Oooohhh… BBC One’s Line of Duty (2012-2021 maybe sort of) was a bit good wasn’t it? Wasn’t that captivating television? And, even better, turn over to BBC Four at the end and you can enjoy its spiritual predecessor Between the Lines (1992-1994) and appreciate how far the humble long, thin, narrow mark has come on television across the last few decades. A schedule more crammed with lines than any other.
Oh, and, aside from the geometry aspect, the common theme of police corruption’s rather good too.
While I’m rather saddened by the thought of cost savings inhibiting new programming for BBC Four, I am delighted to some extent that the gap is being plugged in part by making some excellent archival television available to the free-to-air audience. And this was a smart bit of scheduling – identifying a current form of potent popularity and packaging it with its ancestral antecedent that provided similarly engrossing entertainment to the previous generation of viewers.
And yet, as we revisit the older thing that’s meant to be similar to the newer thing, we see that they are in fact rather different in approach. Between the Lines was a drama series of generally self-contained weekly episodes but also with ongoing character narratives plus a main strand that would ferment and mature by the season finale. Line of Duty took the same basic notion of constabulary corruption and turned it into far more of a conspiracy thriller. CIB and AC12 both being incredibly effective entertainment – but in rather different modes.
Nevertheless, you can see how the links are made. It’s a similar notion, repackaged for a new generation.
My thoughts on this were actually prompted by John Ritchie’s terrific televisual ponderings in his piece And Another Thing… in which he related how he and MDBJ  had been revisiting Hustle (2004-2012), the highly stylish and imaginative BBC/Kudos series concerning a group of confidence tricksters – a little team that effectively formed a family unit of various skills which they would use to take down an affluent mark – a mildly pantomime villain of the week whom we’re quickly shown at the start of each caper is ripe for plucking because not only have they embezzled millions from charitable care homes but they’re also unnecessarily rude to hotel receptionists and bump into elderly little ladies burdened with packages and don’t even say “sorry”. It’s an awful lot of fun…
… and indeed, very, very similar to the sort of fun and sort of capers and sort of marks identified by the Fleming/St Clair family around whom the NBC/Four Star venture The Rogues (1964-1965) was so wonderfully constructed several television generations ago. You should really give it a go. Talking Pictures are showing them at 5am on Tuesday mornings, and they really are rather wonderful. I think that there may even have been a barquentine in one episode. Anyway, it’s tonally and spiritually very similar to Hustle. Only for Robert Vaughn, substitute David Niven  – let’s face it, two of the coolest dudes ever to walk the planet.
It’s so odd to realise that you’re suddenly watching something that’s reminiscent of something else plucked from the Radio Times pages of your parents’ generation or even your parents’ parents’ generation. We were amazed to suddenly realise that two high enjoyable sitcoms – All Gas and Gaiters (1966-1971) and Father Ted (1995-1998) were both focused on small communities comprising three religious figures – a lazy focal character who wants money and an easy life with the minimum effort towards religious devotion, a young idiot often with a slender grasp on the situation, and an older colleague whose prime interest in life was alcohol. In each show, the trio have to deal with situations either of misfortune, their own making through misdeeds, or inflicted by a senior church figure who cast a shadow of terror across their cosy lives, be it at St Oggs’ Cathedral or at the Craggy Island Parochial House. Both hilarious, both smart, both brilliant. Yet tonally different.
But of course, this isn’t to say that series are directly taking what’s gone before and retooling it for a new generation. These are all just highly effective ideas for television entertainment: police corruption, good-hearted con-artists, hapless agents of religion. They will naturally resurface on a cyclic basis. At no time is Father Ted Crilly lessened by the existence of Bishop Cuthbert Hever. And – just to make abundantly clear on a legal basis – at no time do I believe that the creators of the latter series would have intentionally drawn upon the work of any predecessors. They were all massively clever people coming up with their own stuff.
So, sometimes these generational patterns are there, and sometimes they aren’t. And the tropes reappear on different levels. I recall in
2013 when the UK was in a fervour about who had killed Danny Latimer as the first season climax of Broadchurch (2013-2017) loomed in the schedules, its creator and main writer Chris Chibnall was interviewed on a daytime radio show where a young, enthusiastic host credited him with creating something entirely new on television: a compelling, character driven drama-thriller serial that had captured the nation’s attention and was receiving critical plaudits. And Chris, bless him, said, no, thank you, that’s very kind, but, no, I didn’t, really didn’t, I’m just channelling what people like Troy Kennedy Martin did with serials like Edge of Darkness (1985) that excited me when I watched in my formative years. Only Chris didn’t say 1985 in brackets because he was talking on a wireless broadcast and not writing a semi-academic blog where he needed to chronologically contextualise everything.
