A dramatic intervention

Of course, American support for costly drama is welcome, and helps keep the UK in the game, but the fact is that US-commissioned drama is simply in a different league.

David Elstein
3 April 2013

Netflix, the distributor of video content, last month issued a new challenge to the traditional broadcast media. In making available, in one swoop, an entire thirteen episodes of a new television drama series, commissioned and solely funded from its own resources, Netflix broke a crucial link: that between broadcast networks – whether free-to-air or pay – and originated, scripted content.

In the US, YouTube has been busy packaging original content for some time, and Amazon is also investing in comedy and children’s entertainment; but not the premium $4 million an hour stuff that contends for awards. Otherwise, it is the networks – free-to-air (CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox), or pay (HBO, AMC, Showtime, Starz, Bravo, FX and so forth) – who are the lead financiers of nearly all high-end origination States-side, just as the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky wholly dominate the field in the UK.

House of cards

When Netflix announced that it was planning to re-make a BBC drama series entitled “House of Cards”, expectations had not been that high, despite the reported involvement of director David Fincher (“The Social Network”, “Se7en”) and Kevin Spacey. Yet the results are exceptionally good.

The BBC show had been an Andrew Davies adaptation of a Michael Dobbs novel, which accentuated the jaunty elements in the deeply improbable plot whereby a Machiavellian chief whip – who endlessly nods and winks to the camera – is persuaded that he is more able than the newly-elected Conservative Prime Minister, and schemes to replace him, stopping at nothing (blackmail, theft, cocaine provision, murder) to achieve his end.

There was scarcely a glimmer of actual politics in the original: indeed, the political howlers started with the election result, where a reduced majority and a loss of seats were treated as numerical equivalents (a moment’s thought confirms that every lost seat must amount to a reduction of two in the margin over all other parties). But it rattled along, with credibility sacrificed to cartoon cut-out characterisation. Only the chief whip and his Lady Macbeth-type wife (played brilliantly by Ian Richardson and Diane Fletcher), and a disarmingly young and attractive journalist (Susannah Harker), were depicted in any kind of detail.

The Netflix version shares the BBC’s starting point: a less-than-convincing US president has been elected, and Spacey plays a camera-addressing chief whip. However, we immediately spot two differences. The only chief whip in the UK who has real power and any expectation of higher office is the one in the House of Commons. In the US, the majority chief whip in the House of Representatives is at best on a par with the one in the Senate. More importantly, our man in the US – like his British equivalent, named Francis, but “Frank” to most of the other characters, apart from his wife – is angling for office: indeed, the trigger for the plot is not some free-ranging cynicism, but frustration at being edged out of becoming Secretary of State by a high-profile windbag.

Yes, there is an ambitious female journalist: but unlike her UK equivalent, she is as keen to elbow aside the old guard at her newspaper as is Francis his own party colleagues. They make more natural confidential conspirators and bed-mates than in the BBC version. More importantly, Frank’s wife – played by Robin Wright – is a Washington force in her own right, and Frank’s chief of staff, Stamper, is a powerful screen presence from the start (whereas in the BBC drama, the character with that name barely registers in the 3-hour running time).

And that is another clue to the different nature of the enterprises: the US version is not just a 13-hour epic – it promises a further 13 hours before the story will have run its course. Moreover, Frank is plunged into real politics, both at national level and in his own constituency, very early on. To add extra verisimilitude, various schemes of Frank’s are foiled – one by his wife, in revenge for trying to play her hand for her. This is an altogether more convincing, credible and involving project than the BBC effort: and its lavish budget allows the writers and directors (Fincher only helms the first two episodes) a splendid opportunity to show Washington in rich detail: something even The West Wing did not always achieve.

The second series of 13 episodes of “House of Cards” is currently in production. Oddly enough, another US re-make, of the Danish hit, “The Killing”, was also split into two halves, of seven episodes each, shown a year apart, and also made a radical departure from the original story-line, by having the perpetrator in the Danish original killed off.

