The Burnley-born writer, who was the seventh of eight children abandoned by their mother, then their father, was yesterday afforded the honour of delivering the Huw Wheldon lecture at the Royal Television Society's Cambridge television convention.
Claiming television drama was in "a malaise", Abbott said: "I've written for TV for 22 years and know it doesn't have to be like this. The commonest excuse for drama being bland or inoffensive or just crap is that the audience can't assimilate complex story-telling. This is just patronising. Audiences today can handle as much as you can throw at them."
Abbott reserved some of his strongest criticism for the populist drama Footballers' Wives, which he claimed was evidence of a "regression" in standards of television drama. He said: "There's nothing wrong with making a show or wanting to make a show about the wives of footballers, except that the subject matter from the title says it's not to be taken seriously."
Abbott acknowledged Footballers' Wives pulled in "huge audiences" and had "a very friendly reception from the critics for being a kitsch version of a national treasure and celebrated for its naffness". But the writer took exception to the budget of the show, claiming it "cost more to make than Cracker", the highly-rated psycho drama on which he worked with the Liverpudlian writer Jimmy McGovern.
The Shameless writer was scathing in his comments about the former Channel 4 soap Brookside, which he said had once been among his "favourite" shows but had been "justifiably put to sleep" by the broadcaster this year. He added: "It made the fatal error of boosting its ratings with ballistic storylines that were wilfully incongruous to its landscape. Instead of bowing out with dignity, the last episode screeched with insanity. When they burnt the coffin, it sounded like a fire in a pet shop."
Abbott told his audience of television executives that "most people in the industry" would "admit they don't watch much telly" and implored them to make greater efforts with the shows they worked on. "The audience deserves, and I believes craves, much more protein in their diet. Only by giving the viewer a workout, making them join the dots, use their own imagination, can we reclaim television drama as the challenging, exciting, life-changing medium I and many others have known it to be."
He combined his criticisms with words of praise for the drama productions that had inspired him in his career. The Willy Russell drama One Summer, which told the story of two Liverpool youths running away to north Wales, moved him to write for television, along with the landmark BBC period drama I Claudius, which Abbott said was "a slightly more bizarre inspiration" but was a programme that had him "totally gripped". He praised Lynda La Plante's Prime Suspect, saying it portrayed characters with "subtlety and power" yet was a "corking example of how to define a drama mostly by the things you've chosen not to do" and was neither "conventionally sexy" nor "glamorous in any way".
Abbott said the Channel 4 big- budget US series Lost had "ambition and diligence" and "sets a new benchmark for all of us".Reuse content