So, the influences can be there – but sometimes the creatives concerned don’t even realise that they’re the influencee. Many years ago, one of the very few interviews I conducted was with writer ███████████ ███████ and I asked them: “Was your desire to pay homage of ██████████ ███ ███ ███ the starting point for █████ ██ ███ ███████?” To which their response was (effectively): “Oh hump! It is, isn’t it? The █████, the █████████, the ███████ element…”
It was this interview that made me realise that maybe I wasn’t very good at conducting interviews and, really, I should stop doing them. Which I sort of did.
And the other thing that I’ve been pondering about stopping doing recently is revisiting the same old stuff. Just because I have written about a specific theme or series before and it would be easy to do so again, should I do so? And that’s kind of tricky at times.
On a couple of occasions over the last month or so, I’ve turned down a writing project because I feel that I’m simply going to regurgitate whatever it was I wrote about the series in question ████ years ago. Heating up left-overs? That’s bad for me as a writer because I get bored and lazy, bad for whoever commissions me because they’re spending money on something that’s probably less original or innovative than they’d like, and certainly bad for the ultimate audience who may detect the beyond best-before-date of something that they may have paid for twice. So, we’re agreed – that’s bad. Like Gargamel. In one case, I suggested to the editor an alternative writer who can bring a fresh new perspective on old subject matter, and in the other the editor agreed on a different subject for me which has turned out to be both engaging and stimulating.
So, we’ve demonstrated that just because a basic idea has appeared on television before, there’s nothing to stop it being revived for a new generation. But do I need to revive stuff I’ve done before for a new generation?
Hang on – is it ‘generation’ I mean here? Or audience? Because, there are different audiences. Different catchments. Recently, I did revisit an earlier piece of work and put a different slant on it. The crux of the piece was how the cancellation of Series A gave birth to Series B; it had been written originally about Series B. Now, Series A and B are actually quite different and attract different audiences. So, when called upon to write something about Series A, I found that I did seem to be valid in taking the same crux and rewriting it, this time to shift the focus away from Series B to Series A. And that worked. People seemed happy with it.
So, maybe what it’s about is writing something new for a specific audience. There are things that I would place here, for the CSTonline audience, that I’m not sure would fit elsewhere. And I’m also reminded of how, at times, there is, sadly, still this strong divide between academic and non-academic writing. A few years ago, my wife and I were at an academic conference where somebody discussed with us how they believed there was a link between fan cultures and ██████ and we said: “Oh, yes, we agree totally. ████ ██████ did an article about that about ten years ago.” And they said: “Oh, which university is he with?” And we explained that the writer concerned wasn’t with any university at all and had published in a news-stand magazine. “Oh,” was the response, “Well, if he wasn’t an academic and it was a news-stand magazine, then that wouldn’t count…”
Now, we weren’t terribly certain about that. We were even less certain when the academic concerned than explained how they’d adopted a fake personality to join some fan message boards and conducted what sounded – even to us as non-academics – like totally unethical research that transformed unwitting devotees into lab rats. We suspected that we should inform on them to the academic equivalent of SIB or AC12, but also further suspected that these didn’t exist. Although they might make a good format for a series if anyone’s looking for a project to develop.
And for the sake of editorial balance, I’d also like to note – for the record – that we’ve also come across many non-academics who have been equally dismissive when notions they believed were original had previously appeared in academic works. Probably because, like me, they were frightened by the long words.
But – either side of the divide – they still count. It’s just that they were for different audiences. And what’s old turf to some may be fresh pastures to others.
So, maybe this isn’t about ideas recurring generationally, it’s about ideas for a new audience by some segmentation other than time; it’s a bit like a successful branding being franchised out to different global broadcasters like the myriad incarnations of Big Brother (1999-for hump’s sake, they can’t still me making these, surely?).
As such, I think – as with nostalgia – that I need to be very careful about what I’m writing and what audience it’s aimed at. Revamping and repackaging isn’t a healthy thing, particularly when it’s aimed at the same readers as last time – and even less so when it’s taking an opportunity away from somebody new with something fresh to say. But, yes, I can cover territory that’s maybe been covered before by myself or others if I think I’m bringing something new to the party. Or to a different party to the one I brought it to last time.
So, there we go then. Rest assured that I’ve said my piece and that you have my word of honour that you’ll never have to read it again.
Well, not here anyway.
Andrew Pixley is a retired data developer. For the last 30 years he’s written about almost anything to do with television if people will pay him – and occasionally when they won’t. Oh hump – I told you that before, didn’t I?!
 Well, you’ll just have to go and read his pieces then won’t you? Go on – they’ll do you the world of good.
 Yes, that’s right, a television series starring David Niven. Well, actually it’s a rotating lead show starring David Niven, Charles Boyer and Gig Young (plus Larry Hagman when Gig Young’s busy doing a film). So, if you do tune into Talking Pictures, don’t expect Niveny goodness every time will you?