British TV: We’re Having A Renaissance

Jess Ennis /
Mar 31, 2017 / Film & TV

If I were writing some kind of essay, it would be in the introduction that I’d state my hypothesis. I’d make a claim, and then I’d spend the rest of the work trying to prove it. So, here it is. In the spirit of academia, here’s the hypothesis for my article:

British TV is the best it’s ever been.

It’s my belief that the golden age for TV, that much heralded mythical time, has arrived. Let’s examine our evidence. We’ve got Peaky Blinders, Broadchurch, Line of Duty, Happy Valley, Taboo. We had Luther, War and Peace, Ripper Street (the latter was woefully underrated). TV is grittier, better written, more engaging, and tonally more exciting than we’ve seen thus far. Hell, with a few exceptions, TV might largely have more to offer us than film right now.

In true academic fashion, here’s my first point.

People realised that good filming isn’t just for film.

Take the likes of Broadchurch, for example. With some of the most understated, almost Scandinavian-influenced cinematography, visual tones and compelling settings (think the original Wallander), Broadchurch is a powerhouse in terms of craft. Take this series, for example. Cinematographer Carlos Catalan has created something that is visually remarkable, taking a quaint seaside town and making it both slightly ethereal and slightly terrifying in the same breath. Someone, somewhere, realised that making a show gorgeous to look at would make people want to see it – and they were right. Instagram pages that screenshot beautiful moments (of which I follow a few) are interspersing more and more TV shows within their films, because they’re good. They’re worthy of appreciation.

The stories are interesting and original.

Now, this seems like a stupid one. But given some of the nonsense that’s being plugged continually in the film industry (Power Rangers reboot? Really?) TV has become a safe haven for creative storytelling – stories like Taboo. The brainchild of Tom Hardy, Chips Hardy & Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, the show was one of the most conceptually interesting shows I’ve seen in a long time. Telling the story of a man believed to be dead who returns to his home upon the death of his merchant father, Taboo was a period drama on steroids. If Pirates of the Caribbean procreated with a dark London gangster piece, you’d have Taboo.

But it’s not just completely new ideas being executed well – the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace last year was opulent and lavish, but avoided falling into Downton-esque traps by being dark in places, and exploring the French invasion of Russia and the brutal war alongside it. It wasn’t all waltzes around a grand ballroom, though they were there in full force; the decadence was matched by the struggles of the war, loss, and the destruction of the aristocratic life that the show primarily established.

The recent surge in miniseries and multi-series TV dramas means that we’re being afforded the ability to meet characters again and again, and to explore exciting new angles for stories to come from. And when you’re adapting a doorstop like War and Peace, you need that time. Believe me.

They use music wot’s well good.

Now, if you haven’t seen Cillian Murphy kicking someone’s ass to the Arctic Monkeys then you’ve not lived, and that’s all I’ll say on the matter.

The smart, smart people who made Peaky Blinders realised that an interesting, exciting way to connect the show to the present and give it an interesting edge would be to use modern music – it seems novel, but it actually works brilliantly. With artists like Nick Cave, Jack White, and Laura Marling featuring at brilliantly opportune moments, the show embraces modernity to inform its down-and-dirty tone.

And then you’ve got shows like Broadchurch, for which brilliant composers like Olafur Arnalds produce atmospheric melancholy original scores. Whether it’s watching the frenzy of a black market gambling den with the White Stripes playing, or the discovery of a body on a beach with a haunting musical backdrop, music is being given an immersive platform on which to be discovered.

Quality TV = respected actors want to do it.

Now, I’ll pay £10 happily to see Tom Hardy’s face on the big screen. But if I can watch him every week, and it’s included in the licence fee? That’s a no brainer.

Let’s examine some casts lists:

Peaky Blinders (series 2)? Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory, Sam Neill, Joe Cole, Tom Hardy, Charlotte Riley, Paddy Considine.

Taboo? Tom Hardy, Tom Hollander, Mark Gatiss, Oona Chaplin, Jonathan Pryce.

War and Peace? Lily James, Paul Dano, Jim Broadbent, Brian Cox, Gillian Anderson, James Norton, Aneurin Barnard, Adrian Edmondson.

It’s a call and response thing, really. If the content for TV is compelling, exciting, or dark, then actors are going to want to do it. TV gives them the opportunity to delve into characters long-term, in a way that film doesn’t – it’s two hours versus two series. When the stories are poignant and the mise-en-scene atmospheric and finely detailed, it’s only natural that we’d see a surge of actors wanting to try their hand at British TV. Eva Longoria’s in a BBC1 period drama tonight, for god’s sake.

And so, to my conclusion. I’ll repeat my hypothesis: British TV is the best it’s ever been. I mean, come on. We’ve got incredible talent from both sides of the pond lining up to put a wig on, we’re surrounded by a veritable wealth of music, we’re being treated to visual masterpieces at 9pm on terrestrial, and we’ve got the content to match. TV is at its apex, but I’m just praying we’re a way off the decline for now.

Get Volume #17 here.

Words by Jess Ennis

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