Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Where Next For BBC Drama?

Over the years the BBC has been viewed as the flagship of British TV Drama, particularly in historic/period drama. However, their latest outing Jamaica Inn was roundly criticised in the media for poor quality production. However, there has in my opinion of late been a tendency toward putting viewer figures – the ubiquitous 'bums on seats' – ahead of faithfulness to the original text or source on which the series is based. To illustrate this I will take four examples and put them in chronological order, and compare aspects such as costume, scenery, dialogue and script, the latter differentiating from dialogue in that it encompasses the storyline and events within it, not just what is said; an actor learning 'the script' is more properly learning their lines or dialogue. For each I will give them a mark out of five for different aspects; Accuracy – compared to original sources material; Casting; Script; Dialogue, Scenery/Locations; Costumes. That should give each a score out of 30.
Robin Hood; aired 2006-2008.
I was slightly concerned on reading the review in the TV listings magazine that the reviewer overdid the excitement at the 'new look' almost squealing with excitement 'Robin even has a hoodie!' Erm. Yes. Well if you look at his name there's probably a reason for that. However that's a reviewer's excitement chip overloading, so it can be forgiven.
Accuracy: 3: A mixed result here as the beginning was authentic to the legend, but of course as the series grew into three eventually the writers ended up going well off-piste. In addition the concerns dragging the dialogue and costume scores down also affected the accuracy.
Casting: 5: Some people may have had issues with the cast, seeing the likes of Jonas Armstrong and Lucy Griffiths as pure eye candy to capture a younger audience, but I think this misses two basic facts:
a) At the time of airing – Saturday nights about 1900 – most people of their age who might be attracted to a programme with them in it would be out with their friends, so trying to attract them with a TV programme in that time slot is probably a waste of time.
b) In the period in which Robin Hood is set – the late 12th century – people lived much shorter lives than they do now, and even in more recent times my grandfather was working in a coal-mine from the age of 12, in the mid 1920s. Therefore I think it is highly likely and quite in keeping with the period that someone may have gone on Crusade and returned home, and still be only in their mid twenties as Robin was. Similarly girls grew up faster and were often married off by their fathers as part of a diplomatic agreement, sometimes marrying as young as 14 or even younger. Therefore Robin's surprise at Marian still being single in her mid twenties is also in keeping.
The addition of Jaq as a direct replacement to Nasir in some ways disappointed me, as I remember the Michael Praed series of the late eighties and Nasir was one of my favourite characters. However she grew on me as a character and I have to concede that the choice worked well.
Script: 5: As a rule I liked the scripts. The beginning was authentic to the original legend and only really went off-piste, inevitably really, when the series ran long enough for them to run out of original source material. However I think they coped admirably with it and the new material was woven seamlessly into the original.
Dialogue: 3: Now here I did have issues; whoever decided to include Americanisms in a period 400 years before the New World was even discovered needs, in my opinion, a sharp slap around the back of the head. Repeatedly. Until the message sinks in. The very first time the Sheriff uttered the phrase 'A clue.. No!' I swore at the TV and continued to with every repetition; it's not Keith Allan's fault – he did a superb job of acting the scheming malicious Sheriff, sadly let down by appalling dialogue.
Scenery: 5: I have to say I am unable to fault the locations and scenery. Everything was in keeping with how I imagine it would have looked.
Costumes: 3: A real mixed bag. The peasantry and extras seem to have had authentic costumes in the main which blended in well with the authentic scenery. However they were not in the foreground of the shots, and those who were, well, their costuming was less well thought out – at least in my opinion. Some examples to illustrate my point:
Guy of Gisborne: Patent leather. Really BBC? Now I know Richard Armitage is a draw for many of my female friends, and there is nothing wrong in that. However I suspect they would still have watched him in authentic costume.
Lady Marian: Initially I wasn't worried, but subsequently the ball was dropped from a great height. Combat boots??? Camouflage trousers??
I feel the need for another slap coming on. It is one thing to dress a character in clothing which, while not authentic, at least looked the part, but dressing a character, and a female one at that, in trousers, and boots which would not exist for another 400 years is simply ridiculous.
Overall Score: 24/30.
Merlin; aired 2008-2012
As someone who has an interest in Arthurian Legend I was initially excited when I heard of this production, but my disquiet began almost immediately when I saw the trailers.
Accuracy: 2: Merlin scores extremely low for accuracy for a whole raft of reasons, some of which no doubt I will forget but numbering among them:
  • Uther Pendragon used sorcery to bed Arthur's mother, so there is no way he would have outlawed it.
