TV drama: Britain's got talent

British audiences have long been in thrall to US drama series. But the BFI's celebration of home-grown television shows that we too have been enjoying a golden age, argues Gerard Gilbert
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The Independent Culture

It's not often that you get to take a season of programmes at the British Film Institute personally, but when one of my articles was quoted in Sight & Sound, the house magazine of the BFI, I sat up and took note. In a closely argued and generally persuasive feature titled "Never Mind the Golden Age", BFI curator Mark Duguid, who was writing about a new season celebrating modern British TV dramatists, remarks that "The Independent... last year heralded a US TV 'golden age', and asked 'where are the BBC's home-grown equivalents of Mad Men, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under?' If it's not one golden age, it's another."

Well, yes, but I do happen to believe that we have been living through – and still are – a bountiful era of exceptional US TV drama, just as we have been through a golden age of British reality TV – our native industry having spearheaded an exciting and (outwardly at least) democratic new genre that has swept the planet in the last 10 years, reinvigorating both documentaries and light entertainment in the process. Nearly all the most successful American entertainment shows of today – from American Idol to Dancing with the Stars – began life on these shores, while the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Supernanny Jo Frost are hot export items. Simon Cowell enjoys demigod status over there as well as over here.

It's also been a pretty useful decade for the British sitcom, from The Office to Peep Show, by way of Gavin & Stacey, all three of which have either been remade, or are about to be remade, in America. But none of that takes away from Duguid's central point that serious British dramatists are labouring under unfavourable comparisons with not only their American counterparts, but also their own forebears. They have to contend with "a mistily remembered era when British small-screen drama was as mighty as it is now, apparently, meek", says Duguid. The era of Dennis Potter, Alan Bleasedale, Troy Kennedy Martin and Play for Today, in other words.

The two-month BFI season, titled Second Coming in part reference to Russell T Davies's 2003 drama in which the son of God appears in Manchester, celebrates the likes of Davies, Tony Marchant, Jimmy McGovern, Paul Abbott, Peter Kosminsky, Guy Hibbert, Dominic Savage and (for those concerned about the preponderance of men in this list) Abi Morgan, whose Sex Traffic was one of the most powerful dramas of the last decade. "Most of them are relatively young, and still getting better," says Duguid. "Their misfortune has been to come to the fore at a time of structural and financial uncertainty for UK drama, while British critics are transfixed by transatlantic fare."

One part of that structural uncertainty was last year dragged into the open by that grand old man of TV drama, Tony Garnett, who charged the BBC with "stifling creativity" in drama writing and painting a bleak picture of an organisation in which power had migrated to the top, leaving writers to fend off "totalitarian micro-management" and reduced to being "executives' scribes". Garnett's accusation struck a chord with some (if not all) within the industry, as they did with me. Having visited many drama sets, I have been privy to various writers and producers complaining about the dreaded culture of notes, where every layer of management has their say on the script.

"You do have to swim through notes," says Tony Marchant, author of Holding On and The Whistleblowers. "There are seven or eight people wanting to give you notes – commissioning becomes more like risk assessment than an active affirmation of faith in the writer's ability. It's really been more about making sure the drama ticks all the boxes".

The lot of the writers in the independent sector isn't much better, says Duguid. "There is a suspicion that the independents try to second guess what the broadcasters want – and are self-censoring in that respect. They have script conversations with broadcasters that don't include the writer."

Garnett says that he dates the era of managerialism to 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". This was the time when Dennis Potter famously called John Birt a "croak-voiced Dalek".

Tony Marchant believes that the pendulum is now swinging back, as do several others who preferred to speak off the record – and certainly the BBC's youthful head of drama, Ben Stephenson, is seen by many writers and producers as empowering rather than controlling. "He doesn't think he has all the answers," says Marchant. "He doesn't think he is the Wizard of Oz. He does devolve responsibility down, based on the common sense notion that good work comes from the bottom up and not the top down."

Stephenson, along with BBC2 controller Janice Hadlow, has recently turned his attention to BBC2 drama, once a hotbed of challenging short serials and single plays, but for the past decade a drama desert. It's not a moment too soon for Guy Hibbert, whose two-parter about the Nigerian civil war, Blood and Oil, recently screened on the channel.

It's my contention that the worst decision in the history of TV drama was when BBC2 decided to scrap drama altogether and concentrate on getting ratings through makeover programmes," he says. "I don't know who made that decision but it was certainly when Jane Root took over as controller (in 1999). I had an eight-part series that was immediately cancelled when she took over and I don't think I had anything produced for the BBC in over 10 years. I did a couple of pieces for ITV and Channel 4 but I earned my living mostly doing single dramas for cable networks in America.

"When you think of the dramas that BBC2 was doing 15 years ago, they were by people like myself, Tony Marchant, Antony Minghella, directors like Danny Boyle and Joe Wright – because drama was idiosyncratic it gave everybody the feeling that they could experiment, but once BBC2 scrapped all drama it became concentrated on BBC1, and BBC1 was concentrating on drama that appealed to popular audiences... an absolute disaster for writers and directors".

