If there was a Bafta award for Most Woke Television Drama, a BBC production would win every year hands down. Consider some of 2020’s highlights alone: Noughts and Crosses, set in an alternate world where the ruling class is black and in which white people are the victims of racism; My Name is Leon, about a mixed-race boy growing up in care; and A Suitable Boy, a drama about arranged marriages with an entirely Indian cast. And of course, there’s always the female lead in Doctor Who, a series that now features storylines about civil rights, the environment and even allusions to Brexit.
That’s fine really, and nothing new by the BBC’s dependably grating track record. The real problem, however, is when the Corporation starts tinkering with historical drama or stories adapted from classic literature. Last year, it released an interpretation of War of The Worlds, in which a nameless minor character from the 1898 HG Wells novel was given a leading role. Elsewhere in its production of A Christmas Carol, Bob Cratchit’s family became mixed-race, while Bram Stoker’s Dracula was recently rendered bisexual.
Although this annoys plenty of viewers, especially fans of the original texts, it does not bother the BBC’s head of drama, who argues that the corporation must ‘repurpose’ classic novels by giving them female, black and Asian characters. Speaking at the launch of youth-focused BBC dramas this week, Piers Wenger said the BBC has a duty to represent the country as it is now, not how it was in the 19th century.
‘They were adaptations of books that were written a long time ago – hundreds of years ago – but we are repurposing them for a contemporary audience.’ Wenger said that period dramas not only need to speak to a modern audience but ‘represent a contemporary world.’ He added: ‘I really object when I hear “woke” used in a pejorative way, because what does “woke” really mean? If it means quality being important, and fair representation being important, then yes absolutely, that’s important to me.’
The problem is that most of the viewing public doesn’t like woke drama – as Doctor Who‘s dwindling audience testifies. Viewers find the manipulation and mangling of classic 19th century novels for cultural-political ends profoundly irritating and vaguely sinister.
It’s one thing to compromise the integrity of original texts, but it’s another to deliberately misrepresent the past. Sure, A Christmas Carol is fiction, but it was written in and exists in a 19th century London that is real and authentic. Its author was a former journalist with a fine eye for detail. And though there were mixed-race families in London in 1843 there were far fewer than today, and Dickens never mentioned the race of the Cratchit family.
Of course, we all know why such alterations are made. But in changing the London represented in 1843, the BBC is changing people’s perception of this country’s past. It’s rewriting history by the second degree. This is the ultimate reason why many find woke adaptations devious and menacing. It amounts to rewriting the past to suit the present.
I gave up on original BBC drama a long time ago for this reason. It’s going the same way as BBC television and radio comedy, which has become consumed by politics at the expense of humour. The likes of Mock The Week or The Now Show have been ruined by leftish, anti-Brexit harpings. And the best original comedy is now produced by the Dave channel, which appreciates that making people laugh is comedy’s number one priority.
Likewise, the best drama in recent years has either been in a foreign language, such as Spiral, Borgen or Gomorrah, or was not developed with the BBC – such as Breaking Bad, Games of Thrones and Chernobyl, programmes with gripping storylines, great characterisation and no transparent propaganda on show in their composition.
A good drama’s number one priority is to tell a good story. When we know producers are manipulating us, it distracts us and detracts from the storyline. The BBC needs all the friends it can get at the moment and its defence of deceitful woke drama won’t do it any favours.
Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked and author of Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times (Societas, 2017)