When The South Bank Show is devoting screen-time to the likes of Bad Girls and Footballers’ Wives, it begs the question: have we really learnt to take our TV drama seriously, or are we simply getting accustomed to celebrating its vacuous, disposable side? Ambitious pioneers in the field – your Dennis Potters and Sydney Newmans – spoke of television as the new national theatre, and a society communicating with itself, but today it’s often in danger of becoming a creative graveyard, with just the odd gem amongst endless gritty vehicles for ex-soap stars. Worse still, there’s a danger of overlooking exactly what has been achieved on the small screen down the years.
Thankfully, there’s a growing trend towards serious academic assessment of the medium’s achievements. Increasingly, TV dramatists can indeed be held up against theatrical playwrights after all. Cooke’s volume gamely attempts to give a full overview of the form’s development – the first concerted attempt to do so – and does so with remarkable thoroughness and accomplishment. The task requires some admirable archaeology regarding the live, or otherwise lost, years (film scholars at least have early films to view: TV archivists are less lucky). The basic structure – a chronological study, stopping off at important junctures to study key works, from Nigel Kneale’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) to Amy Jenkins’ This Life (1996-7) – lays out the evolution of the medium with winning clarity. Casual readers might baulk at the extensive scholarly detail in these study chapters, often focussing on technical aspects of production, but this is, after all, an attempt to inject genuinely academic rigor into the subject (Melvyn Bragg take note).
Indeed, perhaps the bravest aspect of the book is the fair-handedness with which it deals with TV drama practitioners. By and large, this is seen as a field authored chiefly by scriptwriters, as opposed to directors (in direct contrast to film), but Cooke ensures that the look, style and advancements in technology of the productions under discussion are explored and explained, as well as the voices of the writers. Any attempt to dissect television faces an age-old issue: to what degree is it an art-form in its own right, distinct from film, radio or theatre? Indeed, down the decades it has drawn heavily on – and eventually fed back into – all three, and yet at its best it can conjure something utterly unique: an intimate, often imaginative world of sound and vision direct to the living room (or kitchen, or bedroom, or garage…) It’s perplexing, though, that, of all the possible cover images that are available, BFI Books have plumped for a still from Boys From the Blackstuff (1982)… of a funeral. Is this meant perhaps to strike an elegiac tone, or is it in the belief, as advocated by Spinal Tap, that ‘death sells?’
Ironically, almost seventy years on, after producing some remarkable, powerful work, this field still faces a struggle to convince some observers (and indeed some practitioners) of its worth and potential. As new talents emerge eager to grasp and push the nature of the television, it’s vital also to understand the questing, impressive past, and in that respect Cooke’s admirable study – a rich mine of information, and an often mind-boggling work of research – is a small but vital step towards realising what has already been achieved by strong, devoted talents. If you think you know the subject backwards already, chances are there’s still plenty here to inform you. And if you’re a newcomer looking for a good place to start, you could do far worse than applying yourself to absorbing this.