Just don’t mention Auntie’s MPD!

In its many years of service, the Beeb has done some terrific drama. The Singing Detective, Edge of Darkness, Pride and Prejudice, or, going back to the ’70s, I, Claudius. Its recent output has been all over the place, but I enjoyed last year’s Page Eight and The Hour (in spite of some flaws).

The second season of The Hour finished a couple of days ago. The series kept some of its problems, mainly the uneven quality of the writing, with some scenes very effective and others rushing headlong into hamfisted melodrama, clumsy exposition or silly cliché. Nevertheless, it was a definite improvement on the first series – exciting, engaging, and every scene with Peter Capaldi and Anna Chancellor a revelation. Come Awards season, if Auntie doesn’t pat itself on the shoulder for putting those two on a sound stage together and letting them show what they’re capable of, I hope that Malcolm Tucker unleashes hell on the people responsible.

One of these you don't want to be stuck in an elevator with...

So, that’s BBC at its… well, perhaps not best, but definitely good. If this is the standard of British television drama, I think Britain could do a whole lot worse.

Cue Hunted.

It’s easy to see what they were going for: an entertaining, fast-paced yet moody spy thriller set in a world of shifting allegiances and moral ambiguities. What they got was one of the most half-baked, clichéd TV shows I’ve seen in a long while. Laughably bad writing – the premise should have been a warning, with the main character, Sam Hunter, becoming (dun dun DUN!) the hunted! The aesthetics were all early 2000s gone HD, but the plot and characterisation were on par with your average ’80s series, except this didn’t even have the giddy sense of fun that some of those shows had.

And this may reveal me as sorely lacking in testosterone, but I’d rather watch Peter Capaldi go OCD on his desk for an hour (pun only semi-intended) than Melissa George trying to infuse her undercooked character with personality by bringing out her most potent duck-faced pout ever. I’ve seen George do much better work with stronger material, but her Sam Hunter is insipid, as are most of the characters, whether they’re played by veteran actors or not. Someone should have told the makers of Hunted that conflicted doesn’t equal dour, dour doesn’t equal glum, and glum doesn’t equal moodily bored.

In the end it’s a race: what does the series in? The one-dimensional characters? The charmless acting? The glossy yet drab visuals? The writing that’s either done by idiots, for idiots or both? The final episode that provides less resolution than an episode of Eastenders? Or the BBC, deciding that Frank Spotnitz would have a better chance taking his pet project somewhere else?

Just pucker up your lips, 'cause this blows...

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.)