The world may be crashing down around our ears but, as we wait out the apocalypse, one thing is clear: we will not be short of good telly. Subscription services are booming, budgets have skyrocketed and, with more original shows on offer than ever, viewers need never leave the house again. While on-demand TV and box-set bingeing means we each create our own schedules, TV dramas have nonetheless yielded genuine “watercooler” moments, albeit with the chatter happening on social media rather than at work. Will Bodyguard’s PC Budd ever crack a smile? Is it possible for Luther to open a door instead of kicking it in? We need answers, preferably from strangers on the internet. So how on earth did we get here?
“It’s the same story with TV as with everything else: the internet came along and provided access to more content,” says Piers Wenger, controller of BBC drama. “The age of digital platforms and on-demand content has led to a global market for English-language television. But it’s in the last five or six years that it’s really started to pop, which means massive amounts of money coming into the UK drama sector. And the audiences are vast.”
The figures are indeed mind-boggling. In the final quarter of 2018, Netflix reached 139 million subscribers worldwide. Meanwhile, the BBC – David to Netflix’s Goliath in budgetary terms – has enjoyed startling success in the past year, with Bodyguard and Killing Eve reaching 43m requests each on iPlayer (Bodyguard also became the most-watched drama since 2006, with 17.1m people tuning into the series finale. In a peculiar turn of events, these marquee dramas have also been largely loved by the critics, which either means that critical standards have dropped or TV is getting better.
Lisa McGee, writer of the Channel 4 comedy-drama Derry Girls, reckons it is the latter. “The scale of storytelling has broadened, as has its ambition,” she says. “I like to write for TV because I like spending a lot of time with characters; you can do a lot in 20 hours. It’s doing what novels did 100 years ago. When I began writing 10 or 11 years ago, it was very different. Stories had to be episodic and have a theme. It was very formulaic. Now anything goes. No one’s afraid of the audience not understanding.”
The writer David Nicholls, who adapted the addiction drama Patrick Melrose for Sky Atlantic, agrees: “There’s a wider range of tones and voices, and riskier shows are making it to the screen. With Patrick Melrose, no one ever said: ‘This is too tough for our audience’, or that he ought to be more likeable, or that we should take out the darker stuff. And that was great.”
To understand TV’s current purple patch, McGee says, you have to go back 20 years to the arrival of HBO’s The Sopranos. It was, she says, a “game-changer, a show that assumed in its audience intelligence and sophistication”. More critically acclaimed HBO series followed including Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Wire and, later, Game of Thrones, along with hit shows from other networks – The West Wing, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Lost – all of which slotted comfortably into the 00s DVD box-set era and the growing appetite for binge-watching. If HBO showed what could be achieved through a succession of ambitious and generously funded shows, Netflix opened the floodgates through its consumer-friendly approach, upping the ante by allowing viewers to watch at their own pace and on whatever device they had to hand.
Now, consumer demand has led to an era of feverish commissioning and eye-watering budgets across the networks. According to the Economist, Netflix splashed out $13bn on content in 2018, with the majority going on new commissions. While Wenger won’t be drawn on BBC drama’s financial outgoings, he says that budgets have increased sufficiently that “we can play in genres that we couldn’t have done justice to in the past”.
All of which is great news for actors. “I’ve never been as busy as I am now,” says Daniel Mays, star of Line of Duty, Born to Kill and the forthcoming Sky One drama Temple. “Now you can really take the audience on a journey. Temple will be eight episodes at an hour long each. It gives us an incredible platform and the range to dig deep. Plus, the crossover among actors from film to TV is massive. When you’re working with actors of that calibre, it really raises your game.”
Certainly, television is increasingly the place to be for Hollywood actors. In the era of “safe” cinema franchises, from Marvel and DC to Star Wars and Bourne, there is a sense that greater variety and experimentation can be found on TV. Older women in particular are finding meatier roles on the small screen: think Julia Roberts in Homecoming, Winona Ryder in Stranger Things and Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon in Big Little Lies. Nicholls has observed this blurring of the boundaries between TV and film. “As a writer, I no longer have to put on my TV hat,” he says. “I’m not suggesting there’s money to burn but there are things you can do now. You used to have to consciously limit your locations, or avoid scenes with large numbers of people, as these were tricky to implement. There was a kind of chamber quality to a lot of British TV, much of it wonderful, but now if you watch a prestige show like Peaky Blinders, it’s very cinematic.”
While this increased ambition and scale is understandably seductive to writers and actors, what about the viewers? With a near-constant stream of new shows being flagged up, the choice can be overwhelming. And just because a show looks pretty and has set tongues wagging doesn’t mean it’s any good. “Starting something new definitely requires a level of commitment,” reflects Mays. “It can become this mountain to climb. We’re awash with content, so the worry is whether or not the production you’re working on can make an impact. It’s a fierce marketplace and the competition is stiff. Finding the audience seems to me to be the final hurdle.”
Clearly there are greater challenges ahead. While Netflix continues to pile on subscribers, the rate of growth has started to slow; a price increase was recently announced for US viewers. Meanwhile, Disney is soon to join the party with its own platform, Disney+; Apple’s streaming service is set to launch this year; while Amazon Prime Video is proving a worthy adversary with series such as Transparent, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and an upcoming bank-busting Lord of the Rings series. If greater competition means more content, does more content mean quantity over quality? Mays thinks not. “I haven’t seen a dumbing down of anything – at least not yet. Looking at new projects, you have to think about who is writing it and who is going to be involved. But I see the rising competition as a positive thing. It’s good for actors but I think television as a whole has been enriched.”
This improved picture, however, does not extend to representation. Behind the scenes, TV remains predominantly white and male, with a report last year stating that only 2.3% of it was made by directors from a BAME (black, Asian, minority ethnic) background. “It’s not enough to have more people in EastEnders and more people doing the weather,” Lenny Henry told the Press Association. Henry has been campaigning to increase the number of women, disabled and BAME people working on telly and film. “All we’re asking for is a seat at the table,” he told the BBC. While representation behind the camera is still evolving, Wenger says that the continued success of drama commissioning lies in long-term accessibility. “We already have the box-set system where series are available for longer. A BBC show might land live and be a moderate success and later you’ll see a spike on iPlayer. But I think that a heavily curated service could be of renewed value to the audience, rather than having to comb through an endless onscreen menu,” he says. “Clearly the future is about a mix of live viewing for the communal experience and the luxury of watching eight episodes of finely crafted drama on catchup. I don’t think one will annihilate the other. These things can work symbiotically.”
McGee certainly doesn’t see the on-demand bubble bursting just yet. “There’s always going to be a market for choice,” she says. In the face of that, audiences may continue to fragment but – as we found out with Bodyguard – it only takes Richard Madden taking his shirt off to bring them together again.
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