Friday, 24 October 2008

Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Length

I’m not sure if I like Silent Witness or not. For the most part, it’s the older brother of Bonekickers, inasmuch as it spins stories out of a seemingly sedentary occupation. Pathology and archaeology both deal (mostly) with the dead, and there’s your challenge: how do you make a drama where your plot is partially driven by people who can’t answer back? Bonekickers continually wrestled with this question, and didn’t altogether do a massively convincing job (mostly because it seemed unsure as to what it wanted to be: teatime romp, or post-watershed ‘issue’ drama). Silent Witness is more assured, as it figured this question out a long time ago. Rather than simply popping up to proclaim foul play and chewing on the obligatory pathologist’s sandwich, Dr Leo Dalton’s team usually find themselves right in the centre of the action – mostly due to the addition of the hard-nosed, no-nonsense copper, DI McKenzie.

Next problem: you’ve got two hours of prime time TV to fill – does a story such as the recent Judgement penned by Christian Spurrier need two hours to tell its story?

I don’t think it does.

It’s been covered elsewhere of course, but Jane Tranter’s parting shot before heading off to LA (which can be found here) seems a hugely strange way in which to talk about the BBC’s ‘single’ drama output:

An audience doesn't think “great, a single drama's on tonight”.

(For an alternative view on this, see a David Hare rant here).

Rather than taking issue with the ‘fetishisation’ of the single drama, perhaps it might be opportune to talk about the fetishisation of the series itself – or, for the purposes of this post, the two-parter. Many ITV dramas (Midsomer Murders, A Touch of Frost) wind up their stories in a single evening – granted, it’s still two hours of prime time hitched to a drama ‘brand’, but at least you don’t have to give up two evenings to catch the whole damn thing. That said, perhaps it’s worth pondering why a drama such as Silent Witness is shown in two halves. News at Ten occupies an immoveable place in the BBC schedule, which means that everything else has to gravitate around it, and the many gruesome autopsy scenes means that Silent Witness is not exactly pre-watershed fare. Regardless of the fact that a lot of TV drama mentioned here doesn’t really justify a two hour running time, this must put programme makers in a bit of a quandary. Judgement certainly didn’t need two hours, but the schedule *sort of* demands that it does. What’s the alternative? An hour one night, followed by thirty minutes the next? That wouldn’t work. Two hours seems to be the default setting, so two hours is what you get, whether the drama deserves it or not.

The other problem is that drama is not immune from branding. Silent Witness is now in its twelfth season and has been on our screens since 1996; in ad-speak, it would be described as a ‘strong brand’, and there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s probably the ‘hook’ that gets people watching in the first place. As with any brand, there are a series of identifying details that should be immediately recognisable: with Silent Witness, this identifier is partially contained within the title itself. The problem is that drama series often seem hampered by their reliance on these ‘signifiers’ – it’s almost as if there’s a checklist of branded bits that have to be ticked off before recognition kicks in. With single dramas such as The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall (strangely enough, another two hour drama but one that fully justified its running time) this isn’t so much of a problem, and the drama seems stronger as a result. However, single dramas probably don’t achieve such a high ‘brand recognition’ as series do, which is a huge shame (but not exactly a problem that can’t be remedied, I think).

Perhaps Tranter’s comments come down to nothing more than the holy grail of viewing figures: David Hare’s My Zinc Bed picked up a derisory one million viewers (about 4.5% of the overall audience) when it was broadcast on BBC2 at the back end of August, despite having a cast that featured Jonathan Pryce, Uma Thurman and Paddy Considine – all this says to me is that if you don’t have an instantly recognisable drama ‘brand’, you have to rely upon starry name actors, a strategy that simply didn’t work with My Zinc Bed.

Is the solution more single drama? Probably not. Maybe it’s a question of giving writers greater freedoms in the stories they choose to tell without being constrained by ‘branding’ concerns (and also giving writers other than David Hare and Stephen Poliakoff a crack of the whip). However, given the woeful performance of My Zinc Bed, it looks as if the big drama brands are here to stay (that said, a new series of Spooks starts on Monday, which has at least been one series that the BBC seems to get consistently right).

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