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March 05, 2007

"Great" TV Drama - Thank God That's All Over: 50 Greatest TV Dramas on Channel 4

Posted by Lincoln Allison

50 Greatest TV Dramas
Channel 4, 3rd March 2007

Lincoln Allison is glad that the era of Brechtian TV propaganda is over and argues that we are better off with Big Brother and Strictly Come Dancing than we were with Cathy Come Home, The Boys from the Blackstuff and Edge of Darkness.

Some much-loved relatives having disappeared to the ends of the earth for an indefinite period, we subsided sadly in front of the television: Channel 4's 50 Greatest TV Dramas. To watch this is to be reminded that television does sport and wildlife well and comedy and pornography competently, but ought not to try to be serious. I realised this in the 1980s when I briefly reviewed television and realised that it was so relentlessly, essentially concerned with images and emotions that it would never be the vehicle for the transmission of ideas that many people hoped it would be.

The 50 were not chosen by the public, but by relevant professionals. (Don't worry if you missed it - these "lists" are repeated endlessly). The Sopranos came first. But mostly we got the official view of "classic" and "iconic" television: Cathy Come Home (by Jeremy Sandford, 1966), The Boys from the Blackstuff (Alan Bleasdale, 1982) and Edge of Darkness (Troy Kennedy Martin, 1985) all featured prominently.

The first plays on our sympathy for the homeless, the second on that for the unemployed while the last-named manages to mangle the brilliance of James Lovelock's book Gaia: a New Look at Life on Earth (1979) into a pile of mystical, hysterical rubbish whose ethical implications are the exact opposite of what the author of the idea intended. Then, of course, there are the works of Dennis Potter and the morally bankrupt versions of the Cold War which were adapted from the writings of the author who calls himself John le Carre.

Let me be honest in my prejudices and confess that I don't think I have ever managed to sit through any of the above, though I tried quite hard with Edge of Darkness. All of these writers, I always imagined, would have been happy in a socialist state on the committee of some sort of Writers Union. Perhaps, like Berthold Brecht, they would be just a little bit naughty and a little bit critical, but they would have adorned and maintained the socialist-humanist state very effectively. The world in which they thrived, defined purely in terms of TV, was not so different from that in any case given that it had only three channels and was dominated by the BBC.

Having got that prejudice out of the way, let's consider an important argument. Forms of artistic expression are taken very seriously in our society and they should not be because all they do is play with our emotions in a facile and intellectually bankrupt way. Insofar as television is an art form at all or tries to be, it is the worst of the lot because it desperately needs to arouse your sympathy and hold your attention with its imagery. And that is because you have (normally) paid nothing and can switch off or channel-hop at no cost.

But it is all one big cheap shot with no ethical content. One could easily write an account of single parents and orphaned children in Hiroshima which excited your sympathy. Then, Bang, they are incinerated: but your sympathy has nothing to say about whether the bomb should have been dropped or not. Ditto, a drama about some poor, fatherless teenage kid here and now who gets dragged into gang warfare, drug-dealing etc: easy to arouse sympathy, but sympathy has nothing to do with what ought to be done.

It is easy to see why these people loathed Mrs Thatcher and, for that matter, why most of them also loathe New Labour: their work is often described by its admirers as "influential", but the Thatcher government and events since have been living proof that it didn't, ultimately, influence anything important. Thatcherism destroyed the writers' self-indulgent fantasy of their own importance, even though it enhanced the property and currency values of writers as well as of the rest of us. So next time you feel like moaning about Big Brother (which I loathe) or Strictly Come Dancing (which I adore) remember that they are what TV should be about and be glad that the era of Brechtian propaganda is over.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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