Poldark is in the front line of the growing cinematic TV revolution
- Credit: PA
As Poldark grabs headlines for its chest-baring return to our screens, Arts Editor Andrew Clarke worries that traditional TV is in danger of becoming left behind by its more ambitious US rivals. He looks at the changing face of modern TV drama and the rise of cinematic television
Over the past 18 months I have noticed a growing trend online and in newspapers and magazines. They seem to have fallen out of love with, what one could call, traditional television. By that, I mean BBC 1, BBC 2, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.
When it comes to recommending new series or one-off dramas to watch, modern news media seem to focus almost exclusively on recommendations for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Sky Atlantic even DVD box sets for American series which haven’t yet found a home in the UK.
The rise of what has been called Cinematic Television has left traditional UK broadcasters looking as if they have been left behind. While it would be wrong to say that the traditional UK TV channels have nothing to offer, it seems, at times, as if the choice is somewhat limited.
If, like me, you are always on the look-out for a good new drama to invest your time and emotions in, it can seem, at times, as if there is nothing on. If you take out all the soaps (including hospital series) then we are down to just one or two showcase programmes a week – which, quite frankly, is simply not good enough.
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Shows like Poldark, which returned this weekend, along with prestige dramas like Peaky Blinders, Ripper Street, Dr Who, Sherlock, The Durrells and the Morse follow-up Endeavour proves there is a desire to compete but the lack of choice at any one time is frustrating. It is as if we only have a part-time TV service. No wonder we are being driven into the arms of online providers like Amazon and Netflix.
The big problem, of course is money, money to develop a series, pay writers, pay large casts or big name actors, to spend months on location, even to pay for cutting edge special effects, that may not be seen. Some of the most expensive and time-consuming special effects don’t involve alien spaceships or explosive laser battles, instead they are removing television aerials, satellite dishes and other pieces of street furniture from period dramas.
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It was the rise of HBO with series like Band of Brothers, The Sopranos swiftly followed by cult dramas like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Wire, along with prestigious series like The West Wing that suddenly made UK television look rather tired and dated.
Traditionally, UK TV had been very studio-bound, largely shot in a swift, time honoured, multi-camera system which recorded the bulk of dramas as live.
But, times have changed, cinematic television has changed our viewing habits. It has changed not only what we watch but how we watch it. Large, widescreen tellys give the feel of a big screen presentation as we binge on box-sets and have increased the ambition of the programme-makers.
But, what is cinematic television? It isn’t just about bigger budgets it’s about telling bigger stories, having bigger ambitions, having the confidence to explore stories that, at one time, would have been on the big screen, but television now has the time and the resources to delve deeper and allow audiences to become more involved.
Twenty years ago the Profumo-Christine Keeler story was the subject of a film called Scandal. Today, A Very English Scandal, the story of an equally outrageous political outrage found its home on TV, and a good home it was. Using cinematic talent like director Stephen Frears and star Hugh Grant, the series made compelling viewing because it had the time to delve into complex situations and develop characters over an extended period.
For British broadcasters finance is always a problem because they have to balance a drama budget with the needs of the rest of the output. HBO, Netflix, Showcase, Starz, Amazon only exist to produce high-end drama whereas traditional broadcasters also need to produce sit-coms, game shows, news programmes, reality shows.
Perhaps the time has come to perhaps think about different ways of funding our drama output. Shows like Poldark, The Durrells and Call The Mid-Wife are incredibly popular and are very well-made. They gather huge audiences and therefore must be profitable to produce, particularly if you also throw in overseas sales. Perhaps, if BBC Films and Film4 were given responsibility for TV drama then we could have more high-end series to choose from.
The most annoying aspect of all is that we have the talent which American companies are benefitting from. British cast and crew have dominated such cinematic series as Game of Thrones, Outlander, Black Sails, The Affair, The Girlfriend Experience, Penny Dreadful and Spartacus: Blood and Sand.
Traditional UK TV needs to catch-up if we are not going to lose our indigenous film-making talent to the US. Shows like War & Peace, The Night Manager, Life on Mars and The Tudors prove we can compete at the highest level but they need to be produced regularly, not just once in a blue moon.