The comedy writer, David Quantick, recently wrote an article for the ‘Independent’ in which he made a lucid and impassioned plea on behalf of scripted comedy (mainly as opposed to improvised panel shows).
I agree with all the points that Quantick made. If I was going to try my hardest to nit-pick, I would say that there are two arguable weaknesses in his position. (1) He writes for ‘Harry Hill’s TV Burp’ (a fact which he openly admitted in his article and which some berk at the Independent obligingly repeated at the bottom). While HHTVB is scripted, it cheats by being dependent on the week’s TV, i.e. other scripted and unscripted material. (2) David Quantick himself appeared on ‘Celebrity Come Dine With Me’ – an (allegedly) unscripted programme (in which he came last, which was a travesty).
I do not propose to hold either of these things against Mr Quantick, nor do they contradict or devalue his polemic.
I say that the same rationale applies to drama.
Decades ago, as the UK teetered on the brink represented by the arrival of cable and satellite broadcasting (few people had heard of the Internet in those days) it was publicly observed that breaking the duopoly of the BBC and ITV would only make things worse. UK observers from North America reported “36 channels [an unimaginably large number] by cable – and crap on every one”. In those days, all drama was scripted. Those who did not like classic serials were well-supplied with contemporary drama such as ‘Minder’.
Both comedy and drama (as they have always done) pushed the boundary of what was considered acceptable. As we get nearer and nearer to the present day, audiences expect more and more terrible things to happen to the characters in TV drama. The art of writing a good drama script (as Lynda la Plante seems to deliberately ignore sometimes) is to produce an ending which is plausible and realistic but still allows the viewer to feel that he or she has gained something from watching, and has some grounds (however complicated) for optimism.
The scripted element of searching for new material on the borders of acceptability is no longer fashionable or, so Simon Cowell would have us believe, marketable.
What do the following programmes all have in common?
X Factor, Masterchef, Dragon’s Den, The Apprentice, Big Brother, I’m A Celebrity, Come Dine With Me, Four Weddings (and so forth.)
Answer: the tension in all of them is provided by unscripted scenes of emotional abuse.
The camera always lies. Everything you see in photographs, on film and on TV is artificial. At the very least, it lies by omission, by being highly selective in a manner that the viewer never gets to examine.
I say that seeing horrible things being done to people in a scripted programme (such as an adaptation of ‘A Christmas Carol’, or an episode of ‘Waking the Dead’) is never as bad as seeing it happening in a so-called ‘reality’ TV programme. In ‘reality’ TV, the cruelty is in the moment and represents the sum total of what the viewer is expected to get out of the programme: an admiration for the sarcasm of the perpetrator, a contempt for the victim, and a satisfaction or relief that the person it happened to wasn’t oneself.
Before I conclude, I should also point out that when I say ‘scripted drama’, I don’t mean soaps. Soap operas do not accord writers the freedom that talented writers deserve. Soap scripts (so I am told) are written at two levels: the storyline and the individual episode. The writers of the individual episodes (the subordinate role) are told what the storyline is and which characters they need to involve. The rest is just getting through half an hour. It is to this strait-jacket that I attribute the fact that most soaps (Corrie, Eastenders, Emmerdale – and The Archers – for example) leave almost no impression on me.
As well as everything that Quantick said about scripted comedy, I say bring back prime time, scripted, non-soap drama. Make it edgy, contemporary, dark. Even disturbing. But no vampires, no wizards, no stately homes, and a believable ending which makes the viewer think that there might be some point in carrying on after all.