In the February of 2009 there was a feature article in The Independent about the current state of television drama. It said we were currently living through ‘a new golden age’ of TV fiction, but this was being helmed by the USA rather than Britain. We have, as the article suggested, fallen behind.
At the time, I agreed with the sentiment, sad though it was. Our channels were full of shows such as Damages, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, the various incarnations of CSI and Law & Order, House, The Wire and many other quality pleasures. The boxsets of these dramas line the shelves of my room around me as I type this. But three years on from 2009, I believe British drama is now going through a new renaissance. We have entered a golden age of excellent, British made programming, and it’s causing me to add even more boxsets to my already ridiculously large collection. For the first time in quite a while, the majority of television drama I consume, whether it be through recording, on demand services, or DVD and blu-ray collections, is home-grown rather than imported.
2012 has offered up some simply wonderful British dramatic offerings. The most exciting development in the TV woods is BSkyB’s commitment to original British drama. Their big new series Hit & Miss (pictured above and left) is currently airing on their exclusive drama channel Sky Atlantic HD. It stars Chloë Sevigny as a pre-op transsexual contract killer who discovers she has a son. Sky always make sure their original commissions are a feast for those with high definition subscriptions, so Hit & Miss has been deliberately crafted and photographed to look tremendous. The story is very compelling; something that probably comes down to Sky’s smart move to fund a drama created by TV veteran Paul Abbot (writer of Cracker and creator of Shameless). This series is just one in a growing archive of interesting and vibrant new drama offerings Sky have brought to British audiences, with other recent efforts including Martina Cole adaptations The Take and The Runaway, two series of Mark Billingham’s cop show Thorne, and the cosy Sunday-night comedy drama Starlings.
Although Sky seem to be doing great things when it comes to new British television drama, this isn’t to say the other channels aren’t also working magic with their schedules. The BBC, which was once, in my view, the world-leader when it came to quality drama, has had some recent successes with the second series of Sherlock and Abi Morgan’s two-part drama Birdsong, adapted from Sebastian Faulks’s novel. Both of these have been co-productions with American broadcasters (Sherlock with Masterpiece, and Birdsong with Masterpiece and NBCUniversal). The series that really captured my attention, however, was White Heat (pictured right), a purely British production (a collaboration between rival companies ITV and BBC). It was an original series written by Paula Milne and followed the lives of a group of students who shared a house together in the 1960s. It was beautifully done; touching without being overly sentimental, and dramatic without descending into melodrama.
I am also currently addicted to another BBC series: the legal drama Silk (pictured left). It’s currently on series two (after a good, but occasionally patchy first season last year). This second run has ironed out the creases and turned the show into a nail-bitingly tense, highly intelligent character drama, driven by two magnificently watchable actors (Maxine Peake and Rupert Penry-Jones).
ITV and Channel 4 are also bringing out some big guns, with the former relying on familiarity and comfort (Downton Abbey, pictured right, and Scott & Bailey), whereas the latter has, over the last year, made some edgier, more topical stuff such as Random, Black Mirror, The Promise and Top Boy.
Britain doesn’t usually go in for the general American format of 22-24 episode seasons. The money isn’t there for such endeavours. But I think this is something worth celebrating. Series such as House and Law & Order were once breathlessly compelling. Now they have grown dull and repetitive. Thankfully, in Britain, audiences usually get six episodes if they’re lucky, and in my view quality should always come before quantity. Instead of cookie-cutter shaped episodes, our dramas have the ability to evolve and develop in ways that would not be possible if we kept to such rigid series-length regimes. The recent explosion of superb stories and fascinating ideas has reignited my passion for television drama produced this side of the Atlantic. I can’t wait to see what the Autumn schedules have to offer.