The past is a foreign country…

… they do things better there.

Or at least Paul Abbott did. I’ve obliquely alluded to my dissatisfaction with his recent BBC miniseries Exile before – very obliquely, so much so that I was hardly able to find the reference – and out of the recent spate of BBC drama it was the weakest. In spite of a good cast and great first episode, it was predictable, lazily characterised and didn’t do anything we hadn’t seen before. This was especially disappointing because eight years ago Paul Abbott had written another BBC miniseries, also starring John Simm, and that one was smart, exciting and kept me guessing pretty much throughout. It was called State of Play, and yes, if that title rings a bell, it’s because Hollywood turned it into a movie remake.

I’m currently re-watching State of Play and can attest that it stands up well even at a second viewing, where Exile didn’t even survive a first viewing intact. It’s got a great, varied cast both of old hands and fresh faces (and bringing together John Simm and Philip Glenister years before Life on Mars), and it was directed with pace and style by a certain David Yates who would later bring out the gloomiest in the halls of Hogwarts.

The series isn’t perfect – I can’t remember how it ends, but I do remember that the ending fell somewhat flat when we first watched it a few years ago. (I also remember a number of episodes of Cracker that started much better than they ended, while I’m at it.) But in terms of zippy, clever entertainment produced UK talent at the top of their game, it’s well worth watching. And hey, it’s got Polly Walker, Kelly McDonald, James McAvoy, Bill Nighy… Definitely something for most tastes – plus, at least is selling it for £4. At this rate you need a very good excuse not to give it a try, eh?

This advertising was brought to you by a guy who wants the Beeb to do as well as they’ve shown they can, over and over. Because, as much as I like HBO, every now and then I bet those Brit actors are quite happy to head home, visit their families, have a cuppa with their ageing mum and use their original accents.

P.S.: I can’t say anything about the film version’s quality, but at least they decided to stay stylish when they replaced the editor-in-chief played by Bill Nighy with the Queen of British acting herself, Helen Mirren. (Isn’t it time for her and Judi Dench to star in a buddy cop comedy or in anything, really, since their last co-operation seems to have been a Peter Hall Midsummer Night’s Dream?)

Visiting with my Auntie Beeb

The casts the BBC gets for its dramas are amazing. Look at The Hour: Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, Dominic West, Anna Chancellor, Juliet Stevenson. Look at Page Eight: Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz. It’s as if the good old British Broadcasting Company had some dirt on all of those people, saucy negatives from last year’s Christmas party when everyone got sloshed and made an ass of themselves.

The production values are equally great; especially in HD (yes, the city where we live finally seems to have updated its telecom cables to glass fibres!), these series look gorgeous and crisp. Perhaps not quite on par with the best that HBO has to offer, but that may be British understatement versus trans-American grandiosity. Also, look at the writers and directors: veterans of such quality drama as Cracker, State of Play, the guy who adapted The Hours and The Reader to the great pleasure of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Let me stress that I greatly enjoyed watching both The Hour and Page Eight. They’re quality entertainment, and you could do a lot worse than to check these out. It’s a shame, though, that compared to everything else about recent BBC drama, the acting, directing and production values, the writing is decidedly weaker. There are a lot of nice exchanges in The Hour, and I’ve liked Page Eight‘s dialogues more than some of the David Hare I’ve seen on stage, but apart from the dialogues the writing in both of these is relatively lazy. They rely on clichés (of plotting as well as characterisation) without twisting them into something more interesting, and in striving for relevance both dramas go for facile analogy. Obviously, in some ways the Suez crisis and Anthony Eden’s stance may lend itself to parallels to more recent adventures in the Arab world that Britain, in an effort to be (or at least appear) Great again, got involved in, but the parallels evoked by The Hour are hamfisted and not a little smug – and most definitely not as clever as the writers seem to think… and that is ignoring some of the more tin-eared anachronisms in the writing. (I am by no means a stickler for 100% historical accuracy, but some effort should be put in maintaining the illusion of past times.)

Page Eight was perhaps not as guilty of clumsy allegorisation, but that’s only because it wasn’t set in the past. Its parallels to recent and current events weren’t subtextual (albeit in 96-point, bolded, underlined and italicised font, as in The Hour), but they were no more incisive or illuminating for that. As soon as Hare strayed from character drama into politics, his script felt like so many Guardian editorials mashed up into a one-and-a-half hour statement on Britain’s behaviour during and after the WMD affair. Do I think they had a point in their indictment of how Blair and his government behaved? Absolutely. Do I think they added anything worthwhile to the discussion? Not really. Other cribbing from recent events (such as Rachel Weisz’s brother, a clear Rachel Corrie stand-in) were as blunt but unproductive – and that’s not even getting started on the ill-advised Spring-Autumn romance that the script develops between Weisz’ and Nighy’s characters, that the film only barely pulls off without major embarrassment because of the acting of its two leads.

So, Auntie Beeb, in case you’re reading this (yeah, right…): next time round, keep the great actors – but put some money aside for better scripts. Don’t be too self-congratulatory, don’t be too clumsily eager to go for relevance, if you risk ending up trite and obvious. Don’t think you’re smarter than you are, because you risk yourself looking dumb and your audience feeling patronised. Check out other recent British TV drama, such as Low Winter Sun. Tell your authors not to write opinion pieces on modern politics thinly veiled as drama. You’re there 90% of the way – now make the effort and get the plots and writing right as well.

(… writes the guy who doesn’t even pay a licence fee in the UK.)