WHEN people talk about the current ”golden age” of television drama, they usually mean the American trend for daring, edgy, complex and often violent series, pioneered by HBO shows such as The Wire and The Sopranos.
But people also talk about Denmark’s incredible crime shows such as The Killing, powerful French thrillers (Spiral), or the usual classy British offerings (Downton Abbey).
Or maybe they’re talking about something else. ”One of the best dramas I’ve seen in years was The Slap,” an English screenwriter says at the 2012 London Screenwriters Festival.
It’s a reminder that Australian drama is on a high. Between Underbelly and Howzat!, Redfern Now and Puberty Blues, we’re obviously doing something right.
The secret? According to the writers at the festival: ”It’s all in the script.” And the visiting producers and executives, eager to meet writers, seem to agree.
Many of the 500 screenwriters and hopefuls are more interested in the glamorous world of feature films, but according to the festival speakers, they should think small. ”Smaller, more intimate stories are migrating to television,” director David Yates says, ”where they do that sort of thing really well.”
Before translating the last three Harry Potter novels to the big screen, Yates made his name on television. He directed the acclaimed 2003 BBC thriller State of Play, scripted by Paul Abbott. Abbott (known for the ABC2 drama Hit & Miss) was so respected by the BBC that State of Play went into production before the scripts were even written. ”I think one of the charms of the series,” Yates says, ”is you don’t know where it’s heading – and neither did Paul.”
In Britain, the top television writers get this kind of latitude. After playwright Russell T. Davies had success on commercial television, BBC execs asked him what would make him work for them. His answer: ”Bring back Doctor Who.”
To lure Davies to their studios, the BBC renewed the long-dormant series. It was a critical and ratings success, and a lesson for television execs: sometimes writers know best. Also, bringing back an old series might work. Wentworth, the coming Prisoner reboot, might not be a bad idea after all.
Yet even the festival crowd (mainly from Britain, but also from Europe, Australia and elsewhere) was buzzing about the renaissance in the US, where the high budgets are finally being matched by a focus on writing. Like Abbott or Davies, top writers are now treated with as much reverence as lead actors.
Britain has followed the lead of the new American dramas. ”Doctor Who rebooted in a completely different mindset,” the festival director, Chris Jones, says, ”clearly based more on the American structure of single narratives and long story threads. It’s more like Mad Men than like the original Doctor Who.” Many Australian series (Rake, Offspring) use this style. Yet Mad Men, often cited as a model for quality writing, was almost never made. ”For several years, the script was just languishing,” says part of the writing team, Lisa Albert, speaking at the festival. ”They [programmers] were saying ‘Nobody wants to do period drama.”’ More proof that writers often know best.
So that’s the secret of success? Set your drama in the advertising world during the 1960s? Or the world of Sydney schoolgirls in the 1970s? Or anywhere at all during the 1920s?
Possibly not. Mad Men has been copied by shows such as Pan Am and The Playboy Club, network shows set in the 1960s that were cancelled soon after their 2011 premieres. ”Not to bad-mouth the shows that came and went,” Albert says, ”but they learnt the wrong things from the success of Mad Men.”
American producers still love to copy, remaking other people’s shows. With a series such as Homeland, this has worked a charm. They now plan to remake some of Australia’s best-written series, such as Rake and comedy A Moody Christmas, for the US market.
Even if the US series stay loyal to the originals, they will truly test the scriptwriters. Sure, these shows are great, but will they work as well without the Australian actors and directors?Postscript
The Slap was one of the most successful dramas for the ABC this year, bringing in ratings a commercial network would love and starting conversations across the nation.
And for co-producer Helen Bowden, one reason for the success is simple: the writing.
Based on Christos Tsiolkas’s award-winning novel, The Slap lent itself to the television format, she says, with well-crafted characters, a complete background and a long story almost tailor-made for TV.
”It was a great process,” Bowden says. ”Generally speaking, it’s quite hard to find novels to adapt for television or film, but when we read The Slap, we were immediately drawn to the characters. They were extremely compelling, and for television that’s just so exciting.
”And the construction of the novel is very clever. It’s a big ask when you go on this journey to do so through eight very different characters. It’s challenging because you can at any point lose interest in a character, but the plus was it allowed us to explore things from an episodic viewpoint.”
The series construction was inspired by US hits such as The Wire, Bowden says, with a writers’ room working together to transform the book.
”The writers and producers felt very inspired by the fact the novel was right on the zeitgeist,” she says. ”It was a story everyone wanted to work on.”
Similarly, Beaconsfield, Howzat!, Underground: The Julian Assange Story and others were Australian stories, told in (mostly) Australian voices that captured viewers.
”Underground was a great story,” Bowden says. ”We were very, very proud of how that turned out.”
It’s those Australian stories that have the potential to save networks as they face a future of multiple platforms, split audiences and advertisers looking away from traditional outlets, Bowden says.
”What’s wonderful is that audiences are watching. The networks, even those in financial difficulty, are still committing money to telling Australian stories and making Australian drama, and that’s because people turn up to watch it.
”They’re fighting against quite difficult forces to keep people watching – and they’re succeeding.”
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