Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Look Back in Languor • Lynne Harvey • 11 March 2002


A recent programme held in its grasp just why TV drama is on a bed in Casualty with an actress holding its pulse and finding none, an actress who’s done the rounds in all the other TV series and is doing a stint in this one before she moves on to The Bill. That programme was Trouble at the Top, Eldorado: Fool’s Gold (BBC2 28 February).

Never before have we seen in full living colour what happens to a project when the writer’s idea is accepted, ripped apart, stamped on and then put back together after it’s been worked on.

The story of Eldorado goes like this: writer Tony Holland went for a walk while on holiday and came across an ex-pat community that encompassed all basic needs and was almost self-providing. It interested him enough for him to write down an idea for a TV series about a group of ex-pats living in an almost enclosed society in a different country and culture. His name for this was Little England.

He put the idea away and a few years later, when Julia Smith, one of the producers of EastEnders, came calling looking for new ideas, he offered up Little England. It was accepted, it was a good idea, but the title was deemed unacceptable, by someone unable to see the joke and never having heard the phrase ‘Little Englanders’.

The actors were chosen: some known faces, some not, and some ordinary folk who memorised a script and got themselves on set every day. But slowly, Tony Holland’s idea was being changed to encompass other nationalities and pretty young folk to be used for eye candy. Dodgy storylines were washed up scriptwriters were told what to incorporate and what not to. Some of the dialogue was to be in a foreign language – with no subtitles.

Everyone sensed danger ahead, but the steam train of hyped TV series forged ahead regardless. The series was launched as El Dorado and Tony Holland felt uncomfortable – this was no longer his Little England.

The actors looking at their scripts held their breath – listening to the younger ‘actors’ at the first read through, they suspected what might happen – and it did. After a series of walk outs, fallings-out, and low viewing figures, it crash landed.

This is what happens when a writer of worth (Tony Holland) is perceived to know the least about his own idea. This is what happens when ‘on message’ producers turn an original idea into the corporate colours of the BBC, making it just like the rest of their fleet. No heart, no soul but a lot of money spent on the set-up. Tony Holland walked out, and has never worked in Britain again.

Why is the BBC scared of writers? Why do they shun the cutting edge innovative drama it was once famed for? What would it lead to? Anarchy in the streets? What is the reason for one podgy, white, flabby drama series after another? And where are all the new TV writers? Where are all the new TV plays? What happens to all those scripts that get sent to the BBC script department? Are they all so bad that Casualty and Holby City have to be shown in their place?

Do the TV viewers really think that what is shown on their screens is the best drama the TV stations can offer?

Just who sits in an office and decides to put on these bland insipid TV series that inspire no one and are just a production line for soap and TV actors to hop from one to another to pay their mortgage? Well-produced they may be, but well-produced pap. They speak to no one, have no life-changing abilities and will leave lasting memories with not one person.

TV drama is all but dead and it seems no one is brave enough to revive it, no one is willing to step out of the corporate line. For once you get a job in TV land, your ideals and ideas fall by the wayside; you don’t make waves, you fall into line, and a whole generation is being starved of drama that inspires – and do they know it? No, as they have nothing to compare it to.

Many years ago I watched Play for Today, The Wednesday Play, Armchair Theatre, and other drama series that looked at life from every angle possible – and then a few more. They were original and many were straight out of the writer’s head onto your TV screen, with no workshops or committees to get through first, and no ‘How to Write for TV’ classes either.

I was mesmerised by these TV plays, too young to even understand some of them, but for me, from a working class background, living in a council house with my own problems, these programmes reached out and spoke to me in a way nothing else could. There was something else out there, and I wanted to be part of it.

Of course, it’s only now, years later, that I can thank these TV plays for helping shape who I am, and the playwrights will sadly remain unknown, but this was the ‘something else’ that I yearned for.

I can remember many of them, remember scenes, stories, snatches of dialogue. Can someone please tell me who is going to remember the drivel that is The Bill, Casualty, the dire Holby City, the hyped up Cold Feet, the never-ending stream of cop, doc and detective series? Whose lives are they shaping? They are bad: badly written, badly acted, formulaic, slickly made rubbish, say nothing and, I believe, are irresponsible. They are there for no other reason than as harmless slot fillers. They are nothing more than dummies.

Even the better ones have a shelf life. Casualty used to be a good programme – for three series it held its own – but someone should check its pulse; it died years ago, so why oh why do they keep propping it up at the expense of TV writers who are champing at the bit for their original scripts to be read and considered?

The TV series are the rep companies of the airwaves, but the sad thing is, there is nothing for actors to progress to. For this is it. Just a constant changing from one to the other. With interviews on daytime chat shows when their character has a ‘topical’ storyline. So what happened? Where and when did we lose TV drama? Next time I’ll try to explore where it all went wrong.

Lynne Harvey © 2002

Originally posted on R&V 11-03-02

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