MARCUS BARR on the Lack of Drama in Crime Drama

Written by Mike Stotter



The name Marcus Barr may not register immediately with readers but the UK author is best-known for his TV scripts shown on satellite channels in Britain and all over the world. In fact, he was script editor for the BBC and contributed to such classics as Z Cars, The Brothers and Duchess of Duke Street, Poirot, Midsomer Murders, The Bill, Boon, and Lovejoy. With several stage plays, radio and literally hundreds of television scripts under his belt, Doug Watkinson aka Barr has written his first novel, Haggard Hawk published by Pen Press this April.

 Whereas most first time authors manage to get quotes from fellow writers, naturally Barr gets his from actors. Both John Nettles of Inspector Barnaby and Bergerac fame and former Dr Who, Colin Baker grace the pages.

 The shoutline for Haggard Hawk is: ‘an English Country Crime Novel with a Sharp Edge, Sharp Wit and a Big Central Character.’  Hawk is a retired policeman and is thrown into investigative mode when driving home one night from a party he comes across a brutal murder.

 In this article, Marcus writes about the lack of drama in crime drama and why he switched to writing novels.

 Mike Stotter


 It may seem an obvious point to make, especially to a readership of writers, but drama should be at the very least dramatic. There’s a case for saying that crime drama should be the most dramatic form of all, given its classic ingredients of a struggle between good and evil, with victims, villains, cowards, liars, cheats and heroes at every turn. Why, then, is watching most crime drama on television these days like watching an episode of Big Brother without the tension? 

Dramatic content in television right across the board has been softening over the past twenty-five years but it gained momentum about ten years ago. I remember reading an episode of The Bill by Len Collin in which the great white story hope, PC Des Taverner, first came to Sun Hill. The story opened with him putting the fear of God into some yobs who were kicking a frozen chicken around outside a supermarket. He even slapped one of them, telling us in no uncertain terms that a real hard nut had come to town and, with any luck, had brought stories to match. Six months later I turned on The Bill to see that same Des Taverner completely deconstructed,  comforting June Ackland as her love life became the centre of the shift’s attention. Gone from the whole series, it seemed, were the fabulous episodes where Jim Carver’s boozing had made him more dangerous than any villain, or the block of six in which Don Beech was on the run from colleagues, villains and girlfriend alike. Instead of being dramatic, police stories had become studies of interpersonal relationships, head to head interrogation had been replaced by group psycho-babble. And in the process The Bill had become entirely predictable. It was an especially sad realisation for me since I’d written some of the very first of the half hour episodes and considered it a worthy follower of Z Cars and Softly, Softly. 

Misconceived notions of how people behave in real life are, to some extent, responsible for this descent into mush. I say misconceived because any accurate reflection of the police force today would require the canteen to be the main  location, the coffee machine the weapon of choice, old ladies breaking the speed limit the main villains. On those grounds alone realism should be avoided  but still writers are asked to turn out scripts that have a documentary feel to them, not a dramatic truth.  The difference between the two can bring a drama script juddering to a halt.  

I once wrote an episode of Kavanagh Q.C. in which it would have been helpful to the story, not to say a dramatic high point, if Kavanagh had intervened out of court between his client and another character. I was advised by the Producer, a charming man who came fresh from presenting a cookery programme, that barristers don’t engage with their clients outside the legal process so, before Kavanagh waded in could we perhaps have a scene where he discussed this fact with his wife. I obliged and the memory of John Thaw, of all actors, holding back when a full-blown sense of purpose was needed, haunts me to this day. It felled that portion of the script with over explication and legal correctness. 

Even so, having come out daggers drawn, so to speak, can I really blame something as dull as documentary realism for the decline of dramatic content?  I would like to blame Thatcher or Bush, of course, and  I’m sure that with a little parallel thought I could get  there, but for the moment I believe the fault is with us. Let me make a distinction before I go any further.  Television documentaries  themselves do not employ the ‘dull realism’ I’m talking about. They are, strangely, far more dramatic than the dramas transmitted alongside them. The reason is simple. Documentary makers have learned the craft of telling a story.  Drama producers have forgotten it if, indeed, they ever knew its importance...  

Now there’s a thought to interrupt anyone’s flow but I have to go with it. As someone  observing the current feebleness of television drama, I’m reluctant to expand on the notion simply because it suggests that things are irreversible. In the hey-day of television, the sixties and seventies, the people who worked in it were drawn from every field of creative endeavour imaginable. They knew their business. Journalists came from Fleet Street, gardening experts from the world of horticulture, natural history pundits from zoos, religious broadcasters from the church. I know a lot of them still do but in the case of  drama, whereas Writers, Producers, Directors, Designers, Wardrobe and Make-up came from publishing, the theatre, or films now they are bred in house. They are more television’s children than they are professionals in their own right and the medium has suffered not just  because of their lack of expertise but also because of their sameness. 

