Brian Viner: You shouldn't rush a good drama

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The Independent Online

We television critics are used to being lambasted as worthless specimens of humanity. And actors, producers, directors and screenwriters have now been joined by bloggers, tweeters and message-boarders in telling us that we know nothing, the implication being that they know a whole lot more.

Still, if you live by the pen, which as we all know is mightier than the sword, you have to be prepared to die by the pen. So, loath as I am to savage another beleagured telly critic, a man with whom I should be hunkering down on the sofa of solidarity, let me figuratively hurl my remote-control unit at his head for the insults he himself hurled, in a reputable newspaper, at the BBC's three-part adaptation of Winifred Holtby's book South Riding, which concluded last Sunday. My disloyalty to the sofa-bound brotherhood, and sisterhood, does not extend to naming him or his organ, but if you read his review of the first episode of South Riding, you'll know that he dismissed it as cliché-ridden, two-dimensional and predictable tripe.

Needless to add, any form of criticism is entirely subjective; one person's Fawlty Towers is another's Mind Your Language. But damn it, he was plain wrong. South Riding was notable for its lack of cliché, for the multi-dimensionality of its characters, and as for its predictability, my fellow-critic's scornful assessment after the opening episode was that idealistic headmistress Sarah Burton (the beguiling Anna Maxwell Martin) and her chief antagonist, troubled landowner Robert Carne (David Morrissey, brilliant as always) would end up happily entwined, which is not what happened at all.

Unfortunately, the abundance of period drama on our TV screens has generated the widespread feeling that it is, practically by definition, one giant cliché. And if a serial happens to be set in the north of England, then the first glimpse of a cloth cap will set off the alarm bells. To me this seems like a shame. We should glory in British television's ability to produce great period drama, and abuse not the genre, but simply the efforts that fall well short of greatness, such as the almost hysterically overrated (but beautifully made) Downton Abbey.

All that said, South Riding was far from perfect, and its imperfections all derived from one major flaw: it wasn't long enough. When Holtby's book was adapted for Yorkshire Television in 1974, it ran to 13 hour-long episodes. This time, the BBC commissioned illustrious screenwriter Andrew Davies to condense the story into just three hours, and though Davies did his best in the final episode to tie up the loose ends – and heaven knows, Davies' best is better than just about everyone else's best – the audience, at the death, could justifiably feel let down.

Meanwhile, people keep telling me how wonderful The Killing is on BBC4. It's a Danish import with subtitles, and significantly it is 20 episodes long. The incomparably fine Mad Men runs to 13 episodes per series. Yet for our own broadcasters, drama output is crippled by risk-aversion. Naturally, they cite stratospheric costs as a reason for three episodes rather than 20, 13 or even six, but where there's a will to make an audience feel properly cherished, there's a way. Sadly, the BBC seems to have lost the will.

We scorn wealth earned, but love it if it comes by luck

Steve Whiteley is the 61-year-old heating engineer who on Tuesday, at Exeter races, won the £1.4m Tote Jackpot with a £2 ticket. This is a classic feelgood story, compounded by the fact that he got in for free as part of a racecourse promotion, travelled there on his bus pass, and doesn't even know much about form.

We all love hearing about folk who get something for nothing, especially if it's over a million quid's worth, and of course the more ordinary they are the better. I would wager my own £2, though, that many of the same people who cheered the Steve Whiteley story rail at the salaries paid to footballers, merchant bankers and other members of society perceived as grossly overpaid. That those people owe their remuneration to talent, sometimes exceptional talent and sometimes simply a talent for being in the right job at the right time, is neither here nor there.

Nothing ties the British in such knots as other people's money. The footballers and bankers don't deserve their mansions and Bentleys, and that's that, whereas lucky Mr Whiteley becoming an overnight millionaire is a matter for cheerful applause.

When will my family learn to say the right thing?

My daughter Elly is currently applying to read drama at university, and on Wednesday her skills were assessed (I'd better not say where) in an acting workshop.

She was invited to walk in an unusual way and then to broaden the circumstances, explaining why she was walking like that and what she could see. So, dragging her feet, she said she was walking through mud, and could see only acres of mud. Unfortunately, she was the first candidate chosen. The next was fleeing a nuclear holocaust, the next staggering from the scene of a murder. Suddenly, lots of mud didn't seem so dramatic.

This reminded me of when my wife Jane was pregnant with Elly, our first child. At our National Childbirth Trust ante-natal class, each expectant mother was asked what she would do first when she got home with the baby.

Jane was first up, and said she'd pour herself a huge gin and tonic – cue a supportive nod from me and frozen smiles from everyone else. The next mum-to-be said she'd play her baby some Schubert on the piano.