Adventures in TV Land

Jack Kibble-White on entertainment dramas

First published July 2003

March 2003 saw the transmission of the highly anticipated fourth series of the BBC mystery drama series Jonathan Creek. Consisting this time of only three episodes, Creek was still able to make a significant impact on the Saturday evening ratings (drawing on average 9 million viewers). In fact, ever since the transmission of its first episode (“The Wrestler’s Tomb” broadcast in 1997) Jonathan Creek has attracted a consistently healthy audience (seldom dropping below the 9 million mark) and outside the realm of soap opera and Only Fools and Horses it is one of a only a handful of British television programmes able to attract such an audience on as consistent a basis.

Yet curiously there are few other programmes like Jonathan Creek currently being produced. British drama watchers seem to expect their programmes to conform to an accepted version of realism. Characters in Coronation Street or Linda Green must act and react to situations in ways in which we deem believable (even when the storylines may sometimes appear implausible) and the dialogue has remain (broadly) authentic at all times. Indeed, if the public’s recent rejection of the revamped Crossroads is anything to go by, series that fail to meet our expectations of a minimum level of realism are usually rejected for being too “silly”.

So why does Jonathan Creek with its incredulous plots and stylised dialogue succeed? Well, a significant factor must be the scheduling of the series. BBC1′s Saturday night output has a long and distinguished reputation of running what can loosely be described as “entertainment dramas”, and accordingly our expectations of what we expect from Saturday evening programmes are different. Arguably Saturday nights contain the most escapist schedules of the week, be it big-budget entertainment series, or action films, the diet is palpably different from your average weeknight. Yet should mystery, adventure, sci-fi and fantasy stories be the preserve of weekends only?

From an outsider’s perspective, British television would seem to have a rich heritage of such programmes. Series like The Avengers and The Persuaders spring immediately to mind, but throughout the 1960s and 1970s there were countless others. Even supposedly “grown up” series such as The Professionals (1978 – 1982) appealed to a wide “family” audience (even if they weren’t supposed too). All the while, realist dramas such as Coronation Street, Z Cars and Angels co-habited quite happily with their less earnest contemporaries. Indeed, on one occasion a character from a cop drama – Maggie Forbes – actually transitioned from realist drama to entertainment drama (leaving LWT’s The Gentle Touch to join TVS’ C.A.T.S. Eyes).

Yet as the 1980s continued the public appetite for such escapist fare dissipated – or so it seemed. Whilst adventure stories remained the dominant cinematic genre throughout the decade, such fare grew increasingly scarce on British television. In part this can be attributed to the economic recession that hit the UK at this time. Companies such as LWT (which had for a long time been the main source of entertainment drama on ITV producing programmes such as the aforementioned The Professionals) discovered that such programming was unprofitable in comparison to cheaply made game shows.

“Some of the proposals put to us are very expensive,” explained LWT director of programmes John Birt in 1984 “and there comes a point when they are out of our reach. It doesn’t make sense to give over a larger proportion of the programming budget unless we are reasonably certain there is a counterbalancing international sale. (Therefore) the overwhelming bulk of (LWT’s) drama output will be studio based.” Besides why try and attract family audiences with elaborate and expensive dramas when programmes like Game for a Laugh and Punchlines could be made for a fraction of the cost and still reach as wide an audience?

The rise in popularity of imported American dramas in the late 1970s through to the mid 1980s, further reduced the slots available for home grown entertainment dramas. Starsky and Hutch (1976 – 1981) had performed consistently well for the BBC in the late 1970s, and in the 1980s it would be succeeded by other such escapist fare as Wonder Woman (which pulled in up to 16 million viewers in the early 1980s), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (which peaked at a still impressive 13.5 million viewers), Magnum, P.I. (which in its opening season pulled in a formidable 17.6 million viewers making it the eighth most watched programme of the year) and most successful of all The A-Team (1983 – 1988). This action series consistently pulled in just shy of 17 million viewers for several years in the mid 1980s.

“The trouble is” explained Director General of the BBC Alasdair Milne at the time “that the average cost to us of American series such as Dallas, Petrocelli and Starsky and Hutch is £10,000 to £15,000 an hour and for special series such as Roots or Holocaust £30,000 an hour, compared with the figure of £112,000 an hour for originating our own drama”. With ITV suffering at the hands of a recession, and the BBC forced into cost cutting measures as part of its protracted battle with the government, entertainment dramas produced little critical success that could not be achieved via cheaper, but more challenging drama, nor mass audiences that could not be attracted by a well crafted, but still relatively inexpensive game show.

There were exceptions of course, but series such as LWT’s Dempsey and Makepeace (1985 – 1986), HTV and Goldcrest’s Robin of Sherwood (1984 – 1986) and the BBC’s The Tripods (1984 – 1985) struggled to attain a large enough audience to justify the continued high production costs. The BBC’s Doctor Who (1963 – 1989) suffered over the course of the 1980s with its ratings dropping from 14 million in 1979 down to just over 3 million for its final series some 10 years later.

