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Monday, 30 September 2019

Opinion: Why BBC drama is failing to resonate in 2019



Below is a list of all the BBC dramas to air so far this year.
  • World on Fire
  • Peaky Blinders
  • The Capture
  • Keeping Faith
  • Dark Mon£y
  • Gentleman Jack
  • Years & Years
  • The Victim
  • Summer of Rockets
  • MotherFatherSon
  • Line Of Duty
  • Trust Me
  • Baptiste 
  • Shetland
  • Silent Witness
  • Death in Paradise
I'm confident I've not missed one. (Waits for a smart arse to point out a glaring omission.)  IF I have missed one, it's probably because, like the majority of shows above, it's likely because it was utterly forgettable. I appreciate there are a few months of 2019 to go, but so far this year I haven't LOVED a BBC drama at all. This is a real oddity for me. When I started running the site over a decade ago I did so because I wanted the champion the brilliance made by British broadcasters that I felt was overlooked or taken for granted. So, what has happened?

In my opinion, the BBC has lost itself a little. As recently as last year I was still singing the praises of the Beeb's drama output.  Ordeal by Innocence, A Very English Scandal, Mother's Day. The Cry, and Bodyguard all made our Best of the Year last year. A slight spoiler for this year's list - there are currently no entries from the BBC's drama department. If we ignore the returning hits like Silent Witness, Death in Paradise, Peaky Blinders and Line of Duty and the brand new WW2 drama World on Fire (I haven't seen enough to judge it fairly)  I believe there's a fundamental problem that all of the new dramas have suffered from - they're all too BIG. The reason I loved BBC drama so much is that it told human, relateable stories, with characters that felt so true to life it was entirely possible you could bump into on the street. This year's offerings may tell important and BIG stories, but I'd argue that they've forgotten the importance of character. Let's take The Capture, the BBC's first BIG autumn show. It shares a lot of DNA with Bodyguard. It looks expensive, it's tense and twisty, but the characters feel so hollow and empty it's hard to care what happens to them. I don't expect every drama to hit me emotionally, Bodyguard was a frustrating show, but the characters felt genuine.


I can already hear people screaming at me, "what about Years and Years Luke?" Russell T Davies's futuristic family drama didn't strike a chord with me either. I admired the ambition behind it but, ultimately it felt like a platform for Davies to tackle as many social issues as he could. I completely understand why it found the devoted fanbase but for me, it felt more like an experiment than a cohesive drama. As Alan Sepinwall, Rolling Stone's TV Critic put it, "the characters all feel thin beyond those strong performances. Their various problems — Stephen going broke, Viktor being deported to his increasingly dangerous and homophobic native country, Rosie’s lower-class neighbourhood being subject to draconian new ordinances — are meant to put a human face on the political issues Davies is dramatizing. But other than the Danny/Viktor romance they have the opposite of the intended effect. Stephen’s bankruptcy is presented in such a weirdly specific way — he never moves his money until the morning, he explains to his dismayed wife Celeste (T’Nia Miller), which is why he left the entire proceeds from the sale of their home in one account just before that bank collapsed overnight — that it reduces a global financial calamity to a stubborn mistake made by a smug idiot."


Another one I should have liked was Sally Wainwright's, Gentleman Jack. I've loved Sally's writing since At Home With the Braithwaites, and I consider Happy Valley as one of the best dramas the BBC has ever produced. Happy Valley is the perfect BBC drama. It feels unmistakably British. The characters are real people, speak like real people and they are full of empathy. It's a true masterpiece and the best example of what the BBC is capable of. I went into Gentleman Jack with a degree of trepidation anyway - period dramas aren't my favourite genre, but I had bigger with issues with the show. I felt the central performance from Surrane Jones was too big and out of step with the rest of the cast. This was presumably done to demonstrate how larger than life Anne Lister was, but Jones' performance felt oddly out of place. Years and Years and Gentleman Jack weren't bad by any means, they're examples of risktaking, and as a fan of TV drama, I'm all for drama that pushes the boundaries.

Though not to my taste, I had to admire both Gentleman Jack and Years and Years as they tried to do something new, I would argue the rest of the shows on the list showcase a bigger problem across the BBC's drama output. I think a lot of the problem lies with the rise of the streamers and the success of Bodyguard overseas. Every drama seems to be made with the idea of selling it abroad. This might explain why they seem to be moving away from the human stories about contemporary Britain in favour of those can be sold overseas to big US broadcaster or streaming service.

Take BBC2's Mother-FatherSon. I stuck with the series for far too long willing it to become something interesting. It bolstered an impressive cast including Sarah Lancashire, Helen McCrory and a compelling central performance from Billy Howle. It was an odd show, all over the place tonally and ultimately one I wished I hadn't devoted time to. It was shown in the US to little fanfare. It didn't feel like a BBC show and I would argue that's the problem - BBC drama has lost its identity as it attempts to make BIG shows.


Dark Mon£y was another show that felt odd. The story of a young actor who is sexually abused by a director whilst working away in America and the aftermath for his family once they accept a cash settlement. Though the story is worryingly relevant, it felt out of place. I'm all for dramas that shine a light on the difficult social issues. 2017's Three Girls was one of the best examples of this in recent memory, Dark Mon£y suffered from the same issues as the rest of the BBC output this year. The characters didn't feel believable. I would also argue that with the exception of Years and Years and Gentleman Jack all of the BBC's dramas so far this year have been devoid of humour. Whatever you consider to be the best dramas of the last ten years or so, I bet you love them because you felt connected to the characters and because they made you laugh! For all the darkness that surrounds Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley, Sally Wainwright's script is also full of funny one-liners and often laugh out moments. The same can be said of the true greats like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, however dark they get, they never forget the importance of humour. 

The best recent example of a hard-hitting drama that makes you laugh whilst also taking big emotional swings also happens to be the best show on television at the moment - HBO's Succession. The story of the Roy family, the show never shies away from the darker aspects of their lives. Those who criticize Succession often say "they're all terrible people!" and it's true! They may be terrible, but they're so fleshed out and feel so real it's impossible not to feel sympathy for them when things do take a turn for the worse.  The world the characters inhabit in Succession, one of excess wealth and privilege is sadly utterly foreign to me, but I don't question it because Jessie Armstrong and his team of writers have created such an authentic and 'rich' world. It's a show that made me laugh out loud on countless occasions and is proof that the British haven't lost this ability - it's just that the shows aren't airing on BBC.

So, what's the point of this piece? Is it just me using my platform to moan? No, actually. I've written this because I really care about British drama and I'm worried about the direction the BBC is going in. My two favourite British made dramas of the year, The Virtues and Chernobyl were both incredibly emotional and engrossing and they both felt like pieces the BBC would have made in years gone by. Whilst I'm focused on the BBC, it's fair to say ITV is fairing no better. Their dramas have the opposite problem.  The majority feel like relics of a time gone by and lack any originality.  I'm well aware that we still have October, November and December to go and that is more than enough time for BBC to win me over - I just hope it does.

I'd be genuinely interested to know whether you agree with any/all of my argument here. Let me know by commenting below or by tweeting @LukeCustardTV.

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