  • Merlin was the magician who performed the spell Uther used, and as an old man at the time he could never have been younger than Prince Arthur.
  • Uther was dead by the time Arthur knew Merlin. Arthur was never a prince. He became King after the extremely famous Sword in the Stone incident.
  • Merlin was never a servant.
These are just some of the glaring errors. I would go as far as to say the only accuracy was in the names of the characters, their location being called Camelot and there was magic involved.
Casting: 3: The actors cast were good, but some were wrong for their roles. Starting with the good – Anthony Head was excellent as Uther even though his character was supposed to be dead by then. This will undoubtedly sound controversial, but although Angel Coulby is a fine actress she was completely wrong for casting as Guinevere – who by the way wasn't a servant in Camelot either (can I give a minus score for accuracy?). Colin Morgan was wrong for Merlin and it is clear from this choice alone that the BBC intended to pitch it at a young audience and decided to throw out the source material.
Script: 2: Good as far as they went. At least the final series ended authentically with the Battle of Camlann. It wandered so far off the legends in between though it was unrecognisable.
Dialogue: 3: Again nothing to really pick holes in here bar the occasional modern term slipping in, but generally OK.
Scenery: 5: The look and feel of Camelot was very well realised though and the environment in which it was shot felt authentic to the age the legends are set in.
Costumes: 5: Again a good score, with none of the glaring errors of Robin Hood which stood out like a sore thumb.
Overall Score: 20/30.
Atlantis; aired 2013
Accuracy: 0: It's difficult to know where to start with this one. On the face of it a great concept, but the execution is abysmal:
  • Mixing real people with mythological heroes and a society that archaeologists are now fairly sure did exist even if Wikipedia says Plato created the imaginary continent.
  • Pythagoras actually existed – not one of the other characters actually did.
  • Jason – of the Argonauts and Golden Fleece fame which are never once mentioned - never met Hercules in any of the legends.
  • Hercules did not have a girlfriend, and she was definitely not one of the Gorgons. I recall tweeting along the lines that if you're in ancient Greece [ish] and your girlfriend is called Medusa it's not going to end well.
  • Minos was not king of Atlantis.
  • Jason did not kill the Minotaur. That was Theseus, on Crete, oh that's right.. where Minos actually was King.
I could go on but you get the idea. The BBC - rather than make a fantasy drama based on authentic Greek myths which could have run for years without repetition and still be entertaining – chose to slam together several disparate elements which have virtually nothing to do with each other and hope it works. I wouldn't so much say they went off-piste as booked a holiday in the Cairngorms in Scotland but actually went skiing in the Blue Mountain range in Australia.
Casting: 4: I could criticise heavily but it's not the actors fault they've been given a turkey. My main gripes are with Pythagoras and Hercules. Pythagoras is too young and Hercules – retired? How exactly do you retire from being the son of Zeus and human mother Alcmene? I'm pretty sure you don't. Hercules the hero reduced to a comedy figure, as Gimli was in Peter Jackson's otherwise mostly excellent Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
Script: 1: Well OK one for entertainment value. Zero accuracy because it's been cobbled together from too many different sources to make any reasonable guess. Where it does have an identifiable source it's wrong (see accuracy above). The ball wasn't dropped in this regard, more stamped on with heavy spiked boots.
Dialogue: 3: Well they spoke. In sentences. It's just what they said wasn't right for the period they're supposed to portray. That's fine for Jason who is from the 21st Century, but nobody else is.. there should have been more of a contrast.
Scenery: 5: Archaeologists have a fairly good idea of where Atlantis – or the civilisation Plato may have been referring to - was before a volcanic eruption that made Krakatoa look like an attack of hiccups ruined everyone's day. Given that they lived at the same time as Ancient Greece we have solid source material to base opinion on, and I have to say that in this respect I think the BBC actually managed to get it right. The locations/scenery of Atlantis looked good.
Costumes: 5: Again this is an area where the BBC got it mostly right – more right than Robin Hood anyway.. combat boots.. really? Sorry I'll shut up now. The point is the BBC can do it right if they want to, it's just a matter of the production team wanting to.
Overall Score: 18/30.
The Musketeers; aired 2014
Accuracy: 4: I have not read Alexander Dumas' original so I am erring on caution by giving an accuracy score of 4 – there are undoubtedly errors an aficionado would spot. However the details I do know were correct, such as the names, places, relationships and general storyline of how they all met. In fact it corrected a misconception I had from previous movies which gave the impression of the setting being somewhere in the 18th century. In addition something that always puzzled me was why musketeers used swords as their weapon of choice. This adaptation has given a much needed air of realism to that element. This being the latest of the four to air it seems the BBC have returned to their comfort zone, and it is something they are very good at.