However,  that may tell us who’s  been carrying the virus but it doesn’t suggest a vaccine against it. One of the most rewarding jobs I had in television was as the script editor, and for a short while producer, of Z Cars. We made at least 38 hour long episodes a year and the first and most important thing I said to any of the writers was the same thing I’d been demanding of someone since I’d learned to talk.  Tell me a story. Certainly questions derived from whatever the teller then said but by and large I knew that if we got the story right everything else would fall into place.  

By everything else I mean  the mood, the style,  the  relationships, the tone, the elements. Elements? An American producer once told me that he loved the elements in a script of mine. To find out what the hell he was talking about I asked him which one of my elements he liked best. He told me they were all equally balanced and that had also impressed him. So I never got a definition.  However, whatever an element is I have an uncomfortable  feeling that they and other peripherals to a script are fast becoming the most important thing  in the writer’s brief.  You can see it happening within ten minutes of tuning into most British television. The pop psychology of a situation overshadows the situation itself. The dialogue it generates is introspective and self-regarding rather than edgy and pro-active. Relationships are flattened out as everything about them is made obvious rather than allowing the audience to extract the subtleties for itself. Conflict, in all its many guises, has been replaced by mild disagreement.  With priorities like these is it any wonder that the story itself gets buried?  

Why has this relegation of the story happened? And why are writers ceasing to be the free-wheeling, dangerous providers of something that might raise blood pressure? Well, I’m tempted to say that banishing the story and all its unsafe ‘elements’ to the sidelines is an act of laziness, the easy way of filling a fifty minute slot, but it isn’t true. The gradual softening of dramatic content has been hard fought for and doggedly pursued by some of the brightest people in television.  

So, when a real loose canon makes it to the screen and brings with him the stories to match, we’re delighted. And producers really have their work cut out justifying him. I’m thinking at the moment of Gene Hunt in Life on Mars. He slams his suspects up against walls, threatens them, beats them with a telephone receiver, kicks, screams and punches his way to his objective and it all fits with the story. I’m not saying that drama is equivalent to a punch-up, it can happen just as easily between two characters across a table. Yet I still wonder how a character like Gene Hunt is possible in a television world where Viscount Lynley is terrified to look the wrong way at a prisoner and Lewis wanders around apologising for not being Morse.   The answer is because Hunt is doing it all in the past, thirty years ago, round about the same time we were making Z Cars. That makes it safe, but just in case it upsets anyone, Hunt has to be apologised for and the potentially dangerous storyline that might offer true surprises has to be reigned in.  The man who does this is Hunt’s side-kick, Sam Tyler, the reprogrammed copper from 2007 who keeps reminding his boss, with extreme  self-righteousness, of the many rules he’s breaking. But who do we turn on to watch? Phillip Glenister, of course, relishing the role of Hunt.  

Naturally, there are less elaborate ways of keeping the lid on a story which might skid out of control. A friend of mine, Bruce Alexander, plays Frost’s boss. Hardly a week goes by when he doesn’t warn Frost that he’ll be taken off the case if he continues to over-step the mark. That’s exactly what we want Frost to do. Cross the line. And although he talks about it a great deal he doesn’t very often make it. 

To give some credit, directors and producers responsible for keeping a check on story material have noticed a certain black hole in their work where the story – beginning, middle and end – used to be.  Afraid that others might notice too they bolster it.  

I was watching an episode of New Street Law the other night, mainly because my son had a part in it, and was bombarded by the soundtrack whose purpose was to create a sense of business and urgency which the story actually had somewhere but didn’t quite realise. At every cut ten cars drove by, police sirens wailed, dogs barked, jets flew overhead and, the all-time favourite, a dozen phones rang. It’s an increasingly common question in our house these days: was that our phone or theirs? And where pace is needed, there’s a whip pan around Birmingham. It’s not quite as bad as the carve-up Eastenders employs to bring pace. No scene lasts more than thirty seconds and just as your interest is caught, there’s a cut. 

All these devices replace the more serious business of proper storytelling and, of course, assume that the viewer will not follow unless he’s held down by a ton of tricks. Real drama can employ silences just as effectively as noise, slowness as well as speed, and even on television the occasional long scene is a real treat. Watch Law and Order: Criminal Intent if you need proof. The final scenes are at least eight minutes long and hold you beautifully. 

Does any of the above explains why, whilst I haven’t forsaken television, I have started writing novels, and crime novels at that? It certainly does. There is simply nothing that cannot be tackled in a novel. That isn’t so in television. In novel writing the reader’s suspension of believe is completely in the hands of the author and can only be achieved via the words on the page. It is his or her job to make the reader believe, for the duration, that the world they’ve entered by turning that first page is one they’d like to glimpse more of. Television doesn’t offer that. It has forsaken proper storytelling and replaced it with a preconception of what is credible, acceptable and dramatically true and if what I’m seeing on the box these days is anything to go by, that truth is duller than fiction.

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