The Failure of British Television Drama: The Shadow Line

The Shadow Line is a travesty of epic, jump-the-shark proportions - mannered, shouty, preposterously OTT, and filled with every nasty cliche dialled to 11 of British grime and copper TV and film - gum chewing nasties, fey rent boys, sadistic thugs, and soft-spoken spies with trilbys and gloves.  Okay, so what?  Well this was a huge BBC investment, a flagship series.  And up next in the never-ending crime flow is Luther, a fun series, to be sure, but one filled with more ultra-violence, shouting, and cop cliches.  TV, it is fair to say, is now better in America (much like fiction and poetry is).

There has been no ongoing British TV series of the last decade as brilliant as The Wire or The West Wing or Mad Men.  This is not about acting chops - The Wire was manned by Brits.  Style?  The British (and Irish) invented it.  So what is the problem?  Well, it is cultural, and the rot is spreading.  Simply put, British drama is inflected and infected by several things: comedy, class, and crudity.  British comedy is out of control - it is everywhere, and the default position is to laugh at anything all the time.  Add to this the reluctance to see class for what it is, rather than with a cringe, or rage, and the knee-jerk need to make every event a f-off moment, means that British telly always seems to be a swear-filled, angry, nasty, and gurning comedy-fest, with lashings of silly sex thrown in.

Mad Men is an excellent example of what The Shadow Line is not.  Mad Men is a slow burn - witty yes, but poised, controlled, and mature, a work of televisual literature (and not just an adaption of one).  The British have great stories to tell, but the cynicism and sneering get in the way.  Let me give you one example - where is the British TV series about the Thatcher years, punk and all?  Or the years of the Angry Young Men and Women?  Or the series about Bletchley? Or the St Ives scene?  Or the Austerity Years?  I saw story bibles from my students at Kingston far better than what ITV or the BBC comes up with.  Stories with heart and soul.  It doesn't have to be another detective solving another murder of a sexy woman, Britain.  It can be a drama about human lives in interesting times.


Anonymous said…
Couldn't agree more with your analysis of cliche ridden British fare. We seem to specialise in what I call whassassa drama. In UK drama about prisons, crime, gangsters,football you can guarantee that at some stage one character is going to snarl, 'what's that supposed to mean?' (pronounced whassassapostamean) as a prelude to either physical or mental aggression. That or some poncey, ridiculous costume drama. Time to change the record -- we need to explore new territory.

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