Unlike many US re-makes, this one disappointed the US audience in its first run, and was not renewed after it completed the story. Although the quality of US writers and cast usually lifts these re-makes well above their European origins, there are exceptions to the rule. The US version of “Prime Suspect” is a rather feeble and conventional police procedural, written as one-hour episodes rather than replicating the 4-hour structure which proved so satisfying in the Lynda La Plante/Helen Mirren version. La Plante takes a credit (and presumably a large cheque) for the re-make, but the only resemblance to the ITV smash hit is having a woman in the lead.

The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen

The US version of “The Killing” was based in Seattle, whose gloomy, rain-swept streets proved a reasonable match for the wet nights in Copenhagen. After a somewhat respectful first seven episodes, the series returned to complete the story, and was a revelation. “The Killing” was essentially painting by numbers in the Danish original – requiring yet another new suspect in virtually every one of the 20 episodes. Now it was replaced by a psychologically convincing and politically intriguing re-invention, which not only took the dead girl’s mother on a surprising journey of her own, but clinched its narrative with a brilliant twist on the story of the girl’s aunt. Even Mireille Enos, trying the near-impossible in attempting to match the mesmerising performance by Sofie Grabol in the original, put up a commendable effort.

The UK and the US have been much taken with the run of Scandinavian dramas, which started with the two different Swedish versions of “Wallander” (both superior to the good, but not excellent, UK re-make starring Kenneth Branagh), and continued with “The Killing”, “The Bridge” and the political series, “Borgen”.

Paradoxically, it was only after the Danish public broadcaster, DR, sent a bunch of producers and executives to the US in the 1990’s that Danish television adopted the US model of show-runners, writers’ rooms and multi-episode dramas. Indeed, the producer of “The Killing” pitched the show to DR in the bar of the Sofitel in Manhattan.

When the outputs from this new production model reached the UK, in their own way they proved as eye-opening as the many US series which UK viewers have come to admire. However, once the novelty of having European-originated versions of US-style drama wore off, the mechanical nature of the plot of the first series of “The Killing” became all too glaring.

In truth, series two of “The Killing” was weaker than its predecessor, and the final series was too over-wrought, with a perpetrator who managed to rustle up cars, lorries, boats and transporters, seemingly at will, despite being an unemployed former seaman. As in series one, campaign cars for leading politicians in the midst of an election are seen suspiciously close to the scene of the crime. With the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition both turned into suspects, even the most tolerant of viewers will have had their patience stretched when a third lookalike posh car materialises at the same remote spot, to vindicate them both.

Likewise, “The Bridge” – a Danish-Swedish co-production with the first victims coming from north and south of the border, and being laid out on either side of the border point on a bridge connecting the two countries – was altogether too schematic, and involved a series of politically correct crimes which turned out to have nothing really to do with the supposed motivation of the killer.

Perhaps in this we can see the hand of DR, which openly admits to looking for drama that has “a double story”. In addition to the underlying narrative, shows are expected to display an ethical dimension. The producer of “Borgen” engagingly reveals: “It’s almost like school television. You need to learn something. What we always want when an episode is over is to have something that people can discuss with family while drinking coffee.”

As it happens, some episodes of “Borgen” are genuinely involving and instructive – as when our heroine visits Greenland – for domestic and foreign viewers, and the skills of the programme-makers are impressive. Even so, such overt moralizing rarely works in dramatic terms, and it is noticeable that the show-runner for “The Killing” has little time for the “double story” approach, other than to hope that his dark vision of murder and intrigue in Copenhagen will prove a counter to the cosy tales of Hans Christian Andersen.

For UK viewers, there is one aspect of the most recent series of “Borgen” which has extra interest. Denmark is a jurisdiction where there is actually a press law, yet we see the editor of a leading newspaper (who also happens to be a former leading politician) setting up a honey-trap for the foreign minister, who commits suicide once shown the photos that were secretly taken of his sex session. Then the prime minister, learning of this attempted exposure, threatens in turn to expose the newspaper editor unless he drops a particular story. He, in his turn, threatens to expose her sexual encounter with her chauffeur if she reveals what he has done. The press law seems to play very little role in actual Danish life.


