Friday, 25 June 2010

Why Can't The BBC Do The Wire?

There was an interesting article about British TV drama in the FT a couple of weeks ago. The starting point was The Wire and why the BBC hasn't done anything like it. The article ended with an attempt to suggest that British TV drama was different-but-equal. Tosh.

What lifted The Wire clean above even The Shield, The West Wing and BtVS, was season four, that heartbreaking series about criminality and evil amongst school-children. These were children murdering and hiding the bodies in derelict houses, pouring lye over the corpses to help with the decomposition. Being children, they poured the lye over the clothes. They didn't quite get it. The series didn't flinch, didn't miss a detail and it didn't moralise once - it told the story. I can't remember a single moment of hope in all twenty-two episodes.

It took David Simon thirteen years of non-stop writing and producing to get there, with one hundred and fifty four episodes of Homicide: Life On The Street between 1993 and 1999, six episodes of The Corner in 2002 and sixty-six episodes of The Wire, before that awesome series four. No other writer in television history has had Simon's opportunities, and he has admitted as much in an interview. It's not that British TV can't do The Wire - no-one else could or did either.

What British TV should be able to do but can't, and Hollywood can and does, is The Shield and follow it with Sons of Anarchy, or BtVS and follow it with Angel. (And don't dare offer Dr Who and Torchwood) Why not? Well, are we looking for reasons or excuses? Lack of money is an excuse - if the British wanted to produce high-quality drama, they would find the money. God knows they find enough for football and celebrity presenters. The "theatrical tradition" is an excuse as well - the Americans only got this good at TV in the early 1990's. Both have had the same time since the invention of television to learn the art. The fact that British culture is run (if it is) by kidults to busy attending inclusiveness and marketing courses is an excuse as well. There are sensible people you can hire if you are prepared to pay. It's not a lack of talent either: the music scene is bursting with it and Hollywood moves and TV are packed with English actors who couldn't get jobs in the UK.

British TV produces not-quite-good-enough (or "flawed" if you're being polite) drama because the British simply are not serious about the job of writing, directing and producing drama. That's not unique to drama: the Special Forces and music aside, the British aren't really that serious about anything. They rely on the fact that the competition are just as... lackadaisical isn't the word, nor is shoddy... easily satisfied is probably it. On the creative side, the British are easily satisfied and on the managerial side they are just plain cheap. Which is why most British writers never do more than two drafts - they aren't being paid enough.

I suspect that most British writers and producers don't even read the books. Hollywood has three standard texts on screenwriting: McKee's Story, Syd Fields' Screenplay and Vogler's Writer's Journey. Everyone has read these, and even if they don't agree with what the authors say, the industry shares a common technical language. Do you know what a "beat" is? Entire British scripts can go by without a single one - and as for story arcs, in British scripts, fuggedaboutit. (One reason I love Local Hero, Dinner Rush and Groove is that they are packed with satisfying character arcs.)

It's more than just a lack of technique. It's as if there's something missing in the soul of many English writers: it feels like they don't really like or understand people. The Big Names who write for theatre admit they are all about the Ideas and the Politics as if that's a good thing. The British can make nasty, mean movies (Eden Lake, Kidulthood) but they can't make something as charming as Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist or Before Sunset. No. You just think they have. But they haven't. And costume dramas are cute, not charming.

The real question isn't why British television couldn't do The West Wing or The Wire. It's why the BBC can't even do Flashpoint or Blood Ties. If I was unlucky enough to be in charge of drama at the BBC, I swear I would cancel the lot and show a test card where Eastenders was supposed to be, until either I or someone else worked out how to tell engaging stories with characters the audience will identify with on the limited budgets at my disposal. And if I couldn't, I'd give the money back to the license-payers.

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