I wonder if anyone with a senior role at the BBC had a moment of guilty self- realisation on seeing the home of HBO spring into life last week. Sky Atlantic may be another cynical purchasing coup by the Murdoch empire, but like the Premiership, like movies, it has ended up owning the best of a genre. Meanwhile the Big British Castle is busy fighting its imaginary battle with ITV. From the astonishing leaps in broadcasting that it once made, it is now self parodic, to the point of parodying its own self parody. (The One Ronnie?) Back when there was just 3 stations, of which 2 were BBC, I watched in awe Kenneth Clarke's 'Civilization'. A medium for triviality and light entertainment pulled back a curtain to reveal long slow tracking shots of cathedral ceilings accompanied by Bach and Purcell. Dr Who was created out of the imaginations of viewers as much as of its writers, so bad were the sets, but still in stark difference to the gurning ineptitude of American TV. That standards have lowered at the BBC is too humdrum a fact to explore. That US standards have risen so high is not so humdrum.
Let's take what we in the UK hold up as excellence in film-making skills. Our soaps seem to be the high water mark of drama output, with a few freak tides where something of outstanding class breaks through. That would be, presumably, the remake of Sherlock Holmes, the remake of Dr Who, the occasional Stephen Poliakoff play or breakout comedy. Last year's BBC Bafta winners included Kenneth Brannagh in Wallander, Julie Waters playing Mo Mowlem and various awards for The Thick of It.
What do we learn from that estimable line-up by comparing it to a standard week's viewing on SkyAtlantic? Of course there's Boardwalk Empire, Blue bloods, Curb your Enthusiasm, Mad Men, Entourage, Re-runs of Sopranos, 6 feet under, new Specials - You don't know Jack, When the Levees broke. And now the amazing Treme.
I've watched a few hours of both lists and it amounts to nothing less than a 'how to create great TV' education, with the BBC so-called award winners presented as a risible 'How not to do it' section of the lesson, to warm up the audience before a serious and brilliant step by step guide from the HBO programmes. Indeed, imagine the scene at a night class for aspirant writers in a college in Anaheim. Tired from their exertions at the pizzeria or waving in a Mickey costume during the day, the students settle and focus on the projected screen as the tutor plays a montage of British TV writing. 'I love you Denise. I can't stop finking about yer'. Pause. The chuckles die down. The tutor says, 'OK. what do we know about what's happening in this scene? Anybody?
'He loves Denise'. Laughter all round. 'OK' says the tutor. 'And here's the biggie, how do we KNOW he loves her?'
'He fuckin' tells her. ' Big laugh.
How do we tell that Al Pacino's character loves his wife in 'You don't know Jack'. He rolls the tape.
It's the moment Jack emerges briefly from his concentration on his plan to allow terminally ill people to end their lives with dignity and says to his wife thoughtfully 'Is that a new wig? She acknowledges the compliment, not by saying 'Hey I can't believe you noticed!' but by smiling touchingly and saying 'It's rum n raisin'.(A hair tint, I inferred.)
In every facet of that simple exchange there is craft at work, as there is in almost every exchange in every scene in every one of those above-listed US dramas. As a viewer we can project backwards the nature of the characters' marriage. It is long, it is loving, that he is gallant and caring, if obsessive, she has suffered, perhaps through illness, but that she is an optimist and loves her husband yet fears that he is becoming distant as he throws himself into his final cause, haunted by his own mortality. We learn about their peculiar modern American milieu in which wig tints are described in terms of ice cream flavours. All this from the words alone. The casting, lighting, framing, editing are telling their own stories. The tiny simper of pleasure the wife feels is lingered on, because it means everything. Not just that he she was once beautiful and always enjoys it being noticed, but still feels it when her husband notices. That gentle expression of love is the entire theme of the mercy killing drama.
A comparison by Prospect magazine between The Wire and a Uk equivalent last year found that the former had 17 concurrent plot lines to the UK drama's 4.
Considering Sky's motivation is to make an arse load of cash and the BBC is to lead the world
In TV excellence and costs us 4billion quid a year I actually don't mind the Tories laying into them.
The guy who wrote the Wire confirmed in the article that he could never have done it at the BBC.