Love and Marriage: Forget crime and reality TV, relationship drama is making comeback

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Reality TV's demise means we all need our lives reflected elsewhere, the writers of new shows on ITV and Channel 4 tell Gerard Gilbert

Count the crime dramas currently on television on your fingers and you'd soon run out of digits, but do the same for the last truly memorable relationship drama and you might end up staring blankly at your thumb. Cold Feet? That pattered off 10 years ago now. Sex and the City? Nine years ago now. Brothers and Sisters ended in 2011, not that the show found much traction in the UK. BBC1's Mistresses, perhaps? That, after all, only ended three years ago. But in those intervening 36 months, there have probably been 36 different British TV new crime dramas.

"I think at one point last year ITV alone had something like 13 detectives," says Stewart Harcourt, who wrote the BBC One relationship drama Hearts and Bones, and has now – more than a decade later – created a new one for ITV. His Love and Marriage is the first a new wave of relationship dramas that will also include Channel 4's Dates, written by Skins creator Bryan Elsley, The 7.39, a BBC drama by One Day author David Nicholls that sounds like a sort of updated Brief Encounter (with David Morrissey and Sheridan Smith in the Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson roles), and Glee-creator Ryan Murphy's new American relationship drama, Open.

In the meantime, BBC1's oldie romance Last Tango in Halifax nabbed the Best Drama Series award at the Baftas (seeing off three crime dramas in the process), and this autumn's pilot season in the States contains a healthy number of aspiring relationship dramas, with titles such as Mixology, Trophy Wife and The Secret Lives of Husbands and Wives, as well as the American remake of BBC3's Pulling.

"They're difficult to write, they're really difficult to pitch and they're really difficult to commission," says Harcourt when I ask him about the recent dearth of relationship dramas. "When they don't work, they fall off a cliff, and literally two million watch. But when a detective drama falls off a cliff you'll still get four million simply because of the whodunit aspect."

And then of course there are the soaps. "It's why a lot of writers shy away from the subject now", says Love and Marriage's director, Debbie Isitt, who also wrote and directed the 2006 big-screen rom-com Confetti. "They feel worried that their work will be compared to soap opera. Would you write about the family or marriages or relationships when they're covering that four days a week on every channel?"

Bryan Elsley, creator of Skins (itself a relationship drama, he agrees), says that there is a way for shows to differentiate themselves from the "simplistic" mass of soaps. "One week it's on, the next week it's off, now we found out there's infidelity, now it's okay again," he remarks of their storylines. "That's an inevitable consequence of the high-volume approach of the soaps, but I think that there is another way, which is to treat relationships in a very adult way."

Inspired by the HBO drama series In Treatment, two-handers in which Gabriel Byrne's psychotherapist treats a different patient in each episode, and Elsley's desire to write something actor-led ("and away from the whizz-bang production values of Skins"), Dates features a lip-smacking cast, including Andrew Scott, Sheridan Smith, Oona Chaplin and Ben Chaplin (no relation) in a nine-part series of half-hour, interlinked vignettes that begins with that awkward first date.

"The simplest possible dramatic interaction with the most complex output," is how Elsley puts it. "Two strangers trying to get to know each other is a very, very complex interaction, but physically it tends to involve two people sitting across a table from each other."

As does Big Brother. Perhaps one reason for the dearth of relationship dramas throughout the Noughties was the dominance of reality TV, which the genre's minutely-observed human interplay. "In its heyday, reality TV probably did have a huge impact on television drama because it was where a lot of people got that study and observation of human relations," says Debbie Isitt. "But I think it's no coincidence that relationship drama is making a comeback because reality TV definitely feels on the wane. We need to see our lives reflected… we need to get it from somewhere."

Issit also observes that shows such as Big Brother were never really marketed at older viewers. "Now you're getting films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and they really work because there's not much material being made for that particular audience."

Like Last Tango in Halifax, Love and Marriage takes as its central subjects an older couple – and the repercussions on three generations of her family when a lollipop lady, played by Alison Steadman, decides to walk out on her marriage on the day that she retires. "You have to ask yourself who's watching ITV on a Wednesday night," says Isitt. "I guess the answer is an older population… I'm surprised there isn't more."

For Bryan Elsley, now aged 52 and on his second marriage, vicariously re-connecting with the dating scene for his new series was a re-invigorating experience. "In the writer's room there were two kinds of writers," he says. "Writers who are single and go on lots and lots of dates, internet and otherwise, and writers like me who are married and in relationships and wonder what it would be like to go on a date. That basically constitutes about 95 per cent of the population… they're either going on dates or they're curious about going on dates.

"In the 1980s and 1990s, the Time Out magazine dates section was an area of slight shame, but of course now everyone is absolutely unembarrassed and fine about using internet dating — it's part of a wide spectrum of tactics that people have just to meet new people in big and complicated cities. That was very liberating to me because it meant the characters in the show didn't need to be dysfunctional or unpleasant – they could even be rather beautiful. There's no desperation to the show, it can be optimistic even if the dates don't always work out."

'Love and Marriage' begins tonight at 9pm on ITV; 'Dates' starts on Monday 10 June at 10pm on Channel 4

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