I recently retired after more than 30 years of teaching. Much of those thirty years were spent teaching about television, both making TV and theorising about it. For the last decade I was very much a TV studies person. I surprised myself on several occasions when mid-lecture I seemed to be veering towards an overt nationalism about television that, if it had been applied to most other areas of cultural production, I would have found both ridiculous and off putting. To some extent this could also be seen in the modules I devised and taught – British TV Drama, TV Crime Drama – I taught the British and Scandi sections, Authorship – I stuck resolutely to British TV writers. True that in teaching a PSB module I referred to TF1, ZDF, ARD and so on in passing and indeed spent a week on C.B.C. and one on P.B.S./N.P.R., but the majority of my time was spent concentrating on U.K. television.
That the nation and national identity might be a starting point in teaching TV is both straightforward – in Western Europe and elsewhere TV systems started as national, public service stations – and, it could also be argued, less relevant in a transnational, globalised television market and world. What about online access, Netflix, Amazon and others? – You might almost shout at this point. But, why does this debate, PSB versus commercial, national versus global (for that most often read U.S.) gather such emotional force? In my recent teaching these oppositions were also inflected, by some students as generational, so older v. younger viewers. As John Caughie pointed out, in his book Television Drama: Realism, Modernism and British Culture, the National is an issue in teaching television drama and potentially a problem. His discussion then, in 2000 was more concerned with form and style than simple questions of origin. Not that these are simple questions once they lead to identity.
At this stage it is tempting to reach for the tried and tested in both affirming why British TV Drama matters and in citing programme examples to prove that it does. In policy discussions and indeed policy documents, this has frequently been distilled down to ‘telling our stories’. A notion that it is important to have a national popular culture in order to keep history and current issues alive in public discourse. (Clearly, the latter has also been the function of the press and news media and indeed films.) The assumption being that other nations cannot perform this function adequately even if they are discussing subjects from that nation or indeed adapting its literature. This starts with a notion of the Mary Poppinsation of London, just simply getting the surface details wrong, but might progress to not actually discussing anything too troubling or too directly related to national knowledge, politics or history. Co-production is also seen to be problematic in this area, the need to serve two or more national audiences, leading to some reduction in national detail. But, for British public broadcasters transmitting national and regional culture remains part of their charter requirements.
In terms of programme examples, it is very tempting to reach for the glories of the past, a common trope in nationalism! One might construct a TV Drama module which started with Armchair Theatre, progressed to Potter and Bleasdale and thence to Sally Wainwright and more recent drama and other writers. For this piece I’d like to consider broadcast British dramas in the roughly the last 9 months. This might give a clearer picture of what is being produced and broadcast now that might live up to the claim of either ‘good’ television’ or ‘serious drama’ in Caughie’s terms.
Daytime TV Drama is a field only recently considered and not yet at great length. Early in the New Year Shakespeare and Hathaway (BBC, 2018 -) was transmitted by BBC 1 in the lunchtime slot.
Dutch trailer for Shakespeare and Hathaway, proving that it has been exported. N.B. BBC First is a subscription, entertainment channel available in Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and a number of European countries.
At first sight it might be assumed to be a programme built for export, trading as it did on Shakespearian themes and being shot on location in Stratford on Avon. So, at a very straightforward level it might seem to embody Britishness. But, I want to suggest that there are several further layers in terms of its representation. Firstly, for some viewers the identification would be less the whole U.K., and rather the West Midlands region. This is certainly true for me as a viewer having grown up some 25 miles away. The locations, the North Warwickshire accent and indeed the intonation and stress patterns for some characters are instantly recognisable. (The difference between a Birmingham (‘Brummie’) accent and North Warwickshire, indeed much of the West Midlands, is often elided in drama, but would be clear to some viewers with connections to the region.) Secondly, we might consider the casting. As ever, in the relatively small world of British TV Drama, key players, and minor parts, are recognisable and spark off immediate intertextual references. In this case the two leads characters lead back to Soaps and popular dramas – Mark Benton and Jo Joyner. The inclusion of several guests also creates other links within TV dramas – for example Timothy West and Vicky Pepperdine. At another level of interest, the drama is also part of a regional revival of TV drama, especially in the daytime slot. So, there is also a link between this and mainstream drama output leading to comparisons of budget and aesthetics amongst other issues. What I am suggesting here is that the range of references that the programme transmits is more complex than simply a link to Stratford and Shakespeare and by implication needs to be rooted in a British TV Drama context for this to be possible. This is not to deny the pleasures and indeed revelations that might be produced in any other TV drama production system. Beyond this lies links to theatre, literature and film which any TV drama might draw upon directly or indirectly. The more obvious of these links would be adaptations from literature. The most recent example of this, Vanity Fair (Mammoth Screen for ITV/Amazon, 2018) demonstrates some of the intertextual possibilities, casting and previous adaptations for example, whilst also giving some commentary on relations with Europe and destructive nationalism. But, as one might expect in modern drama production, its production and funding matrix is more complicated. Co-produced with Amazon it is actually a PSB/commercial co-production and A U.S./U.K one. Just as a historical note here, one of the dramas one might put forward as the epitome of ‘serious’ British TV Drama – Edge of Darkness (BBC/Lionheart International for BBC, 1985) is itself a U.K./U.S co-production so there is nothing very new in this phenomenon.
