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TV Drama in the 2000s

A decade of restless change for small-screen drama

Main image of TV Drama in the 2000s

The 2000s was a decade of mixed fortunes for British TV drama, with the generation of writers who had made their mark during the 1990s - led by Jimmy McGovern, Tony Marchant, Russell T. Davies and Paul Abbott - swelled by a number of very promising new talents, notably Peter Bowker, Dominic Savage, Abi Morgan, Peter Moffat and Rowan Joffe. For British acting and directing, too, it was a fertile time, with the small screen still proving a draw, even for those for whom the rival attractions of cinema came calling.

But at the same time, drama was struggling to maintain its status in a changing TV environment, with broadcasters - and audiences - increasingly favouring 'reality' formats, from internationally marketable game and quiz shows to the new breed of talent shows that commanded astonishing audiences by the end of the decade. Meanwhile, a revived American appetite for more sophisticated drama meant new competition. By the end of the decade US drama imports were outnumbering homegrown equivalents even on British screens - while changing models of distribution that saw the growth of a DVD 'box set culture' put further pressure on British drama producers.

The changing of the guard of TV authors that had begun in the 1990s was continued in the 2000s. Russell T. Davies had achieved lift-off at the tail end of the 90s with the confrontational Queer as Folk (Channel 4, 1999-2000), but in the 2000s he soared: cementing a reputation for imaginative boldness with The Second Coming (ITV, 2003) and Casanova (BBC, 2005) before going intergallactic with the triumphant revival of Doctor Who (BBC, 2005-). Paul Abbott ascended to giant status with the factory anthology Clocking Off (BBC, 2000-02), intricate New Labour conspiracy thriller State of Play (BBC, 2003) and the startlingly original Shameless (Channel 4, 2004). Jimmy McGovern's busy decade brought forth dramadoc Sunday (Channel 4, 2002) and Jacobean intrigue in Gunpowder, Treason and Plot (BBC, 2004), plus work for cinema and stage, culminating in the magnificent The Street (BBC, 2006-09),

There were mixed fortunes for other survivors of the 90s. Guy Hibbert won new admirers with two unorthodox takes on Northern Ireland's peace process, Omagh (BBC, 2004) and Five Minutes of Heaven (BBC, 2009), but his harrowing depiction of the psychological impact of abuse, May 33rd (Channel 4, 2004), was underappreciated. Donna Franceschild, whose Takin' Over the Asylum (BBC, 1994) had introduced one of the 90s' most singular voices, had just two scripts produced in the 2000s, the witty, poignant Donovan Quick (BBC, 2000) and the ambitious Glasgow family saga The Key (BBC, 2003).

Tony Marchant was kept busy with consistently strong work on often unpromising themes - credit unions in Never, Never (Channel 4, 2002), the fertility industry in The Family Man (BBC, 2006). But while he ended the decade with the fascinating Garrow's Law (BBC, 2009), dramatising cases of a real-life crusading 18th Century barrister, there was no return to the more widescreen, longer-form drama of his earlier Holding On (BBC, 1997).

Indeed, dramas of scale and breadth were thin on the ground. Jed Mercurio's 16-hour NHS whistleblowing saga Bodies (BBC, 2004-06) was one worthy exception, Peter Moffat's cynical 10-part legal drama North Square (Channel 4, 2000) another. But the latter lasted just one series, apparently confirming broadcasters' unease with longer work. Further evidence of this cautious instinct was Peter Flannery's English Civil War epic The Devil's Whore (Channel 4, 2008), a creative triumph, but shrunk by half during its tortuous 13-year journey to the screen. But then ambition is not only measured in scale, and there was no shortage of ambition in Tony Marchant's Mark of Cain (Channel 4, 2007), Donna Franceschild's The Key, Peter Bowker's Blackpool (BBC, 2005), Abi Morgan's Sex Traffic (Channel 4, 2004) or Peter Moffat's Criminal Justice (BBC, 2008-09).

