Amy Jenkins: Why bleak TV is something to smile about

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It put a smile on my face to read that the hardcore HBO cop show, The Wire, got good viewing figures when it aired for the first time on BBC2 this week. Why? Because The Wire is well known for being grim, sombre and relentlessly bleak. I'm just so terribly happy about relentlessly bleak. I want my TV drama as gloomy as can be.

Of course, The Wire had already been shown over here on cable and satellite channels but it took seven years, a tsunami of critical acclaim and a severe global recession to convince BBC executives that terrestrial viewers were grown up enough for it. They were. It attracted 600,000 viewers and a respectable 8 per cent audience share.

If this heralds a renaissance of gloomy TV, then I for one think that's something to be cheerful about. Before New Labour and the boom years, Britain used to be all about gloomy TV. I was brought up on it. The television I remember from my childhood was not the American escapism of Charlie's Angels and the like, but the chilling British eeriness of Edge of Darkness and the gritty satisfactions of The Sweeney.

A sort of delicious melancholia pervaded those shows that were part of our national spirit. They weren't depressing because there was a definite glamour in the bleak edginess – a gratifying recognition that life was tough and we were good at getting on with it.

Remember when London was dirty and all the buildings were covered in soot, when the buses were rattling Routemasters, and Golden Wonder crisp packets danced across the streets in the biting wind? Remember the London that used to be on our tellies – all grimy housing estates and rained-on concrete?

Then the boom came and we cleaned up our cities and did up our houses. We threw out our chintz and had gleaming Ikea homes with smooth, clutter-free surfaces. Happy was something you could buy in a bottle. It was a perfume by Clinique. British TV, too, got all airbrushed and glossy like the American stuff. Shows such as Spooks came along and had a surface so shiny they were like Narcissus's pool – a place of empty self-regarding reflection.

But back we went from boom to bust and it looks like grimy TV is with us again. We've already had Wallander – starring Kenneth Branagh as Henning Mankell's tortured Swedish detective – with its air of doubt and human frailty, its slow intelligent pace and its refusal to provide redemptive happy endings.

And then recently we had Channel 4's Red Riding. This more than anything – set in Yorkshire with an atmosphere as dark and bitter as a well-stewed cup of builder's tea – seemed like a return to form for "good old British TV". Bent coppers, a lot of rain – yes – but, more importantly, drama that challenged the viewer and made you think about the complexities of human nature.

Because that's the other feature of "gloomy TV". Gloomy TV is always pretty hard to follow. It – as they say in the business – "flatters the viewer". In other words, you have to work fairly hard to keep up.

If you're not asking your partner to pause for a second on the Sky Plus, while you work out who the hell has dunnit, then it's not as darkly opaque as it should be. Real life is like that, you see. It's confusing and inexplicable and you have to run to catch up.

Dominic West, left, the British star of The Wire, was on the radio this week saying that when you turn on the TV, there's a huge choice of "nothing you want to see". He said British TV struggles to produce "contemporary stuff". In fact, there's plenty of contemporary stuff. What he meant was that we struggle to produce challenging up-market drama.

They can do no wrong – and then no right

Madonna is adopting another child from Malawi and, yet again, she's getting a right royal telling off for it. How dare she go round the world "shopping for children"? Now she's divorced, how dare she bring a child into a broken family? What if she inculcates the child with her oddball religion? And so it continues...

It seems that celebrities have a very brief honeymoon of approval – when they first appear on the scene – followed by a long career of yah-booing.

Never mind the rights and wrongs of adoption and the fact that Madonna is at least willing to share her wealth in a meaningful way by taking on disadvantaged children. At this point I can't imagine a single thing Madonna might do that would garner praise rather than criticism.

Rae brought in the girls, then got rid of me

John Rae, headmaster of Westminster School from 1970-86 who posthumously publishes his diaries today, liked to think of himself as a reformer. He introduced girls to the sixth form of Westminster School and, in the early 1980s, I was one of them.

He rightly saw the girls as a civilising influence on the boys, although, in my case, the favour certainly wasn't returned. All that teenage testosterone had a most uncivilising influence on me.

I was 16 and I'd arrived in a school where boys outnumbered girls exponentially. Not only that, the boys were cool – some of them – they took drugs, had long hair, and wore drainpipe trousers. Frankly, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. It was nerve-wracking and rather great but it was all about my sex life – not my education.

And then, of course, it was about the battle of the sexes too. Rae couldn't do anything about one or two of the unreformed old-style public school teachers he'd inherited. Just before my A-levels, I got into trouble for putting my hand on my hip while responding to a teacher who was yelling that I should "Run!" because I was late for a lesson. It was the manner of the hand on the hip, apparently (not what I said – the teacher was too far away to hear me), that was unforgivably insolent. A very feminine insolence, I think.

I was sent to detention – skipped it – and Rae, reformer that he was, felt obliged to expel me.