While improvised or unscripted television has been a feature of media industries for decades, most such series are either comedy or reality television. Suspects (Channel 5, 2014-2016), on the other hand, was an unscripted crime drama featuring improvised dialogue. For those unfamiliar with the series, Suspects follows a group of officers from an unspecified London CID. These include DS Jack Weston (Damien Molony), DC Charlie Steele (Clare-Hope Ashitey) and their DI Martha Bellamy (Fay Ripley) across a variety of cases; series five, the only one to feature a serialised storyline for the entire series, introduced DCI Daniel Drummond (James Murray) and DS Alisha Brooks (Lenora Crichlow) who help investigate DI Bellamy’s murder. Though each episode is built around a detailed plotline,[1] the dialogue is improvised by the cast. The plotlines themselves are fairly common to crime drama and, while several of them could easily be discussed in blogs or papers in and of themselves, for this particular blog I want to focus on the premise of an unscripted crime drama in the context of the oft-debated concept of media authorship.

To say that authorship is complicated is to severely understate the impact of Barthes, Foucault and the overall turn to the audience in contemporary media studies. While production teams are collaborative with regard to creating the preferred reading of a text, the ‘author’ is a discursive construct often transposed into the auteur/showrunner (Weissmann, 2012) which gives quality television drama Bourdieusian distinction. I would argue that the promotion of Suspects as both innovative and unscripted (Collins, 2014; Bell, 2015) does itself function as a form of distinction, arguably appropriating or subverting the lack of cultural capital granted to unscripted ‘reality’ television. But this seeming absence of a singular ‘author’ does still bring up issues of authorship, particularly with regard to how the series is constructed. Both Kotthoff (2007) and Landert (2021) note the importance of co-creation with an audience in constructing and communicating improvised comedy, with Kotthoff explicitly noting that playing with generic knowledge is key to such communication. But both authors study live, interactive comedy (Kotthoff in the context of conversation, and Landert in the context of theatre) rather than an unscripted television drama shown to an audience much later. Thus to examine authorship in this context, it is necessary to wander a bit further afield into oral-formulaic theory.[2]

In lay speech, a text is often called ‘formulaic’ when what is meant is that the text is predictable. The term also has connotations of being boring or uninteresting. Parry and Lord’s (1960) work, however, looks at formulae in the context of oral history. To oversimplify, they argue that orally transmitted history, particularly epic poetry like Homer, is built around familiar components which are then combined according to generic and/or cultural conventions so that verse can be created rapidly, arguably in real-time. Their work is still debated, and questions of how much, if at all, formulaism correlates with oral composition remain open (Sale 2001; Finkelberg 2004). Here formulaism does present a useful framework for an unscripted drama from a well-known genre like a crime drama. Because these components are (generically/culturally) conventional, they are then recognisable and intelligible to the audience.

Parry and Lord’s work, however, tends to focus upon either individual composition or composition over multiple generations with limited written sources. Suspects, like all media, is collaborative. To understand how a collaboration can create a coherent story including improvised dialogue, theory relating to jazz composition is particularly useful.

When jazz musicians play together they have at their disposal verbal communication, non-verbal communication (e.g. eye contact, aural cues and body language) and musical communication. These modes of communication operate during rehearsal and performance and can be influenced by the group’s shared social and musical experiences (Seddon, 2005: 47).

The connection to social and musical experiences, then, connects to discourse and genre. In this instance, the ‘musical’ experiences would be analogous to experiences of crime drama and/or British crime drama, with the positioning of either or both within the wider cultural/transnational context. That Jack is Irish also plays in, though the roguish Irish or Irish-American cop is not an uncommon trope in transnational crime drama (Ramshaw, 2012). This would also fulfil generic expectations but Jack’s Irishness is not explicit engaged with in any of the episodes.[3] Thus, like the audiences for improvised jazz or a rhapsode’s epic poetry, the audience for Suspects recognise the various tropes of a police procedural and are able to follow the narrative without disruption. Additionally, as Givan (2016) notes about improvisational jazz amongst the musicians, such improvisation can be dialogic, with the tropes needing to be recognisable to the other members of the band or, in this case, the production team. That is another limit to innovation within expression as well as the overall improvisation.

None of this is meant to imply that Suspects is a bad or boring series – I quite enjoy it – nor is it meant to take anything away from the creativity and skill of the production team. But the series being unscripted flags up many aspects of media authorship as well as that of genre and quality. The series is formulaic but that is at least in part because the dialogue is improvised. In order for the plotline to be first communicated to the actors and for the actors to then create dialogue to communicate that plotline to the audience, they need to utilise these formulae to communicate with each other during production as well as to communicate the narrative and characterisations to the audience in the televised text. Like the most skilled jazz performers and rhapsodes, they craft what they have culturally and generically available into something new enough for the audience to find engaging but not so far from expectations that the audience lose the plot. Suspects shows that meaning is made by a combination of factors, including the production team, the genre, paratexts, industrial contexts and the audience. In this case, as far as authoring the text is concerned, Suspects reveals that we all did it together.


Dr Melissa Beattie is a recovering Classicist who was awarded a PhD in Theatre, Film and TV Studies from Aberystwyth University where she studied Torchwood and national identity through fan/audience research as well as textual analysis. She has published and presented several papers relating to transnational television, audience research and/or national identity. She is currently an adjunct with Southern New Hampshire University and is under contract with Lexington for an academic book on fictitious countries.  She has previously worked at universities in the US, Korea, Pakistan, Armenia, Ethiopia and for a brief time in Cambodia.  She can be contacted at tritogeneia@aol.com . Her ORCiD: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1466-8338.



[1]     ‘…its cast work not from a traditional script, but a detailed story document …’ (Jeffery 2014, n.pag).

[2]     Also sometimes called the ‘Parry-Lord theory.’

[3]     One can perhaps read this as part of Conway’s (2013) paradox of saleable diversity, in that engaging overmuch with the complexities of Anglo-Irish history and culture could be viewed as potentially detrimental to domestic and/or transnational sales.



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