As we’ve noted previously, Paul Abbott was one of Russell T Davies’ primary mentors in television. And State of Play remains his big prestige project, making it a useful thing to look at as we try to answer one of the most difficult questions about Doctor Who imaginable: what should we have expected Russell T Davies’s Doctor Who to look like. After all, we know the answer to this. We know it so well that it’s easier to look at Davies’ past career as a prelude to Doctor Who than it is to figure out what a reasonable set of expectations for his Doctor Who would have been. And so State of Play is interesting as a near-miss: a story by a writer Davies invited to work on the new series, written as a high-profile BBC One drama, but far enough away from Davies and Doctor Who that it doesn’t invite direct comparison. Instead it lets us ask the more important question: what does major BBC drama look like in the mid-aughts?
In many ways what’s most interesting is that we have major BBC drama again. The nineties were not good for the BBC, not least because of the consequences of John Birt’s management, itself a holdover from the Thatcher/Major era. But by 2003 Tony Blair’s Labour government was thoroughly established, life in Britain was seeming pretty peachy, and the swellings of something approximating national pride were underway – more on which next Wednesday. And the BBC was starting to get into a mood where it thought seriously about doing major productions again. It was getting a bit of Reithian spring in its step again and having executives unironically proclaim it a force for good and the like. And this changed the sorts of things it aired. Eventually it would lead to it having a daft idea to create family-friendly drama for a Saturday teatime slot in a mad bid to reclaim the time slot from ITV. But for now it’s somewhat simpler: the BBC starts making high profile event dramas again.
Or, perhaps more to the point, it starts making ones that aren’t costume dramas. Costume dramas, after all, were safe – endlessly exportable to America for flogging in the Masterpiece time slot. But something like State of Play? At six episodes it doesn’t easily and straightforwardly fit into anything except maybe the HBO/Showtime paradigm, and they hardly rush to buy random British programs. It wasn’t suitable for Masterpiece, nor for Mystery. So it was apparently going to have to live or die on its British qualities.
On the other hand the cast assembled for this is… impressive. A fair amount of it is “before they were famous” types, admittedly – David Yates wasn’t a film director yet, and James McAvoy was firmly up-and-coming. Nevertheless, this is a TV series that boasts James McAvoy, John Simm, David Morrissey, Kelly MacDonald, and Bill Nighy from the guy who went on to direct five Harry Potter films. You don’t assemble a cast like that unless you’re shooting for real quality, and you don’t attract them unless you have it in the script.
The thing is, this isn’t where these actors are making their big money. I mean, it’s not like the pay is bad or anything, but the BBC isn’t where you go to make piles of money. I’m certainly not going to wax poetic about the sheer charitable generosity of actors working within the BBC, but equally, these are the jobs actors take because they’re fun. Benedict Cumberbatch makes his money doing The Hobbit, Star Trek, and Jaguar ads. Sherlock surely pays more than enough to live on, but it’s not the job he takes for the money. Which is to say that, admittedly lubricated by satisfying amounts of money, there is a sense of “doing it because it’s art and going to be satisfying to work on” here that ties in implicitly with the BBC’s old Reithian public service model.
That model is also reflected in the tenor of the script, which is focused heavily on a modern day social realism. It’s a story about the systemic nature of corruption, and about how even people who want to make a difference end up, in various other ways, tacitly supporting the system they’re working to change. It’s one that calmly moves from the people tumbling off the bottom of the social ladder to the heights of power. And, perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t make the change once. The story of Kelvin Stagg’s family and their grief remains a part of the story well past the point where Kelvin’s murder has given way to larger political issues, and in an intriguingly non-preachy way. On the one hand we get to see their anger at how Kelvin is being posthumously treated, and their anger gets to hang like a cloud over things. But on the other, the series doesn’t try to pretend that it’s more interesting or exciting than the broad political machinations. And this is tied to David Yates’s very simple camerawork, which owes a huge debt to the fly-on-the-wall, handheld look of things like Cathy Come Home.
So on the one hand we’ve got a resurgence of social realism and depictions of the working class. Much of this is down to Paul Abbott himself – a writer who came out of an illiterate family and extreme poverty, and for whom the working class is generally his main milieu. He wrote State of Play in part in response to Head of Drama Jane Tranter’s suggestion that he write something bigger, and in part by his anger at being pigeonholed as a working class writer who only worked from his own autobiography. But again, Abbott doesn’t exist in a vacuum; we’ve already seen Davies’s interest in the working class. And what’s more significant than Abbott’s personal focuses is, again, the fact that he’s who BBC One is tapping for a major drama. Yes, he’s writing about the halls of power, but he’s still writing about the halls of power like a writer invested in social realism and the working class.
