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