Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 58 (State of Play)
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.
April 8, 2013 @ 12:47 am
"What should we have expected Russell T Davies's Doctor Who to look like," – going to do a 'Pop Between…' for The Second Coming?
"Life in Britain was seeming pretty peachy," – bit of a stretch.
"Modern day social realism," – surely it's unambiguously a conspiracy thriller? That's what it felt like to me at the time. It owes loads more to Edge of Darkness than Cathy Come Home and genre fusion might be overemphasising this a little. The ways in which big political events impact on normal families in significant ways has always been a staple of that kind of thriller. Neat telegraphing for Children of Earth though. Social realism never went away, but it wasn't to be found here.
April 8, 2013 @ 1:17 am
The Shadow Line, which seems more directly comparable, got about three million viewers on its first episode, and ended up hovering about two million. (Source: Wikipedia.)
(That The Shadow Line has viewing figures much less than Sherlock is not surprising though.)
April 8, 2013 @ 1:25 am
The Long Firm will be a much better yardstick to compare against than The Shadow Line or Sherlock.
April 8, 2013 @ 5:58 am
April 8, 2013 @ 6:38 am
Please let this be one of the few places on the internet where we don't descend into slagging 'her' off.
I appreciate that british politics comes into the discussion by the nature of this blog and it's attempts to place DW in the wider context of Britain / the world at the time of whatever story we are reviewing, but…
Understand that some of your fellow readers / posters really liked her, and are already fed up (after only 4 hours!) that the whole world seems to think that we need to hear their opinion on her!!!
April 8, 2013 @ 6:40 am
More importantly, how do I get the f****** apostrophe in my name to show up correctly…
What's a #39 when it's at home???!!!
April 8, 2013 @ 6:46 am
An apostrophe apparently. He has to get all dolled up when he goes out.
And this is what happens when a public figure dies. There is a fervor. More so with someone like Thatcher who was…controversial to put it kindly. She inspired strong feelings in a lot of people. I got 2 invitations to parties celebrating her passing before I got to the office this morning. Now THAT is a legacy.
April 8, 2013 @ 6:48 am
I've nothing to add to the year or so of coverage of the Thatcher era I've already done, including, admittedly, today's post, which still reels in her legacy.
But I'm not going to stop anybody in comments either.
April 8, 2013 @ 6:59 am
Oh, and David Yates directed only four Harry Potter films, not five.
April 8, 2013 @ 7:03 am
God's Gift (and others) I want to phrase this comment in a way that is not trolling and not looking to start a fight. I am honestly looking to understand:
What is it about Thatcher that makes her so compelling? Especially in the face of massive deregulation (even in areas where there wasn't really a competitive field) and her frankly atrocious treatment of the Unions? I don't understand why she's held in such high regard.
April 8, 2013 @ 8:20 am
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April 8, 2013 @ 8:28 am
I've read the entry…but it covers what Thatcher stood for, from the point of view of Dr. Sandifier. I somehow have the feeling that the point of view from the right sees things very different. When I think about her, she's synonymous with things she did like escalating the Troubles, wire tapping Union Bosses, destroying Social Assistance Frameworks. I can't see where this reverence comes into the equation. I don't know how you get past the order to sink a retreating Argentinian vessel that is outside the exclusion zone.
But I want to understand, even if I'm never going to agree.
April 8, 2013 @ 8:29 am
@ Theonlyspiral –
I refer the Hon. Gentleman/Gentlewoman to this post:
Which, oddly, I read a couple of weeks ago (and discovered the Pete Wiley song).
I think this sums up why she's such a powerful totem, an article written after she was forced out of office, from 1990 – still resonates today:
April 8, 2013 @ 9:33 am
From BARB's website:
Part 1 – 5.78m
Part 2 – 4.58m
Part 3 – 5.55m
Part 4 – 5.28m
Part 5 – 4.67m
Part 6 – 5.27m
… so a little better than half Sherlock's audience
April 8, 2013 @ 9:36 am
Thanks. I'll update the post later with the actual information. (I'm surprised it was so low for such a landmark – though if I recall they debuted parts 2-5 on BBC3 or 4 right after the preceding part aired, which probably lost at least a non-trivial number of viewers.)
April 8, 2013 @ 9:42 am
I've never had any liking for Thatcher – I can't even stand to hear her hectoring, patronising voice – but I can have a go at explaining the opposite perspective to your own.
