Friday, May 6, 2011

The Shadow Line – and the parlous state of television drama.

I watched BBC TV’s The Shadow Line last night. I was, like so many others, suckered in by the raft of trailers announcing, “ here is a Big Important TV Event”. This was not a show to be lumped in with mere police procedural pablum such as Waking The Dead or Silent Witness. The Shadow Line was, we were encouraged to believe, the real deal. A show worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as HBO classics such as The Wire or The Sopranos.

Of course it wasn’t.

Nothing is.

Not even The Wire or The Sopranos, really.

Sure, The Shadow Line had a cracking cast. The creative team seemed pretty on the ball too, despite the paucity of light bulbs that seems to plague most modern BBC dramas.

The problem was, as more than a couple of my pals on Twitter put it last night, that every line of dialogue was so freighted with import as to no longer resemble natural human speech.

Rafe Spall played Jay Wratten, one of the primary villains. Jay is a twitchy young drug dealer informed, one imagines, by Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas. He was the kind of chap who, it was explicitly stated, was not someone you would want to get in a lift with.

Now Spall, however you might feel about the despicably dynastic nature of British acting profession, is a decent young actor. He is also gifted with the face of a wrong ‘un.

I’m not a professional phrenologist but there’s something about the shape of his head that spells trouble.

He looks like the kind of man who would do elevator violence just standing still. You don’t need to put mad words in his mouth and keep giving him little bits of business to do with his fists. We already know he’s a frightener as soon as he walks on set.

Similarly with Christopher Eccleston. He shows up, we already know he’s cross. He looked cross at a day old and he’ll die looking cross. It really isn’t necessary to insert the idea of crossness into every line of dialogue.

His character, Joseph Bede, is given ample motivation for pulling off one last enormous deal. He’s then given it again, more explicitly, a few minutes later. You know, in case we were so enraptured by the gloomily lit sets that we missed it the first time.

And then we’re reminded that he’s cross. He’s cross because his wife has early onset Alzheimer’s. Lesley Sharp is the wife. She’s noble under pressure. So she keeps saying noble things. Under pressure.

These people – like the chap who plays a bent copper – are hired in part because the audience can be trusted to make these assumptions about them.

So larding every word of the script with pointers about their characters doesn’t put us further into the story. Indeed, by destroying the natural flow of speech it serves to bounce us out of it.

One is forcibly reminded of Harrison Ford’s memorable protest to George Lucas about the clunky dialogue in the original Star Wars script:

"George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can't say it”

The entire affair is masterminded by writer / director Hugo Blick. A man who, it must be said, can write and direct better than I ever could.

I bet he loves David Simon. David Simon wrote The Wire. Every TV scriptwriter wants to be David Simon right now.

The thing is, not even David Simon is David Simon anymore.

I’m currently struggling through his multithreaded post-Katrina drama, Treme. Sure it has some of the cool actors from The Wire. Sure there are boobs in it so we know it’s grown up. Sure it comes with garlanded with praise from proper grown-up critics who know better than us, but it’s a bit dull isn’t it?
It’s a flood-damaged postcard of The Big Easy. I’m glad it got made and provided much-needed employment for the people of the region, but it isn’t what you’d call entertainment. It’s the kind of thing chattering-class ponces like me watch out of a misplaced civic duty. You know. Like Newsnight.

Treme did well. I’m sure The Shadow Line will do well too – even though every TV and radio pundit secretly wishes it doesn’t because they’re afraid of getting Chiwetel Ejiofor’s name wrong and looking like a UKIP stooge.

But, to paraphrase Harrison: You can watch this shit, but you sure as hell can’t enjoy it.

No comments:

Post a Comment