Saturday, 28 September 2013

What Remains is a good old-fashioned whodunnit

Let's face it, there are more serial killers and maverick cops on screen than you can shake a truncheon at.

From admittedly great cop series like Scott and Bailey, Broadchurch and Luther to spoof offerings like Touch of Cloth and the forthcoming Cops, it's a genuine wonder of the modern age that The Bill hasn't been revived for our screens.

Who's to blame for this glut of blood-soaked, evidence-faking police procedurals? Well us, mostly. If us crime-obsessed weirdos stopped watching them, then those makers of TV drama would stop making them. That's how it works, right?

Well, there might also be a tendency to stick with what is working too, which is understandable to a degree. Look at Frankie, or The Hour. Neither were set in a police station or featured white boards with victims photos stuck on...and both have been left without a new series, Frankie cruelly cut off after one series, The Hour after two. Ratings and audience appreciation figures doubtless led to those decisions, so had we watched said dramas in large enough numbers they would have run and run, potentially. 

All of which is an overlong preamble for me to bring up new drama What Remains, running on BBC One on Sunday nights. Writer Tony Basgallop said some interesting things skirting the topic of the n t of police drama on the telly. In case you hadn't caught it yet, What Remains does indeed feature the police and a murder. 

According to the press notes, Basgallop said: "I hadn’t written a whodunit before. In fact I’ve spent the majority of my career trying to avoid detective dramas and cops in general. I always said “No, thank you” when The Bill called. I’ve just never been a fan of the crime-solving genre."

It's interesting to hear a writer's take on the police/crime drama world. While Basgallop doesn't say he thinks there is too much crime drama on TV, he has been reluctant to be another writer working in that (perhaps over) familiar. Still more fascinating is that What Remains represents a bit of a U-turn on the writer's own policy. 

He goes on to expand on the topic, noting that boiling down a drama pitch to three or four sentences is vital, and - I'd surmise - something inevitably easier to get commissioned when you're talking about a crime drama format that we viewers and TV execs alike are so familiar with.

He expands on his reasoning for writing about police, murder and crime: "You can't have a whodunnit without an investigator" which is pretty irrefutable, but Basgallop has a pretty ingenious way around this to help move the drama away from the typical crime story: "The solution for me was to find a way to have DI Len Harper (the awesome “post Frank” David Threlfall) not really being a cop at all. Once I made the decision that he was retiring midway through the first episode, the victim’s character somehow fell into place with it."

So that was, I thought, interesting: that crime drama is simple to pitch and arguably easier to get commissioned, but also that anything approaching a whodunit really does need an investigator and naturally skirts perilously close to another cop drama.

Another interesting titbit was, I thought, the references to loneliness. Basgallop writes: "And I suppose what connects the suspects to one another is that - like our cop and our victim - they are either lonely or terrified of being alone. And that’s how we all go through life, isn’t it?"

That theme of being alone isn't hard to pick up, with Detective Len Harper's recently losing his wife and then retiring in the first episode, preoccupied with finding a hobby to fill his time (at least until the dead body occupies his attention). 

On that score it's possible to draw a comparison to another recent (also very good) drama - ostensibly based around a crime too but ably resisting any cop cliches - Southcliffe.

In Southcliffe we had a community that geographically felt lonely, an investigating journalist (not a cop) estranging himself from his own family and the killer himself, lonely as an odd-ball consumed with looking after his dementia suffering mother, endlessly mocked and reaching out to a soldier which helps result in his further estrangement.

Extrapolating that theme of loneliness in modern drama still further - and this might be a bit of a stretch - but it is a prime concern and driving force in as diverse dramas as The Walking Dead, where being on your own is a fundamental problem - who's going to watch your back for zombies? Michonne took forever to leave Woodbury because she didn't want to leave Andrea there, despite seeming more than capable of looking after herself. 

So, is loneliness a factor to be mined in future dramas, post-apocalyptic or not? If it's a theme used to cast new light on a tired genre like TV crime drama, then I'm all for it.

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