The French thriller, “Spiral”, has alternated with its Swedish and Danish counterparts on BBC4, sharing the Saturday 9pm slot. It is looser in structure, determinedly incorrect politically, and amusing in its relish in exposing the incompetence, brutality and corruption that characterises the police, the prisons and the judiciary in Paris. All its lead characters are flawed, with cocaine, fear, pride, sexual passion, righteousness and ambition competing for top spot in the litany of fallibility. But the drama is confident and strong, content to leave ends loose and to introduce new and important characters half way through a 10-episode run.

By contrast, ITV’s moody, new policier, “Broadchurch”, trusted its audience so little that at the end of the first episode, we were clunkily re-introduced to possible suspects in the child murder whose investigation by misfit cops is designed to carry us through eight weeks of viewing. Sadly, UK drama is going through a disappointing slump, with perhaps the most dismaying example being the latest offering from writer/director Stephen Poliakoff: “Dancing On The Edge”. This over-extended and lush production – reportedly costing the BBC £8.5 million – contained not a single credible character.

Oddly enough, the BBC has just broadcast a nicely light-touch re-make of Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes”, directed by the veteran Diarmuid Lawrence. It skipped deftly over the many weaknesses in the plot, while its extended sequences of a swaying train hurtling through pre-war Europe were highly reminiscent of the remarkable “Caught On A Train”, with which Poliakoff, as a writer (but with the expert hand of Peter Duffell as director of that taut thriller) first came of age as a TV dramatist 33 years ago.

At one level, the BBC is to be commended for keeping faith with a rare home-grown talent: but judgement as well as cash is what we need from our premier broadcaster, and in the last 12 months the only drama serial that lived up to the BBC’s highest standards was the Tom Stoppard adaptation of “Parade’s End”, a sequence of books by Ford Madox Ford that centred on the First World War.

Susanna White’s direction, a large chunk of cash from HBO and a superb cast did justice to Stoppard’s ambitious and complex scripts, which sensibly brought the story to an end with the 1918 armistice (Ford’s books continued into the post-war era). This was a period Ford lived through, and his characters – however strange to our modern eyes – were completely credible in their various forms of dottiness. Inevitably and deservedly, “Parade’s End” is winning all the available prizes for drama serials.

It is the paucity of the short lists it dominates that is most lowering. Series like “Line Of Duty” and “Good Cop”, as with 2011’s “The Shadow Line”, were too self-consciously playing with the theme of the narrow gap between tough policing and corruption. None really came close to success. Similarly, “The Hour”, in its second run, spent too much time on period flavour and the idiosyncrasies of the BBC of the 1950’s: more attention to the gaping holes in the plot would have been a better use of resources. There will not be a third series.

Restless in translation

Meanwhile, the only other real contender for awards in the home-produced drama stakes was largely ignored, perhaps because it was transmitted between Christmas and the New Year, when critics take time off. William Boyd’s adaptation of his own novel, “Restless”, was part-financed by the US cable channel Sundance, and showed signs of some tweaking for the benefit of US audiences. Set in two time periods – before and during the war, and some 30 years later – it dealt with familiar Boyd themes: espionage, trust, patriotism, betrayal.

A Russian-born, French-speaking, English-naturalised former spy reveals to her academic daughter – in artfully episodic detail – how she had been recruited as a wartime undercover agent, and had become the lover of her recruiter. He tells her not to trust anyone, even him. When he uses her as sexual bait to gain access to the inner White House, she is hurt, but insufficiently wary. Too late, she works out that he is almost certainly a Soviet agent, and has tried to engineer her death in an operation in New Mexico, just before Pearl Harbour.

In the TV version, Boyd wisely discards most of the book’s sub-plot involving the daughter’s language students and German connections, and tightens up the action. He also by-passes the oddity of the mother handing chapters from her typed memoir, one by one, to her daughter, which happen to be written in the third person in Boyd’s distinctive style: in a dramatisation, all that narration disappears, and the cross-cutting of time periods is readily achieved.

