When style dominates substance – BLOG

When style dominates substance – British Drama
When I was young I was fortunate enough to travel regularly to see family in America. Not because we were a jet set family but because my dad worked for British Airways Cargo and meant we got free flights. At the time during the 70s and 80s America was so different in every way from my home in Hersham. From toy stores the size of a supermarkets to real life CHIPs riding about with shotguns hanging out of their massive Harley Davidson Electra Glides to a shop that just sold ice cream!!. The other major difference to a young British teen was the TV. American TV was so obviously commercially based with constant ad interruptions even directly after the credits which was very confusing. The drama content too was so far removed from real life. Everything else might have been bigger and better in America but our TV was leagues ahead and I was proud of it.

The Singing Detective (1986) courtesy BFi. The Boys from the Blackstuff (1982) courtesy BBC

We had leading playwrights creating especially for TV about subjects that reflected key society issues and led sometimes to real change, such was the power of The Wednesday play like Cathy Come Home or a Play for Today.TV drama like ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ to the wonderful Dennis Potter creating seminal pieces like ‘The Singing Detective’ and later a first with a BBC and C4 collaboration for Cold Lazurus and Karaoke. The single play screening died out in the mid-80s’ and Play for Today ended in 84’. But hard hitting political thrillers like Edge of Darkness and social comment drama like ‘Our Friends in the North’ continued into the 90s’. So why am I harking back to past age, possibly through a rose tinted camera viewfinder? Back to the title above. I watched the recent BBC series ‘Trust Me’ which was heaped with praise. Unfortunately for me the writing, acting and story was masked so completely by disconnected style choices. The examples from the past of course made stylistic choices too and many creative ways to tell a story. It wasn’t all three camera studio flat lighting. Tv Drama series like ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ was distinct in its look from say a Potter series or Mike Leigh tv play. No Adobe After effects, fancy grading, cinematic digital cameras or online plugins available for those production teams, what you saw was created there on set. So whilst watching BBC drama series ‘Trust Me’ to suddenly see a mass of very pointedly placed bulbs facing the camera, with post production highlighting light flares smashed across all the casualty and hospital scenes was at the very least distracting.

Trust me (2017) Courtesy of Red Productions. Star Trek (2009) courtesy of Paramount

But is was more worrying that a prime time BBC series with the budget that comes with, and the large production team at some point all agreed ‘yep let’s get all 2009 JJ Abrams Sci Fi on this’ ?? It’s as if an audience will not be gripped by the story and drama alone. This is a trend from 7-8 years ago especially used in Sci Fi. Even JJ Abrams has apologised some years ago for overusing light flares in his first Star Trek foray. See the very similar comparisons…spooky or should that be Spocky

A light flare is an old physical film result effect when strong light sources bounce directly into a lens. It became an effect adopted as digital film making rose from 2006, strangely to make a link from digital back to the chemical magic of film with digital filmmakers seeking a link to organic film moments when a lens looks to the sun or light source creating light image rings and lines bouncing through the lens. These are now created or enhanced in post and have been around for some years much like your Polaroid 70s’ look on your iPhone and simply slapped on a shot to achieve the effect. I now have a confession. I too have used light flares, but these have been for corporate films, which is clearly not broadcast drama but more often tries to find an interesting visual way to communicate an often mundane message to a select audience. The point is its not trying to create a suspension of disbelief. Actually its now in corporate and advertising that much of these post production work leads and goes in and out of fashion, with light leaks very much ‘been there seen that’. Whats current is things like added film grain..again a hark back to emulating old organic film. You can even choose the type of classic film stock this would have been generated by slap it on your digital generated images and hey presto back to a past look yet again. We just cant let go of retro yet can we.

Today we recognise American drama series as a world leader. The creativity and production always serving the story of many top series has meant that unfortunately we, in general over large number of drama serials, just don’t seem to compete. I don’t buy the ‘we cant match US multi $m budget’ argument either. I know the BBC is encouraging joint Netflix ventures to try and tap those spending millions eg Game of Thrones S-7 apparently has a budget of $10m per episode. But why compete on £££$$$ numbers? We are a nation of hugely creative and talented TV and Filmmakers. We and importantly the British broadcasters and commissioners should trust in our own talent and produce our original content without falling into chasing style fads like out of date and frankly meaningless light flares. Yes we do have international drama to be proud of e.g. Wolf Hall, King Charles III and Peaky Blinders but there also seems to be a fixation with single lead relationship led characters normally a cop or a doctor e.g. Happy Valley, Doctor Foster, Line of Duty and Trust Me. Is it not time for more social and politically led and possibly ensemble drama?
Bring Back Mike Leigh and Ken Loach to TV or better still find their replacements.

Written by Lorne.Guy (2017)
This Blog is not written for commercial gain.

Image sources:
The Singing Detective – https://goo.gl/images/Txj3d6
Boys From The Blackstuff – https://goo.gl/images/BFnuSt
Trust me DVD cover – https://goo.gl/images/2ZnLfE
Star Trek – https://goo.gl/images/uM1bTx
Trust Me – bbc – https://goo.gl/images/ZuVdM2