I recently watched ITV’s White House Farm, a drama reconstructing the murders committed in 1985 by Jeremy Bamber at his family’s remote Essex house. The crime happened near to where I have lived all my life, and was so appalling that we in deepest Essex still talk about it. I was pleasantly surprised by the show; the locations and the characterisation (especially Freddie Fox as Bamber and Cressida Bonas as his mentally-ill sister) were entirely credible, though I doubt an Essex policeman in 1985 would have used the ghastly Americanism “I’m sorry for your loss”. Somebody has been watching too many American police procedurals.
But it did cause me to ask why even a half-decent British drama these days causes such surprise, when American television is overflowing with exceptional examples. ITV is also responsible for the unfailingly excellent Endeavour. Beyond that, one struggles to find much of note. I have lost count of the “flagship” dramas to which I have not returned after the first commercial break, let alone after the first episode. Dramatisations in which almost every character appears histrionic and caricatured, and for which the script is abominable, are the norm. The latest series of the popular, and entirely absurd, ITV detective series Grantchester, set in the Fifties, has become a tedious appeal for the legalisation of homosexuality, something the writers appear not to have noticed happened 53 years ago.
At least with ITV the dross is not funded by the tax known as the BBC licence fee. Take A Very English Scandal, which I thought deeply intrusive of Norman Scott’s privacy – and a wonderfully hypocritical thing for Hugh Grant to be a part of, given his bleatings about Hacked Off – or The Trial of Christine Keeler, which portrayed John Profumo absurdly to make a point about establishment wickedness. It was the 2017 Howards End – a travesty to anyone who knew the novel, which was something of an achievement since it stuck pretty close to Forster’s narrative – that made me realise that the BBC drama department feels it is on this earth to engage in social engineering and, when dealing with historical drama, to right the wrongs of the past which were society’s norms at the time. Thus in Howards End one saw the streets of London filled with people of African origin in Edwardian dress, while a significant minor character suddenly became West Indian. It no doubt offended those responsible for the programme that London in 1905 was not very multicultural, and they did not hesitate to compromise the authenticity of the drama by making it so.
The BBC relentlessly uses drama not for entertainment, but to impose politicised values on its audience, particularly about minority rights. For the vast majority who do not live under a cloud of permanent victimhood this is puzzling, however much many of us hope to belong to a society where no one endures prejudice. As at the last general election, when it became clear that much of the political class was wildly out of step with the public, it is now equally clear that BBC Drama is too. My children stopped watching Doctor Who when it became an exhibition piece of wokeness. If threats are carried out to end the licence fee, the BBC should not wonder if very few people outside the vested interests – those who exploit drama as a publicly funded form of brainwashing or propaganda – object.
Our broadcasters have missed an opportunity to satisfy our appetite for quality storytelling, by insisting on inflicting their pet obsessions on the public. The audience for sophisticated drama is there, and waiting, as shown by the popularity of American imports. In the past 20 years, nothing produced in this country has matched The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, True Detective, Fargo, Breaking Bad – or, in recent months, the darkly comic Succession or Russell Crowe’s stunning performance as the disgraced TV executive Roger Ailes in The Loudest Voice.
This last show, about the sexual harassment of women in the workplace, was a perfect example of a “woke” subject dealt with in terms that avoided box-ticking and virtue-signalling. It simply told a story and told it brilliantly, thanks to an understated script and fine acting.
Perhaps if BBC drama as we know it is about to go west, others will do so in another sense, and look to America.