Tuesday 16 April 2013

The Wrong (United) State Of Mind.

I had so much planned this weekend. I was going to do all sorts around the house in preparation for an intense period of writing that inevitably will result in the whole place being a festering shit tip. However, what I actually managed to achieve was a couple of loads of washing and a trip to the Co-op with my coat on over my pyjamas. And that was because I made a fatal mistake. On Friday night, I watched the first episode of Sons of Anarchy; the US TV drama about a Californian Motorcycle Club.
The show is a pretty heady mix of motorbikes, snarling powerhouse performances, sex, drugs and violence. And once I’d watched one, I needed to watch more. Unfortunately, thanks to the wonders of a Lovefilm subscription and my Wii, I had the wherewithal to do just that. By Sunday evening, I was gasping and sobbing my way through the Season 2 finale. And I could have gone on to Season 3, but Monday morning and a trip to London prevented me.
By the way, I bought the Wii so I could get fit without leaving the house. Yeah, that happened.
Still, as I watched episode after episode, one question hung in the air. It’s something I believe every TV writer asks him/herself when watching something they really love that comes from across the pond.

Why aren’t we making shows like this in the UK?
Because we’re not. Don’t get me wrong, we make good TV in Great Britain. But seriously, are we making anything that inspires the loyalty, love and devotion that shows like Dexter, Friday Night Lights, True Blood, ER, Glee, Nashville, Southland, The Good Wife, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Buffy, The West Wing etc. do?  I’m quite sure you could add to that list but those are just my personal favourites.  They are the shows that get my series links and my hard earned box set money.
The US versus UK Television is a favourite topic of conversation wherever writers gather. As we huddle together over black coffee and simmering resentment, we wax lyrical about our favourite episodes and bemoan the lack of something similar on our home grown channels. The thing is we never quite get to the bottom of why UK TV does not compete. Is it just a question of money? Or is there something more fundamental at play? I don’t pretend to know the answers, but I feel the need to outline some theories and air some frustrations.
They’re not set in stone, I don’t have the answers and I welcome anyone who disagrees or has their own theories. So…
The Financial Theory. It’s the go-to excuse when producers and commissioners are quizzed about the gap between US and UK product. And it’s a fair cop. The Yanks are seemingly drowning in money. It’s worth noting that many of the shows on my list originated from pay-to-view channels like AMC, HBO and Showtime. They have subscribers who pay to get the best telly and the channels put that money up on the screen. In recent years, all this filthy lucre has lured big names into TV production. Steven Spielberg, Frank Darabont, Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony have all produced big budget beauties. It seems a shame that Ridley is producing telly in the States and not his native South Shields.  However, it’s worth noting that both Richard Curtis and the much-missed Anthony Minghella came back to the BBC after Hollywood success.
As for actors, the road between TV and Film is no longer a one way street. There’s no shame in going from box office to the box anymore. I should imagine that decent pay scales have something to do with that. And you can’t help but notice that much of the on-screen talent in those bid US series is British. Stephen Moyer, Hugh Laurie, Dominic West, Damien Lewis, Kevin McKidd have all dusted off their American accents and taken lead roles.
Of course, that’s not just about money but also the availability and quality of parts. Especially for black actors like David Harewood, Idris Elba, David Oyelowo and Marianne Jean-Baptiste who had to go Stateside to get lead roles outside of the Holby NHS or Albert Square. For God’s sake, the last thing that the impressive Colin Salmon did on British TV was Strictly Come Dancing! Something wrong here surely? And heaven help us if our female actors cotton on what is available over the pond, because there’s precious little for them to get their teeth into over here unless they like wearing bonnets.

So, we have the talent. It’s just all on the red-eye into LAX.

Meanwhile, here in the UK, there is no doubt that money is often too tight to mention. Smaller budgets and tighter schedules mean that corners are cut and goodwill is often abused to breaking point.  For a little while there, BSkyB was the big white hope with writers assuring each other that the commissioners at Sky 1, Living and Arts were chucking money about like it was going out of fashion. However, when they paid a few billion to secure the Premiership, F1 Racing and the cricket, it became clear where their priorities lay. They’re still showing top notch TV but they’re buying it in from HBO and banging it on their own Pay To View premium channel; Sky Atlantic.
And even when they were financing projects, can we really say that they have produced anything truly unmissable? I’ve enjoyed Strike Back, Stella and Mad Dogs but they haven’t inspired the same loyalty in me that just one episode of Battlestar Galactica or The Wire did.
However, I would also argue that constrained budgets have also produced some of the best British TV. It seems to bring out the gung-ho inventiveness in our best writers and producers. Let’s think about Misfits, Being Human, Skins and the recent In The Flesh. All mind-blowingly well-written, cult TV shows made on a shoestring. They looked great, unearthed new talent and inspired loyalty in their audience. Maybe UK writers and producers work better under the financial cosh?
Still, could they have maintained that quality over 13 episodes per series? That’s the other big, enviable difference between us and the States. And I mean enviable. How wonderful would it be to develop characters and slow burning, far reaching, arcing stories over that number of episodes? The very thought of it makes me salivate. And it works. US TV has produced some of the most interesting, multi-layered characters in that luxurious longer series format. Would we have a UK version of Don Draper, Stringer Bell or Nurse Jackie if we allowed our series to run on just a little?
Of course, the reason our American cousins can keep a series going for that length of time is because they use the far more sustainable Writers’ Room system.  Series stories are discussed, developed and planned by a committee of writers in an actual room whilst individual writers go away and write scripts for the episodes. The shows tap into both collective inspiration and individual flare.
Of course, it’s not true to say that we have completely eschewed this system in the UK. That’s pretty much what happens on most of the soaps in one form or another.
However, the majority of big ticket shows in the UK rely initially on one writer beavering away and coming up with both stories and scripts with sporadic input from producers and script editors. Other writers are called upon but they tend to work in isolation too. Indeed, I would suggest that the powers-that-be are seemingly terrified of putting us writers in a room together; it happens so very rarely. And yes, I’ve heard all the arguments from the big wigs about the cost of the system and the claims that it wouldn’t work in this country. And you know what I say? Bollocks.
There is something magical that happens when writers work together. Obviously once we’ve all drunk our own weight in coffee and bitched about the last episode of Doctor Who. Still, once that is out of the way, there is something about being in that unique atmosphere that emboldens and inspires. Ideas are prefaced with phrases like “This is probably a bit mad…” or “We definitely shouldn’t do this, but what if…”. And you know what? The ideas are a bit mad and we shouldn’t do them, but the collective whirring of brains finds a way to make it work. Those multiple “What if” moments don’t happen when you’re alone and desperate to fill your page. And maybe that’s why British TV so very rarely surprises me these days.

