26th March was the most significant date in British television this year. That was when the announcement was made saying that, much as everyone had guessed, the sixth series of Downton Abbey would be the last. On balance, its makers have pulled the plug at about the right time. Always try to leave a party before everyone wishes you’d already gone, as the Dowager Countess might have said. When it finally bows out on Christmas Day Downton will leave ten million people wondering what to do on Autumn Sunday nights, and missing that waddling dog’s bottom, the sometimes intriguing, sometimes preposterous travails of the Crawley family and their really not-that-critical crises. What, on the evidence of new launches in 2015, might distraught Downtonites turn to now?
The very best case scenario would be that Hilary Mantel would pull her finger out and finish that third Thomas Cromwell book so that Peters Straughan and Kosminsky can adapt it and we could have a bit more Wolf Hall. At year’s end this still looks like the crowning achievement of British drama in 2015. Wolf Hall took a couple of massive historical novels written in a distinctly unfilmable style and alchemised them in to gripping theatre. It helped that it had Mark Rylance in the lead, basically plonking a Bafta nomination in to a safety deposit box over six weeks, but what was more impressive was how well Kosminsky, previously a teller of modern stories, used techniques from documentary like handheld cameras and natural light to fashion a new type of period drama. Costume drama, dances and swordplay, is something we’re good at. Both Downton and Wolf Hall, in their different ways, have shown how we might modernise our presentation of the past.
Downton, of course, has been shown on ITV1, a more mainstream channel than BBC2, where Wolf Hall was broadcast. Genuine claimants to the Earl of Grantham’s title require mass-market appeal, not merely critical plaudits. It’s not easy: with the exception of Poldark, which made an instant star of Aidan Turner (and his chest) no single programme in 2015 has managed to find the elixir of being populist and repeatable without being utter bilge.
Game of Thrones is spectacularly popular and spectacularly entertaining, but it is not the kind of thing you can watch with mother. One thing it has shown, however, is that even if your source material is novels, a TV show can begin to move on beyond the books it is based on without losing its mojo. Series five of Game of Thrones was arguably the best yet, buoyed with bigger budgets and boasting the pick of British acting talent. It’s probably sacrilege to say it but I’d back Peter Straughan to write a belting Wolf Hall 2, with or without Hilary Mantel’s forthcoming Booker-buster.
Broadchurch, by contrast, did indeed appeal to a broad church, at least in its first outing. Unfortunately its second series was doomed from the minute the caption ‘Broadchurch Will Return’ appeared at the end of the first one. The contortions writer Chris Chibnall had to put his characters through in order to drum up another ten weeks of mystery and malice were just too obvious on screen. The plot creaked and complained like bent metal. We used to be quite good in British drama at knowing when to stop. (Broadchurch, needless to say, will return again next year.)
This year’s Broadchurch – the habit-forming hit that no one saw coming – was Doctor Foster, a portrait of the rabid fury of a woman scorned, (as opposed to the equally enticing synopsis of a trip to Gloucester culminating in a fall in to a puddle.) Like Broadchurch, it toyed with the viewer, as we waited to discover when and how Doctor Foster (Suranne Jones) would exact her revenge on her slimeball of a philandering husband (Bertie Carvel). But because Doctor Foster was all about one person’s story, not the pick n’ mix ensemble of equally well-told, well–served characters that has populated Downton Abbey, it can never be a sustainable, returning treat (even though the boneheaded laws of broadcast economics mean that Doctor Foster, too, is returning.)
What of 2015’s escapades might turn in to a returning series that should return? The Last Kingdom, a Danes vs Saxons romp based on Bernard Cornwell’s historical novels has turned out to be considerably better than its Thrones-light premise suggested. And it has the advantage that history just keeps on going, providing endless subject matter and a degree of realism.
Channel 4’s Humans, a reworking of a Swedish hit about sentient robots, showed that there’s as much mileage in the near future as there is in the Downtonian recent past. Anyone who’s ever asked Siri for anything will have recognised Humans’ take on technological progress as a Pandora’s box and shuddered.