Casting: 5: I can't fault the casting. All the actors filled their assigned roles admirably. In particular I must draw attention to Peter Capaldi's inspired portrayal of the scheming Cardinal Richelieu, and it is a great pity that – due no doubt to his casting as the new Doctor Who – he will not be returning for the second season. All the others were well suited to their roles and eminently believable.
Script: 4: Again the only reason to lose a point here is my inherent caution. In addition as the series progresses with a second being commissioned already it is possible, indeed likely, the writers will run out of original source material. However, what they have provided thus far is entertaining while maintaining for the more discerning viewer a reasonably convincing storyline.
Dialogue: 4: The occasional slip, but I'm afraid my penchant for correct accents loses them a mark here. In the same vein that the characters in Beowulf did not come from Wales, London and America etc - something the actors did not bother to disguise – The Musketeers is set in 17th Century France and the odd French accent wouldn't have gone amiss. Sadly in this the BBC are following the modern trend of just letting actors speak their lines rather than attempt authenticity.
Scenery: 5: Locations were, as is becoming quite frequent in this genre, Eastern Europe, and because of that they work extremely well. As always the lighting helps but overall the impression of 17th Century France is portrayed very well.
Costumes: 5: There may be the odd nitpick from historical costume specialists but the look of the production, as with the locations and scenery was well thought out and inoffensive.
Overall Score: 27/30.
To summarise then. For a long time I have had a suspicion, often supported by the evidence of programming decisions, that the BBC dislike science fiction and fantasy as genres. Evidence such as moving Outcasts every week so that viewers lost track of when it was on and they then cited low viewing figures as a reason to cancel the series. The one exception to this lacklustre interest in these genres is the ever popular Doctor Who which the BBC plug for all it's worth. Why do I mention this? Simple. In the above four examples of BBC Drama, two are firmly in the fantasy genre, one is in the 'Legends' genre but firmly rooted in a specific time-frame in British history, and one is based on a widely respected body of work of literary fiction.
It is with no surprise at all that I see, having totalled the scores for each, that the latter – The Musketeers – scores highest, given that period drama is the BBC's bread and butter. We'll ignore Jamaica Inn for the moment and the criticism that drew as it is in fairness not representative of the BBC's normal high standards.
The lower three all sat in the same prime-time Saturday evening slot of approximately 1900 which is the first indication of motive. Given the desire for high viewing figures at that time, perhaps it is not surprising then that the BBC sacrificed quality and accuracy for pure entertainment at any cost. I will concede that if you ignore any attempt to compare the following with the original bodies of work they were based on – assuming one can be identified – then they are entertaining in and of themselves. However, there is no rule I am aware of that says you cannot entertain and educate at the same time. An earlier blog of mine touches on this very subject.
Next in line comes the legend based squarely in a precise period of British history with known historical figures woven into the legend – Robin Hood. This is close enough to normal BBC fare for the production team to be well within their comfort zone. However as mentioned in the review, we do see hints of the production pandering toward 'bums on seats' to a degree with the casting.
In a poor third place comes the higher scoring of the two fantasy based series - Merlin. I personally think that authors such as Sir Thomas Malory and Chretien de Trois deserve the same care and consideration to their body of work as more modern authors, such as Alexander Dumas. The BBC it seems do not agree and are happy to run roughshod over the work reinterpreting it to a point where it is barely recognisable. In this case - with the single exception of Anthony Head, who may well appeal to older female viewers anyway – the casting of young attractive actors panders shamelessly to a younger target audience without bothering them with details such as an accurate portrayal of events as described in the original texts. While very broadly speaking Uther dies, Arthur becomes King, Merlin ascends to greatness as a magician, Morgana defects to the dark side, and Mordred kills Arthur at Camlann, most of these events happen in the wrong order and in the wrong context.
Finally we come to arguably, and mathematically by score, by far the worst of the bunch. Atlantis. I will not repeat the reasons in detail here; suffice to say it is a clear example of the BBC throwing a generic fantasy series together with little or no care as to its accuracy or production.
When will the BBC give equal care and attention, and indeed respect to the body of work of authors such as Tolkien, Lewis, Azimov, Clarke et al? I hope this blog has shown that the BBC are capable of high quality drama such as The Musketeers. It is to be hoped then that they turn their undoubted skill in this to other than their favourite genres and give their viewers a more rounded experience.