Maybe it’s time for the death of the author?

By the way, in my opinion,  the Writers’ Room system provides a clear career structure for writers instead of keeping them on tenterhooks as they go from job to job. It gives them the actual power. Like I said, maybe someone is scared of putting us in a room together.

However, there are also some (also in my opinion) insurmountable cultural and national differences between UK and US TV drama.

First of all, if I remember my geography correctly; America is quite big. So big that it is possible for big things to happen to small communities without it turning into national news. Sunnydale can have a 7 year vampire problem and then disappear into the ground without CNN sending in a news crew. The small town of Charming can be run by biker gangs and bent coppers without the Whitehouse sending in the National Guard. There is dangerous wilderness and huge tracks of land to get lost in for a lifetime. In the UK you’d struggle to be lost for a couple of days. It’s actually hard to make stories feel big and impactful in a UK setting.
In fact, here’s an exercise. Imagine a show about a comprehensive school’s soccer team. For five seasons you follow the ups and downs of the team members and their families. At the heart of the show is the PE Teacher, a man who inspires loyalty, love and honour in the boys at every team practise. Every match against other school teams feels like a fight for a better life, for something intangibly British and human.  Each episode leaves you heart broken and uplifted at the same time.
Yeah, doesn’t work. Does it? But it did on US TV in the critically acclaimed American Football drama Friday Night Lights.  Why can’t we transplant that brilliant show from Texas to Taunton? Is it that British love of self-deprecation that kicks it into touch every time? Do we have too much perspective? We know that a high school football game actually means very little in the scheme of things and we can’t pretend otherwise.

Look at how we write teenagers and young adults. American TV is awash with erudite, emotionally intense teen dramas; Glee, Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, Revenge etc. the Americans write young people as they see themselves; the centre of the entire  fucking universe. There is no sense of adult perspective. Of course when they fall in love, it will be forever. Of course winning a high school choir competition is the single most important thing that will ever happen to you. Of course, you can solve racism, sexism and homophobia with a heartfelt speech at the Prom. Meanwhile, in the UK, we write teenagers with a sneer, safe in the knowledge that the annoying little sods will get over it by listening to a One Direction CD in their bedrooms.
There is also something else that we can’t ignore; gun culture. I recently saw an interesting exchange on the IMDB page for Midsomer Murders. An overseas fan of the show was perplexed as to why the Midsomer constabulary are not armed. She pointed out the Inspector Barnaby and his DS were often sent into high risk situations; surely a firearm was in order? Now, I have written a few police dramas in my time and I have never felt the need to have any of my characters pull anything out of their pockets more dangerous than a police-issue notebook and pen. Still, it can’t be denied that US crime dramas are often solved with a shootout or a stand-off. There is no better way to raise the stakes than to write a deadly weapon into a scene.

And yet, that is one of things I definitely don’t want to change about British Telly. I don’t want The Doctor armed with anything beyond his Sonic Screwdriver. I think guns are often an easy out for a writer. The minute a suspect pulls a gun, the case if solved. S/he is the baddie and they are to be brought to justice, possibly with terminal force. I’d rather write deadly dialogue, even if that does mean I work a bit harder.
However, I would like us to adopt the American’s less po-faced attitude to criminality. For all the crime drama that this country produces, it is very rare that we make the most interesting characters the lead; the criminals. We’ve got every style of detective; old, young, clever, former Timelord, tropical, opera-loving, violin-playing former coke addicts. We work so bloody hard to make them, interesting; perhaps we could save ourselves a lot of work by looking at the really fascinating characters, the criminals themselves. But that still seems forbidden on UK TV. Sure we’ve had loveable rogues and the odd plastic East End gangster, but no long-running crime syndicates or off-the-grid outlaws. No Sopranos, Stringers or Sons of Anarchy.
And do you know how we could solve that? By banning script editors and producers from asking a question that now makes my blood run cold – But will we LIKE this character? Seriously, the next time I am asked that question, I am going to refuse to answer; because the job of the screenwriter is not to create a perfect little world where everybody is redeemable and lovely. It is insulting to both the writer and the audience to assume that they need to see character smile at a baby or cuddle a kitten before they can engage with him or her. Drama is a safe space to explore the darker side of life. By making the fictional world anodyne and safe, we are doing a disservice to the real world.

So, that’s my analysis. It’s simplistic and born of frustration not just at what I watch, but also at what I write. However, I do wonder how many British writers have projects and ideas that they have never dared to show because they sound a bit too ambitious? How many of us limit our imagination and creativity because it’s all just a bit too… Big? How many of us have started a pitch with the words “I know it sounds a bit American but…” like that is something for which we should apologise?
As ever thoughts, comments and full-blown take downs of this blog are encouraged.