TV is experiencing a new golden age but where are the British shows?

It started with Buffy and The Sopranos, and continues with Damages and Mad Men. America now makes the best TV drama. Gerard Gilbert finds out why Britain is slipping behind

There's both good news and bad news for TV patriots – for those who still cling to the belief that Britain makes the best television in the world. The good news is that our native industry has spearheaded an exciting and (outwardly at least) democratic new genre – so-called reality TV – that has swept the planet in the last 10 years, reinvigorating both documentaries and light entertainment in the process.

The bad news (and this could be related to the good news) is that our drama and comedy – the heritage of Dennis Potter, Alan Bleasdale and Play for Today; Monty Python, Steptoe & Son and Shameless – now appears to lag far behind that of a nation who were once synonymous with producing commercially driven pap. America.

Viewers who had come to dismiss the medium as little more than a frivolous whirligig – a mindless way of unwinding at the end of a long day – are now finding themselves utterly engaged with the produce of American television – glued, week after week, to their favourite TV dramas. The Sopranos, The West Wing, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Sex and the City, Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Larry Sanders Show, John Adams and Mad Men are just some of the intelligent, complex shows that have made TV drama and comedy worth watching over the past decade. Taken together, they form what is now becoming generally recognised for what it is – a new golden age of television drama.

The unlikely patron of the new golden age, the Medicis of this TV renaissance, is a US cable network once best known for showing uncut movies and big boxing matches – HBO, or Home Box Office. In the mid-1990s, Jeff Bew-kes, then head of HBO (now chief executive of Time Warner) decided that the future of the channel lay in high-quality, original production. It wanted its programmes to be different, and its attitude was summed up by its slogan "It's not television, it's HBO".

Very clever, that slogan, especially in an American context, but increasingly so in a British one. This is TV for people who don't watch TV. And the channel put its money where its mouth was, with Bewkes increasing HBO's drama budget from $50m to $300m. Its money comes from subscriptions, but instead of using them to pay footballers' wages – as Sky does in the UK – HBO ploughed the money into big-budget dramas such as Band of Brothers and the even more expensive John Adams.

"I think in a way it's been a golden century, from 2000 onwards when HBO started with shows like The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Six Feet Under," says Stephen Garrett from Kudos Film and Television, makers of Spooks and Life on Mars (the latter, incidentally, is one of the few recent UK dramas to be remade for American audiences and not get lost in translation). "Oddly, I think it is the braver decisions that are working better than the rather dull decisions," Garrett says.

And, according to Tom Hooper, the (British) director of John Adams, HBO's recent Golden Globe-winning drama about the American Revolution, "it's that willingness to take risks that really marks HBO out – that, and their utter confidence in their own tastes".

On paper, few of the great American dramas of recent years must have looked like obvious successes. The private lives of New Jersey gangsters? Mmm, possibly, after Goodfellas... The symbiotic relationship of cops and drug-dealers on the streets of Baltimore? Sounds a bit of a bummer. A saga about a family of undertakers? Close the door on the way out...

But it wasn't just the subject matter of these great modern American dramas that was so refreshingly different from the sudsy genre abyss into which BBC1, for instance, had fallen at the time. The form is also revolutionary.

"One of the most interesting things about the new wave of American drama is this idea of story-arcing," says Dick Fiddy of the British Film Institute. "None better than Joss Whedon, who demonstrated it in Buffy the Vampire Slayer; you take what in any other age would have been an adventure series where each week there'd be some sort of conclusion, but instead you build into the series this over-arcing story that adds this depth; it happened in The Sopranos, in Mad Men, in Six Feet Under... the story arc becomes the thing that truly delineates between British and American drama.

"This is not an original thought," Fiddy adds, "but I do agree with it. American TV has come closer and closer to the 19th-century novel – a really epic story told over a long piece of time, which actually doesn't have to move that fast. I mean, The Wire is funereally paced, and yet because of its slow burn, watching one episode of the show is like reading one chapter of a book. What's more, I think that story-arcing has found its time because of DVDs. You can watch these things in one unbroken line, almost like reading a book cover to cover."

David Simon, creator of The Wire and the Iraq War drama Generation Kill, certainly likes to see himself as a modern-day Balzac or Dickens – and, thanks to HBO, television has become a writers' medium again. In the Sixties and Seventies in the UK, writers such as Harold Pinter, John Hopkins, Dennis Potter and Troy Kennedy Martin helped to create challenging, ideas-driven drama on British television. Now, in the States, it is writers such as The Wire's David Simon, and Alan Ball, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of American Beauty. Ball prefers now to work in TV, with shows such as Six Feet Under and (his new one, a tale of vampires) True Blood. "I feel a lot more optimistic about TV than I do about movies," he has said. "TV is the best place to be as a writer – it's really a writer's medium."

