Stephen McGinty: A golden age of television?

Kevin Spacey. Picture: PA
Kevin Spacey. Picture: PA
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Kevin Spacey tells an Edinburgh audience we’re in a golden age of television. Nicholas Lyndhurst disagrees. Stephen McGinty referees a heavyweight battle of the box

THE McEwan Hall in Edinburgh, in between graduation ceremonies for Edinburgh University students, once played host to boxing matches. Fisticuffs returned on Thursday night when a middle-aged woman attempted to gatecrash Kevin Spacey’s MacTaggart Lecture and responded to a polite request to depart by lashing out at staff.

It was a curious start to a speech which, had it been for public consumption rather than for the gathered brahmin of the television industry, would certainly have been a highlight of both Festival and Fringe. A one-man show by one of the world’s finest actors, in the role of concerned viewer and eloquent advocate of today’s new “golden age of television”.

Anyone who has sat through the awkward jokes and tedious autobiographies delivered by previous industry orators would have relished the command and confidence Spacey exuded. While he offered no great insights, or unpredictable prescriptions – in a nutshell: nurture young talent, trust writers and directors and ignore the “suits” – he spoke with such relaxed aplomb and conviction that it become genuinely inspirational enough to prod an audience as jaded and cynical as it is possible to corral outside the Houses of Parliament to rise to their feet in a standing ovation.

Earlier in the week, another celebrated actor delivered a darker diagnosis of today’s television. In an interview, Nicholas Lyndhurst said: “There used to be something every night of fantastic quality, be it a sitcom, a drama or current affairs. Now it’s maybe once a week, which is a shame. The golden age has gone.”

So who are we to believe: Nicholas Lyndhurst or Kevin Spacey? Rodney Trotter or Keyser Soze? Is television passing through an era of nickel or one of gold? The answer is partly dependent on what the viewer watches and whether he or she wishes their bias to be confirmed. It’s also dependent on whether you apply national parameters, or accept America as “ours”, as it is what we so frequently watch.

If one’s bête noire is reality television and the type of antagonistic, competitive programming predicated on conflict and artificial time constraints where tears and emotional breakdown are the new “money shot”, then an evening’s entertainment in the company of most terrestrial channels could leave you depressed. Likewise, anyone who believes society is a coarser place than in the past may wish to avoid Embarrassing Bodies, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Channel 5’s new series on plastic surgery botch-ups, which has the potential to send adults of a nervous disposition scurrying behind the sofa.

It is perfectly feasible to form an argument, illustrated with copious examples, that television is the worst it has ever been since John Logie Baird broadcast an image of a ventriloquist’s dummy from one room to the next in October 1926. But it would be entirely wrong, for to do so would be akin to making a documentary that portrayed London as a wasteland simply by editing together shots of derelict land and semi-demolished buildings.

Arguing that television is a cultural wasteland is to avoid the towering skyscrapers, such as Frozen Planet and the BBC’s natural history programmes, which have been reborn by the development of micro-cameras and HDTV, dramas such as Luther, Top of the Lakes and The Killing, (which, rather depressingly, do all revolve around murder or sexual abuse) and the stacked megalopolis of American boxed sets The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Walking Dead, Treme and Game of Thrones.

The key argument in television’s favour is that there is now so much more of it than ever before; where once we had one, then two, then three, then four channels, now there are hundreds. More channels means more content. More content means more rubbish, but also means more good programmes, more great programmes and, occasionally, more exceptional programmes.

The current focus of praise is American long-form dramas, and rightly so. People forget that the idea of spending time with deeply unpleasant anti-heroes is relatively recent. Hill Street Blues, created by Steve Bochco, was a pioneering drama, down-beat, depressing and populated by characters who weren’t always good, or even competent, and whose personal lives were a disaster zone.

At the time, the network executives flinched, but took a gamble. Hill Street Blues then begat NYPD Blue, which begat Murder One, but the true paradigm shift took place in 1997, when HBO invested in Oz, a brutal prison series where all rules restricting sex, violence and language were broken. However, the blue paper truly ignited with The Sopranos in 1999 and The Wire in 2002, which build over five years into the TV equivalent of a novel by Balzac or Dickens.

There are a number of reasons why television drama is currently at the zenith, and one is that writers are no longer restrained. Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, made an interesting point during his masterclass at the Edinburgh International Television Festival on Thursday afternoon. In the past, dramas were about consistency of character. Viewers wanted their favourite characters to remain unchanged; there was no emotional journey. “Hawkeye” Pierce in M*A*S*H was the same man in episode one as he was 11 years later when 125 million Americans watched the final episode.

Tony Soprano may have been visiting a therapist, but he was also proof of what many psychologists know but rarely publicise, people don’t tend to change. I’d argue that he was largely the same guy at the last supper of the controversial final episode as he was when he first walked into Dr Melfi’s office.

When people do change, it is largely for the worse, which makes Breaking Bad so gripping. Over five seasons, we watch Walter White, a chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, enter the crystal meth business in the hope of providing for his family after his death, slowly transform into the murderous criminal mastermind, Heisenberg. As Gilligan said: “It’s how Mr Chips becomes Scarface.”

A second reason is that television drama no longer looks like TV dramas. They look like big-budget movies, as directors are stealing shots from cinema in the full knowledge that viewers have 30-inch screens at home. Each new director on Breaking Bad, which is filmed amid the dusty vistas of New Mexico, is shown as inspiration the first 15 minutes of Once Upon A Time In The West, in which three killers wait to ambush Charles Bronson at a station and are filmed in a mix of extreme close-up and long shots. When The Returned, the French drama, was broadcast on Channel 4, it prompted a number of articles on the distinctive cinematography.

The third reason is that television drama can now compete with Hollywood for the finest actors. As Kevin Spacey pointed out, 15 years ago after he won an Oscar for American Beauty, his agent would never have allowed him to star in a TV drama like House of Cards. Television was where actors went cap in hand for work when their movie career was on the slide.

Today, with Hollywood obsessed with sequels and costumed superheroes, television drama offers an artistic respite. Steven Soderberg is developing a TV drama, and Jane Campion just made Top Of The Lake for the BBC, which was brilliantly disturbing, but suffered poor ratings. (However, ratings are also set to become a concern of the past; for platforms like Netflix it’s not about who watches on the first night, but how many people it draws to their site and view it over a year.)

Writers and producers now have so many more tools in their box with which to build better dramas. DVD and now digital libraries, such as Netflix, mean we can still enjoy the glories of the past.

I still think The World At War remains the Everest of television documentaries, with The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski but a few inches down. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979), in which middle-aged men talk softly in ill-lit rooms for six hours, is worth the entire run of Spooks with its car chases and fist-fights. The Singing Detective (1986) remains a more strange and singular masterpiece than The Wire and the BBC owes it to itself to try to top Our Friends In The North (1996).

I favour Keyser over Rodney, and believe we are enjoying a golden age of American television, with Britain taking silver – but there is no reason why in future both cannot ascend to platinum.