There is a terrific new five-part BBC One drama series starting on Monday and finishing on Friday – a taut, absorbing, Yorkshire-set saga incorporating everything from Alzheimer's to Allah, by way of adoption and Afghan immigrants (and that's just for alphabetic starters). But what is more likely to make you want to watch the aptly titled Five Days, a journalist's good opinion, or the fact that the BBC is running it over five evenings? To put it another way, is the fact that it is screening every night for a week in itself some sort of guarantee of excellence? For the second series of the Bafta- and Golden Globe-nominated Five Days (with a new cast and storyline) is yet another example of TV schedulers "stripping" a drama over the course of one week when it would traditionally have taken the best part of two months to unfold. Another example, in other words, of a TV drama being turned into a TV event.
And why not? For a decade now, drama producers have had to watch, seemingly helpless, as their arch rivals for time and resources, the makers of reality TV, have monopolised the television event with shows such as The X Factor, I'm a Celebrity... and Strictly Come Dancing. This high-profile method of intense drama scheduling at last allows their wares to become part of the national conversation, even if not quite at the same level of hysteria reserved for Jedward's latest dance routine or Katie Price being nominated again to be gunked in witchetty grubs.
It was the first series of Five Days, about the hunt for a missing mother and her young children, that began the trend in 2007. However, it was with the following year's Criminal Justice that the week-long format really took off, as an agog nation followed a young man (played by Ben Whishaw) through the British criminal-justice system. Implausibly plotted it may have been in parts, but the series got people talking. And sensing it was on to a good thing, the BBC last year gave us a week-long Torchwood story, Peter Bowker's three-part Iraq War drama Occupation and a second series of Criminal Justice, this time concerning a woman (Maxine Peake) who kills her abusive husband.
"Viewers have come to Criminal Justice, Torchwood and Occupation when scheduled that way," says the BBC's Head of Scheduling, George Dixon. "The feedback was very positive and viewing figures reflected that."
ITV jumped on this promising new bandwagon (almost a default reflex for ITV in recent years, it sometimes seems) with the Anthony Horowitz drama Collision, which, over five weekday nights last autumn, knitted together the individual stories of a group of strangers involved in the same motorway pile-up. In the meantime, Sky Arts, having become the surprise purchaser of In Treatment, HBO's psychotherapy drama, scheduled its 40 episodes over eight weeks, Monday to Friday, the same night each week bringing Gabriel Byrne face to face with the same patient, so that the series mimicked the pattern of regular therapy sessions. And when in January BBC2 began screening its latest purchase from America, the Edie Falco medical drama, Nurse Jackie, the decision was made to screen the first five episodes over five consecutive nights before it reverted to a more traditional weekly outing.
But whose interests are being served – the broadcasters' or the viewers'? There is an argument that schedulers are burning, at unnecessary haste, through that rarity – the generously budgeted, non-generic original drama – in a process that has been dubbed "binge scheduling" (to be followed, presumably, by a feeling of nausea). Then there is the practical problem of how such scheduling fits the realities of viewers' lives. Who in this busy, easily distracted age can commit to being in front of the TV at 9pm every night for a week?
But doesn't the same problem arise if the drama unravels every, say, Monday night for six weeks? And with seven days instead of 24 hours between episodes, isn't it more likely that we will lose interest? For broadcasters, there is an added bonus with a short, sharp week-long series. "Very few dramas grow their audience over the run of a series," says the BBC's George Dixon. "Usually viewers come to episode one and the audience figures drop slightly over subsequent episodes. Scheduling some dramas in a week creates more buzz because we can create an event and capitalise on the marketing and publicity in a single burst, rather than over several weeks."
Perhaps it doesn't matter when you schedule a drama: it's simply "content", and the modern, wired-up viewer can catch it when it suits him or her, either having recorded on Sky+ or on internet catch-up services such as BBC iPlayer. And if stripping a drama across one week is the schedulers' way of saying, "This is a drama we have complete confidence in", what does it say about the rest of their output? And won't the temptation be to overuse, and hence devalue, the device?
This last question absolutely does not hover above next week's series of Five Days. Gwyneth Hughes has weaved an absorbing tapestry of a drama that, within an outwardly simple plot device, addresses a multitude of contemporary issues. A stellar cast is led by the increasingly impressive, former Coronation Street actor Suranne Jones as DC Laurie Franklin, a policewoman who is travelling with her mother (played by Anne Reid), who has Alzheimer's disease, on a Trans- Pennine commuter train that comes to a crashing halt when a woman jumps to her death from a railway bridge.
Does this suicide have anything to do with a newborn baby who has been left in the toilets of a nearby hospital? DC Franklin thinks it might, but first she must convince her sceptical and chauvinistic superiors (played by the pleasingly dour triumvirate of David Morrissey, Shaun Dooley and Hugo Speer), while the case takes on a new levels of complexity when it turns out that the baby and the deceased jumper belong to the Yorkshire Asian community. Nina Sosanya plays Colly Trent, a social worker trying to find a home for the baby; Derek Riddell's Nick Durden takes care of the child.
"The inspiration came from lots of ideas I was having about our national identity in modern Britain," says Hughes. "I wanted to write about Yorkshire because that's where I live, and a lot of Muslims live here and I wanted to write about their lives, too. The format helps here because it challenges the audience to keep up with an investigation which is jumping ahead all the time."
The less revealed about the plot of Five Days the better, but it strikes me that another advantage of this stripped, week-long scheduling for our poor, beleaguered TV dramaturges, who are forever being told (not least by me) that they are falling behind their American counterparts, is that it maximises the effect of the traditional British TV-drama format. Ben Stephenson, the BBC's head of drama, is always banging on about how British television's short-form drama series (six episodes in contrast to American TV's 13, or, more usually, 22 episodes) is the envy of our cousins across the Atlantic. They must then be positively green about the gills about shows such as Criminal Justice and Five Days.
There are signs that the involved, season-long story arcs of much- admired US cable shows such as The Wire, 24 and Lost are mislaying their appeal. These shows and their dense plots make slaves of fans, who either have to commit themselves for 22 weeks or buy the box-set. The makers of Damages, the Glenn Close legal drama that partly owes its continued existence to the strength of its DVD sales, altered tack for its second series after shedding half of its viewers during the course of the opening season. Each episode was now given a self-contained storyline for those who only wanted a casual relationship with the show.
"Viewers in the States are looking more for escapism and less for an investment, and definitely want to see conflict resolution at the end of the hour," says Laura Fries of the entertainment-industry magazine Variety. "TV writers are definitely backing off from that complex mythology thing – however, I doubt we'll see the British trend for consecutive-night drama over here."
In the meantime, it looks likely that we'll be getting more of it over here. A spokesperson for ITV says that, following the success of Collision, the channel is up for doing more stripped drama "when the right idea presents itself". And don't expect the BBC to give up on "strips", as they are known in the trade, although George Dixon cautions against excessive use of the format. "We consider which dramas get stripped very carefully," he says. "If we did this for every drama it would become less and less effective. It makes a bold claim for one programme to dominate the schedule in this way." Fortunately, it's a bold claim that Five Days lives up to.
'Five Days' begins on Monday at 9pm on BBC1Reuse content