The Second Golden Age Of TV Drama

“The common denominator in all ‘nat’ plays is that they tell a story by means of dialogue. Naturalism deals with people’s verbal relationships with each other. When it deals with people’s personal relationships with God, or with nature, or with themselves it does so by refraction through some dialogue style. When it deals with any of the abstracts – fear, impotence, hunger, hate, love or hope – it does so indirectly through symbols or again through dialogue with other people – wife, colleague, or even a stranger. Often these relationships become so strong that they overwhelm the original theme.”

I didn’t write that although I could have. It actually comes from Troy Kennedy Martin’s 1964 article ‘Nats Go Home: a first statement of a new drama for television’ published in the theatre journal, Encore. In this article Kennedy Martin argued that British television drama had got trapped into a sort of pseudo realism that he calls ‘naturalism’ and that this all pervasive style was stifling the creative and commercial potential in British TV Drama.

In 2004, on the 40th anniversary of Kennedy-Martin’s article, I wrote an article for the Directors Guild magazine, DIRECT, entitled, ”Realism: The Curse Of British TV Drama”, in which I bemoaned the ‘soapy’ stylistic conservatism that had dominated UK TV drama for over a decade, and which had resulted in all TV drama looking and feeling like everything else.

15 years on and I’m delighted to say that I couldn’t make the same complaint today! The diversity of TV drama in 2018 was unimaginable in 2004. This second Golden Era has been driven by international Video On Demand publishers such as HBO, Netflix and Amazon but their success has forced UK broadcasters to respond and the quantity and range of TV drama being commissioned in the UK rivals that of the 60’s and 70’s.

The first Golden Age of TV drama is usually defined as 1960-1980. During these years TV drama was being invented and anything was possible. There was the socially important social realism of Ken Loach et al but there was also the genre-inspired stylistic audacity of shows such as Robin Hood, William Tell, The Champions, The Persuaders, The Prisoner, Dangerman, The Saint, Randall & Hopkirk Deceased, Blake’s Seven and Dr Who; shows which were immensely popular and yet full of visual flair and fun.

Then as TV became a ‘mature industry’ and that first post war generation of producers took management control they thought they had defined what TV drama was once and for all and for twenty years we settled into an era of bland realism. Genre and high concept were out and a sort of ’soapy’ relationship melodrama was in. There were exceptions

Then, thank God, HBO’s The Sopranos broke out of its high-end, subscription service niche and suddenly everything and anything was possible again. The Sopranos was simultaneously funny and dramatic, violent and charming, heartfelt and thrilling. The hero was a violent gangster and the show was morally ambivalent on steroids! In the UK it was Life On Mars that changed everything. A Sci-Fi psychological thriller that riffed on the 70’s cop show. WTF!? How could that be in the era of Heartbeat, Peak Practice and Home Is Where The Heart Is!?

Suddenly the writer was once more at the heart of great TV. The era of the corporate managerial producer was at last being challenged.

We mustn’t get too excited of course because the TV cop show is still the most popular and most commissioned genre in the UK. Luther, Line Of Duty, Bodyguard, Broadchurch, No Offence, even Killing Eve, are basically just cop shows. Fabulous cop shows but cop shows nonetheless. Plus shows like Poldark, Vanity Fair and The Woman In White could have been made by the BBC any time in the last 30 years… and in fact they were!. And finally of course the most internationally successful British show in 20 years, Downton Abbey, is about as conservative as you can get – both politically and stylistically and with both a lower and uppercase C.

Nonetheless, shows like Sherlock, Last Kingdom, Hard Sun, Requiem, Taboo, Peaky Blinders, Utopia, Humans, The City & The City, Black Mirror, Fleabag and The Handmaid’s Tale, to name but just a few of my favourites, are all shows that would have been unpitchable in 2004.

Everything that gets commissioned in this new era isn’t brilliant (i.e. Discovery Of Witches… Ouch…) but compared to 2004 the miracle is that it gets commissioned at all. May this second golden age long continue. At the moment TV drama can be anything we want it to be.

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