Small details are changed. In the book’s version of her training, Eve Dalton (as Eva Delectorskaya has become) is actually last home of the recruits dumped in the Scottish hills, required to try to find their way back to base. In the TV version, she is first home, looking rather smug. The television Eve also asks why she is not being trained in firearms: not the book Eve.

When the television Eve flees to Canada to escape death at the hands of her lover, she sees her female colleague, Sylvia, shot, and later shoots a male colleague, Alfie: not so in the book, and nor does she encounter her nemesis during the blitz, let alone take a pot-shot at him. In the book, the deaths of her colleagues, Sylvia and Angus – which she hears about from Alfie, whom she warns, but does not kill – are rather more shocking: they are two of eighteen victims killed when a flying boat was shot down on the way back from the US. There is plenty of collateral damage as her spy ring is rolled up.

The television Eve’s more direct involvement in violence is a justifiable intensifying of the action from page to screen: what is harder to achieve is a convincing ageing of the double agent, Lucas Romer. We have become used to Hayley Attwell playing the younger Charlotte Rampling as Eve, but the transition from Rufus Sewell to Michael Gambon is harder to manage. Moreover, the US audience is not asked to swallow the British custom of men appointed to the House of Lords taking on a new name based on geographic origin: Baron Mansfield of Hampton Cleeve reverts to “Lord Romer”.

There are some other curious little changes to the history that Boyd has researched so well: the Venlo Incident becomes the Prenslo Incident; and the murder of Walter Krivitsky becomes that of Aleksander Nekich. In some ways, the subtlety of the book’s plot is overtaken by the immediacy of Edward Hall’s action sequences – even for aficionados, it is a surprising suggestion that there was a group within the NKVD in 1941 so convinced the Soviets could defeat Germany single-handed (once it was confirmed that Japan would not attack in the East, so releasing the vast Russian armies on the Manchurian front to confront Hitler) that it was worth sacrificing a British operation in the US designed to accelerate American entry into the war.

The TV version has no room for this layered rationale for Romer’s betrayal of Eve, and the story is left to reach its climax at a personal level, with Eve tracking down Romer and confronting him with her declaration that all his secrets are about to be revealed, so triggering his suicide. That she does so 35 years after last seeing him, and successfully disappearing from his view, is – we learn in the book – a result of her believing he, in turn, had tracked her down: a belief that is mistaken, which nuance is lost in the dramatisation. That said, her continuing paranoid watchfulness, even after Romer’s death, carries its own dramatic punch.

A different league

Without the Sundance Channel and HBO, there would have been no “Restless” and no “Parade’s End”. Even “The Lady Vanishes” was a co-production. It is rare to find any high-budget detective or costume drama on British television which does not have a credit for the US broadcaster, A and E. “Downton Abbey” was re-packaged by A and E as a “limited series”, rather than the open-ended soap it is, so as to win a Primetime Emmy in the US. Of course, American support for costly drama is welcome, and helps keep us in the game, but the fact is that US-commissioned drama is simply in a different league.

Now that Netflix has entered this arena, we can expect other content distributors to seek to by-pass the broadcasters, and invite direct access by consumers – a phenomenon known as disintermediation. Certainly, the binge-viewing enabled by making 13 episodes of “House Of Cards” available simultaneously is a very new experience for those who have yet to join the boxed-set crowd. That said, BBC3 has just announced that all episodes of a new 6-part comedy series will be made available simultaneously on the BBC i-Player some weeks before actual broadcast transmission.

Spending $100 million on 26 episodes of a single drama is an extraordinary statement by Netflix, and it remains to be seen whether its business model will support more than an occasional such foray. But that dramatic intervention has had more impact, in terms of highest quality content, than the annual $1 billion Sky is now investing in original drama and entertainment.

Sky’s direct challenge to the traditional broadcasters has them already nervously worrying about a talent drain to pay-TV. If “over-the-top” services from the likes of Netflix drain viewers, too, then our traditional suppliers of drama will face a battle on yet another front. Whether we should be worried by this development (as supporters of UK origination), or pleased (as viewers of quality TV), is a question which cannot yet be answered.


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