Tag Archives: Television drama



Q: I see the BBC has been in the news recently. Something about changing the way the licence fee is collected. What’s it all about?

A: BBC has been under pressure for as long as I can remember, particularly over the licence fee, which is currently £145.50, or just under 40p per day and is used to pay for the Beeb’s tv, radio and online output. The Corporation’s charter is good until 2017, but discussions have started to explore an alternative to the fee, partly because it doesn’t apply to tablets and smartphones. So theoretically you could watch tv without having a traditional set and be exempt. But the more pressing reason is simply that the licence fee is showing its age.

Q: Why do we pay at all? We don’t have to pay for ITV and, if we don’t want Sky and the other digitals, we can just choose to stick with Freeview.

A: BBC launched in 1922, but, of course, it was strictly radio back then. It started television broadcasts after the end of Word War II in 1945, but hardly anyone had tv sets. The first BBC studio in Shepherd’s Bush, London, starting making programmes in 1950. That was the start of the takeoff period for television. It’s important to remember that, when BBC tv started, it wasn’t intended to convey entertainment only: the other parts of its original remit were to educate and inform. In those days, it was by no means clear that television would grow into the dominant medium it became. Remember: cinema was in pole position and, a small screen showing black and white images in the corner of the room seemed to offer no challenge. BBC was in public ownership, of course. There was no pressure to operate as a profit-making company: it was, as we are still told today, a public service provider.

Q: So what changed?

A: Commercial television launched in 1955. ITV, as we know it today, was a network of regional broadcasters without public funding. So the organization took its cue from American television: in the US, the first tv companies were radio owners and were used to what we would call today a business model.  Radio was, after all, just another way of advertising products at a time in the early twentieth century when people were beginning to surround themselves with the kind of products we now take for granted. Advertising, in the 1920s, was quite primitive and radio offered a channel that was novel. The programmes were effectively just fillers for the ads. But important fillers: if nobody listened, the ads were reaching nobody. Television in the US was based on the same commercial approach and relied only on advertising revenue.

Q: So BBC found itself in a market in the 1950s?

A: Sort of. But not in the sense that they were a competitor of ITV. BBC was guaranteed funding through licence fees. ITV and, for that matter, all the channels that followed, depended on advertising for their money. BBC isn’t unique in this respect, but it is unusual in one respect: most other public service television channels are not dominant. Australia’s ABC is an exception. BBC has remained the UK’s powerhouse broadcaster for many years. So ITV and then Channel 4 (in 1982) and, later, in 1995, Channel 5, while important players have never managed to challenge BBC. Everything changed in 1989 when the first satellites started transmitting and subscription tv arrived.

Q: You mean television that we paid for?

A: Yes, Sky and others charged a monthly fee to receive its programmes. Sky was one of Rupert Murdoch’s companies and looked as if it would fold quickly: it haemorrhaged money before Sky secured the rights to screen then then fledgling Premier League. Then it went from strength to strength until it had over 10 million subscribers.

Q: I begin to see BBC’s predicament: all the other tv companies — and there are hundreds now — rely on advertising money or subscription fees, but BBC occupies a privileged position because it gets the licence fee money no matter what. So what’s the problem?

A: This: with so many other broadcasters, consumers are asking why, if there is a television market, they’re not given the choice not to pay their licence fee. OK, it’s relatively expensive and presents pretty good value compared, for example, to Sky …

Q: … but not compared to ITV or the others on Freeview.

A: True. But think of all the BBC radio channels too.

Q: I take your point, but the solution to the whole problem is obvious, surely: let BBC show commercials.

A: This is an extremely sensitive subject because, the second the BBC allowed ads, it would lose the independence it’s held so sacred: it surrenders itself to market forces and, as such, would be bound to popularize its content.

Q: And the problem with that is … ?

A: BBC would become just like any other tv channel and lose the unique quality that has made it arguably the most admired broadcaster in the world. It could mean an end to adventurous programming and a reliance on proven commodities. Challenging dramas such as last year’s The Missing ( and the recent Wolf Hall (trailer below) and  might never have been made. I’m not saying ITV, Sky and the others don’t make quality programmes. Both broadcasters are successful. ITV, after a rocky period, can boast the best watched programme Coronation Street, and Britain’s most popular programme internationally Downton Abbey. And Sky has its Fortitude (trailer above). So I don’t think we can complain about quality.

Q: You missed The X Factor and Broadchurch. Both ITV.

A: Yes. ITV has proved it can survive and prosper in a congested market where it has to compete against, not just the BBC, but hundreds of other channels in the digital age. If you’ve noticed, it allows not just outright advertising, but product placement. This means that its programmes sometimes feature branded products that are in full view. It alerts viewers to this by showing a capital “P” on the screen at the outset.

Q: So why don’t BBC do something similar? After all, advertisers would clamour to get on BBC shows. It could also invite sponsors. You know. “A certain product presents EastEnders” or “So-and-so brings you Strictly Come Dancing.”