She took a hard line on the IRA – well, they did kill a number of her friends, and came damn close to killing her. And her hard line was an insistence on treating terrorists as criminals. Would that later administrations – in the UK and the US – had stuck to that hard line.
She took on the unions – the unions were widely regarded as having been taking the piss for a good decade, and her greatest union opponent, Arthur Scargill, was explicitly trying to bring down the democratically elected government.
Sinking the Belgrano – the exclusion zone applied only to neutral shipping, not to Argentine naval vessels which were fair game anywhere at sea. The sinking is regarded as a legitimate act of war by, inter alia, the Argentine Navy and the captain of the Belgrano himself. A war, by the way, fought in defence of British people against a brutal dictatorship, which succeeded against all the odds and with only three civilian casualties, and which led to the ending of that regime in Argentina.
There are many things one could add to this. She won three elections, because many people in Britain regarded her as a strong leader standing up for them.
It's interesting that so many of the things that Thatcher's critics fix on are the great conflicts, where her supporters can argue that the fights were necessary and the price worth paying. I would actually criticise Thatcher for some policies that were not at all necessary, and that have been very harmful – the sale of council houses, for example, an exercise in social engineering that has decimated the affordable housing stock and resulted in tremendous economic and social pressures that persist to this day.
But I would also recognise her positive actions that are not widely appreciated. Her personal support for UK involvement in CERN, important to basic science, and also to the creation of world wide web as an open, universal network. Her early recognition of the problem of climate change, and her founding of the Hadley Climate Centre. As Education Secretary, her reversal of her predecessor's decision to close the Open University, one of Britain's finest institutions.
One of the things that shapes her cultural impact and shapes her legacy is that she was (or seemed to be) an utter philistine with respect to the arts. Doing something interesting, useless and expensive was something she could happily support in science, but she couldn't understand or accept in the arts. Consequently, the storytellers and mythbuilders have always hated her, and her public image for good or ill is conditioned by the stories people tell as much as by the measurable effects of her policies.
April 8, 2013 @ 10:18 am
Chartier on Gabb on Thatcher:
April 8, 2013 @ 11:02 am
I doubt BBC3 has ever had a non-trivial number of viewers. (Even Being Human never reached two million.)
I don't think landmark necessarily translates into wide popular appeal. I see from wikipedia that in the same year that Bill Nighy won the BAFTA for Best Actor at the National Television Awards the Best Actor went to David Jason in Touch of Frost. I think the success of Downton Abbey, Sherlock, and Doctor Who is that they simulataneously appeal to both audience demographics.
Pen Name Pending
April 8, 2013 @ 12:13 pm
State of Play was actually aired last year – or maybe 2011 – on BBC America. I think it was the show they picked to start their "Wednesday Drama" slot.
Pen Name Pending
April 8, 2013 @ 12:30 pm
Also, wasn't Paul Abnett supposed to write a series 1 episode where Rose was revealed to have been engineered by the Doctor to be a perfect companion? It was replaced by "Boom Town" because he didn't have enough time to write it. I like to imagine that there is an alternate universe where it was broadcast. Imagine how different the show would have been (and still be)!
April 9, 2013 @ 12:07 am
Mmm, it sounds like a fairly icky, uncomfortable idea to me, TBH, I'm glad it never made it to screen. From his comments , it sounds like RTD wasn't very happy with the idea, so I suspect if Abbott had gone on to write an episode he'd have been guided into writing about something else.
April 9, 2013 @ 12:08 am
(This referring to the Doctor engineering Rose idea, BTW, sorry for posting to the wrong place!)
April 9, 2013 @ 12:16 am
I wonder if State of Play's stock has risen partly in retrospect. I have no real evidence for it, other than the fact that it completely passed me by at the time, but myself and various friends have subsequently discovered it on DVD. The Hollywood film adaptation might have given it something of a boost, as might the fact that the lead actors, whilst by no means unknown as you point out, nonetheless went on to do some especially high-profile and/or popular things over the subsequent years such as Life on Mars and Love Actually.
Whilst it's hard to compare things eight years apart, Sherlock felt to me like a bigger deal right at the moment of its first broadcast. It has a few advantages over State of Play in terms of giving it an immediate boost: based on an established character who everybody knows, who'd recently returned to the spotlight in a (slightly) more traditional mode with the Ritchie films; written by writers of that popular Doctor Who thing with Sherlock's debut scheduled to be around the time of Who series 5, possibly as a conscious effort to piggy back on that audience appeal.
