Cheap Thrills

We genuinely are in a TV golden age right now and we have been for so long that it’s hard to remember there were ever ages at all. But there was. Oh, trust me, there was. I’m suspicious now because I feel that the last un-golden age was while I was reviewing television for BBC Ceefax and BBC News Online, but there were still two things in that period that kept making me wonder why I liked TV drama so much.

Perhaps the most pervasive was that television began looking like cinema. Every series looked wonderful, utterly arrestingly gorgeous. And bugger-all use as a drama. Characters who barely qualified for the name, stories that might or might not have worked but you’d never know because the dialogue would leave you wondering over and over again how adults had stood there saying this crap aloud. But it looked great.

Maybe you feel less harsh, but I remember, for instance, one boring evening in a London hotel with a pile of ho-hum dramas to review on VHS, and then the last one of the night being Queer as Folk. It was instantly wonderful. Watch it now, watch it then, there’s no question but that this show is like being hit by joyous wall. It is alive, that’s what Queer as Folk is, and back in 1999 or 2000, there wasn’t much else that was.

You might not agree with me, you’re looking kinder about TV back then, but there’s this other thing which you’re less likely to know. Unless you got on BBC and ITV’s press list, you won’t have seen how very many times a new drama would be promoted as being “the next Play for Today”.

I was reminded of this watching clips from the Republican National Convention the other week. Just as BBC and ITV knew that Play for Today was high water mark for drama, so the GOP’s speakers all knew what was right, what was proper, what was decent and sane. They don’t do any of it, but as they stood there saying these lies, it felt worse than ever because clearly they know what the truth is. There’s no ideological stance here, no belief that you could disagree with and yet still understand, these are people who know full well what the right thing to do is, and they’re choosing not to do it.

Equally, not one single “next Play for Today” was ever remotely like Play for Today. It did get so that you just wished they’d bloody make more Play for Today, but instead, they did do something better. Eventually.

Eventually, television married the brilliance of how things could look on our ever-larger widescreen TV sets with how much more brilliant they can be when the drama is written and acted and directed well.

I think this time, right now, is the very best that television has ever been. But I know that it’s also the first time we’ve been able to check.

Think of a TV series and you can watch it, pretty much. There’s no sign of The Onedin Line or The Duchess of Duke Street on any streaming service and there so very much should be, but otherwise it appears that every show ever can, well, appear on your screen.

It also looks better than it ever did. I watched Thunderbirds the other night on BritBox simply because I wanted to hear that famous theme and yet the image quality was so vastly greater than I’d ever remembered that I was held for long enough to get into the story. Curiously, the sound wasn’t remotely as great, but before I knew it, I was rooting for Virgil to save the day.

He did. And last night at the end of an episode of Dempsey and Makepeace, Dempsey was in that classic hero position where he could’ve shot the baddie but after a few tense closeups, took the moral high ground. Compare that to the newer and infinitely better Justified where the only thing that saves a baddie from being fatally shot is not the hero’s morality but rather the producer’s deciding he’s too interesting a character to kill off.

You see the nonsense we used to put up with on television, but you also see much more. It fascinates me how you can, reasonably easily, skip around television history and see how norms and conventions and budgets and technology changed. The most striking example for me, though, is how studio-bound British TV was for such a very long time.

Any given episode of a drama would consist of maybe ten minutes shot on location, shot on film, and then the rest would be recorded in the studio. As a nation, it was as if we collectively agreed to ignore the vast difference in picture quality between the two. Then as portable, lightweight OB cameras came in, we moved to all film, all-location, and it is better.

The very last drama to be shot in this part film/mostly studio way was BBC1’s The House of Elliott, which ended in 1994. That’s also not available to stream, but you can now turn left and watch 1993’s Cracker which was made entirely on film. Or you can scoot back a little to 1987 and a series where the constraints of the studio were much more painfully obvious.

This is available on BritBox, as of last month. Star Cops. If there is a contest for the worst-named TV series of all time, Star Cops would be in with a shot at the trophy. I actually remember it getting the front cover of Radio Times and yet, despite the attention and despite it being made by ex-Doctor Who people I rated, I didn’t watch. Not something called Star Cops, I’m not.

I think it was maybe ten years later that I caught an episode and ended up buying the complete series on VHS. And now I’m watching the whole thing on BritBox.

It’s got that same dreadful title, it looks cheaper than even Crossroads ever managed, and yet it is absorbing. I’m not going to say it’s the next Play for Today, but it is fresh and interesting and well written enough that I’m watching even as I keep remembering what happens.

Truly, you could make a better or at least far better-looking Star Cops episode on your iPhone today. But you probably couldn’t match writers like Chris Boucher.

And if old studio dramas do nothing else, they demonstrate the strength that writing –– and acting –– can bring. We don’t need multi-million pound dramas, but they are superb, so long as the writing is there too.

Blink of an eye

Ten years ago, I was in a Broadcasting House studio with Steven Moffat, the cast of his comedy Joking Apart and also DVD producer Craig Robins. Craig is remarkable: he became a DVD producer, he formed a company and he bought the rights to this sitcom all out of his own pocket and all because he so loves the show.

So there’s Craig, literally invested in his project, and there’s Moffat plus actors Fiona Gillies, Robert Bathurst, Tracie Bennett, Paul Raffield and TV producer Andre Ptaszynski.

And me. At this distance I’ve not a clue why I was there: I wrote a booklet for the second season DVD and I think I must surely have been there to interview people for it. But all I remember is being a spare pair of hands: it was I who brought people up from BH reception to the studio, for instance.

I should also say that I remember having a very good time: the commentaries are funny and informative. But of course as with any recording of anything, there is a lot of hanging about. Not just for me doing nothing much, but for the commenters.

Which is why I’m telling you this now.

I can remember word for word a thing Steven Moffat said in that studio. I can’t quote him for you because while there isn’t a single syllable that I imagine he’d have a problem with, he didn’t say it to me. I wasn’t even in the room: he was in the studio and at that moment I was in the gallery so I just caught it over an open mic.

Plus, my head must surely have been focused on interviewing about Joking Apart because this was a Doctor Who comment of no use to me.

Except it’s a Doctor Who comment that has really stuck with me and which definitely did so because of what happened slightly later. Ten years ago to the month – 9 June 2007 – the Doctor Who episode Blink aired. It’s a one-hour drama that jumps out of the screen and through sheer force of vitality and energy grabs you by the neck. There’s a repeated line in the episode about how you shouldn’t blink, “don’t even blink, blink and you’re dead” and there is not one single pixel of a chance that you ever could because it’s such a compelling tale.

If you know the series, you know this episode and there’s a decent chance you think it’s at or near the best thing Doctor Who ever did. If you don’t know the series then no, sorry, you do: this is the story that introduced the Weeping Angels.

They are genuinely frightening monsters in a series that seems to have to have a new alien baddie every week. Perhaps that constant introduction of new monsters is why I’m usually disinterested in them, including when I write Doctor Who radio dramas for BBC/Big Finish. But I think I’m just automatically more interested in people than, say, tentacles.

Yet Blink is equally exquisite with its characters. Carey Mulligan stars as Sally Sparrow and she really stars in every sense: for once the guest actor outshines the Doctor. That’s no criticism of the then-Doctor, David Tennant, but rather to how he isn’t in the episode much.

I don’t know if this is still the case, but ten years ago each season of Doctor Who had to have one episode in which the Doctor doesn’t appear very much at all. It’s specifically so that the actor can be off filming a different Doctor Who episode. As I understand it, this was the sole way to get each season’s 13 episodes made in time.

Fine, only from a writing and acting perspective, this puts an enormous load on whoever is doing the Doctor-less or Doctor-lite episode. And that’s what Moffat mentioned in the studio.

He’d delivered the script to Blink and I don’t believe the episode had been filmed yet or at the very least he hadn’t seen it. So there we are, some short while before the episode airs, and I’m hearing Moffat talking about how he’d tried his best with it. The sense was that he thought it would be okay, that the show would make it well, but that it wasn’t going to be great.

That’s why the comment has stuck with me. Here’s one of the most successful and doubtlessly one of the busiest writers in British television. Here’s someone who I think has found compelling depths to the Doctor and whose writing can be magical. I don’t know how many episodes he’s written of Doctor Who, I couldn’t begin to add up those plus Joking Apart, Coupling and the rest. But by any measure, Blink is one of his finest moments.

I saw an interview recently in which he expressed mild bafflement at the praise this episode gets and I don’t know if he was being modest. Equally, when he told the Joking Apart studio that this forthcoming Blink episode wasn’t brilliant, he could’ve been just saying it.

I believed him at the time, though, and I still do. I’m just not sure why I find that lifting. I think this was a writer doing something great and not fully realising it so if someone that good writing something this delicious can’t see that, well, it’s confirmed that all writers are screaming crazy eejits and we’re in good company.

Shut up and do it

I was doing a thing in a television studio this week and – no, wait, actually, quick aside? I was the talent. I’m not used to this. Wasn’t producing anything, wasn’t writing a word, not interviewing anyone, my job was to turn up and be interviewed on a show. I was the talent. So strange.

I mean, I’ve done a lot of radio on both sides of the mic but precious little TV. It turned out that some of the other guests I was chatting with in the green room had never done any television before so I was the great wise expert, having done it once. I tried not to dispense too much wisdom. They have to learn for themselves, they have to make their own mistakes.

That way you’re looking at me now, that’s how a runner at the studio should’ve been looking at me. I was chatting with a couple of runners and got into the subject of a film one of them had made last year. She told me about how hard it had been to get the rest of her group to actually do anything and I was nodding wisely, ready to say that she’s back at university for the next year and she’s making more films, I bet those others aren’t.

“But you’re back at university for the next year and you’re making more films, I bet those others aren’t,” said Rob McLaughlin, one of the other guests. I’m not sure how I taught him so well but clearly I did. Clearly.

We talked on about how production is collaboration and part of the job is getting the right group around you. And this runner – wait, I’m not telling you her name because she’s 17 plus she’s already made more films than I have – this runner mentioned how none of her friends are into filmmaking. Some of them sounded actively against it, they had been doing that thing of saying you’re wasting your time on that, you’ll never make it, that’s rubbish.

I was really ready now to point out that no matter what you do or want to do, there are people around you who say no. Ultimately the thing I’ve learned as I near 50 is that you have to say bollocks to them and do it. They come around after you’ve done it and in fact they tend to come around whether or not you did something successfully. If you want to do something, that’s always better than not wanting to do anything and you should just do it without them.

“But I suppose if you want to do something, that’s always better than not wanting to do anything and you should just do it without them, shouldn’t you?” she said.