's epic fantasy Game of Thrones as "The Sopranos in Middle Earth", without seeming too glib.

Indeed, scratch beneath its gilded surface and the golden age of American TV drama seems to be wearing a bit thin, and it's interesting that it is now foreign TV shows – or those with a novel angle – that are increasingly being remade for US audiences, including the Danish thriller The Killing, the Israeli psychodrama In Treatment, the Icelandic comedy Night Shift, and British shows like Life on Mars, House of Cards and Shameless. It's a situation to bring a wry smile to the face of Ben Stephenson, the BBC head of drama, who has long advocated that we don't get our heads turned by the glittering output of American cable TV.

"American drama isn't better, it's different", he says. "We can look at American drama and fall in love with it, but if we spent what America spends per episode, we would decrease our output by half... maybe three quarters." Stephenson has steadily been coming good on his promise to revitalise BBC drama, and it is interesting that two of the Corporation's critics – The Wire actor Dominic West, who said that the BBC doesn't make enough "high-end" drama, and the writer David Hare, who feared that the single TV play was dead – have both recently had work on BBC2; West in The Hour and Hare with his single TV play Page Eight.

The Hour and Page Eight feature in a current BBC trailer trumpeting "Original Drama" to the sound of Motorhead's "Ace of Spades" – The Hour being amongst a positive glut of unusually original dramas on BBC2 this summer – the first fruits of the channel's recommitment to intelligent non-genre drama. The relative merits of The Crimson Petal and the White, The Night Watch, The Hour and The Shadow Line can be debated till the cows come home (for anyone's who's interested, I've listed them in descending order of my preference), but what is heartening is that all of these dramas took the sort of risks we haven't seen in any BBC drama for the best part of 20 years.

Meanwhile, in the pipeline for BBC2 are such ambitious projects as Paula Milne's semi-autobiographical White Heat, a sort of Our Friends in the South that follows a group of pals from their student days in 1965 London to the present day, and Jane Campion's Top of the Lake, set amid remote, mountainous New Zealand, about the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old.

The channel is also keeping faith with Stephen Poliakoff, and his Dancing on the Edge sounds less vacuous than his most recent offerings as it follows a black jazz band in 1930s Britain. And Parade's End could be a meaty BBC2 riposte to Downton Abbey – being Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's masterpiece set between the twilight of the Edwardian era and the end of the First World War. Susanna White (Bleak House, Generation Kill) directs.

BBC1's future output is no less ambitious, including an adaptation of Sebastian Faulks' First World War novel Birdsong, Peter Moffat's The Village – a stab at a British equivalent of the German classic Heimat, focusing on the changes wrought on one Derbyshire village by the 20th century.

And, frankly, who cares if BBC4 loses its drama remit? I've never been a fan of biopics, the channel's drama staple, preferring a well-made documentary about, say, Enid Blyton or Frankie Howerd. More damagingly I think that biopics drain a budget that could be more creatively deployed, but the many who disagree can settle down to Shirley (about the early life of Dame Shirley Bassey) and Holy Flying Circus (about the controversy surrounding the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian), both of which are showing later this month.

Generally, what is happening to British TV drama is undeniably encouraging – it feels like a reawakening. But, like any dormant art form, it's a bit rusty in some areas. I would like to see dramatists slowing down – taking their time. I understand there is a need in a multichannel universe to hook viewers and reel them in, but if American cable TV shows have proved anything it is that some viewers have endless patience with the right material.

Maybe there should be a "slow television drama" movement, rather like the slow-food movement. Poliakoff is never in a hurry, even if sometimes you feel it's because he has nowhere to go but backwards (he's at his best with the transience of time and memory). And Hugo Blick positively crawled along with the highly stylised The Shadow Line, although that was the wrong sort of slow for me; the self-indulgent kind. The best American shows, like The Wire and Mad Men, move at the own, almost novelistic pace, gathering depth as they progress. The Shadow Line was fascinating for being Mike Leigh-like in its rapt observation of actors and painterly photography, but the story and characters just didn't seem real (or anything else for that matter). However, I'm looking forward to Blick's next drama, and surely that is the point.

Of course, American cable dramas have much longer runs than their British counterparts, but that sometimes feel like an excuse. And so it's been interesting to compare Abi Morgan's The Hour with Dennis Potter's last great drama, Lipstick on Your Collar, which was recently screened on one of the digital channels. Set, like The Hour, during the Suez crisis, Potter's under-rated 1993 semi-autobiographical drama starred Ewan McGregor as a national serviceman attached to the War Office, and, without a great deal outwardly happening, it managed to delve into the DNA of Fifties Britain in a way that may well be beyond Abi Morgan.

Nevertheless I'm glad that The Hour has been re-commissioned, and I hope that now that Morgan has established her characters they can start to evolve in series two. But, more than anything, I am just glad we're entering an era when once again the watchwords appear to be risk, originality and intelligence.

After all, even Dennis Potter wasn't born fully formed – he had been writing for television for 18 years before he made his first masterpiece, Pennies from Heaven.

If there isn't a new golden age of British drama sometime soon, then it's likely to be only because someone somewhere has got – in the words of one TV drama that did get it right – cold feet.

Guns, gangs and Guadeloupe: Five to watch this autumn

Hidden (BBC1, October)

Ronan Bennett ('The Hamburg Cell') has collaborated with 92-year-old Hollywood veteran Walter Bernstein (the once blacklisted writer on 'The Magnificent Seven' and 'Fail Safe') on a thriller starring Philip Glenister as Harry, a small-time solicitor dragged back into his murky past by a mysterious lawyer, Gina (played by Thekla Reuten, the terrific Dutch actress from 'In Bruges'). Gina pays Harry to find a missing alibi witness but instead he finds himself embroiled in a government conspiracy.

Top Boy (Channel 4, November)

A gang member from a housing estate in Hackney, east London, gets into drug-dealing in this four-part drama starring Kierston Wareing and Ashley Walters, and written by Ronan Bennett – his second big new drama this autumn (see 'Hidden', above). "It's a story that's about young people rather than drug dealers, and it's about people growing up in a society that is all around us, if you live in an inner city", says Channel 4's drama supremo Camilla Campbell, who adds: "It's not po-faced... it's got a joy in it actually."

The Jury (ITV, November)

Stripping a five-part drama across one single week has started to become somewhat over-used as a device, but it should work well with this new series written by Peter Morgan ('Frost/Nixon', 'The Queen'). Julie Walters is the defence barrister trying to free a man convicted of the murder of three women whom he met on the internet. Natalie Press, Sarah Alexander and Jodhi May are among the actors playing jurors, and whose home lives are included in the story.

Death in Paradise (BBC1, November)

The tourist industry on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe can expect a fillip when it serves as a backdrop to the BBC's first ever co-production with French state television – an eight-part fish-out-of-water drama starring Ben Miller as a "quintessential English cop" posted to the fictional island of Sainte Marie. Gallic film actor Sara Martins ('Tell No One') co-stars, while Miller describes it as his dream job: "great scripts, superb cast and shooting in the Caribbean with French catering". No kidding.

This is England '88 (Channel 4, December)

'This Is England '86' was Channel 4's most-watched drama debut when it screened last year, and another full series, 'This Is England '90', is already in development, but in the meantime enjoy Christmas, Shane Meadows style, as Channel 4's Camilla Campbell describes the director's second foray into television, a three-part Christmas special. "Shane does what he does – lulling you into a lovely place where you're laughing and having a nice time and then hitting you in the gut."

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