But the truth is that because no one – not its writer Julian Fellowes, certainly not this critic – quite knows why Downton Abbey was such a stonking great hit, then no one is able to replicate its success. This is a show, lest we forget, that when it launched in 2011 immediately entranced a wide audience with a plotline about a dowry contracted in to a comital entail. Entails? Weren’t they what kept coming out of stomachs in Game of Thrones?
I have a theory that Downton, at heart a beautifully crafted soap opera, has excelled because it has come at a time when British soap has been on the wane. Everyone likes a bit of melodrama from time to time, yet the best places to find it on British television at the moment are in American shows like How to Get Away With Murder and Empire. And so Downton has bagged a couple of million viewers who in better times might be glued to Corrie or EastEnders.
Perhaps the problem for the scions of Downton is that increasingly viewers’ eyes are drawn to non-fiction. In this last year, many of the best dramas on television haven’t been dramas at all. There has been a steady realisation that if you put up enough cameras in a vaguely interesting place, wait nine months and then edit the reams of footage with an eye for a narrative, you can leave pesky, preening actors out of the process altogether.
Some of the very best programmes I have watched have honed this technique to a fine point. The Detectives, a BBC2 series that followed the conviction of a paedophile associate of Jimmy Saville, was both terrifying and riveting, as was The Murder Detectives, which has been shown on Channel 4 these last few weeks. It’s hard to go back to a supposedly realistic cop show like Cuffs when you feel like you’ve actually been on the front line.
Different subject matter but a similar approach gave us The Secret Life of Four, then Five, then Six Year Olds on Channel 4 – the narrative evolves from the footage, not from a screenwriter’s pen. Even the best comedy of the year, Peter Kay’s Car Share, worked on the premise that Kay was just being filmed in his car, chatting to a friend on the way to work and back.
There’s a subtle change in idiom going on here – we’re becoming so used to seeing footage from cameraphones, CCTV and handhelds that television without them has started to look contrived. One of my favourite series of the year was Channel 4’s Hunted, which set up a series of real life manhunts in order to show just how pervasive surveillance – that grainy footage taken from oblique angles again – is in everyone’s lives. By contrast the BBC’s The Interceptor, a drama about surveillance, looked fake. It bombed.
There is another question, which is whether any single drama can ever again capture such widespread attention as Downton, given the changing ways in which everyone watches TV. The problem – and it’s a nice problem to have – is that there’s too much good material out there. A large part of liking television has become placating nagging friends who insist that you absolutely have to watch this or that series. Most likely this unmissable series is actually quite eminently missable, as it’s only available on one of the 74 or so disparate internet services competing for your custom. None the less, 2015 will go down as the year in which companies who previously sold books or rented other people’s movies became a real presence in television production, and series like Transparent (Amazon), Narcos (Netflix) or Mr Robot (Amazon) should, if you’ll forgive the nagging, all be on your list.
(Whether they can sustain their excellence over several series, like Downton, is another matter. Certainly HBO’s much-vaunted True Detective took a nose dive after a brilliant opening year, and after two great seasons and some relentless marketing hullabaloo Netflix’s House of Cards has dropped off too.)
What none of these American shows can offer, which Downton could, was Britishness. In Downton’s case it was a Britishness that, though you could question its authenticity, sold very, very well abroad, and I wonder if we shouldn’t do more to celebrate our difference – for both commercial and artistic reasons. I don’t just mean with period pieces like Wolf Hall, or with ersatz duds like Partners in Crime (what is it with Agatha Christie adaptations?). Comedies like Sharon Horgan’s Catastrophe and Paul Whitehouse’s terrific Nurse, Danny Brocklehurst’s blue collar drama Ordinary Lies, Russell T Davies’ Cucumber, or Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s anthology series Inside No 9 show that British television doesn’t have to mean just Doctor Who, Sherlock and a grab bag of toffee-nosed literary adaptations. Downton Abbey, like it or loathe it, was not a series that could have been made in America. It leaves a big hole, but a big opportunity too.