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TV Trends: A spoonful of crime

Robert Weedon | Television | Sunday 24th January 2010

Television is a rather conservative (small c) business. While any job advertisement for any career in television, no matter how high or low will tell you they want the best 'creative talent', in reality any creativity one might have is unlikely to be fully utilised. After all, at the heart of it, your paymasters are the public - for the BBC, literally, and for commercial TV the advertisers, who want to attract the public to watch their promotions.

I'm reminded of the first episode of I'm Alan Partridge (1997), which contains a now rather famous scene in which Alan discusses some ideas for new TV programmes with a BBC commissioner:
Alan Partridge: Shoestring, Taggart, Spender, Bergerac, Morse. What does that say to you about regional detective series?
Tony Hayers: There's too many of them?
Alan Partridge: That's one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is "people like them - let's make some more of them".
My reading of this scene is that Hayers is shown in a sympathetic light, as a reforming commissioner interested in making genuinely new television programmes, despite being portrayed as a villain by our protagonist, to whom he won't give another series of his appalling chat show (incidentally, does one not feel that, ten years on, any one of the programme ideas Alan lists in his dossier could easily have been commissioned?)

However, despite the fact that the joke is meant to be on Partridge for blatant unoriginality, crime series - cops and robbers - have been the mainstay of television for years, and that in the 2000s, it was Partridge's contention that "people like them - let's make some more of them" which was the argument that won.

The other day I happened to watch a few surviving episodes of a series called No Hiding Place, a weekly detective series made by Associated Rediffusion for ITV which ran from 1959 to 1967, amassing a fairly incredible 236 episodes over its eight years, of which about 22 now survive in one form or another. Looking at it now, it's incredibly dated - stagey, slow, very studio-bound, and fairly predictable. However, it was curious that despite being a very early example of a TV detective series, at the heart of it was the same story as a programme like BBC 1's recent detective programme Wallander.

Sure, the newer series might have a more well-drawn, interesting main character. The storylines might have a few more twists, and not always conclude by knowing who-dunnit. The police are perhaps not shown to be as squeaky-clean and respectable as before. Oh, and it's set in Sweden, rather than London. However, ultimately, it's the same idea - police detective goes around solving murders and crimes, probably with a sidekick, within a confined area.

I've often thought that the Yorkshire TV series Heartbeat (1992-present) must have been the perfect pitch to a commissioning editor - "London policeman and doctor move to attractive-but-backward 1960s Yorkshire Moors village". Ticks all the boxes - crime, medicine, pretty location and nostalgia.

Ah yes, crime and medicine, the two most common TV stories. Let's look at the BBC during the last decade. Their two 'flagship' dramas are both medical series: the long-running hospital series Casualty and its spin-off Holby City. What's worse is that the second is essentially a more spiced-up version of the latter, even set in the same hospital. There was also a short-lived spin-off Holby Blue, set in a police station in the same city as the hospital and Casualty 1906, 1907 and 1909, set in the same hospital, but 100 years ago.

The obsession with doctors and nurses doesn't stop in the evenings. In the daytime, there's Doctors, a daily soap with possibly the most uninspiring theme tune ever committed to paper. Following hot on its heels in the schedules is an American import, Diagnosis Murder, a programme in which an aging doctor goes around solving murders, which brings us neatly back to our shared crime and medicine theme again.

Meanwhile, on ITV, we have Heartbeat, and its very own spin-off, The Royal, set in a hospital in Whitby in the 1960s. This was then spun-off for a series called The Royal Today, which doesn't really need explaining. Then there's The Bill, another long-running crime series, which had its own spin-off CID series Burnside.

Now, I feel a bit guilty just clogging an article up listing related programmes, but it needs to be stated just how un-imaginitive and non-creative this stream of doctors and policemen are. This is before we even get into the realm of continuing crime series, where despite a number of quality offerings in the realm of detective drama, overall, the programmes are unoriginal and instantly forgettable.

As Steve Punt pointed out in the Now Show Book of World Records, the lamest premises for a situation comedy are those whose titles incorporates the name of the character into a well-used phrase or saying to 'amusing effect', i.e The Good Life or The Life of Riley. However, in my book, it's worse when it's used for a drama series.

ITV are the worst offenders, here. Two recent primetime offerings are Doc Martin, a series about a man whose name sounds like a boot manufacturer, but also happens to be a doctor called Martin. The other is Rosemary and Thyme, a series which follows two detective gardeners, who happen to be named after herbs and also a line in the folk song Scarborough Fair, which they used as the title theme. Wow, original stuff!

Ultimately, these sort of committee/survey-inspired ideas don't serve creativity or the viewer very well. In fact, to assume that mixing crime and gardening with two famous actresses is somehow going to make a good television programme is just patronising, and an example of a creative vacuum of box-ticking, demographic chasing insanity.

Arguably, the most famous detective of all-time is Sherlock Holmes. He's a character who has appeared in hundreds of guises across the media since the earliest days of film, and one who is currently doing the rounds in a rather good cinema film. However, ultimately one has to wonder why the BBC are bothering to make Sherlock, a "contemporary update" of the detective by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. It sounds promising, which is probably why it was commissioned, but it's not a new idea, is it? The same goes for ITV's big-budget adaptations Agatha Christie's Marple, arguably inferior in almost every way to the BBC's 1980s adaptations of the same stories.

In the case of the latter two current programmes, the contention that "people like them - let's make some more of them" seems a solid argument. However, I can't help feeling that to simply continually spin-off the same old ideas without trying fresh, new ones without doctors and policemen is going to increasingly turn-off viewers. However, with it being a cut-throat industry, people's jobs depend on getting a series commissioned, and if doctors and detectives are seen to be the guaranteed way to achieve that, then more adventurous ideas are unlikely to be proposed. Ultimately, the TV commissioners just need to be a bit more adventurous with their programming.



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