Ed­i­tor’s Let­ter

Esquire (UK) - - Editor’s Letter - Alex Bilmes

as i write this, in late oc­to­ber, The Lit­tle Drum­mer Girl, the BBC’s lat­est le Carré adap­ta­tion, is only just hit­ting its stride. But al­ready 2018 has been an ex­cep­tional year for Bri­tish TV drama. Rat­tled by the ex­is­ten­tial threat of the stream­ing ser­vices, our ter­res­trial chan­nels have pro­duced a string of punchy en­ter­tain­ments that make all but the very best of those high-con­cept Amer­i­can shows seem pon­der­ous, por­ten­tous and far too pleased with them­selves.

Peter Mor­gan’s The Crown should be proof enough that no­body does stately pe­riod drama quite like us Brits. Char­lie Brooker’s Black Mir­ror con­firms that cut­ting-edge dystopias are still best smoked home­grown. But both of those, like so much chat­ter­ing-class fod­der, are made by Net­flix. If it’s not Net­flix, then it’s Ama­zon Prime, or it’s Hulu. Aren’t those the places that the greats of the form, the Dennis Pot­ters and Alan Bleas­dales of the fu­ture, will be work­ing for, rather than su­per­an­nu­ated Aun­tie or tacky old ITV? The money and the power is Hol­ly­wood’s, or Sil­i­con Val­ley’s. And you need a sub­scrip­tion to watch.

So it’s en­cour­ag­ing that this year Bri­tish pro­gramme-mak­ers have shown that any­thing the Amer­i­cans can do, we can do bet­ter. That there is much to be said for the self-con­tained se­ries that de­liv­ers on its prom­ise and doesn’t over­stay its wel­come. And that be­ing made to wait for the cli­max over a pe­riod of weeks, rather than swal­low­ing the thing whole in one binge-watch­ing gulp, still has wide ap­peal.

Jed Mer­cu­rio’s ex­plo­sive Bodyguard, on BBC One, is the show that hogged the head­lines, with its tick­ing-time­bomb open­ing episode, its in­cen­di­ary early dis­patch of Kee­ley Hawes’ home sec­re­tary, and its star-mak­ing turn from Richard Mad­den as the close (very close) pro­tec­tion of­fi­cer of the ti­tle. Plus: Richard Mad­den’s bot­tom.

Such was its suc­cess that Bodyguard threat­ened to cast a burly shadow over the many other ter­rific shows that aired this year. That it didn’t, or at least not quite, is tes­ta­ment to their ex­cel­lence.

Marx’s line about his­tory re­peat­ing it­self first as tragedy, then as farce was sel­dom bet­ter il­lus­trated than in A Very English Scan­dal, an­other BBC hit (co-pro­duced, ad­mit­tedly, with Ama­zon Prime). A drama­ti­sa­tion of John Pre­ston’s book about the Jeremy Thorpe af­fair, it was writ­ten by Rus­sell T Davies, di­rected by Stephen Frears, and starred Hugh Grant and Ben Wishaw — both su­perb — as the Lib­eral MP and the lover he plot­ted to have mur­dered. Ir­rev­er­ent and ec­cen­tric, A Very English Scan­dal packed more in­ci­dent into its three parts than most of those in­ter­minable stream­ing shows fit into seven sea­sons of 13 episodes each.

I was one of those Ed­ward St Aubyn devo­tees who ini­tially had lit­tle hope for Sky At­lantic’s Pa­trick Mel­rose. (Yes, a Show­time co-pro­duc­tion. But Bri­tish from its grubby toe­nails to its wonky teeth.) How could any TV show pos­si­bly cap­ture the as­trin­gent wit of the books? How would child abuse, heroin ad­dic­tion and frigid aris­to­cratic hau­teur make for suc­cess­ful Sun­day night drama? I hadn’t counted on the in­ge­nu­ity of David Ni­cholls’ adap­ta­tion, nor the fiendish bril­liance of Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch, in the ti­tle role.

Plenty of my fel­low hacks had prob­lems with the BBC’s Press, Mike Bartlett’s tale of war­ring news­pa­per folk, set in the of­fices of a tabloid much like The Sun and a broad­sheet much like The Guardian. Like firefighters tak­ing is­sue with the hose-work on Lon­don’s Burn­ing they wor­ried about the show’s verisimil­i­tude, grum­bling about the tidi­ness of the news­rooms and other mi­nor im­plau­si­bles. (Not like red-top re­porters, you’d think, to sweat the de­tails.) What they missed, with their nit­pick­ing, was the mad ex­u­ber­ance of the thing, es­pe­cially Ben Chap­lin’s per­for­mance as the slime-ball ed­i­tor of The Post. I have spent a fair amount of time in the com­pany of jour­nal­ists from both the pop­u­lar and the posher pa­pers, and Chap­lin’s smirk­ing smoothie is so ter­ri­fy­ingly ac­cu­rate a por­trait of a mod­ern tabloid ed­i­tor I wouldn’t be sur­prised if his agent took a call from Ru­pert Mur­doch him­self, of­fer­ing a job in the real world.

Not that it’s worth any­thing, but Chap­lin wins my award for TV ac­tor of the year, ahead of Grant, Wishaw, Cum­ber­batch and Mad­den. (Sup­port­ing ac­tor goes to Mad­den’s bot­tom.) Chap­lin’s Press co-star, Char­lotte Riley, makes the short­list for TV ac­tress, join­ing Killing Eve’s San­dra Oh and Jodie Comer, who aces the psy­cho of the year prize for her un­hinged Vil­lanelle. And the new Doc­tor Who, Jodie Whit­taker. All of those are BBC shows. (Killing Eve was made by BBC Amer­ica; I’m claim­ing it.) But the win­ner by a nose is Olivia Cooke, an ir­re­sistible Becky Sharp on ITV’s fizzy, ap­pro­pri­ately lib­erty-tak­ing Van­ity Fair.

Not ev­ery drama this year has come off so well. Jez But­ter­worth’s Ro­mans-on-a-bad-trip, Bri­tan­nia, on Sky At­lantic, failed to con­quer the na­tion. McMafia, for the BBC and AMC, was baf­fling, and dull. As for David Hare’s brow­beat­ing Col­lat­eral, on BBC Two… snore.

But why am I telling you all this? Well, be­cause clearly I’ve watched far too much tele­vi­sion this year. Also be­cause this month sees the re­turn to our screens of Idris Elba, as the BBC’s DCI John Luther, the tor­tured Lon­don cop with the Sher­lock­ian pow­ers of de­duc­tion.

For all Elba’s many other ac­tiv­i­ties, it is as a star of qual­ity TV that he came in, as the think­ing man’s drug dealer, “Stringer” Bell, on The Wire, and it is as a star of qual­ity TV that he re­mains best known. Luther has none of the pre­ten­sions of the shows that crash­ing bores go on about at din­ner par­ties. It’s not a glow­er­ing Nordic noir in which an al­co­holic with lank hair hunts a se­rial killer, nor a sear­ing in­dict­ment of the US pe­nal sys­tem, with girl-on-girl ul­tra­vi­o­lence built in, nor a gritty but also kinda sexy wal­low on the sleazy side of the Seven­ties, which has much — too much? — to say about to­day’s iden­tity pol­i­tics. It’s a grip­ping Lon­don cop show star­ring the most purely charis­matic ac­tor in the busi­ness. If you’ve seen it al­ready you won’t need con­vinc­ing. If not, you have four se­ries to catch up on al­ready. Start now.

The ed­i­tor, ea­gerly an­tic­i­pat­ing the next batch of bril­liant Bri­tish drama to hit our TV screens

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.