What’s worth highlighting about all of this is the fact that the Reithian model and social realism go hand in hand. The idea that the BBC has an obligation to make high-quality television that speaks to a broad audience is a huge part of what the Reith/Greene model of the what the BBC is, as is the social realist aspect of it. Implicit in the idea that the BBC should provide “something for everyone” in the UK is an idea of national unity. That’s the weird and at times absolutely gorgeous tension within the Reith/Greene model: social realism is an act of patriotism and part of the service mission of the BBC. And that’s very clearly the tradition State of Play comes out of.
But, of course, it’s not Hugh Greene’s BBC anymore. It’s a BBC that’s gone through Michael Grade and John Birt, that’s embraced reality television, and that’s done its flirtation with mass appeal and competition. And so the sort of neo-Greeniean BBC that State of Play (and, let’s just tip our hand outright, Doctor Who) come out of is one that is still focused on mass entertainment and the bottom line. Which is to say that while State of Play is clearly focused on social realism and a notion of the BBC as a force of national unity it’s also unapologetically a tawdry thriller with lots of sex. It finds excuses to have action scenes, several of them quite good. It’s an ornately plotted machine of wild plot twists that makes 24 look like the slapdash mess it is.
But even here there’s a quiet commitment to complexity and difficulty. State of Play moves incredibly quickly, and has very little fat. Vital plot information is dispensed with casual dialogue, and the plot is merciless to people who aren’t paying attention. This is, of course, done with one eye firmly on the general principle of increasing narrative density that we’ve looked at before. Lots happens and it’s hard to follow, but it’s played with an eye towards coherence. What’s important is less the minute details of the conspiracy than what the characters want and where their moods are. You don’t need to follow the intricacies of the plot when you can follow John Simm and Kelly MacDonald’s complex relationship. The why of what’s happening can be overlooked in favor of the implications of what’s happening. And as tough to follow as the plot may be, come the final episode it suddenly reverts to the most simple emotional stakes imaginable, all coming down to an adulterous man and his jealousy. Just as the entire plot bursts out of what appears to be a small-scale big of gang violence, it all comes down to a different sort of small scale: sex. And that’s so instinctively, easily depicted that you can miss large swaths of the preceding six hours and know exactly what’s going on there.
And perhaps more to the point, there’s something going on here that we used to be impressed by. This is, after all, genre collision. It’s just going on outside of Doctor Who. Mind you, plenty of things besides Doctor Who have been doing genre fusion of late. But it’s still worth remarking on the degree to which Doctor Who’s standard operating procedure has become television’s standard operating procedure. State of Play works by colliding the thriller genre with social realism and seeing what happens. And, more to the point, this is a collision that Doctor Who couldn’t do. This isn’t some claim that Doctor Who is obsolete, obviously – there are scads of stuff it’s uniquely suited to. Rather, it’s an observation about the extent to which television has become, on a fundamental level, friendlier to Doctor Who.
The other thing we should note is just that British television, as an institution, better suited to this sort of television than American television was. In the US what might be called prestige television was a relatively new thing. But the British system, which has always favored shorter runs of television. The fact that virtually everything on American television is an ongoing series, often with 22 episodes a year, fundamentally limits what you can do. British television, by working with shorter seasons, both allows for storytelling with a structure other than “go forever” and allows actors to sign up for television without signing their lives away. In the US this sort of thing is mostly reserved for cable channels, in particular the premium ones like HBO that make their money off of subscription fees.
But in the UK it’s possible to have prestige dramas designed to be a massively populist event. And that means that there’s a different sort of television going on here. I can’t find ratings figures on State of Play, so let’s go ahead and use current Sherlock. They’re similar enough shows, after all. Seventeen percent of the country watched A Scandal in Belgravia. To be clear, Sherlock is a high-performing drama, but it’s not the biggest thing in Britain or anything. Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey do comparable numbers. (Downton Abbey a bit better, actually). Whereas in American television the outright highest rated drama, NCIS, pulled an average of seven percent of the country. Even huge pieces of event television like the Academy Awards don’t pull what Sherlock does.
This is, in other words, a fundamentally different model. In one sense this ties back to the Reith/Greene approach. Britain has a model of television in which something can be a national event in a way that television in the US just doesn’t attain. And more to the point, it’s reasonably possible to design something to that purpose and make it a high-end marquee event with extremely good actors, writing, and direction. And while everything we’ve talked about this post – the return of social realism, the storytelling techniques, and the basic move towards prestige television – has a real impact and influence on Doctor Who, it’s this that is perhaps the most significant development, especially in the wake of the marginality of the wilderness years. Certainly it’s the thing that Doctor Who fans of the wilderness years were least able to wrap their heads around going in. Doctor Who was being designed to be a cultural centerpiece of the United Kingdom. That’s the big change.