It's also the medium in which more and more film stars – or former film-stars – are willing to work, a transition to the smaller screen that used to be seen as career suicide in Hollywood. "There was a time, not too long ago, when doing a television show was the sign of a desperate career," says Laura Fries of the movie industry magazine Variety. "TV roles for big-screen actors and directors aren't only accepted now, they are coveted. Glenn Close has a far juicier role on Damages than she would probably find in feature films and many top-name directors are vying for a chance to direct episodes of hot new shows."

Ted Danson and William Hurt are also in Damages (a show picked up in the UK by BBC1). Damages isn't an HBO series, as you might expect, but the product of FX, the Fox-affiliated cable channel that also made The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me.

"HBO definitely has more competition than ever before," says Laura Fries of Variety. "Channels like AMC, FX and TNT, and even ABC Family, are creating their own original shows and giving the big pay channels and networks a run for their money. These smaller networks have more room to experiment, so they have the freedom to fail that the others don't."

In fact, there are signs that, if HBO isn't exactly faltering (John Adams recently won 13 Emmys and four Golden Globes), then the glory days when it was running The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Six Feet Under in tandem are over for the time being.

"I think that HBO is struggling a bit at the moment," says Stephen Garrett of Kudos. "It's the basic cable shows like Damages and Mad Men (made by AMC) that are really capturing people's imagination. But the most remarkable thing is that the networks – in particular ABC and NBC – have produced shows like Lost and Heroes; weird and extraordinary fantasies that resonate with a mass prime-time audience. Cable is making the big networks both braver and more terrified. The basic cable channels are relatively protected and the networks know how hideously exposed they are when things go wrong." So if the American networks, those great lumbering beasts (some say dinosaurs) of broadcasting, are responding to this cable-driven explosion of innovative TV drama, what is happening in this country?

Implicit in many of the British love letters to HBO and its ilk is a criticism of our own major channels, and in particular the BBC. Where are the BBC's home-grown equivalents of Mad Men, The Sopranos or Six Feet Under?

Garrett, whose company Kudos has made some of the BBC's most innovative and successful dramas of recent years, including Spooks and Life on Mars, reckons that the HBO model isn't applicable in the UK. "I'm not sure what lessons British broadcasters can really take from the success of HBO," he says. "Every time a commissioner takes a brave decision, I don't think it's any easier than it ever was – they've always got people looking at them askance V C from on high. Commissioners don't often get the respect and praise they deserve because they are the ones putting their jobs on the line."

And Garrett should know. It took seven years for Kudos to persuade anyone to make Life on Mars, while Spooks was "turned down for three years by every broadcaster in the land, with people saying, 'Who's interested in spies?'"

The BBC's head of drama, Ben Stephenson, sees insurmountable economies of scale, and a different responsibility to the audience. "I think that many of the shows that are on cable channels are really interesting but I also feel that there's also a sense that the grass is always greener," he says. "Cable channels in the States are there to do a very specific job – in a country of several hundred million, a show like Six Feet Under gets one million in America. Cable is there to serve a particular upmarket urban audience.

"We look at audiences in a slightly different way; because we are paid for by the licence-fee payer, we have to have something for everyone. I don't feel it would be right for the taxpaying public if we went aggressively down the HBO route."

Some people, of course, think that even if the BBC wished to emulate HBO's creative success – success that has been gained by letting writers and directors have their heads – the current corporation would have problems in providing the necessary freedom. "There are now just too many people working for broadcasters in Britain who think it's not only their job, but their innate right, to interfere with the end product," wrote Greg Dyke recently. As a former director general of the BBC, he should perhaps know.

The BBC head of drama, Ben Stephenson, reckons this is the grass-is-greener syndrome in action again. "My experience when I've worked with American television, whether it be the networks or HBO, is that – quite rightly when they are putting a huge amount of money into their pieces – they are hugely involved."

Indeed, the audience for the sorts of shows HBO and other cable networks are producing may be vocal – TV critics watch the shows for pleasure rather than out of duty – but they are relatively tiny. The second series of Mad Men, for example, which shows on BBC4 with repeats on BBC2, had the sort of pre-publicity you simply cannot buy. But when the figures were stacked up, they made you wonder whether the media really exist in some sort of elitist bubble. Only 145,000 viewers watched last week's first run of the second episode of Mad Men – easily outshone by ITV3's Ladies of Letters. Ladies of what? Well, quite. This gentle comedy on the art of letter-writing, starring Anne Reid and Maureen Lipman, attracted more than three times the number of viewers, yet it had none of Mad Men's pre-publicity.

"Mad Men is interesting," says Garrett. "Economically, it doesn't really work for the channel it's on in the States, AMC. It gets the glory, it gets the feature articles, so it works for them on that basis, but in terms of bums on seats it's not a success."

