Half way through the current season of Spooks, it's high time I commented on what is surely one of the best examples of what a British tv series can do. We inevitably compare our stuff with the best the US has to offer and we often come up short. But this is one show that stands up to comparisons. Both in its ambition and scale, it's fantastic. There was a shift in format last season, changing from a new main story each week, with very little continuing threads, to one long story about the threat Iran posed and internal British factions with a very different agenda to the establishment. And I thought it suffered because of it. It seemed to struggle to keep up the momentum each week. This season is keeping that format and it's fairing much better. It got off to a cracking start with the unexpected killing off of Adam Carter. Spooks does this better than anyone. Instead of leaking it to the press to drive up ratings, they kept it a secret and it came as a big shock. I had no idea Rupert Penry-Jones was leaving the show and whilst I'm sure it was his decision, Spooks continued its reputation of not being afraid to kill off characters. I've criticised Heroes in previous weeks for baulking the trend of the show by now seemingly not willing to kill off anyone. It decreases the threat and drama. But back to Spooks and Richard Armitage has come in well as Lucas North and Hermione Norris' Ros Myers has to be the hardest woman on tv, and would probably be able to give Jack Bauer a good tussle. My one criticism of the show at the moment is the repetitive anti-American theme. Politics aside, it just seems like it's pandering to BBC sensibilities and from a dramatic point of view, if it's always the fault of the Americans. it gets a bit predictable. But it's a great show and I can, er, maybe exclusively reveal there will definitely be another series cos an old MA buddy of mine is writing an episode for it!
In a change of tact for this column, I want to look at Imagine... A Love Story (BBC4 repeated from BBC1 a couple of weeks ago.) It looked at what made a good love story and our obsession with them. What became apparent is that, with the exception of Jane Austen, the great love stories all end badly. This is even true on the big screen, and even in Hollywood, so often seen as the home of the happy ending. Robert Mckee noted that whilst happy endings are a must in the Romantic Comedy, "we mustn't mistake Romantic Comedy for a Love Story. Romantic Comedy is not really about love. It's about the courtship. Love Stories are more often than not tragic. Casablanca is the choice between Romance and Love. Romance is conditional on the presence of the person you love. Love is the feeling we carry in our heart whether the person is there or not, alive or dead. Love is unconditional."
At the end of the day, what fascinates us is the destructive power of love. The active question of all love stories is - is it worth giving up everything for love?
But a real question for us to wrestle with now is, how do we write love stories today? The traditional obstacles that fuel them, like adultery, family feuds, race, class, don't seem to bother us anymore. It's worth noting that most of the successful screen love stories, like Titanic, are all set in the past. Today, are love stories dead? We are more likely to get Romantic Comedies like Sex and the City, which is about the politics of love and about finding the right partner from a choice of many.
So that's the challenge for writers today.
From my point of view, I love Love Stories, be they Romantic Comedies or, what Phil Parker defines as Romantic Dramas (which always end with the lovers apart.) One of my first features was a love story set against the backdrop of rising fascism is post war London. The lovers ended apart. Like Casablanca (a big influence on my script) they put duty ahead of their own wishes. And the feedback I got, even from those who really liked the script, was that the ending was downbeat! As receptive as I am to feedback, this was one case of sticking to my guns because I knew that if they ended together, it would kill the power of the story. I'm working on another Love Story now, this time set in present day, and I think I've found a nice divide, separating the protagonists without the old obstacles. But interestingly, although in an early outline the lovers ended apart, since then I have rewritten it so they end together. Whether this will cost me the chance of writing a 'great love story' or not, I don't know. But it doesn't feel right anymore that they end apart. Maybe it's because when I began thinking of this story I was single, and now I am married! Maybe it's because I want to avoid the predictable "the ending is too downbeat" feedback I'd get? But whatever the reason, sometimes you have to go with your gut and only time will tell whether the story will work or not.