Yosser’s Better than Fitz

Jack Kibble-White on TV drama in the 1990s

First published October 1999

Our collective memories of the 1980s are probably pretty similar. It was the decade in which those that were cruel and bigoted controlled the political and social agenda. Freedom of speech (typified by Clause 28) was stifled and creative individuality feared. How then, did we arrive at The Singing Detective, Boys from the Blackstuff, Edge of Darkness, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and indeed – Channel 4? The answer of course is simple. Creative forces felt compelled to speak out against the Tory moral panic against “dole scroungers”, or Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative. In fact, significantly, the milestone dramas of the 1980s (with the exception of The Singing Detective) all possess the same politically reactive spirit. There is a commonality of dislocation running throughout, and an attempt to campaign and bring to public attention a particular issue or concern.

The work of Bleasdale, Bennett and Potter dominate the historical televisual landscape. Yet as we begin to analyse the ’90s contribution to this heritage, one cannot help but conclude that the authority and impact of television drama has been neutered to such an extent that one cannot foresee a writer now assuming such a stature. Of course, the cusp of the ’90s saw the introduction of satellite television, and the resulting fragmentation is already well documented (and indeed alluded to elsewhere on OTT). However aside from this factor a cultural malaise has gripped much of the output of the decade. It seems to me no coincidence that we have borne witness to the rise in popularity of historical drama. Trends are always reactive of what has gone before, and television in the ’90s has increasingly subjected itself to the whims of transient popularity. Regardless of the quality of Pride and Prejudice it is very difficult to quantify the production’s impact on the national psyche beyond the whimsical Colin Firth infatuation instigated and perpetuated through the BBC’s own various media. Certainly D’Arcy never achieved the cultural resonance of Yosser Hughes. But perhaps I am attempting to compare my apples with my oranges. So, then what has shaped and influenced ’90s television drama?

It is worth pausing for a moment and collating your own list of outstanding drama over the last ten years. Mine would go something like this: Cracker (the McGovern episodes), GBH, Our Friends in the North and Hillsborough. Not many I grant you. Queer as Folk, This Life, The Cops and Holding On also have much to admire. However, there is little else that has even shown the same ambition or desire to tackle as complex truths as those explored by those dramas listed at the top of this article. McGovern’s work on Cracker is so affecting because he stubbornly chose to work from within the populist construct of the modern day police drama and demonstrated that there is an intrinsic robustness to any television formula that will support complex issues. It’s funny, isn’t it, that so many commentators describe Cracker as a subversion of the genre, when in fact McGovern could have written for Columbo (surely Fitz’s most obvious progenitor), or even Bergerac and still have delivered the goods? His work on Brookside during the ’80s substantiates the theory that McGovern’s strength is to show that formulaic television is not the anathema to the production of meaningful drama (although he did come rather unstuck with The Lakes).

GBH, Our Friends in the North and Hillsborough certainly developed that campaigning spirit of old, yet GBH extended Bleasdale’s areas of concerns (and as a result took the author into a new – largely unsuccessful – direction for the remainder of the decade), Our Friends … raised the stakes and the scope of political and social comment, and Hillsborough (McGovern, again, however campaigning on a social issue rather than a political one) made absolutely explicit those campaigning subtexts that had underlined the social commentary of the previous decade, producing the desired cultural response. There is a connection between all of these, however, and that is a quality which has become all pervasive in our culture in the last 10 years: self-awareness.

The germination for this article occurred whilst attempting to review an episode of Channel 4′s new anthology series Shockers. Picking up on the (sometimes crude) attempts to subvert my expectations, I became aware that I had grown used to this tease, the conventions and unconventions of TV drama. It was then I realised that TV drama in the ’90s has become preoccupied by, and constantly sought to anticipate, our preconceptions of the genre. Holding On is excellent human drama but it’s also a comment on the convenient coincidences that underline the narrative of most of its ilk. This Life and Queer as Folk consciously attempt to make a connection with that section of the audience who are traditionally depicted in a somewhat insipid form on TV. Scenes of drug-taking, swearing and rimming act as self-conscious insignias of an undiluted representation of “reality”. And of course there’s The Cops. In many ways the most arch, it draws heavily on our preconceptions of the documentary genre to instil the drama with additional “realism”. Funnily enough, nobody these days views documentaries as essentially “realistic”, and so it is merely a technical “reality” that The Cops seeks to imitate. Yet it is these techniques that seems to drive television drama – often to its detriment. The cliché in Hollywood are that movies are pitched as being combinations of previous hits, and this seems to be inform the creative thinking behind television drama. Nowhere is this truer than within soap operas.

The campaign for respectability for soap operas began just as the narratives became more sensationalised and event-based. Ross Kemp proudly informed his colleagues at the inaugural Soap Opera awards that they were best actors in the business. Tish I say. The soap opera genre is a cultural microcosm, and the ever spiralling path first charted by Brookside, but quickly followed by Emmerdale, EastEnders and Coronation Street is symptomatic of the consumer demands made on the TV drama product in the ’90s. Once again, assisted by their sympathetic media outlets, the soaps have been able to rough ride our sensibilities to inform us that the latest Grant Mitchell or Mike Baldwin story line is must-see television. Yet such drama increasingly distanced from its naturalistic context becomes increasingly less affecting. The danger here is that the law of diminishing returns forces dramatists to continually raise the stakes. The current apathetic profile of Brookside warns of a busted flush. Such tactics have a shelf life.

Of course, the other major dramatic genre of the ’90s has been the gentle, family drama traditionally led by a “star name”. The sensational success of The Darling Buds of May produced a swathe of similar demographically produced dramas including Heart Beat, Where the Heart Is, Harbour Lights, Peak Practice and Dangerfield. It is common parlance to regard such serials in contempt, yet the more popular ones provide consistent gratification for millions of viewers. There is little pretence that such productions are not much more than televisual cakes constructed from the surest and sweetest of ingredients.

So what is the commonality here, and what is the underlying cause? Like the ’80s, television drama in the ’90s seems to be informed by, and reflective of, the political climate in which it was created. Once again, many have waxed lyrical as to the effects of deregulation on British TV and I don’t intend to contribute to that particular argument. It’s the socio-political climate that is of particular interest here. Bleasdale et al had a clear right-wing avarice to rail against. The dilemma for much of this decade has been that the great social issues of the day (and to a degree the politics) have become diffused. “Our lot” have grown in mainstream popularity to such an extent that they now control the populist agenda. There is a little in the way of an organised left-wing subculture, and previous socialist demagogues such as Arthur Scargill are viewed as impotent and out dated. Our disaffection with “our lot” has not yet found a voice, and whilst those with such inclinations wait for such a time, they busy themselves with other concerns. Strangely enough a left-wing agenda seem de rigour for quality drama (it is difficult to name a respected right-wing television playwright – Anthony Jay perhaps?). So television drama has become commoditised, or a reflection of the writer’s own perceptions of television drama and their place within it. Such introspection will pass, a Bleasdale will ignite again. Television is our most powerful medium, we will resume the battle.