A: I imagine BBC have been contemplating this for years. It’s resisted any form of advertising, no matter how, subtle or unobtrusive and my guess it will propose some sort of tax, or levy, as an alternative to the licence, before it allows ads. But you’re right: this possibility is sure to be aired. After all, we are surrounding by ads whenever we go online, or to the movies or even just walking about — count how many people you see who have brands emblazoned across their shirts, or bags, or trainers (see the picture at the start of this blog). We’ve become walking advertisement without seeming to mind. So I suspect BBC will be asked to consider some sort of advertising. I don’t especially welcome the development, but I think it will be hotly debated before 2017.

Downton Abbey and Peaky Blinders

Inter-war Britain through the lens

Britain in turmoil: high unemployment, nationally owned companies being privatized, strikes threatened in all the major industries, a government that is never quite sure it enjoys the support of the nation. Sound familiar? It should be – at least if you watch Downton Abbey and Peaky Blinders. The current Downton Abbey starts in 1922 and Peaky Blinders is set just after the end of the 1914-18 war. The interwar period provides prime material for dramatists and viewers love the gas-lit cobbled streets, the horse drawn carriages, the born-to-rule masters and their obsequious servants. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not embracing nostalgia. Part of the appeal of these programmes lies in how they spirit us back to a time when things were so much worse than they are today. British society might have been a blissful idyll unspoilt by progressive notions like sex equality or workers’ rights, but mostly, it was a joylessly harsh and merciless place where the spectre of the workhouse was never far away.

Before the First World War, the class structure seemed like a permanent feature of British society. Permanent because the industrial working class expected so little. The rulers who lord over Downtown enjoy their privilege by consent: the working class approved of their masters’ rights and by implication their own lowly position in the natural order of things. By the end of the war, the workers were not so easily placated. Four years of conflict with the loss of 956,703 British lives changed things. Industrial disputes became commonplace and radical politics centred on the emergent Labour Party, which was to form its first government in 1923. When unemployment crept towards the two million level, trades unions called for militancy, building eventually to a nationwide general strike in 1926. In Peaky Blinders, we see communist Freddie Thorne preparing for a revolution that never materialized. His friend Tommy Shelby calls him a fantasist and opts for a practical if deviant way of life in which the rewards are more tangible and immediate. We see him and his gang extorting money from Birmingham publicans, shopkeepers, and bookies, or using their razor-lined caps to slice open enemies’ faces.

Downton is supposed to be only a hundred or so miles north of Brum in Yorkshire, but it could be on a different planet. True, we see the working class again, but this time they are domesticated, waiting hand and foot on the landed gentry, taking orders, no matter how unreasonable, with a smile, bowing and scraping, their role in life to cater for every need of their social and moral superiors. The enchantment of Downton Abbey lies partly in its plausible depiction of Britishness, replete with class distinctions, meticulously observed prejudice and downright snobbery. Looking backwards from the 21st century, these practices seem both elegantly civilized and cruelly archaic.

This was a time when women were renegotiating their social status. For long paralyzed politically, they were awarded voting rights by the legal reforms of 1918, after an often-painful campaign by suffragettes. The extension of franchise reflected changing though not altogether enlightened attitudes towards women. For decades before the War, manliness was synonymous with moral goodness as well as physical health and vestiges of this are apparent in both shows: women are always peripheral to the main narrative and either support, encourage or express their appreciation.

The dramas’ embodiments of gender irruptions take the form of Lady Mary, who unexpectedly and unconventionally decides to play an active role in the running of the Downton estate, and Polly Gray, a Brummie Valkyrie, who masterminds criminal operations for all-men gangs. Birmingham, by the way, never looked so gorgeous on screen, shot through a smoky industrial haze with sprays of furnace sparks decorating its streets like firework displays (compare with Martin Scorsese’s New York in his Gangs of New York).

The 1920s were known in America as the “Jazz Age,” a period characterized by carefree hedonism, wealth, freedom and the kind of exuberance we find in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald and, of course, the movies based on his work, The Great Gatsby being the most famous. There’s no evidence of this at Downton yet, but it promises to arrive over the coming weeks with two new characters: a breezy relative from Scotland and the show’s first black character, who is a jazz musician.

The narratives of both dramas are congruent with both the laissez-faire doctrine of individual action unrestricted by government interference and a conception of masculinity in which the vigorous, physical and pursuit of goals is the ideal.   Both chime with the free market ideology. The gangsters of Peaky Blinders are almost character studies in cutthroat capitalism, individualistic, operating privately and driven solely by profit; they are friends of anyone with whom they can do business, regardless of political or any other kind of affiliation. So we see them dealing with the IRA, the British government, other gangsters – anyone who can be used to turn a penny.

If Peaky Blinders is inspired, if not based on reality, it is also ludicrously fantasticated: whenever it threatens to become believable, there is a comically false Brummie accent, a contemporary phrase or an outfit that is so glaringly out-of-place that the drama’s plausibility, weak at best, crumbles. This is a pity because the subject matter and the social context is so promising and the issues seems so fresh. The worst offence of Downton Abbey, apart from the clichéd characters and its social Manichaeism, dividing upper from working class as if Britain still had a strictly two-class structure with no emergent bourgeoisie, is its uninspired inclusion of a comic character in the form of the  Dowager Countess of Grantham’s Father, who might, in another script, be a vile, imperious, heartless matriarch who looks down on … well, everyone apart from the upper class. In Downton, she comes across as a basically well meaning, if misguided but deeply implausible figure with a nice way of putting people down.