Sunday, 24 August 2008

Things we noticed watching tv this week 2 (spoilers)

Just as a reminder, this regular post is not a weekly review, critic esque. I'm not overly bothered about what critics think. It's more a case of looking at some of the things I've watched over the past week and seeing what can be learnt and taken back into our own writing.

Two markedly different series came to a close this week, the 4 part House of Saddam (BBC2) and the 6 part Harley Street (ITV). One was an ambitious look at a well known but highly secretive history of a tyrant spanning almost three decades, the other was Harley Street. What I particularly liked about House of Saddam was the depiction of Saddam Hussein. Writers Alex Holmes and Stephen Butchard obviously worked hard not to pander to pantomime cliches of what we'd expect from this dictator. And that's no easy task. Igal Naor, the actor who played him (an Israeli no less, bet that had Saddam turning in his grave) is on record as saying that he wouldn't be surprised if people felt a tinge of sadness for the former president of Iraq at the end of the series. To be honest I didn't, but only because everyone involved in making the series had done their job so well. I understood that this was a man, who probably genuinely believed he was doing what was best for his country, but was wrong, evil and guilty of crimes that deserved the punishment he got. But we certainly got to see the human side of him. This always causes controversy, and has been an issue with recent depictions of Adolf Hitler in Max and Downfall. I don't think there is anything wrong with this as such, as long as you are not suggesting that these figures were right all along. It's important that it is acknowledged and recognised that these people are just that, people, human beings, albeit capable of atrocities beyond belief. But they are not alien creatures from a different planet. Maybe it would be easier if they were, because it's harder to understand when confronted by a human side of these monsters. But drama is built on shades of grey, not black and white. And I would imagine it is the same for most people. When I was writing a script with a BNP-like fascist as the main antagonist, it took a long time, much feedback and many rewrites to get the characterisation right, simply because I was thinking in terms of black and white. To me this guy was evil, and so that's all there was to it. I had to get under his skin more and reveal that to his wife and son, he was just a husband and father, and that he was motivated by believing he was right. It doesn't make them so, but you need to go there in order not to deliver one dimensional dramatic characters.

Harley Street was an altogether different proposition. From a subjective point of view, medical dramas are not my bag. My own chequered medical history means they often give me the heebie jeebies! But I watched four out of the six episodes, because it's part of the job to watch what is on tv.. fact. And I understand that ITV wanted to get in on the Casualty/Holby City cartel, not to mention House, Grey's Anatomy and ER, still going strong on other channels. But Harley Street has to be one of the most unimaginative commissions of recent memory. Surely they basically played safe, only to have it backfire. The ingredients were there, the episodes constructed out of familiar story of the day plots mixed with personal series elements. But viewing figures tumbled when people realised they had seen this all before. The show was billed as a fresh look at a familiar arena, but characters wearing more expensive suits doesn't make it original. So to be honest, the only thing I took away from this show was that it was created by Marston Bloom (who also wrote two episodes.) Who? Exactly. He's an actor turned writer and someone who had very little writing experience. But his spec for a medical series impressed enough to get an agent, be picked up by Carnival, and then commissioned by ITV. And fair play to him! There can often be a culture of jealously and "I can do better than that" syndrome. Well maybe you can... so go do it then. Maybe Marston's connections as an actor helped him get a writing break, and then again maybe they didn't. Maybe he just wrote a bloody good script, because at the end of the day that's all that's going to matter. If nothing else, Harley Street proved it can happen. A new series created by a relatively new writer. Makes you think doesn't it?

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