Making drama during a crisis.
I’ve been given a load of VHS tapes to look through that are proving to be a treasure trove of old Scottish films and TV drama. It made me realise that Scottish TV appears to have stopped making quality homegrown drama, although there are plenty of shows that use Scotland as the backdrop; the recent, risible, Hope Springs being only one example.
The reasons for this situation will know doubt be financial, but after watching Peter McDougall’s Down Among the Big Boys (1993) and the Michael Caton Jones directed Brond (1987), I realised that this was not an excuse during previous recessions. Both of these films were filmed and are set during times of poverty in Glasgow that were far greater than that in which the city, or country, currently finds itself. That also applies to the early 80’s set Looking after Jo Jo (1998) and the sadly forgotten Jute City (1991), which, unusually, was set outside of the central belt in Dundee, something that occurs all too rarely. It boasts a great cast, although the standout for me is John Sessions which makes me wonder why did he not do more straight acting? They’re helped by a fantastic script by David Kane who went on to write and direct the films This Year’s Love (1999) and Born Romantic (2000) as well as perhaps the most recent Scottish ‘drama’ Sea of Souls (2004-07).
Actually, the difference between Jute City and Sea of Souls is telling. The first is a complex three part drama that keeps you guessing until the end. By the time Kane was making Sea of Souls the fashion in TV drama, at least in this country, was to make programmes which had different stories in each episode, a la Taggart (about which more soon). This was so viewers could miss out on an episode or two and not be lost. It was assumed that the watching public wouldn’t commit to three weeks or more of plot. This is palpable nonsense as can be seen with the success of various TV dramas in the US. Programmes such as LOST, Deadwood and The Sopranos demanded loyalty and concentration from their viewers, and received it. Of course this was partly due to the popularity of the box-set and DVR systems, but these programmes were successful as they were screened, and you couldn’t take a toilet break without fear of losing the plot, never mind an episode. It appeared that makers of British TV, not for the first or, no doubt, last time, underestimated their audience.
Surely this attitude should have changed. But if so where are the British True Bloods or Generation Kills? Hopefully the success of the Tutti Frutti (see A slight bruising of the crotch) DVD box set will convince those who decide such things that investing in new TV drama is worthwhile even to those who are more concerned with the balance sheet. It would be fantastic to have series written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, David MacKenzie or, in a perfect world, Bill Forsyth. If TV is healthy enough in the US for Spielberg (Band of Brothers), Scorsese (Boardwalk Empire) and Soderbergh (Unscripted) to be involved surely, at a time when it is increasingly difficult to get feature films made, broadcasters could use the talent that is on their doorstep to make groundbreaking TV drama? When the BBC is under constant scrutiny and attack one way to answer critics is to make programmes that unquestionably justify the licence fee (see Malcolm Tucker, Art Historian). Or they could make another series of Hole in the Wall.
In the meantime here are a couple of clips from two of the programmes mentioned above. The first is a brief clip from Down Among the Big Boys which features Gary Lewis, and, blink and you’ll miss him, a young Glaswegian hobbit:
The following is from Brond. As well as ‘introducing’ John Hannah to the world Brond had a fantastic cast including James Cosmo, Russell Hunter and the statuesque Stratford Johns. Brond is a really interesting drama, and would be well worth repeating (although Channel 4 tend not to do repeats from their early glory days). There are overtones of James Hogg’s novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), and it unusually, and successfully, sets a supernatural thriller in a modern urban landscape. The following is not the most dramatic clip, but it is the only one I can find. If you are lucky enough to have a copy of the series then I hope you share it around: