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TV UK, 9 September

NY-LON: 'groundbreaking drama', flat writing.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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I attended a panel discussion at the Edinburgh Fringe last month with three playwrights speaking about their work, and one of the topics that came up was what is special about theatre, as opposed to television, for example.

Scottish playwright Linda McLean explained that her husband would love her to write for TV because of the money, but that she would never have the creative freedom there that she does in theatre. This is a common experience. Another young playwright I met pays the rent by writing for a dodgy TV drama series, while putting her creative energies into plays that will reach only a tiny fraction of the audience.

We’re used to thinking of TV as a popular but inferior form, and theatre as an elite form (the Fringe puts paid to that idea, in both positive and negative senses), but there is no logical reason why the power of TV cannot be harnessed to present genuinely creative and exciting work to a mass audience. Indeed, we all know that this happens, albeit too rarely. So why is it that writers are so wary of the medium?

One clue to the problem is also in Edinburgh. All the various festivals that take place there during August are public events, except the TV festival. Anyone can go to theatre at the Fringe, attend concerts at the International Festival or see films at the film festival, but the TV festival is a hermetically sealed and security-obsessed junket for industry types, who ironically spend much of their time talking about the need to reach ‘ordinary people’.

A writer who wants to do just that, however, has to negotiate with an army of commissioners, managers and assorted bureaucrats with their own commercial and ‘public service’ agendas before getting her work anywhere near people’s living rooms. The playwrights I talked to in Edinburgh were not overly precious about their work; they said they often benefited from the input of directors and dramaturgs (though not actors), but I’ve never heard anyone wax lyrical about the creative dynamism of the TV system.

Which brings us to NY-LON, Channel 4’s latest flagship drama (Tuesdays at 10pm). Having missed the first couple of episodes, I was impressed by the proud ‘New Drama’ branding, and by the bold policy, which hasn’t always paid off, of putting a new domestic product on at 10pm, with an acknowledged American standard-setter (in this case Six Feet Under) following at 11pm. Sadly, the policy hasn’t paid of again.

As is so often the case with British TV, NY-LON’s cutting-edge credentials are totally superficial. A cute premise (a transatlantic love affair), tricksy visual effects (24-style split screens), and of course that Channel 4 staple, lots of nudity and shagging. As for the writing, what writing? Edie is fed up being taken for granted, so she decides to show she can be spontaneous. Meanwhile Michael decides to face up to his commitment issues. This is sitcom stuff. And even the troll who lives on the sofa was rolling its eyes (which is hard for a troll) at the snazzy sarcasm of the designer dialogue.

Channel 4’s apparent belief that it can produce ‘groundbreaking drama’ without decent writing goes to the heart of the problem. NY-LON may well be ‘a stylish and bold drama event’, but you simply can’t get absorbed in it the way that you can with the thoughtful and well-written American dramas. Frankly I’m getting sick of praising The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, but for all their limitations, they at least show that television can be a medium for good writers if the networks only let it.

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