There have been two revolutions in television during my lifetime. The first happened in 1975 when Sony launched its Betamax video system — which allowed viewers to record shows and see them when they wanted. Of course, Betamax was found to be clunky and unreliable and it was soon replaced by VHS but, without realising it, the networks had lost control of their audience. No longer would we watch the films they wanted us to watch when they wanted us to watch them. Never again, as the technology spread, would the whole nation come together as one to find out what the newscasters had been up to on Morecambe and Wise.
The second revolution has been even more profound — and it’s happening right now. It can be defined in one word: Netflix. Founded in 1997, Netflix is the world’s number one television and film subscription service, even if there are other companies — Hulu, Vimeo, Amazon — snapping at its heels. It has 75 million users worldwide and an annual revenue of between $7 billion and $8 billion. Think of the most talked-about programmes of the past year: Narcos, House of Cards, Stranger Things and, most recently, The Crown. All of them premiered on Netflix. As a result of a Netflix documentary, Making a Murderer, half a million people signed a petition to free its main subject, Steven Avery.
Watching The Crown is instructive. It is, as every critic has agreed, glorious, unlike any television we have seen before. Brilliantly written by Peter Morgan and shot by Stephen Daldry channelling his inner David Lean, the first season is more like a ten-hour feature film than a TV series. And that’s the point. As latex-clad superheroes jump from one exploding city to the next, cinema has become a largely empty, dispiriting experience. For intelligence, warmth, emotional honesty and intellectual challenge, television is the only place to go.
Which is why directors like Paolo Sorrentino, Baz Luhrmann and Martin Scorsese as well as stars including Kevin Spacey, Jane Fonda and Jessica Lange have found their way there. Twenty years ago, it would have been the kiss of death for their careers. No longer. It just proves they’re smart.
As a result, we’re now glutting on brilliantly made, top-quality TV. The old model of one hour, one evening a week has been smashed — I wonder if a modern audience, particularly a younger audience, still has the capacity (or the patience) to carry a story in instalments. Right now, on Netflix or elsewhere, you can have 60 hours of dragons and nudity (Game of Thrones), 52 hours of Machiavellian politics (House of Cards), 75 hours of flesh-eating zombies (Walking Dead) and 112 hours of superb legal drama (The Good Wife). Life just isn’t long enough.
Unfortunately, as you might have suspected, every silver lining has a cloud and what is good news for audiences and for American broadcasters may not be quite so cheery for writers and producers back home in the UK. Why didn’t the BBC make The Crown? It’s about the most British story you could imagine with an almost entirely British cast and crew — and yet it almost feels as if it’s been stolen from us. The obvious answer is money. The first season had a much-reported budget of £100 million. To put that into perspective, it works out at about ten times more than the entire series — nine seasons — of my own Foyle’s War.
But it’s also a failure of ambition and imagination. Very rarely will a broadcaster in the UK commission as much as ten hours — and certainly not the 50 hours envisaged by Netflix (the next ten are already in production). You’re doing well if you get six. The opening scenes of George VI coughing up blood in the toilet — even the C-word used in a royal limerick — would never have made it on to the BBC or ITV.
Nor, indeed, would many programmes. If I had pitched a story about a chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer who becomes the country’s biggest supplier of crystal meth and finally loses himself in a welter of violence, I would have been laughed out of the room. There was never a chance of an English Breaking Bad (to be fair, four US networks turned it down). I did once pitch Lost — in some ways the father of these modern dramas — to a former controller of ITV who hadn’t seen it. He rejected it out of hand.
So where does that leave UK television drama? If I were running the BBC or ITV, I would be seriously worried. To an extent, both networks have allowed television drama to become a poor cousin of the reality shows that now sprawl across the schedules. As The X Factor got longer and longer, dominating the whole of Saturday evening and then quite a chunk of Sunday too, it was often difficult to find a spot for Foyle’s War. The BBC has done the same with Strictly Come Dancing. Channel 4 has made a show out of people watching shows. This is so much easier and safer than drama. Sadly, they get bigger audiences too.
And yet when a broadcaster pushes the boat out, when someone takes the risk, the results speak for themselves. Look at the £30 million blockbuster that was The Night Manager. Although it was largely US--funded, it had the BBC hallmark and has been sold in over 180 countries. Executives must be braver.
If there’s one show that exemplifies the gulf we now have to cross, it’s Criminal Justice (2008). It had a great writer in Peter Moffat, a major star in Ben Whishaw and won a slew of awards. But compare it to the American remake, The Night Of (HBO on-demand). In eight parts, not five, it’s edgier, darker, more violent — simply more cinematic. John Turturro as a public defender with an allergy to cats and a rotting skin disease — there was no such character in the UK version — and the very ambiguous ending both separate the show from the original and effortlessly demonstrate how far TV has travelled.
We should be grateful that British writers like Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley) and Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) show no sign of absconding, but they must be tempted. Programmes made in this country can seem very small and parochial… the action in the last episode of Line of Duty amounted to one machine-gunned window and a chase down a (quiet) street. Even the jewel in our own crown, Downton Abbey, it was said, began to look like a school play when it was compared to The Crown.
You could try and cast an English actor in his thirties or forties. But they’ve all gone to America. Try to shoot in London. The Americans have all the locations and they’re paying more than we can possibly afford. Companies like Netflix are cheerfully appropriating our talent, our ideas and even our royal family. For audiences and for some writers this is a golden age. But perhaps we should be worrying about what is being left behind.