drama on television

   Drama has been associated with BBC television since before the Second World War and with ITV since 1955. The latter, on its opening night, screened excerpts from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Classic drama from playwrights such as Sheridan and Ibsen featured heavily in the early days. The BBC’s Sunday plays (repeated midweek) had been broadcast since the 1930s. Drama has thus always been, for the BBC, a repository for middle-class values.
   In the 1990s, the subject of television drama is much debated. Critics point to a golden age of productions such as The Forsyte Saga and Brideshead Revisited and identify a decline. Recent adaptations of Emma and Pride and Prejudice have offered a rebuttal. Others disparage contemporary television drama and see Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell as no substitute for Dennis Potter. They view even the ubiquitous sitcoms as much beneath the standards set in the 1970s and 1980s by Fawlty Towers and Yes Minister. Others welcome the way drama has begun to reach a larger audience, even though it often deals with a less sophisticated range of issues. In what might be seen as an adverse reflection on other television drama offerings, in 1997 EastEnders became the first soap opera to win the BAFTA award for best drama series. However, it may be that criteria for the awards have changed to reflect popular culture and public taste: television is about ratings, which may mean a move away from ‘quality’, as it had previously been defined. Thus the shows which attracted the largest audiences may not have matched Reithian standards, but did at least reflect ordinary people’s lives. The final episode of Only Fools and Horses, starring David Jason as Del Boy, is a case in point. It was watched by a record 24.3m people at Christmas 1996. Given that there is plenty of competition, and that audiences have a choice, ratings do reflect script-writers’ and producers’ abilities to satisfy.
   Television is accused of relying on reruns of previous drama series. These are always ‘safe’, and cheap, and this also suits a conservative audience who missed ‘classic’ programmes the first time round or who like to take nostalgia trips. Despite flops like the £10m Rhodes and Nostromo, there has been much innovative, genre-breaking drama on television. Jimmy McGovern’s Hillsborough bridged documentary, drama and reportage and led, in real life, to the reopening of the inquiry into police conduct. This Life, with unknown actors, bucked a trend (for example, it was suggested that the only reason for A Touch of Frost’s 18m viewers was the presence of star David Jason) and became an unexpected success. All in all, the death of drama on television would seem to have been exaggerated, but most people still consider quality drama to be from the past: The Forsyte Saga, Upstairs, Downstairs, Brideshead Revisited or The Jewel in the Crown, for example. This was confirmed by a September 1998 Radio Times readers’ poll, conducted to mark seventy-five years of the magazine, which found I, Claudius (1976) to be the ‘best’ period drama and Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home (1966) the ‘best’ single television drama.
   See also: crime drama; medical drama
   MIKE STORRY

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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