Toil of two cities

A tough transatlantic love affair is at the heart of the TV drama NY-LON. Gerard Gilbert finds out why Channel 4 is pinning its hopes on 'Brief Encounter told in the language of 24'
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The Independent Online

Google the letters NY-LON and you'll turn up one online magazine geared to fashionistas in New York and London, and two million entries for a synthetic material first used in the 1940s. In fact, calling your big new television drama NY-LON seems to be handing TV critics a rather obvious hostage to fortune. Your title may refer to the nexus between New York and London - the common bond between the two great cities. But for cold-hearted reviewers, NY-LON is more likely to suggest something synthetic: a fabric advertised in the 1970s by Alan "Fluff' Freeman.

I write that because there is indeed something synthetic about Channel 4's new eight-part drama NY-LON. Its creator, Simon Burke, admits that the title was taken from "articles written in not very interesting magazines about the New York-London concept". But while the concept may be as fleeting as a magazine editor's attention-span, Burke's new drama has a more substantial, time-honoured subject matter: the long-distance love affair.

The serial tells of the transatlantic relationship between the Londoner Michael, a loft-dwelling City broker played by Stephen Moyer, and Elie, a Manhattan bohemian who works in a record shop, played by Rashida Jones. They first meet after Elie has her handbag stolen outside Tate Modern - the locations here err on the cornily trendy. You won't be surprised that the Oxo Tower and Norman Foster's "Gherkin" also have supporting roles, and that nobody answers their mobile unless they're walking across Piccadilly Circus.

One thing leads to another, and before long Elie is back pushing indie records to New Yorkers and a lovelorn Michael is left holding one of her earrings, a memento of their night of passion. What is a boy to do? In Michael's case, he hops on the next 747 to JFK airport.

"The story came from a relationship that a friend of mine had," Burke says. "She started dating this New York mime artist she met at the weekend over there, and it was plain to everybody that it was going to be a train wreck. And it was... After about six or seven weeks it went hideously wrong and I came back home to my partner and told her what had happened and she said, 'That would make a great TV show.' It's really as simple and as boring as that. We stole their pain..."

Burke originally thought his "Cinderella-like" romantic drama might appeal to a mainstream broadcaster such as ITV or BBC1. He is surprised that Channel 4, with its tradition of grittier fare, snapped up the idea. For John Yorke, NY-LON was his first commission after starting last year as Channel 4's head of drama - and therefore something of a statement of intent. "NY-LON just exemplified everything I wanted to do when I arrived at Channel 4," says Yorke. "It was innovative and different while not scared to be entertaining and accessible. It wanted to be good and popular at the same time... it's Brief Encounter told in the language of 24 - stylish, sexy and witty..."

Bold aspirations and even bolder associations. Brief Encounter in the language of 24? Well, it's easy to say, isn't it? But NY-LON is good in several ways - one of those being Simon Burke's dialogue. Burke wrote one of my favourite TV dramas, the very entertaining and accessible Chancer, which first showcased Clive Owen's dangerous charms. Stephen Moyer, as Michael, may lack Owen's almost Bogartian loner quality, but much of the dialogue would zing if spoken by a voice synthesiser.

For example, as a female broker colleague complains about the ruthless sacking of one of their friends, Mike replies: "This business attracts the very worst people with the very worst motives, and only the most feral and the most pitiless will emerge from the toxic sludge with enough money to look themselves in the mirror when they reach 50. I love it..."

Very Chancer, that, although Burke is more enthusiastic about NY-LON's structure rather than its verbiage.

"The mechanical beauty of it is that you clock in once a week for an hour of their relationship, which mirrors exactly the sort of relationship that these people have", he says. "Nothing happens for four or five days and then you see each other again."

To get over the dramatic hurdle of having two lead characters who are often literally an ocean apart, Burke developed a shattered time scheme involving rewinds, showing the same storyline from differing points of view.

"It's been done in movies such as Pulp Fiction, but not in British TV dramas," says John Yorke at Channel 4. In other respects, the fact that the main characters continue to a large extent with their own lives in their own cities meant that Yorke could achieve another of his aims for NY-LON, a returning series that radiates out to other characters.

"There are parallels with Cold Feet," he says, "like when they turned it into a series and introduced all the extra characters - the friends. We've done the same to sustain the storyline. Our policy here at Channel 4 is to create as many returning series as we can, because they seem to work quite well for us. And NY-LON has the potential to go on for at least two or three series."

Although the programme's relatively small budget (just over £600,000 an episode compared to £1m for, say, Spooks) means it is not reliant on American sales, the production team felt it was important for the British scenes to feel real to British audiences and the American scenes not to grate on US viewers.

"However, the conceit of the show is that there's less difference between London and New York than there is between London and Lancashire, or New York and the Midwest," says Simon Burke. "But there is a difference, and while Richard Curtis has made a lot of money out of transatlantic relationships in film, he's never really explored the differences between Americans and English. The Andie MacDowell character in Four Weddings and a Funeral, for example - she's American but she doesn't have to be."

NY-LON does point up subtle differences between the two cities, but for all Channel 4's talk of innovation, chatting to Simon Burke you realise that a chance had been missed to take a darker, more interesting look at the Big Apple.

"I liked New York when I went there 15 years ago but I found it extremely difficult when I went to research this," says Burke. "It was at the height of the Iraq war, there were soldiers guarding subway stations at night, all these flags everywhere - slogans in cabs, 'We support our boys - go for Iraq.' I found New Yorkers depressingly under siege and full of themselves.

"I went to a bar with my producer; you can't smoke, so we went outside. I took my drink so I could drink while he smoked and someone comes outside to say you can't drink out here. It really reminded me, with the slogans and the petty bureaucracy of east European States in the early Eighties."

A touch melodramatic, perhaps, but nonetheless that would be an interesting angle - and maybe one that would appeal to NY-LON's intended youthful demographic, with its jaundiced, post-9-11 view of the United States.

"We were extremely hamstrung by the physical realities of making the show," says Burke. "We couldn't afford a storyline in which our hero goes from a Spanish Inquisition at JFK to being thrown out of one bar for smoking and not being allowed to drink in the street."

Such observations also probably wouldn't chime with NY-LON's ambitions as a romantic drama (clock the Friends-like theme tune) - something reflected by some of the most ungraphic sex scenes ever seen on prime-time Channel 4 drama.

"It's quite chaste, isn't it?" says John Yorke. "Again that was a conscious decision. Romance is rarely done on television outside of soaps. You can find sex elsewhere on Channel 4."

Ah yes, on the subject of Big Brother, how does a head of drama combat the unstoppable tide of reality TV?

"It's hard to beat the sort of drama that came out of Wife Swap or Faking It. They gave people what they traditionally got from drama - that empathy and catharsis. But Channel 4 has also realised that drama is an important part of the mix, and you can't survive on a diet of reality TV alone. The shows that people remember about channels tend to be dramas - they brand a channel more effectively than anything else. People still talk about Channel 4 and Queer as Folk in the same breath."

In years to come, will they talk of Channel 4 and NY-LON in the same breath? Having only seen the first two episodes, it's impossible to make a judgment. Like Cold Feet, NY-LON may take more than one series to fully create an impact. In the meantime, expect some cruel jibes about that synthetic material so useful in manufacturing stockings.

'NY-LON' starts on Tuesday 24 August at 10pm on Channel 4