The slow strangling of TV drama
I found myself looking forward to the final episode of The Fall last week, if against my will. The Fall – a second series is proposed – is the BBC’s current offering in the thriller serial genre, and stars the amazingly beautiful and talented Gillian Anderson who deigns to offer the occasional enigmatic but entrancing smile. It is better-written, acted and directed than anything on BBC TV at the moment – or indeed for a long time. Unfortunately it is serial-killer porn, of which we see much these days, in which the killed are young, pretty girls, on whose death throes the camera likes to linger, for reasons, I always suspect, of economy. It is cheaper to stay on one agonised face and pooling blood than have the camera wander round. ‘She screams’ is easier to write than actual dialogue.
The Fall is unusual in that the hero is the killer, a good-looking, nice and sensitive young man who loves his wife and children and is a grief counsellor – and a rather good one – whose only fault is that he has a penchant for stalking and strangling well-educated, talented young girls with bubbly personalities, and then delicately painting their dead nails without smudging. One wants him to escape, not be ‘brought to justice’. I describe it as porn because when I am watching alone on my computer (as so many do these days) and I hear anyone come up the stairs I switch to my e-mail and look innocent. I don’t want anyone to know I watch, but still I do.
The portrayal of sexual violence against women turns viewers on, both men and women. It’s a sorry truth and I suppose the BBC, such is its pursuit of ratings and our licence fee, can only follow where public taste leads. Anything more would be elitist. Ripper Street concerned itself with the gruesome deaths of Victorian prostitutes, Arne Dahl (last week’s episode brought Ripper up to date with six young women graphically done to death and another two tacitly excused the murders they’ve committed because their victims were rapists. This week’s episode of the new Wallander has as its come-on line: “A foreign teenage girl burns herself to death before Wallander’s eyes”.
I don’t blame ‘the talent’ for the drift – Gub Neal who produces The Fall is a fine producer, writer Allan Cubitt is intelligent, sensitive and pro-women – I admired the way D.I. Gillian Anderson, like Catherine the Great, cast eyes on a delectable young police officer in the morning and summoned him to her hotel for the night – but violent death is a cheap short cut for a good writer – ‘first kill then solve’ gets you the job but wins you no laurels. Verbruggen’s direction is really classy if a bit dimly-lit, the acting’s great, and being a BBC Northern Ireland production it seemed to be happening in another country, where men are allowed to be chauvinist, badly-suited bad-tempered and express savage emotions. So it’s good viewing
No, rather I blame management: despite its doctrine of “compliance” – incorporate LGB’s (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals), Northern (post Salford) and/or Ethnic in your cast or you don’t have a hope of your play getting on – talent is left gasping for anything that reflects the real state of the human condition. The killing of pretty young women is not (yet) part of our real life, only of TV life. Add the broadcaster’s craven desire to satisfy the lowest common denominator of viewer’s taste and rely on the focus group not their own judgement to tell them what that is, and we’re off to Helena Handcart. Oh, wow!, cries the focus group, another thriller series, yes please, more raped and murdered girls! How we love The Fall, can we have another? Forget the anxiety of young women – they don’t watch TV anyway, too busy on Facebook – we older men and women are happy enough to watch the girls perish, sacrificial victims to male womb-envy and/or female jealousy.
For lack of practice in anything but screaming, shouting and emoting, writers, actors and directors beginning to lose more general skills. I wonder how many BBC suits – so busy having dinners and giving prizes to one another – watch their own programmes. Very few, I imagine: they see their audience as another breed, and certainly a lesser one.