April 9, 2013 @ 12:40 am
I find it very interesting that your coverage of contemporary television seems to have become more and more guided by auteurist concerns. This is certainly not intended as a criticism; it's definitely a useful way of understanding how Doctor Who was reinvented and may perhaps provide the best understanding of the general trajectory of TV drama. Still, I can't help feeling that the biggest deal in terms of genre/thriller television in the Greg Dyke period of the BBC lies somewhere outside of the Davies/Abbott/Moffatt community of writers.
I would sugges that this was Spooks, a programme which the BBC really pushed as a flagship series, which tangibly became "watercooler" event TV and which was demonstrably popular enough to achieve a ten-year run, the core of which ran in parallel to RTD's Who. It's a show which I find especially fascinating as it superficially adopts the state-vs-terrorists model of 24 and Blair-Bush discourse, yet is continually wracked with a particularly British sense of post-imperial anxiety and guilt. I used to flippantly describe it as a right-wing series written by left-wing writers, and that was before I discovered the faintly mind-boggling fact that Howard Brenton regularly wrote for the early seasons.
Overall, I would argue that Spooks is perhaps more significant than State of Play for Doctor Who's revival narrative in terms of demonstrating the success of multi-author, long-running, somewhat outlandish genre television with high production values and greater export potential serving as a tentpole of the BBC's schedule. In addition, I would suggest that when RTD Doctor Who goes 'political thriller' with episodes like Aliens of London and The Sound of Drums, its substantially riffing on Spooks yet semi-deliberatley subverting the the latter's bleak, earnest and super-serious tone with colour and whimsy.
(If you're about to write about Spooks in the next few weeks, then this post will look kinda silly and premature, but I'm assuming you probably won't as you've missed its 2002 debut and gone for a different thriller from the same period.)
April 9, 2013 @ 5:50 am
Spooks seems particularly relevant at the moment, given Neil Cross's emergence as a writer for Doctor Who…
April 9, 2013 @ 6:07 am
I thought about Spooks – it also had the bonus of having been mildly successful in the US, albeit under a new title (MI-5). Ultimately I didn't feel like doing both in a post, and picked State of Play partially because I enjoy it far more and partially because I felt like the Abbott/Davies connection was a useful bonus.
April 9, 2013 @ 6:08 am
Indeed. I actually find it slightly incredible that, despite the long runs of both programmes, the large episode counts and the large numbers of writers employed, it's taken this long for any writer to get to write for both Spooks and Doctor Who.
April 9, 2013 @ 6:13 am
Fair enough – State of Play is more fun!
April 9, 2013 @ 1:21 pm
David Tennant talks about auditioning for the role of Tom Quinn in a DWM interview conducted just as he was leaving Doctor Who – I paraphrase but his sentiments were 'clearly the best man for the job got the role' (and also what a fantastic role it was).
April 9, 2013 @ 2:13 pm
James Moran (writer of "Fires of Pompeii") wrote an episode of Spooks in series 7.
April 9, 2013 @ 2:18 pm
Yes. EDGE OF DARKNESS — from the 1980s and the Thatcher era — is the relevant yardstick here. It's still widely reckoned as possibly the finest thing the BBC ever did and STATE OF PLAY can only aspire to be its palest shadow.
EDGE also has the advantage of being far more truly "genre fusion," since its concerns with "the Nuclear State" (and that state's enemies) keep on expanding till they take on truly apocalyptic proportions by the last episode.
April 9, 2013 @ 3:44 pm
Same. At the very least, it'd be the wrong thing to do with the very first New Series companion, the intro to the concept for the audience. It'd make the Doctor seem really skeevy.
(Mind you, at this point, there's been enough Doctors on TV that we could introduce one that had an arc of skeeviness and have it be seen the way it's supposed to be.)
April 10, 2013 @ 5:30 am
So… where's the Wednesday update? :-/
April 10, 2013 @ 5:50 am
Phil's probably too busy watching the fallout from Mrs T's death.
April 10, 2013 @ 5:51 am
"Doctor Who: The Arc of Skeeviness" tonight on BBC-1.
I remember hearing about this as well, and I really worry that Clara will turn out to be a version of this idea.
April 10, 2013 @ 10:40 am
And now, Carson on Thatcher: