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Why British TV drama is crap – and why this matters to tech firms

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Analysis It has been years since a contemporary BBC drama caused an office discussion round here. The best American imports such as The Wire and Breaking Bad are all regular conversation pieces but I can’t remember a British one being interesting enough even to worth a mention. And you’ll know why. They’re glossy, expensive and dreadful.

But Line of Duty, a thriller about a bent detective, is pretty bold. It’s extremely tightly written, brave, and nasty with it – although the unseen gangster may may yet turn out to be Fat Bastard from Austin Powers films. He sounds like him.

Which is not to say Line of Duty is in the American league. The supporting characters are cyphers. They have little or no psychological complexity or lives of their own. A good test of a drama is how quickly you can imagine the characters having their own spin-off series. By the end of the second series of The Sopranos, each of Tony’s crew was so richly drawn you could imagine a spin-off for each one without too much difficulty. Not here. But it is a return to form.

The BBC has been showing another crime drama, though. Blackout is a vehicle for Christopher Ecclestone, and that’s where the good news ends. This is classic contemporary drama which thinks it's edgy, but where the focus is entirely on the visual style, which mimics that of a slick advertisement. The BBC is a great training ground for advertising production talent – its own (nonstop) advertisements for itself (brands, strands, idents as well as actual programmes) are top quality. As a result, much British drama boasts eye-catching cinematography and editing, but the directors don't know about story-telling. They're passing through, en route from Audi advert to (they hope) Hollywood riches.

(Hollywood demands 'emotional range' on the applicant's CV, which is why Blighty's directors and writers wedge touch-feely moments into the oddest places. Like Dr Who – as Ian Harrison pointed out here).

Blackout has another problem common to our contemporary home-grown drama: the plot is implausible on so many levels. The baddie in the show is an evil corporation that bumps off its enemies. Gina McKee is in it, I think, or is she in Line of Duty? It's hard to remember because Britain only has about eight professional actors, who must appear in everything all the time. This over-familiarity means we don't really believe them as anything but themselves.

Eccleston lives, with his family, in a trendy loft space – something BBC producers would probably quite like to do. (“Sit down, have a seat”). It is also improbably politically correct. At the end, Mayor Ecclestone declares the city to be a Chavez-style socialist republic, which is what a lot of BBC producers would like to do to W12, if not everywhere else. (“Love it. Here, sign this contract, we’re commissioning you”). But even the most politically disengaged viewer will be thinking: “Hang on: rate capping, surcharges, EU contract directives... You what?”

There’s also something else unsettling about Blackout.

Everything that can be Americanised has been: so Town Hall becomes City Hall, press officers become media aides, and when we see the city, it’s an American city: a helicopter shot shows us the tops of skyscrapers that could be any generic American finance district.

Now you’re wondering – all very interesting, but what’s this digression doing at El Reg where I expect to see news of TV technology platforms and business.

The answer is: quite a lot.

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