The popularity too of imported series such as Neighbours (1986 – present), Home and Away (1989 – present) with young as well as old viewers suggested that the necessity for large-scale entertainment dramas was becoming increasingly irrelevant. Both EastEnders (1986 – present) and Brookside (1982 – present) were soap operas fashioned to appeal not just to the genre’s traditional audience of adult females, but to younger viewers too. In the 1990s, ITV’s Coronation Street (1960 – present) and (more obviously) Emmerdale (1972 – present) were similarly re-tooled to attract a younger age group. As the popularity of the big budget American action series began to wane it became increasingly obvious that additional episodes of the British soap operas could fill the weekday slots, whilst new people-focussed entertainment programmes could plug the gaps at the weekend.

The lineage that would ultimately beget Jonathan Creek arguably started back in 1995. Throughout the early 1990s, BBC2 had been broadcasting archive action series such as The Man From UNCLE, Doctor Who and most notably Thunderbirds to some success in a Friday evening slot. Whilst these repeats did not garner substantial ratings, there was enough interest generated to suggest that an appetite for escapist drama still existed. In addition the gradual proliferation of satellite television was providing new outlets for repeated screenings of what were now being described as “cult television” series.

Central to this was the launch of the Thames and BBC co-funded nostalgia channel UK Gold in 1992, and the emergence of the “timewarp television” channel Bravo (which actually launched in the USA in 1980 but came to prominence in the UK in the early ’90s). The appearance of cult television programmes on satellite television did not attract the level of interest or indeed ratings of the recognised “dish drivers” movies and sport, but the fact that viewers were willing to pay the (often not insubstantial) subscription fees to view such channels, was yet another strong indication that there existed an unfulfilled appetite for escapist television.

The emergence then of Carnival Films’ spy series Bugs (1995 – 1999) seemed to be a carefully calculated attempt to appeal to this seemingly burgeoning demographic. “Bugs brought a return to British television of the gadget” comments journalist Jeff Evans. “What James Bond had been doing in the cinema for decades, and what programmes like The Avengers has once revelled in, was now back in prime time.” The series saw the return too of Brian Clemens (the mastermind behind some of The Avengers‘s most memorable tales as well as the creator of The Professionals). Yet lest anyone thought things were going to be just like the old days, in acknowledgement of the rise in popularity of soap operas and police dramas since the demise of the entertainment drama, Bugs‘ three principal actors came from Neighbours (Craig McLachlan), Eldorado (Jesse Birdsall) and The Bill (Jaye Griffiths).

Broadcast in the traditional pre-watershed Saturday evening slot, and recognisably different from any other British drama at the time, the espionage hi-jinks and vaguely fantastical villains-of-the-week ensured that Bugs was able to attract in excess of 10 million viewers during its first series. Bugs would attain reasonable success over the next year or so, but ultimately by the time of its final series in 1999 its audience had begun to dwindle. Perhaps it was due to the decline in fortunes at of BBC1′s Saturday night line-up as a whole (the once hugely popular Noel’s House Party also came to an end in the same year), however in retrospect, one suspects that Bugs itself – although beautifully produced – struggled to sustain viewers’ long-term interest.

Entertainment dramas whilst in the business of telling entertaining yarns can sustain well-rounded and interesting characters, and in this respect Bugs arguably fell short. Without an emotional investment in the safety of the lead characters, audiences found themselves with little except the ingeniousness of the series’ plots to compel them to tune in again the following week. Indeed this weakness in the series’ format was recognised by the production team, and efforts were made in Bugs‘ last series to introduce an increased focus on the lead characters’ personal lives. Consequently a soap-like love triangle between two of the leads (Birdsall’s Nick Beckett and Griffith’s Ros Henderson) and Channing (an ongoing character introduced in the third series played by Michael Grandage) introduced an underlying emotional plotline that would progress throughout each episode. Cultivating the relationships between the lead characters was intended also to intensify the sense of jeopardy that would inevitably arise during an adventure. Now whenever Ros placed her life on the line it would actually mean something, both to the other characters and the audience.

Bugs‘ success, albeit limited, did at least encourage Carnival Films to attempt further incursions into the entertainment drama genre with Crime Traveller in 1997. The series, however, failed to achieve significant popular or critical support (even amongst the telefantasy fan community who deemed the series to be too whimsical for their tastes), and – as is traditional with most dramas perceived to be a derivation of a previous success – was unable to match the popularity of its predecessors. Much the same could also be said of Carnival Films (and Horowitz’s) final attempt to date at entertainment drama. The Vanishing Man (1997) proved to be another critical and popular failure that would signal the end of Carnival Film’s mid ’90s flirtation with light-hearted fantasy drama.

Worthy of a brief mention at this point, is the success of Channel 4 and Hallmark’s production of Gulliver’s Travels. Lavishly produced and featuring an array on internationally renowned actors, the two-part special was screened in the UK over the Easter weekend of 1996 and proved to be a significant popular and ratings success for Channel 4. It also was the progenitor of other such lavish series (most notably Channel 4′s BAFTA award winning drama Longitude). Yet whilst it is difficult to see such productions working as regular ongoing series, they have proved to be hugely popular occasional entertainment dramas.

