I heard the other day that one of our ambassadors overseas had sent back a report praising the ITV series Downton Abbey which, he wrote, was proving very popular indeed with the people in his adopted country. They loved it, apparently. They praised its writing, the wonderful characters, the romance, the splendid settings – ‘high quality contemporary drama’ was the resounding verdict, it seemed.
Now the estimable and brilliant Julian Fellows has been accused of many things by his somewhat po-faced detractors in the past, but writing ‘contemporary drama’? Hmm . . .
But this little tale neatly illustrates two things about television today. Firstly, how influential it can be as a vehicle for sharing our culture and social values with other countries and secondly, how very occasionally things can get a little lost in translation.
And that’s the thing with television drama. At its best, it draws us in and takes us to another world. Whether we’re watching it on a 42” TV in a suburban sitting room, or hunched over a lap-top in a student bedsit, or even off a phone screen the size of a matchbox on an inter-city train, we are taking part in a cultural phenomenon that is literally global in its reach yet oddly personal in its impact to us as individuals.
I was reflecting on this last Wednesday in a speech to the Royal Television Society. Yes, TV executives, producers and programme makers sometimes get a rough ride from viewers and critics alike for occasional lapses in judgement or taste, but overwhelmingly the British television industry is a real success story.
The mental picture that comes to mind when we think of pretty well any major event of the last fifty years is a TV image. The balcony kiss at a Royal wedding, a world record finish at the Olympics, Nelson Mandela’s walk to freedom – all of them live in our memories thanks to television, and in a way that would make no sense at all to people just a three or four generations ago.
News coverage, outside broadcasts, documentaries and drama not only provide a window on culture but, these days, are increasingly of such high quality that they can justifiably be regarded as part of culture and the arts. And a brilliantly accessible and popular branch of our cultural life into the bargain.
Broadcasting is also a highly successful industry, at the front line of technological innovation, and contributing billions to the economy. On top of this it supports growth and jobs in the broader creative industries sector. It hoovers up significant inward investment from foreign organisations and it can be exported to all corners of the world, either as a format like Come Dine With Me or Britain’s got Talent, or as fully-packaged content like Top Gear or that gritty contemporary drama Downton Abbey, I mentioned earlier.
We love to moan about the telly – the repeats, the occasional gaffes and the presenters who, for no good reason, just rub us up the wrong way. But it’s a British success story, bringing the world to us and, most of all, taking us to the world.
In a few weeks’ time we’ll see which programmes, actors, technicians and producers will pick up BAFTA TV awards. They’re sometimes seen as being a bit in the shadow of the film BAFTAs – they shouldn’t be. Our television industry is a really important player in the global race that we are currently competing in, and it deserves all the accolades and applause that come its way.
Photo courtesy Paul Hampartsoumian/RTS