When I taught a British TV Drama module, I would invite students to interrogate each word in the title. How do we define British? How might television now be defined? What is drama? Each of the terms is fraught with a variety of definitions and complexities. But, to just consider Britishness how might this be defined? One way that tax policy does this is to consider the cultural and economic elements of the TV Drama. Tax relief is available on ‘High End TV Drama’. This is defined as having a budget of more than £1 million per hour episode. (see https://www.bfi.org.uk/film-industry/british-certification-tax-relief/cultural-test-high-end-television/summary-points-cultural-test-high-end-television for details of the points awarded.) To qualify a drama has to achieve at least 18 out of the possible 35 points. Some of the categories might be considered to have both an economic and a cultural policy element. For example, setting or lead characters. It’s clearly a fairly blunt instrument for testing the national character of a drama, but a quick one. One suspects that the vast majority of British TV Drama would qualify.
One problem here is that many dramas have a notional U.K. setting and subject matter, but perhaps make little comment upon it. So for the two Welsh dramas this year, Keeping Faith (Vox Pictures/Acorn Media for BBC, 2018 -) and Hidden (Severn Screen/S4C for BBC, 2018), the setting was established by the representation of the landscape, especially the coastline in Keeping Faith, but little direct link was made with Welsh issues or local politics. Both dramas raised many other subjects, but the sense that they were located in non-metropolitan U.K. was strong. How far either interrogated Welshness or the state of Wales is open to further discussion, but I could find little comment on this in either. Perhaps, had I watched Keeping Faith in its original Welsh language version, Un Bore Mercher, that connection would have felt stronger. Other recent dramas have been set abroad – The Cry (Sychronicity Films for BBC, 2018) largely in Australia and Strangers (Two Brother Picures for ITV, 2018) in Hong Kong. Both make use of British characters and indeed well-known actors – John Simm and Emilia Fox in Strangers and Jenna Coleman in The Cry. But neither makes more than a passing link between Britain’s colonial past and current events. This was particularly disappointing in Strangers where there was a real opportunity to discuss current politics in Hong Kong.
Trailer for Hidden
Clip from Un Bore Mercher (Keeping Faith)
Trailer for The Cry
Trailer for Strangers
So, what of the future for British TV drama and why does this matter? In 2015, Russell T. Davis rejected the HBO model for the BBC and the future of U.K. broadcasting. ‘”People say that we should have HBO, the finest broadcaster in the world… It gives you nothing,” he explained. ‘We are being led to a subscriber service, which you are being told is marvellous and it’s a lie. A couple of hours of good dramas a week and nothing else. That, in ten years’ time is what they will demand the BBC becomes and it is a disgrace.‘
It was relief to finally hear someone say publicly what many of us had thought and said in private for some years. Might it now be time to say that the Netflix or Amazon models are also not the answer for British TV Drama in particular and British television in general? We need a much more informed discussion on the future of U.K. television that avoids both the superlatives of marketing campaigns and the potential smugness of P.S.B.s. It is perhaps worth noting both that the ratings system is only just catching up with online and linear TV viewing – see BARB’s relatively recent Dovetail Project. Also, that a University context of discussion tends to slightly skew the importance of online viewing given that this is free or cheaper for students than paying the licence fee. It’s also worth noting that roughly 50% of 18-21year olds are not engaged in Higher Education, so not necessarily making the same decisions, and that this age group is a small demographic in terms of total potential audience.
I remain baffled by why the origin of TV drama remains so important to me. Perhaps the need to concentrate my viewing in one area has led to this. The sheer volume of production, probably aided by the tax relief system, made it a necessity. Volume does not ensure ‘quality’, however one may define this beyond personal taste in TV Drama. It is a commonplace to assume that there is less innovation in contemporary British TV Drama than in the past. This remains difficult to define and therefore to measure. Certainly, one can detect the prevalence of certain genres and indeed models for those genres. First and foremost Crime Drama. (Though worth remembering here that as long ago as 1998 Charlotte Brunsdon noted in a Screen article complaints about the ubiquity of the genre.) Audiences may well be happier with less innovative dramas and with recognisable genre formats. Without entering into a detailed discussion of Bodyguard (World Productions for BBC, 2018-) – this year’s big ratings success in British TV Drama – many have stated that it trod a well-worn narrative path for some of its early episodes.
It may be that the national culture/regional culture role of television is more fully carried out by situation comedy, panel shows, daytime TV and news rather than drama. And this is something that Netflix, Amazon and others will not provide. But, in essence placing your well-developed national, popular culture in the hands of a U.S. multi-national might not be wise, in my opinion. One need simply look at the film industry to see how this has played out across the globe.
Tom Nicholls has recently retired after 35 years working in Education. Initially trained as a Photographer at Birmingham School of Photography his teaching and research interests gradually migrated to moving image critical theory over the last twenty five years, teaching Film Studies and specialising in Television Studies more recently.