Whenever you open a copy of Broadcast or hear an interview with commissioners at BBC, ITV or indeed any of the major channels, one thing seems to be rearing its ugly head again and again. Each in turn believes that television one-offs will become fewer and fewer. So it was somewhat surprising to find three on last week.
To be honest I couldn't get through My Zinc Bed, (BBC2) adapted by David Hare from his own play. It felt exactly like it was, a stage play that someone had filmed. It was slow, static and frankly dull to watch. Despite quality performances from Jonathan Pryce, Uma Thurman and Paddy Considine, the story was generally uninteresting. And it was a good example of how not to over use voiceover in screen drama.
So it was with some dread that I approached God On Trial (BBC2). Written by the hugely experienced Frank Cottrell Boyce, it told the story of prisoners in Auschwitz, their faith tested by their suffering and the barbarity of the Nazis, putting God on trial. Taking place mainly in their camp blockhouse, it felt for all the world like a stage play, and I wondered if it would manage to sustain the visual interest needed for the small as well as big screen. But that actually turned out to be irrelevant. The script was so well written, the performances so captivating, and the story so absorbing, you couldn't look away. It was sometimes tough going and during watching it I wondered if it could maybe be shorter, an hour or so, not the full 90 minutes. But then I realised that the reason I thought this was not because I had lost interest, but because the arguments being presented swung your emotions so much, I could barely take any more. As an orthodox Jew, it asked questions we grapple with often. But before watching it, I was worried about what the agenda might be.
Executive producer Mark Redhead told the Sunday Herald: "God apparently hit an aeroplane into a building and killed 3000 people. He appears to be on the world stage in a way that he hasn't been at any point in my lifetime. A born-again Christian is in the White House. Religious fanatics are conducting a terrorist war. Tony Blair has become a Catholic. To me, it seemed time that he was called into account."
It did occur to me that this may be a Richard Dawkins like attack on the existence of G0d. In fact, although clearly very well researched, it was quite selective in its analysis of Scripture and paid only cursory attention to the depth of its explanations. But the most powerful aspect of the script was the fact that it did not take the easy option of bashing belief in God. So despite finding God guilty of abandoning his people, the script ended with the prisoners being left with only one option. To pray. And not once during the many poignant arguments during the trial, as far as I can recall, did any of the prisoners question the existence of God, only why He was allowing this to happen. It was a fascinating piece of television drama and an incredibly bold piece of commissioning.
And it didn't finish there. Fiona's Story (BBC1) examined a woman's struggle to keep her family together after her husband is accused of downloading child pornography. This one was written by newcomer Kate Gabriel. I am always suspicious when I read something was written by a newcomer because further research would usually reveal that they weren't that 'new' after all. But I could not find out anything about this writer so I can only assume that she is. And this is fantastic because hopefully it goes to show that a great script will find a way to get made, even by someone with no track record. (If you ever happen to come accross this Kate, please get in touch, as I'm sure we'd all like to know how this project got from script to screen!)
Again, this script sought no easy answers or didactic posturing. Gina Mckee's performance as Fiona was excellent. But what stood out for me was the characterisation of her husband, Simon, played brilliantly by Jeremy Northam. As the story progressed it emerged that he was guilty as charged, although the police could not get enough evidence to make the case stick. This allowed the character to go from a pathetic, snivelling, guilty mess, to someone who was filled with almost righteous indignation that his human rights had been infringed and that he was the victim in what was otherwise a victimless crime. It's a repugnant argument of course but it's brilliant writing, getting at the heart and into the head of the most repulsive character in the script. I've mentioned this before and it's worth reiterating, that you need to go to uncomfortable places in yourself, especially with antagonists, to make them and their points of view seem real, however much you ultimately disagree with them. Kate Gabriel achieved that ever so well here.
I personally agree with Adrian Renolds that "the only false note (in the script) was struck by Simon’s brother and his defence of a man’s right to look at porn, which sounded a bit too much like a political stance than something a real human would come out with." But I did also wonder why the drama was prefaced with the title card that "The following is a work of fiction inspired by many true stories." Did it need this? We assume that, unless stated otherwise, television drama is fiction. We also assume that it has been, no matter what the topic, thoroughly researched. This title card seem to suggest a lack of confidence in the material and undermined it a little for me. The script was so subtly written, that it felt real. And that's all I needed.