Real Style: Spare us the Aga dramas

After `Cold Feet', stand by for a whole spate of new programmes for thirtysomethings. Enough, says MICHAEL COLLINS

It was once the working class that provided the cliches in TV drama, when families sat around a table staring at a brown teapot, dressed in their underwear, eating fried eggs with their bare hands. Now it's the turn of the middle classes. What was at first heralded as a fresh approach to the form, with the arrival of Cold Feet, is fast becoming like so many other genres of TV drama: rather than imitating real life, it now merely emulates the dialogue and characterisation in other series in the genre. You just know that at some point, someone is going to mention olives, infidelity, and oh, the problem of finding the right school in a built-up urban area. Meanwhile, Paul Weller plays, pianissimo, in the background of the Shaker-themed kitchen.

Never let it be said that television doesn't know how to milk the life out of a successful formula, on the occasions when it stumbles across such a rarity. The approach that previously applied to docu-soaps and lifestyle programmes, that of reproducing them ad nauseum, is now being tested on the thirtysomething drama. The seeds of the trend were sewn with the success of the first series of ITV's award-winning Cold Feet. It spearheaded a style of contemporary, domestic thirtysomething drama - with a dash of comedy and the occasional dream sequence - that broadcasters have begun to clone at great speed and with great urgency.

This week, ITV unveiled a wealth of said programmes as part of the winter schedule. "I am particularly proud of the rich heritage which TV has built in drama," says David Liddiment, ITV's director of programmes, who commissioned Cold Feet when he was new to the job. It was part of a bid to take the network's image up the social ladder, into the homes of the middle-class audience, and down to a younger demographic. What began with Cold Feet, and the lives and loves of Greg Wise's Marshall - a 30- year old, Porsche-driving chartered accountant - and his Crouch End friends in Wonderful You, continues into the millennium. Get ready for new series of Cold Feet and Big Bad World. Transmitting in the new year are single films such as Reach For The Moon and Forgive and Forget. And the series Metropolis begins in the second week in January. This is a window on the world of a group of modern friends heading for 30, fast, in the city where the streets are paved with dreams, beggars and Pret a Manger sushi cartons. It's as though a Whit Stillman ensemble of characters had upped sticks, downsized and moved to London. "These dramas are not `easy'," claims Andy Harries, executive producer of both Cold Feet and Metropolis. "There are no vets and doctors. It's a mark of TV drama evolving."

But who are the people these characters represent? More importantly, exactly who is watching? What seems at first remarkable about the success of the genre, is that it is ITV that has cornered the market in it, within a schedule where Robson Green is as familiar a face as Trevor McDonald once was, cast as a doctor, detective, psychologist, soldier, cowboy builder and now fencing teacher in ITV's forthcoming The Last Musketeer. "I think these new dramas have come about because of a desire to refresh the channel and appeal to a younger audience without alienating the old," says Rob Pursery, executive producer on Carlton's Big Bad World. "They capture the fact that everyone is growing up late these days."

The success of these series is due in part to the fact that frequently, television's post-watershed, 9pm-on-the-dot slot, belongs to ITV because of past triumphs such as Cracker and Prime Suspect. (The axing of News At Ten gives new drama a clear run into the night). It was largely because of the insistence and persistence of advertisers that ITV laid down plans to target their drama at a younger, upmarket audience, that of the 18- 34 year olds. It was a move that could have seen their traditional mainstream audience dwindling, but in fact Cold Feet did bring in ratings and a younger crowd. Although, to a younger audience, any TV drama that doesn't feature crinolines or cobblestones may be welcomed as radically contemporary.

Oddly, all paths lead to This Life. The success of Amy Jenkins's chaotic, highly original drama of young lawyers inspired TV broadcasters to dramatise the lifestyles of similar characters several years down the line. When Gub Neal took over as head of drama at Channel 4 a couple of years ago, he claimed that it was time for television to move away from concentrating on working-class characters, as covered by TV soaps, and start looking at middle-class ones. Presumably, those who were in relationships, with careers, a mortgage, maybe a child, a pet, a Pep and a Tessa. The aim, he claimed, was to create a British version of thirtysomething.

American television was the first to discover the formula for this kind of drama a decade ago with the tales of Eliot, Melissa, Hope and Michael in thirtysomething. The recent news that Cold Feet - having been re-made and re-modelled with a stateside cast - was pulled from the US schedules after a couple of episodes, is therefore hardly surprising. thirtysomething was perhaps the only contemporary television series to sandwich dream sequences between depictions of the sturm und drang of modern American life. A life that was far removed from a Norman Rockwell tableau, but nothing like a Ewing feud on Southfork ranch either. It was as domestic as a soap, in a TV culture that had been characterised by soaps, but one in which middle-class professionals designed Carly Simon album sleeves, studied Saul Bellow novels for leisure, and all but came to blows on the subject of circumcision.

Just as thirtysomething was credited with defining an America of the Eighties, Cold Feet has been lauded for accomplishing something similar for Britain at the fag end of the Nineties. Here the themes are house-husbands, stolen kisses, infatuation and impotence, with Manchester providing the backdrop.

But do these dramas reflect their viewers' lives, or those of the TV executives who have commissioned them? It has become a truism within television, of numerous producers and commissioning editors, that the domestic impasse in which their own lives have stalled has become the gauge by which they judge the lives of TV viewers. Hence, female producers return from maternity leave ready to pitch many a series on childbirth. The husband hits 35 and gets a camera. Suddenly there is an abundance of programme treatments about photography. Before you know it, programmes overwhelmingly concerned with garden make- overs, cookery, cars and the changing of room interiors are clogging up the schedules. "I think that Big Bad World is an attempt to take the piss out of our behaviour and that of our contemporaries," claims Rob Pursey. "It sends up thirtysomethings and their insecurites. On the surface there is glamour but underneath it is panic. Our aim is to be satirical."

And so to a style of drama where there are indeed no doctors or vets, but a large amount of characters with media-related careers. In Big Bad World, Ardal O'Hanlon is a journalist on a men's magazine, and in search of Miss Right, with the assistance of his best mate, who works in advertising. In the forthcoming Metropolis, of the three central female characters, one is an agony aunt and the others have careers in politics. Whilst in Wonderful You, Clare is in publishing, Laura is an interior designer and Marco a chef. If there is a character to be found in a "realistic" drama that doesn't have a brilliant career and isn't middle class - culturally, anyway - chances are she will be vibrantly blonde with leather trousers, sunglasses and roots as dark as her past. Michelle Collins usually gets the part.

IF YOU'VE SEEN ONE, YOU'VE SEEN THEM ALL

Lovable Irishmen

Cute, clownish and unlucky in love - despite the fact that all female viewers would cheerfully leap into bed with them without a backward look.

Disappearing crowds

Hugely trendy bars where you can always get a seat.

Disappearing children

Tots seen only at breakfast, sweet in pyjamas or silent in buggies.

Oversized jumpers

Essential wear for wives, who are nonetheless fully made-up.

Drug-fuelled male bonding

Over a joint, preferably on a roof.

Unfeasibly large kitchens

The size of a football pitch and replete with, apparently, the entire contents of the Conran Shop.

Departing wives

Planning to dump the cuddliest male character in order to pursue career/less cuddly but more handsome man.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

    £40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

    Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

    £26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

    £17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

    Day In a Page

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

    Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

    But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
    Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

    Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

    Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

    Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

    Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
    England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

    England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

    In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)