Those who feared TV had lost its political or radical edge might have taken some heart from many of these, or from William Ivory's Faith (BBC, 2005), Peter Morgan's The Deal (Channel 4, 2005), Rowan Joffe's Gas Attack (Channel 4, 2001) and Secret Life (Channel 4, 2004), Neil Biswas's Second Generation (Channel 4, 2003), Peter Bowker's Occupation (BBC, 2009) or Ronan Bennett's 10 Days to War (BBC, 2009), all of which shared an urgent engagement with recent events. Probably the most consistent political voice was that of director-turned-writer Peter Kosminsky, who targeted New Labour's authoritarian shift in The Project (2002), The Government Inspector (Channel 4, 2005), and Britz (Channel 4, 2007). Kosminsky's unusual route from documentary to drama writer-director was followed by Dominic Savage, whose best work, like Nice Girl (2000) and young offenders tragedy Out of Control (BBC, 2002), married a direct, accessible approach to tough social issues with a gift for insightful improvisation.

Carrying the torch for a more stately form of authored drama was writer/director Steven Poliakoff, veteran of the Play for Today (BBC, 1970-85) age, whose complex, crafted works such as 2001's Perfect Strangers and 2003's The Lost Prince (both BBC) reassured those put off by the rapid pace of modern TV drama. Also still going strong - well into her fifth decade as a TV dramatist - was Paula Milne, who followed an inventive thriller, Second Sight (BBC, 2000), with the courtly intrigue of The Virgin Queen (BBC, 2006), end-of-Apartheid drama-documentary Endgame (Channel 4, 2009) and an adaptation of Andrea Levy's Small Island (BBC, 2009). Another veteran still on form was adaptation specialist Andrew Davies, whose prodigious output roamed the English canon from Shakespeare to Le Carré and Sarah Walters, via Eliot, Austen, Forster and Kingsley Amis. But he surpassed himself with two Dickens adaptations, Bleak House (BBC, 2005) and Little Dorritt (BBC, 2009) both distinctively modern reinventions of the classic adaptation which stressed the originals' serial form.

With their lushness and scale, such classic adaptations, like wildlife programming, seemed custom-made to drive audiences to embrace the new Hi-Definition technology, with Cranford (BBC, 2007) and Lark Rise to Candleford (BBC, 2008-) among the few standouts not issuing from Davies' busy word processor. But the decade also saw a renewed emphasis on more contemporary work, as with White Teeth (Channel 4, 2002), The Long Firm (BBC, 2004), The Rotters' Club (BBC, 2005), The Line of Beauty (BBC, 2006: Davies again) and Red Riding (Channel 4, 2009) - each of which took a refreshingly complex line on late-20th century history.

At the other end of the budget scale came a rash of 'biopics' offering insights into the lives of 20th century celebrities - including Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (Not Only But Always, ITV, 2004), Tony Hancock (Hancock & Joan, BBC, 2008), Gracie Fields (Gracie!, BBC, 2009) - and politicians, including Margaret Thatcher (Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley, BBC, 2008; Margaret, BBC, 2009) and Mo Mowlem (Mo, Channel 4, 2009).

In a decade of much change, there were some constants. As the two soap giants, EastEnders (BBC, 1985-) and Coronation Street (ITV, 1960-) commanded the biggest drama audience at the beginning of 2000, so they did at the end of 2009. But despite losing their biggest rival, Channel 4's Brookside (1982-2003), in the intervening years, they suffered from the general decline of audience interest in TV drama: ratings that had pushed towards or past 20 million now hovered between 9 and 12 million. ITV's second soap, Emmerdale (1972-), suffered a similar drop, from 10-13 million viewers to 6-7 million.

After EastEnders, BBC1's most consistently popular dramas were unchanged through the decade - Casualty (1986-) and its spin-off Holby City (1999-). But the big continuing dramas that had sustained ITV during the 90s all suffered. London's Burning (1988-2002) and Peak Practice (1993-2002) fell early in the decade, while Heartbeat (1992-) saw its onetime audience of 14 million cut by more than two-thirds by 2009. The venerable The Bill (1984-), meanwhile, could only limp into the 21st century's second decade: ITV announced that 2010 would see its last ever episode, leaving the stalwart Taggart (ITV, 1983-) unchallenged as Britain's longest-lasting police drama. The BBC's Silent Witness (1996-), like Taggart having survived a key casting change, was another survivor from the 90s.

