Please, TV commissioners, true stories don't make the best TV dramas
If we ever doubted the power of Dame Judi Dench, her intervention over The Crown was proof that she can move mountains. For years, Netflix stood firm against the Government’s demand that it add a disclaimer to the royal drama. One letter of complaint from Dame Judi, and up popped an on-screen notice finally informing us that this was a “fictional dramatisation”.
Too little, too late. This was the year that the nation fell out of love with The Crown, the fifth series of which landed to lukewarm reviews, controversy over its falsehoods and general audience apathy. Our queasy reaction to the show reflected a wider problem with television and its increasing reliance on “true-life” drama.
Broadcasters seem to think that stories that grip our attention in real life will automatically do the same on screen. It’s a misguided belief that resulted in a year of underwhelming dramas. Disney+ delivered a sanitised story of punk in Pistol, so lacking in anarchic energy that it may as well have been a Coldplay biopic. Inventing Anna (Netflix), about high-society scammer Anna Delvey, turned a wildly entertaining con into witless TV. Pam and Tommy (also from Disney+) was mostly an excuse to show Lily James looking pneumatic.
The biggest dud was This England, in which Kenneth Branagh donned a Worzel Gummidge frightwig as part of a silly re-enactment of life in No 10 during the pandemic. Exposure to the real Dominic Cummings is quite enough, thank you, without having a pretend one in our living rooms.
Crime is always fertile ground for true-life dramas, and surely we’ve now covered most of the world’s murderers. Litvinenko (ITV) was plodding, Dahmer (Netflix) dismaying and Maxine (Channel 5) unnecessary. The exception to the rule was The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe (ITV), a darkly funny, well-acted three-parter about the man from County Durham who faked his death and nipped off to Panama.
But please, TV commissioners, give us new ideas! Because when writers are offered the opportunity to come up with original stories, they can be terrific. Hugo Blick’s The English, starring Emily Blunt and Chaske Spencer, was a beautifully realised homage to the spaghetti western. Sherwood, by James Graham, brilliantly explored community and class war within a former mining community in Nottinghamshire. And, proving that his acting talents extend far beyond comedy, Martin Freeman gave the performance of the year as a weary police officer in The Responder, from first-time writer Tony Schumacher. All were BBC dramas, as were Chloe, This Is Going to Hurt and The Tourist, three shows which helped iPlayer achieve record viewing figures.
On other channels, White Lotus (Sky Atlantic) was a hoot and Somewhere Boy (Channel 4) was heartbreaking. Outside the world of drama, there was some great stuff to be had. Comedy-wise, nothing could top Derry Girls (Channel 4). Stanley Tucci charmed us with his travels around Italy (made for CNN, but bought in by the BBC) and Michael Palin: Into Iraq proved that he is still the master of the genre. The year’s most attention-grabbing documentary was The Real Mo Farah (BBC One), in which the former Olympic champion announced that the life story he had peddled for years was a lie designed to hide his true origins as a victim of child trafficking.
The shows that arrived trailing the most hype generally failed to live up to it. HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon, was well-received although hardly world-changing, and its Sex and the City sequel And Just Like That… was bingeable but depressing in the way it turned a once fun quartet of gal pals into a trio of idiots unable to comprehend today’s woke world. Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power had the dubious distinction of being the most expensive series ever made, but money doesn’t guarantee success. The year’s cheapest programme was Zen Motoring (BBC Three), which started life as a series of YouTube videos and is filmed entirely from the inside of a car, as the driver delivers a soothing assessment of his fellow motorists. Give me the Holloway Road over Middle Earth any day.
Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends was never going to be as adored as its predecessor, Normal People, but did it have to be so dull? It was also on the relaunched BBC Three. Relaunched as a TV channel, that is, having turned from a TV channel into an online channel and then back again (are you following?). So far its viewing figures fail to justify its return.
This year the BBC finally conceded that the licence fee may have a best before date, with its director-general and chairman saying they were “open-minded” about alternative funding models. The creative community rallied around Channel 4 after the Government announced that it would be sold off; Phil Redmond was a lone critic, telling this newspaper that Channel 4 is now run by “a privileged clique” that has lost sight of its public service remit.
Generally, though, the terrestrial broadcasters had a solid year. It was Netflix that looked weak. With a cost of living crisis forcing all of us to economise, many people are wondering if they need more than one streaming service in their lives, and Netflix could be the biggest casualty. Its returning hits did well enough – series two of Bridgerton, and the latest instalments of Stranger Things – but increasingly it is turning out bland pap. In April, the company lost subscribers for the first time in a decade, causing its share price to crash.
Some of the best dramas of the year came courtesy of Apple TV+: Slow Horses, a satisfying spy drama starring Gary Oldman, based on Mick Herron’s Slough House novels; Pachinko, a quiet masterpiece spanning several generations of a Korean family; and Severance, a genius blend of workplace satire and futuristic thriller.
In the end, though, the most memorable TV of the year wasn’t drama, comedy or Matt Hancock eating a kangaroo penis on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! It wasn’t the World Cup, with the BBC’s sports coverage an awkward mash-up of football commentary and po-faced spouting about human rights. (Incidentally, might 2023 be the year that the corporation finally loses patience with Gary Lineker and suggests he keep his opinions to himself or find an even better-paid job elsewhere?).
And it wasn’t Harry and Meghan’s Netflix documentary, although that knocked The Crown into a cocked hat when it came to slick production, intimate revelations and an elegantly constructed demolition job on the Royal family. No, the most special broadcast of 2022 was the BBC’s live stream of Queen Elizabeth II’s lying-in-state. Fixed cameras captured members of the public – plus a certain pair of This Morning presenters – filing past the late monarch to pay their respects.
It allowed us to partake in an act of collective national mourning. And when the Queen’s children and grandchildren stood vigil around the coffin, it was a profoundly moving sight; television at its most powerful.