A new era of decent British drama?

BBC1’s Exile showed that British dramatists, if they put their minds to it, can create world-class telly like The Wire.

David Bowden

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Mission accomplished! It may have taken the better part of a decade, an interminably aimless struggle costing vast sums of money, several false starts and concluded with the prosaic discovery that the target resembled an ancient wreck, defecating and vomiting with decreptitude in the arse-end of nowhere. But we got him, boys! Yes, British state-of-the-nation drama is back on our screens this week, after years of letting the coalition of the willing (largely drawn from the US, France and Scandinavia) take the credit while we got the pounding! So, to quote from Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding, is it worth it?

Exile, the brand new three-part drama that ran on consecutive nights on BBC1 this week, was penned by Paul Abbott, who brought us Shameless and State of Play. Well, he came up with the idea for Exile, anyway. It was actually written by Danny Brocklehurst, who created the slightly less lauded postman comedy-drama Sorted. (Oh, alright, he’s also written for most British top-rate dramas, too.) It featured people snorting drugs and shouting at each other while sat on the loo, which is always a sign of something weighty occurring. The soundtrack was the kind of discordant electronica favoured by ageing hipsters who now like good wine alongside the odd line of bad coke. Crucially, it was set in THE NORTH and had people whispering about LONDON in awed tones. It also had John Simm, Timothy West and Jim Broadbent, who have now ascended to that heighty plain of Quality British Actors Who Star In Serious Drama, along with Peep Show’s Olivia Colman in her first serious role. And there was also Claire Goose, who viewers of a certain age may remember as a sexy nurse from Casualty and as a late Nineties FHM pin-up.

The casting of Goose was actually the most revealing detail in a programme that was unafraid of dating itself firmly in a certain cultural firmament. Simm played Tom, a hotshot London editor at a lads’ mag returning home to small-town Lancashire in his fancy sports car with his tail between his legs, nominally to care for his Alzheimer’s-addled father (who was a proper journalist) and solve a dark family mystery which had plagued him since he was a teen. There was something terribly, well, Nineties about the whole thing. At one point, Tom even sat down to listen to Ebeneezer Goode on tape. I found myself half-hoping that a crucial plot point would revolve around someone checking Teletext, but it was not to be.

Yet it says everything about Britain in 2011 that this somehow made it all the more timely, rather than less. There was old-fashioned craft at work in the storytelling, which threaded together familiar elements of family drama with a racy plot involving mental hospitals, institutional rape and council corruption. It got its portrayal of Alzheimer’s bang on, capturing the thousand deaths and hunted, sought-after joys of loved ones as the memory flickers and fades; the howling frustration of how a sufferer can be stubbornly lucid one second, and drop their trousers and cry for their long-dead mum the next.

Exile was, however, not one of those dreary dramas written to give Broadbent a free pass at the BAFTAs and everyone a pat on the back for raising awareness. This was about Tom and the rest of the FHM generation: all those who came of age in the facile Nineties of Blairism, Cool Britannia, the New Lad and all the rest. It was compelling in its portrait of a generation’s disillusion and decay, with Tom’s detective hunt to discover the secret of his past and magically solve his present state of disarray serving as a wonderful metaphor for a Britain that gave up on the naive optimism of New Labour but held out little hope of finding anything more substantial and rewarding in the future. Even the detail of Tom’s father having been a serious journalist on a local newspaper, given the decimation of local press in the present, acted as a powerful reminder that ours is an age which clings to the ghosts of its past because there’s not much to look out for on the horizon.

Hardly cheering stuff, then, but beyond the tabloid levels of human depravity – which the show even gave a sly acknowledgement to – it was a reminder that, to make a British version of The Wire and The Killing, Britain’s dramatists need to do more than simply remake and imitate. Given its three-hour length, the frenetic nature of the writing and exposition-heavy dialogue paled in comparison to the sheer breadth afforded to those foreign shows. The general absence of mobile phones, computers or anything vaguely modern from Exile perhaps revealed something about the unease of Britain’s top dramatists to tackle the headaches posed by more recent developments. Yet if the BBC’s new Wire clone starting this week, The Shadow Line, is half as finely made as this, it would at least be a start.

It’d certainly be better than yet another remake of an Angry Young Man novel or play, where we’re all supposed to get ever so cross about the decline of social mobility, or something about Nazis and posh houses by Stephen Poliakoff. It’s taken the BBC nearly a decade to come up with a thriller half as good as State of Play: you can only hope that Exile marks the start of a new and challenging chapter in British TV drama, rather than simply being an elegy for what has come before.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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