New hits proved elusive. ITV scored with safari drama Wild at Heart, and Cornwall-set GP Doc Martin (2004-), while a surprise return to acting for Stephen Fry in Kingdom (2007-) was another success. Low-key detective drama Lewis (2006-) also performed well, though never reached the heights of its parent, Inspector Morse (1987-2000). More experimental was a pair of twinned dramas created by EastEnders writer Tony Jordan: Moving Wallpaper (2008-09) was a satirical exposé of a troubled TV production team, whose Cornish social issue drama is cynically transformed by an incoming producer into a lurid soap: Echo Beach (2008), which ran as a separate series alongside. But whether the concept was too clever or not well enough executed, the pairing didn't work; Moving Wallpaper won just enough critical support to survive two series, but Echo Beach was axed after 12 episodes.

One of the decade's big surprises was the spectacular return of popular fantasy. The revived and revamped Doctor Who not only answered the prayers of a generation of frustrated Who-obsessives, but also unexpectedly fired younger imaginations, and writer/producer Russell T. Davies was credited with magically restoring the once-hallowed tradition of Saturday night family viewing. In the Doctor's wake came ITV's monster-fest Primeval (2007-), plus new incarnations of mythic outlaw Robin Hood (BBC, 2006-) and Arthurian sorcerer Merlin (2008-). Less successful was ITV's derivative Demons (2008).

But across both main channels, crime genre pieces remained dominant, though by now they were increasingly polarised. The gentler, leafier end derived from the literary tradition of Agatha Christie - ITV gave us two incarnations of Christie's most celebrated creation in Agatha Christie: Marple (2004-), with Geraldine McEwan giving away in 2009 to Julia McKenzie, while its masculine counterpart Agatha Christie's Poirot (1989-), starring David Suchet, reappeared periodically through the 2000s. In a similar vein were the enduring Midsomer Murders (1997-) and the very Christie-esque pairing of Rosemary & Thyme (ITV, 2003-07). At the other end of the spectrum the crime got altogether bloodier, from the forensic gore of Silent Witness, Waking the Dead (BBC, 2001-) or Wire in the Blood (ITV, 2002-08) to the baroque horror of Messiah (BBC, 2001-08).

Between these two extremes lay an array of other police/crime dramas, from the more or less conventional (Blue Murder, ITV, 2003-; New Tricks, BBC, 2004-; Cold Blood, ITV, 2005-08, Rebus, ITV, 2000-07; George Gently, BBC, 2008-; Law and Order UK, ITV, 2009-) to the more formally innovative in Five Days (BBC, 2007-) and Life on Mars (BBC, 2006-07) and its successor Ashes to Ashes (2008-), which entertainingly updated The Sweeney (ITV, 1975-78) from the perspective of a more politically-correct modern force.

Life on Mars exemplified a new development in 2000s TV, the arrival of 'high-concept' drama on UK screens. The likes of paranoid MI5 drama Spooks (BBC, 2002-), elaborate con-artist showcase Hustle (BBC, 2004-) and modern exorcist thriller Apparitions (BBC, 2008) imported a practice already common on US screens, grabbing audience attention with a concise, arresting and often fantastical premise.

And if high-concept in its American formulation implied a certain expensive sheen, three promising dramas born in 2009 - BBC Three's Being Human, and Channel 4's Misfits and Cast-Offs - demonstrated that a witty, bargain variant of the form could be just as effective for young writers seeking a TV breakthrough. All three, like Channel 4's provocative Skins (2007-) before them, successfully engaged youthful audiences thought to be abandoning TV drama for entertainments elsewhere. Their success, and much else, gave grounds for optimism for the turbulent years ahead.

Mark Duguid

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