Does Stephenson find it galling that shows like Mad Men hog the hype over hugely more popular drama series such as Mistresses? "I don't find it galling at all," he says. "Ultimately I'm passionate about drama and I love any piece of drama being talked about.

"What we have here is a greater range and diversity. When I speak to Americans, they watch our stuff and think, 'Wow, I'd love to have to make only eight episodes of Life on Mars [instead of the US's standard 22], because actually it means you don't have to stretch it out. We can make series that are as long as they need to be. I don't think one way is better or worse; I think they complement each other, which is why we have our acquisition strategy."

Indeed, why bother trying to emulate Mad Men when you can just buy it in? Anyway, according to Dick Fiddy of the BFI, short-form drama – series with eight or fewer episodes – is an area where Britain still leads the world. "There are things we do particularly well. Look at Life on Mars or State of Play – I don't see that sort of drama coming out of America." Laura Fries of Variety agrees, adding that old habits die hard with US drama. "What I do think British TV does better than US shows is make viewers uncomfortable. Even though shows like Dexter and Mad Men are edgy, there's still that all-American tradition of tying up loose ends. American viewers just don't like to squirm or to leave things completely unanswered."

Maybe so, but on one thing nobody seems to disagree – and that is that the US has indeed been going though a golden age of TV drama. How does it compare with our own former glory years? Steve Bryant, senior curator of television at the BFI's National Archives, subverts HBO's "not television, but HBO" slogan: "The question is: how far is it television? In many ways, it's more like the movies. Look at 24; which is like an action film.

"It's much more director-driven than in Britain, with complete freedom with language and subject matter, and a subscriber base who want challenging material. It's very different to our own golden age of TV drama – which, by the way, an industry-wide poll in 2000 conclusively voted as having lasted from 1978 to 1986, the age of The Singing Detective and Boys from the Blackstuff. Those were very writer-driven dramas, by people such as Dennis Potter and Alan Bleasdale. Who wrote The Sopranos? Who knows?"

Homegrown talent: five current hits that show British television at its best

Spooks

A drama about MI5 (the name by which 'Spooks' is screened in the USA) seemed an anachronistic Sixties throwback before September 11 – and indeed it remained uncommissioned for three years before Osama bin Laden thrust it into the zeitgeist. Since 2002, there have been eight series, capturing viewers' imaginations with a combination of high-octane story-telling and glossy production. Known for its quotient of male totty (Matthew Macfadyen, Rupert Penry-Jones and now Richard Armitage), the storylines include a female spy being killed off in a deep-fat fryer, and a bomb attack on London screened just two months after 7 July 2005.

Shameless

Paul Abbott had the successful and acclaimed 'Clocking Off' and 'State of Play' to his name when he decided in 2004 to write a saga based on his experiences growing up in 1970s Burnley. Each episode of this dark, very funny celebration of underclass culture on the fictional Chatsworth estate in Manchester is book-ended by a monologue, often by the show's resident sage and errant patriarch, Frank Gallagher (David Threlfall). Now-married actors James McAvoy and Anne-Marie Duff met on the show. HBO is developing an American version with John Wells, producer of 'The West Wing'.

Doctor Who

Mouths fell open in disbelief in 2005 when it was announced that the 'Queer as Folk' creator Russell T Davies was to resurrect BBC1's Saturday evening time-travel classic, but Davies proved that with wit, daring, imagination and a true fan's love of the source material, the new 'Doctor Who' could equal and even surpass the original. Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant have proved canny if relatively short-lived Time Lords (Matt Smith was recently unveiled as the 11th doctor), but the female assistants – especially Billie Piper's Rose Tyler and Freema Agyeman's Martha Jones – have proved just as popular.

Criminal Justice

BBC1 decided to run all five episodes of Peter Moffat's compelling drama over successive weeknights last year – and its courage paid off when the audience stayed loyal and appreciative. Ben Whishaw, following one man's journey through the British criminal justice system, played a young chap wrongly accused of murder. And, while the original crime stretched credulity, the rest was all too plausible – so much so that some lawyers complained about the way in which they were portrayed. BBC1 is going to make a second series of 'Criminal Justice' this summer, with a completely new cast.

Ashes to Ashes

'Life on Mars' was one of the most original and successful British TV dramas of recent years, with its time-travel tale of a sensitive, modern copper, Sam Tyler (John Simm) stranded in Sweeney-era Manchester. Philip Glenister's unreconstructed DCI Gene Hunt stole the show, and Glenister/Hunt transferred to the somewhat more comedic sequel 'Ashes to Ashes', set in the early 1980s and co-starring Keeley Hawes. An American version of 'Life on Mars', with Harvey Keitel as Gene Hunt, is currently holding its own on ABC, in the slot after 'Lost'.

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