Friday's book: From Liverpool to Los Angeles, Peter Ansorge (Faber & Faber pounds 8.99)
Friday 26 September 1997
One of the quickest off the mark is Peter Ansorge, who casts a sceptical eye over new writing for theatre, television and film. As head of drama at Channel 4, Ansorge is well placed to give an overview of all three sectors. This is better than looking at each in isolation and enables him to grapple with questions that win no friends: will the Britpack of young writers currently causing a stir in theatre end up in Hollywood? Is British drama improving - or are we just kidding ourselves?
Ansorge's polemic is engagingly simple. Writers no longer develop in a stable relationship with their patron institution, but have to chase commissions from theatre to television to film. The result is a loss of individuality, of the sense of place at the root of some of our best drama: think of Dennis Potter's Forest of Dean or Alan Bleasdale's Liverpool.
Without the long-term security that binds dramatists to institutions new writing grows formulaic: all those cop shows and hospital serials. It becomes just "another forgettable blip on the information superhighway". After attacking the policies that led to mass sackings at the BBC and cuts in theatre subsidy, Ansorge points out that if individual voices such as Mike Leigh or Jimmy McGovern were starting out today, they wouldn't make it. Then, clearly irritated by the complacency that hails the young writers of today - such as Jez Butterworth - as part of a new golden age, Ansorge moves on to criticise the critics.
With its stinging account of how journalism is part of a general dumbing down of culture (as criticism makes way for fawning previews and acerbic put-downs) From Liverpool to Los Angeles is certain to bruise a few media egos. Mark Lawson, for example, won't relish being reminded that he got the plots of Potter's Karaoke and Cold Lazarus wrong.
It's unfair to judge each new writer by comparing them to John Osborne and the exceptional impact of Look Back in Anger in 1956. But Ansorge's lambasting of the failure of nerve on the part of television executives and lack of anger on the part of writers makes the pulse quicken, even when the mind disagrees. Even if you don't agree that young writers today are under the baleful influence of Tarantino and drug culture, the criticisms are thought-provoking and timely. If this book kicks off a lively debate about Britain's best cultural asset - its writers - then his idiosyncratic tour of Liverpool, London and Los Angeles will have been worth it.
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