Tom Sutcliffe: The best dramas don't choose who to offend

Social Studies: The last three decades have seen a considerable expansion of the empire of the unsayable

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Talking in advance of a new series, and making the case for cold bath drama – as opposed to the Downton Abbey long, hot soak – Jimmy McGovern said: "Just imagine if it said on my headstone that I had never offended anybody – I would turn in my grave."

The television writer was grumbling about the fact that the BBC has a complaints department at all – since in his view the role of the writer is to irritate; to press a knuckle into a pressure point and twist it until people ask why it's so tender there. In such circumstances, he implied, complaints should be taken as evidence of success – not as a worrying reaction to be placated and soothed.

And this broad sentiment – that there is an association between public affront and dramatic merit – isn't exactly revolutionary. Indeed, you could say that it's a received opinion for a certain kind of liberal sensibility. Anyone, whether a viewer or a writer, who thinks of Cathy Come Home and The Wednesday Play as the benchmarks for what television drama can achieve, are likely to have fuss and controversy somewhere in their recipe for good drama. If someone's not shouting – probably the Daily Mail – then it isn't working.

There is an assumption that often goes unstated in such remarks though, and that is that the people we have a right to offend are the people who don't agree with us. Their offence is taken as salutary, instructive and ultimately therapeutic. It is evidence that complacencies have been disturbed. Our offence, on the other hand, when it occurs, is a sign that deep-rooted values have been treated with contempt. And the last three decades have seen a considerable expansion of the empire of the unsayable.

Some of those territories – the relatively recent taboo against racism, say – should never be surrendered. But at the same time it must surely be the case that liberals are just as prone to complacencies of thought and unreflective prejudice as any other group of people. Indeed, the knee-jerk flinch in some quarters at the Government's suggestion that there might be benefits to getting the unemployed into some kind of workplace probably identifies one of those blind spots. And really successful television drama – rather than just really liberal television drama – would prod those sore spots too.

In this regard Jimmy McGovern is a very rare case – a writer of left-of-centre sensibilities whose grasp of dramatic danger is never simply a matter of poking the opposition. One of the dramas in his upcoming series offers a good example – an intense film about bullying in a British army unit in Afghanistan, which traps the lead character in a moral and emotional cul de sac. For those who don't like the depiction of "our brave boys" to be complicated in any way it will no doubt cause offence. It may even stir up some headlines.

But McGovern also gives his principal bully a fiercely articulate speech in which he makes the case that cruelty to one squaddie may count as a kindness to all the rest. This isn't "balance" – that careful neutralisation of offence. It's a proper recognition that if you regard upset and disturbance as the core of what good drama does you can't always limit the directions in which it travels.





Easily Traversed Initiative (ETI)?



Dispatches' revelation that the cheap clothing in British high streets had involved less than perfect labour conditions wasn't exactly one of those stories that made your jaw drop open in shock. It also made you wonder a little about how serious firms are when they sign up to the Ethical Trading Initiative, an organisation which aims to improve the working lives of the people who make the things we buy.

I'm not questioning the point of the ETI itself, I should make clear – a legitimate pressure group pursuing a very desirable goal. But since their ultimate sanction against defaulting companies is expulsion, it looks as if a firm really doesn't have a lot to lose by joining. In theory the ETI code involves companies in a rigorous inspection of all parts of their supply chain.

In practice – as seen from the retailers' end – the code occasionally appears to run more like this: Rule One. Sign up to the ETI code so that you can flaunt your good intentions. Rule Two. Hope that your suppliers don't too blatantly violate the ETI's requirements. Rule Three. Declare yourself "shocked and disappointed" should any discrepancies come to light. Rule Four. Look for alternative suppliers who can deliver at the same price point.

If they signed up to a substantial fine in the event of breaches would reports like Dispatches' be a little rarer?



Here comes another Playstation invasion



If you're wondering what to buy a young teapartier for Christmas can I suggest passing on Call of Duty: Black Ops and waiting for Homefront, a forthcoming video game in which you play as a member of the American resistance, fighting against a mainland occupation of the States by the Greater Korean Republic.

The atmosphere of paranoid jingoism alone should make it a success for those of conservative bent, but you could also point out that it's been scripted by John Milius, enthusiastic member of the National Rifle Association and the man who made the 1984 film Red Dawn, another dystopian invasion fantasy much beloved by the American far right. So popular was it with gung-ho types, in fact, that the military operation to capture Saddam Hussein was named after it. One day Operation Homefront too? Train on the Playstation. Fight it for real.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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