The Royal

Sunday, February 9, 2003 by

ITV1 would really like to own Sunday night. In a way, they think they do. John Whiston, director of drama at Granada, launched a broadside at BBC drama’s Sunday night strands last year calling them “me too” programmes – supposedly copies of ITV ideas.

The claim that ITV1, via Heartbeat, patented Sunday night bucolia is easily dispensed with. The BBC all but invented the genre of gentle country procedurals in the 1960s with Dr Finlay’s Casebook, consolidating its position in the 1970s with All Creatures Great and Small. (If anything, Heartbeat came out of All Creatures as series creator Johnny Byrne had previously been one of the main writers on the Herriot series.) But Whiston’s outburst is interesting because TV executives only ever slag off other channels’ shows when they perceive a genuine threat. Monarch of the Glen has been steadily encroaching on Heartbeat‘s figures while the first outing of Born and Bred matched the established Where the Heart Is throughout its run. With Auf Wiedersehen, Pet trouncing the much-fancied Forsyte Saga, ITV1 has got jittery.

No wonder. ITV1 drama appears to be in real trouble. They have some genuinely bad shows and are beginning to look like a network running out of ideas. Peak Practice has been axed to make way for … a Peak District set GP series produced by the same team as Peak Practice. Crossroads has been replaced by … Crossroads – only worse! (A feat deserving of some kind of award in itself). London’s Burning has wheezed its last, Cold Feet is finishing this season, Night and Day (with much more creativity and audience loyalty than Crossroads) was unceremoniously dumped. Of the new arrivals, Footballers Wives is an arrogant, overinflated soap stretched to fill an hour and Serious and Organised is a faded photocopy of The Sweeney, only really there to give Martin Kemp something to do. Both shows are flailing around 6 million – not the figures of an old-fashioned ITV banker.

No big new shows have come through for ITV1 in the last 18 months, unlike BBC1 which has seen Spooks, Cutting It, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, Judge John Deed and Waking the Dead all find their feet and their place in the schedules. Weirdly amidst all this, as noted elsewhere, the ITV1 drama shelves are still heaving with untransmitted series and serials. Where is, for example, Shades starring Dervla Kirwan and Stephen Tompkinson as ghosts – a six part series filmed around three years ago by United TV before they were amalgamated into LWT? Whatever happened to Carlton’s Blue Dove, Lucy Gannon’s Potteries-set series which was pulled from the schedules at the last minute in 2002?

So ITV1 are banking on The Royal – protecting its first run by bracketing it within the seemingly endless outpouring of Heartbeat. ITV1′s newest drama has certainly delivered the audience back – but does the quality match the width? ITV1 is schizophrenic about this tension at the best of times – see Nick Elliott’s recent defensive speech at the launch of his new drama season (gardening detectives, anyone? Yes, really: Rosemary and Thyme). Funnily enough, one of John Whiston’s other complaints last year was to bemoan the fact that “With Holby City cloned out of Casualty, the BBC have even ended up copying themselves.” Did Mr Whiston blush, knowing that his own company (Granada own Yorkshire who produce the show) were doing exactly the same thing with Heartbeat and The Royal?

So is The Royal any good? Great shows have been borne out of opportunistic tie-ins before. Heartbeat, when it started, caught the public’s imagination, tapping into a desire for good old-fashioned storytelling. Sadly, The Royal is riddled – addled – with the same leaden pace, poor storytelling and wafer-thin characters that have beset Heartbeat in the last few years. The move to produce 22 episodes of rural policing a year has seen quality compromised at ITV1′s flagship show, but once again the powers that be don’t seem bothered while the ratings are so high.

Despite superficially being a “new” show The Royal already needs a dramatic kiss of life. It’s got the same producer and executive producer as its progenitor and boy does it show. Every scene is played at the same pace. The production has all the energy of a slow-motion hip operation – this is a series that feels like it was created in 1983, not 2003. It is not so much old-fashioned, simply old. The performers look like they’re all suffering from narcolepsy (one fears for them when they wake up and realize the shit they’re in – literally). And with dialogue so bad, the performers are required not so much to act as to read without laughing. The comedy is astonishingly inept and the main dramatic stories so old and badly told you can hear them creak. If The Royal were a disease (which in a way it is), it would be arthritis.

Series television drama is built on characters. Loveable, involving characters who the audience want to return to week after week. There isn’t a single one in The Royal. This show is populated with characters who will never even reach the noble state of cliché. Each one is a single attribute on legs: Matron (Wendy Craig) is stern, the established doctor (Robert Dawes – dear fellow, whatever happened to your stellar career?) is good, the young doctor is dishy and the Irish nurse is Catholic. And why are this production team so obsessed with creating retarded fat working class characters for the audience to laugh at? Do the producers really sit in the edit suite clasping their sides as Michael Starke spots a mouse? Or do they simply think “there’s the comedy story – it’s shit, but who cares?” Emotional stories are set up with all the subtlety of a neon sign and then handled without any empathy, warmth or insight into the human condition.

There is nothing good to be said about The Royal, other than applaud the cheek of the people who broadcast it. This show isn’t simply lame, it’s paraplegic. It is lazy and self-satisfied. It looks cheap, sounds cheap and makes the viewer feel cheap for being so fooled. The sets are dour, the lighting flat and the sparse location work uninspiring. Presumably all the budget is spent paying actors enough money to persuade them to appear in it. Perhaps if drama schools showed this to prospective actors to demonstrate what they might end up doing with their lives, we’d have more people deciding to become teachers instead.

Sunday night television doesn’t have to be like this. Born and Bred at least had a go at revitalising nostalgic comedy-drama with a quality ensemble and lively direction (even sharing a director with the first series of Phoenix Nights). The excellent Wokenwell, a few years back, also proved that there was life in the genre. The Royal is patronizing, shoddy drama-by-numbers from a network that thinks this will do. Judging by the ratings, they may be right. Perhaps you can fool 9 million people some of the time, but this is not a good show, it’s not even a mediocre one. It’s the dramatic equivalent of budget sausages – factory made, churned out by the pound. No wonder ITV1 are on the defensive, if this is what’s delivering their audience. It may be good commercial business, but it’s shit drama.


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