Here’s the brilliant, insipring speech that Peter Bowker gave to open this year’s BBC TV Writers’ Festival:
Before I begin, before we begin what I hope will be two days of discovery and support and inspiration, I want to name the elephant in the room. When I’m faced with a room full of hungry, ambitious writers who are starting to make an impact with their work I am reminded of a Frank Skinner gag. He said that he never liked presenting the ‘Best Newcomer Award’ because he hated the part of him that wanted them to be shit.
Now I have got that out of the way I think we can proceed in the spirit of false bonhomie and solidarity and that such gatherings demand …
First I would like to show some clips. (Clips shown as follows : Z Cars, Rising Damp, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, Brass, Coronation Street, London’s Burning, Minder, Auf Weidersein Pet, Soldier, Soldier and Beiderbecke Affair.)
I chose those particular clips because I wanted to celebrate ambition in a strand of British drama I regard as every bit as significant and valuable as the social realist tradition that began with Cathy Come Home, continued through Boys From the Blackstuff, Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday, and thrives today in the work of Tony Marchant and Neil McKay to name but two.
I am not in any way denigrating this tradition, not least because Tony Marchant is involved in this very conference and he’s bigger and younger than me, although I have more hair. In part, I am talking about ambition in mainstream drama in response to an article written by Mark Lawson last year in which he highlighted what he saw as wrong with British television drama. Amongst other things, was the fact that I had somehow strayed from the true path by attempting to write a medical series.
“It seems almost obligatory for UK drama series to involve either cops or docs: even Peter Bowker, one of our most original writers, has succumbed to the surgical-procedural with Monroe.” Buried in this back handed complement was, I think, a common attitude: That writing genre or mainstream drama is automatically evidence of a lack of ambition.
So when Kate Rowland and Danny Brocklehurst tricked me into Chairing this event for the price of a pint of lager I decided it would be worth briefly bearing witness to the existence of genuine ambition in television works that form a parallel, maybe less celebrated tradition.
How brave, for instance, is the clip from Rising Damp. The conversation between Richard Beckinsdale and Don Warrington on Rigbsy’s couch about the fact that Richard Beckinsdale’s character has never had a black friend before and doesn’t have the language to express that to his black friend. A masterclass in how to use the unsayable in order to say everything. And it’s funny.
In the Likely Lads how poignant and real is Terry’s despairing line to Bob that if he goes down to London he might “catch the tail end” of the permissive society? ‘Brass’ was deconstructing costume drama as far back as 1983. A masterful example of a drama that existed both as a comedic parody of the form and a compelling drama in its own right. Mad Men eat your heart out. You aren’t the first drama to have your cake and eat it.
These mainstream shows were dealing with race, class, social mobility, gender politics, family dynamic, and, in the case of Minder, deconstructing the values of the 1980s with an astonishingly forensic satire. In the case of Brass and the under-rated Lost in Austen, two comedy dramas take on the subject of storytelling itself.
Coronation Street, at its best, portrays the raw humour of family emotions with wit and dialogue that is on a par with Alan Ackybourn and Alan Bennett. Sally Wainwright’s Braithwaites dramatised the false hope of the lottery culture and Lucy Gannon’s Soldier, Soldier dealt with the politics of masculinity and class in a 9pm Monday night ITV show watched by millions.
I am making what may be considered grandiose claims for these dramas because I feel their popularity and humour has served to mask the ambition that sits at the heart of them. In fact, I would claim that Alan Plater and Jack Rosenthal are the two most influential television writers of the Golden generation that produced Alan Bleasdale, Troy Kennedy Martin and Dennis Potter.
I would argue that the latter three are such one-offs that although we have much to learn from them in terms of boldness, we have more to learn from Plater, Rosenthal and Clement and Le Frenais, about the template for returning series which, whatever anybody tells you, remains the absolute bedrock of television drama.
Alan Plater’s ‘Beiderbecke Affair’ was, on the surface, a gentle Sunday night caper serial about a man obsessed with the first great white jazz trumpet player, Bix Beiderbecke. But what Alan Plater managed to achieve over six hours on ITV in 1985 was a celebration of an alternative Britain. A Britain where teachers – one generation on from their working class forebears – struggled with good humour to educate working class children in a large Leeds comprehensive known as San Quentin High. Where the Police were befuddled by local allotment holders, where the Big Society was already at work, and it was called solidarity. Where the establishment was slyly undermined by those who knew that they were despised by Thatcherism. It is a masterpiece in its celebration of ordinary people who rebel in small ways against the dominant values of the age. A celebration of the drop outs and the non-achievers, and whisper it, public servants.
Nobody talks about these issues in Plater’s gentle, slow paced, funny, serial but it nevertheless skewered the values of the day just as effectively as Blackstuff’s Yosser Hughes. I would argue that it is actually more subversive in that nobody saw it coming. I am not saying that television wouldn’t be poorer without the anguished headbutt of Yosser Hughes or the open wounds of Dennis Potter’s Philip Marlowe but that there is a neglected mainstream tradition where the ambition is all the greater for being more subtly deployed.
All are a prime example of the kind of ambition I am choosing to celebrate here. The mainstream drama with a depth of feeling and a point of view.
Which brings me back to Z Cars. The black and white clip at the beginning. Z Cars is everything that is most commonly criticised about television drama. It’s genre, it’s high volume, it’s cheaply made. It’s storylines and sets sometimes creak . And it’s a masterpiece. It shows what is possible. I would argue therefore that not only does Z Cars remain the single most significant British television drama, but it demonstrates most eloquently that ambition is not to be confused with scale, or adventurous form, or plot or even setting. It demonstrates that ambition in television drama is fundamentally about character and characterisation.
That is how a drama becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Everything is secondary to character. It is as evident in Paul Abbot’s ‘Reckless’, as it is in Toby Whithouse’s Being Human. It is as evident in Debbie Horsfield’s ‘Riff Raff Element’ as it is in Jack Thorne’s ‘This is England’. It is as evident in Heidi Thomas’ ‘Call the Midwife’ as it is in Billy Ivory’s ‘Common as Muck’.
I think that drama has to be about something, and I think an audience can tell pretty quickly if it isn’t. I have seen enough prestigious shows that are about nothing at all, and episodes of Coronation Street that are about everything that is important in the world to know that ambition is not the preserve of the shows which receive the critical acclaim and the high budgets.
In short, the main ambition of any drama should be that it is about something and that it knows what it is about and that the characters should carry those ideas through their action and dialogue. A statement of the bleeding obvious but then I’m not being paid for this, so if you want genuine profundity I refer you to my DVD collection which can be bought on the way out.