Film & TV

British Television: Tune In or Switch Off?

Overall figures show a hike in viewing over the past year, but with beloved shows bowing out and new ones coming in, is British television on an upward trend or in steady decline?

There are cases for both sides, but I reckon that there are signs of life in the old dog yet. Take series like Spooks and Hustle. Both have recently come to an end after runs of ten and eight series respectively, brilliant for a modern drama, which shows how high quality can be sustained if programmes are not afraid to simply stick to a formula which works and perfect it, be it through spy thrills or slick cons. You could argue that we need more shows like these. But does British telly have a future now that these long-standing giants have disappeared from our screens?

It would appear that the answer is a resounding “yes”. Firstly, the popularity of period dramas like Downton Abbey and more recently Call The Midwife seem to reel the nation in every Sunday night for a piece of action from another era. In addition, there are other series that showcase either the potential for longevity or just sheer skill. For example, sci-fi behemoth Doctor Who is hardly going to be leaving any time soon, its popularity still high despite Steven Moffat’s tendency to turn episodes into mindbenders. And, although it’s possible that it only has another series in its legs due to acting commitments etc, Moffat and Gatiss’ reboot of Sherlock really is the business, appealing to both the Arthur Conan Doyle-ists and the detective-fiction-virgins alike with its mix of wit, fantastic acting and sheer intelligence.

But one department we can always be certain that the Brits will excel in is natural history. With Frozen Planet drawing in an average of 8 million viewers during its tenure, national treasure Sir David Attenborough exemplary as its presenter, and the photography stunning, we can be certain that we reign supreme here. And now we have Winterwatch, the rather informal and chummy lowdown on winter wildlife, which may be worth watching for Chris Packham’s chic nerdiness alone.

However, there is also a case for British television going downhill. Some original shows have been a disappointment – last year’s Outcasts, set on a planet being colonised by humans, was an example of where a top-notch cast simply couldn’t make up for awful execution. Despite sporting Daniel Mays and Hermione Norris, it only brushed with quality during its last episode and was then deservedly axed. Also, David Jason’s recent series The Royal Bodyguard aimed to provide a platform for his comic talents, but ended up being predictable and astronomically far from Planet Funny.

With a lack of a good police drama around at the moment, due to Zen being wrongfully axed, it seems we could learn something from foreign telly. The excellent French series Spiral, which explores the lives of police officers and lawyers as they deal with various crimes, has been going strong for three series, with another three commissioned. If we can achieve that kind of longevity through originality, then it’ll be a job well done. This is (almost) in evidence with Ashley Pharaoh’s new drama, Eternal Law, in which two angels have been sent to earth to help out as lawyers in York, but cannot intervene with ‘free will’. It is original to an extent, with pedigree actor Samuel West involved, but sadly the whole thing comes across as rather hackneyed. Still, it’s a step in the right direction.

However, it seems to me that, despite some flaws, British TV still has a range of programmes to appeal to all tastes, and with a bit of work it could become even better. But as ever, the matter of tuning in or switching off is up to you.

Alex Nicholson

Film & TV

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