As it happens, BBC2 controller Janice Hadlow this week announced the first fruits of the channel's recommitment to drama, one of which was a four-part adaptation of Dutch writer Michael Faber's post-modern novel The Crimson Petal and the White, set in the Victorian era; the other, disappointingly in my book (because I feel the admittedly popular biopics are a sterile form that are eating up too much of the BBC budget for non-genre drama), the story of Morecambe and Wise and their relationship with Eric's mother. Dominic Savage's Dive, which tells of a teenage girl (Aisling Loftus) hoping to be selected for the GB diving team in the 2012 London Olympics, screens in late June. But by far the most exciting project is Criminal Justice author Peter Moffat's The Village, a Heimat-style saga that will follow one Derbyshire village through the vagaries of the 20th century.

Whatever investment the BBC puts into high-end drama it is still going to look feeble beside what the likes of HBO throws at its critically adored creations ($3 million an episode, estimates Duguid,as opposed to something like £700-900,000 for an episode of Spooks). But budget is not the only factor favouring American dramas, says Tony Marchant. The British may make better short-form drama, but a 22-part season just has longer to make an impact.

"British dramas don't imprint on the culture in the same way as the American series," he says. "When you're trying to compete for attention it's very hard for a beautifully written, searingly honest three or four-parter to compete with the likes of Lost and 24, Sopranos and The Wire and Mad Men and Six Feet Under. It's simply a question of scale really."

The news this week that BBC Worldwide has hired Mad Men executive Vlad Wolynetz in its continuing quest to crack the notoriously difficult US drama market, was intriguing on several levels. Having for years dismissed the classy products of HBO and AMC as too niche and beyond its budget and remit, it seems that the BBC has now found a way of joining in the renaissance of American TV drama. Wolynetz and BBC Worldwide will not be producing dramas for the mass market networks, but for subscription-only cable TV. This marks a sea change from recent practice, in which BBC shows like Life on Mars and Torchwood were flogged to networks like Fox and ABC, both failing in this heavily risk-averse environment. Cable would allow quirkier, more sophisticated fare to live and breathe, and if they score an international hit like The Wire, the rewards will be enormous.

Inevitably, there will be critics of this new direction, those who say that the BBC should be focusing solely on local British subjects for British drama. Personally, I think any cross- fertilisation is a good thing. British dramatists shouldn't feel neglected by "thirtysomething media tarts" – as one writer described the British newspaper critics who consistently big up American shows like Mad Men and The Wire while ignoring home-grown talent. Cable producers like HBO and AMC aren't successful because of journalist cheerleaders on this side of the Atlantic, but because they take risks, trust their talent and put money into their drama. The good news is that the BBC, after a long period of doing exactly the opposite, is now following suit.

Second Coming: the Rebirth of TV Drama, BFI Southbank, London SE1 (020 7928 3232; ) tomorrow to 25 June

For further reading: British Television Drama: a History by Lez Cooke (British Film Institute)

Five modern classics

Bodies (BBC, 2003-04)

Jed Mercurio had already caused controversy with his Nineties drama 'Cardiac Arrest', but his later obstetrics-ward drama was, according to the BFI's Mark Duguid, "A welcome antidote to the slick but politically anodyne likes of 'ER' and 'Grey's Anatomy'. His targeting of the grim managerialism, naked self-interest and anti-whistleblower culture of the modern NHS is terrifyingly convincing."

State of Play (BBC, 2003)

'Shameless' creator Paul Abbott followed his acclaimed 'Clocking Off' with the serpentine and enthralling 'State of Play', starring John Simm in a role taken by Russell Crowe in the Hollywood remake. "Abbott reinvented the conspiracy thriller for the New Labour age," according to Duguid. "But was conspiracy supposed to be this much fun?"

Sex Traffic (Channel 4, 2004)

"One of the small screen's most harrowing experiences, dealing with issues that TV could scarcely have touched in an earlier era," says Duguid of Abi Morgan's drama about two Moldovan sisters duped into sex slavery and transported across Europe in a journey that touches big business, organised crime, privatised peace-keeping forces and sex tourism.

The Mark of Cain (Channel 4, 2007)

Tony Marchant's drama about the abuses committed by British forces in Iraq, and the systematically brutalising effect of the occupation on young soldiers is, according to Duguid, "utterly convincing in its evocation of combat and occupation... It makes 'The Hurt Locker' feel politically limp by comparison."

Blackpool (BBC, 2004)

With its pop songs woven into the narrative and spontaneous dance routines, Peter Bowker's six-part saga of an amusement arcade owner (played by David Morrissey) dreaming of the big time was, says Duguid, "Written off by some as rehashed Dennis Potter. The debt is real, but 'Blackpool' had a character all of its own: fresh, colourful and irrepressible."