Of course around about 1996, One Foot in the Grave writer David Renwick was busy working on the first series of Jonathan Creek. Unlike Carnival Films’ productions Renwick wasn’t seeking to evoke any particular television drama from the past (although he does admit that the American television series Columbo did have some influence on Jonathan Creek), rather Renwick was captivated with the idea of creating a particular type of series with “stories that were consuming in a ‘snuggling up with a nice cryptic crossword’ sort of a way” (as he himself put it).

As we have already discussed, Jonathan Creek was a sizeable success from the get-go. Broadcast on Saturday nights, it initially occupied the traditional pre-watershed slot; but it would by the time of its fourth series be firmly ensconced after the watershed at 9pm. Whilst scheduling is an undoubted factor, the real reason behind Jonathan Creek‘s success is attributable to the skilful performances of the series’ leads (Alan Davies, Caroline Quentin and latterly Julia Sawalha) but above all the exceptional quality of Renwick’s scripts.

Each episode of Jonathan Creek contains a familiar and reassuring framework, as identified when OTT reviewed the series in 1999: “The intriguing impossible mystery and the comical B-story that bears only the barest relation to the main plotline. The former is played out before the latter (which finishes up every episode) and both end with a twist in the tale … within this sturdy structure Renwick is consistently able to confound and, therefore, delight us. The plotting reveals itself in sparks, in dizzying leaps of logic and, most importantly, in jokes.” Unlike Bugs, Renwick imbues his characters with personalities that seem to exist outside of the duration of each episode, and more importantly, act as a contrast to the events going on around them. Humour is expertly used to set even the most baroque and macabre of storylines into some relief. As a template for a popular entertainment drama it is almost unsurpassable. It has a wonderful familiarity, sharp comedy, and a satisfying pay off at the end of each episode. What’s more it’s beautifully written.

Working Title Television (WTTV)’s Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) (2000 – 2001) was the next entertainment drama to find its way onto our television screens. Again big budget, and again retro in tone (in this case a remake of a 1960s series), during its initial gestation period it was set to be a dark thriller in the vein of Edge of Darkness, yet with the involvement of comedians Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer and – more importantly – scriptwriter Charlie Higson, the project began to take on a different emphasis.

“Charlie was interested in writing a prime-time family show that would amuse, excite, frighten and intimidate and go through the whole rack of emotions that a really good drama would do – all in 50 minutes. And leave you laughing at the end” recalls Randall & Hopkirk‘s Executive Producer Simon Wright. Perhaps more so then any previous series, from the moment that the theme tune (written by James Bond composer David Arnold) began, Randall & Hopkirk looked extremely impressive.

However, the series somehow failed to find its feet. “Jonathan Creek did comedy-drama better and it was entirely original, not a ’70s retread” commented critic Mark Lawson of the first series. The second series (broadcast in the autumn of 2001) noticeably struggled attracting on average just over 4 million viewers and an announcement was made shortly after its conclusion that there would be no more. Reeves himself felt that the series “wasn’t pushed hard enough” by the BBC’s promotional department, although one cannot help but wonder whether the storylines were sufficiently strong enough to be noticed above the series’ undoubted visual splendour. Jonathan Creek, whilst lustrous in its own way, demonstrates that more then anything spectacular, big budget dramas need strong, engaging storylines with which to anchor the programme.

Although it is arguable whether it was a true entertainment drama or not, the BBC’s Murder Rooms (2001) is worth a brief mention. A stylish mystery series, it possessed a flair for engaging cod-Victoriana dialogue (of the sort occasionally found in an episode of Jonathan Creek) and arch characterisation. It also looked sumptuous and within its Victorian settings was able to recount a number of thrilling tales that (whilst occasionally adult in content) seemed designed to appeal to a family audience. Scheduled mid-week against ITV’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire though, it was only able to attract 4 million viewers, with the result being – as with Randall & Hopkirk (and countless other series) before it -that the powers that be deemed it too expensive to be viable.

So with the demise of Randall & Hopkirk, Murder Rooms and the rise and fall of Carnival Films (as purveyors of entertainment dramas), it would seem that Jonathan Creek stands alone. This however, is not quite the full story. Back in March 2002, the BBC broadcast a one-off drama featuring a reclusive curly-haired investigator accompanied by a straight-talking female sidekick. This was not Jonathan Creek, but a drama from the pen of David Renwick’s old writing partner, Andrew Marshall entitled Strange. A resultant six-part series followed in the summer of 2003; however it was not deemed a success garnering viewing figures of only about 3.4 million. At the time of writing it looks unlikely that Strange will be recommissioned.

As such, Jonathan Creek still seems to be the benchmark by which all other entrants will be judged. Given such fierce competition, and the requirement for a substantial cash investment, the future for the entertainment drama does look perilous. In an age in which the very concept of a mass, mainstream audience seems to be outdated, it is difficult to conclude where the opportunities might arise for a scriptwriter to create the next “Doctor Who“, or failing that, even the next “Bugs“.