I was rather gutted (as footballers say) a week last Sunday by the transmission of the last ever episode of ‘Heartbeat‘.
No really — this isn’t meant to be a piece of wry irony. I enjoyed the programme, and admired in many ways, its comfortable Sunday night formula of mostly gentle drama and character-based comedy. Â I only started watching it about 1996/7 when it had been going a couple of years when I was bogged down at the weekends doing a part-time MBA course — it seemed to be a non-demanding distraction and it reminded me of ‘The North’.
This was in symbolic terms — I’m a Lancastrian and I’ve never even been to the interior of the North York moors (although I think 25% of my genetic make-up may be from there) but it reminded me of outings and school trips to the Yorkshire Dales and so on. â€˜Heartbeatâ€™ itself also seems to use many of the elements of the classic late 70s series — â€˜All Creatures Great and Small. (I sometimes wonder if my love of the English pub dates back to Tristanâ€™s (Peter Davison) adventures in The Droversâ€™ Arms, which made a big impression on me in my early teens.)
What really grabbed me, though, was that while on the surface â€˜Heartbeatâ€™ Â appears to be all whimsy and sentimentality, it could treat its characters with merciless brutality. The Niamh Cusack doctor character developed leukemia and I wondered how she was going to be cured â€“ and then she suddenly died â€“ which was genuinely shocking. Many other lead characters have met gruesome ends â€“ in explosions, shootings, falling off railway bridges and so on. We were left on tenterhooks as to whether Oscar Blaketon would survive his impalement on a piece of agricultural machinery.
With a long-running series itâ€™s often necessary to change the cast in this sort of way as actors leave (or get ill or die) but this leads to a type of plotting that isnâ€™t normally available to the novelist or dramatist â€“ to kill off your principal character well before the end. In the 80s series â€˜Robin of Sherwoodâ€™, which I still think is the best Robin Hood series ever due to Richard Carpenterâ€™s liberal infusion of Celtic mythology, I was also stunned to see Michael Praedâ€™s Robin get killed by the Sheriffâ€™s men â€“ â€˜thatâ€™s not meant to happen!â€™. They then used a Doctor Who type regeneration to get the next actor into the role, which I didnâ€™t think worked particularly well.
â€˜Heartbeatâ€™ is also a good example of how the plot can often be an almost perfunctory piece of machinery. The supposed lead characters â€“ policemen, doctors and nurses usually â€“ seem to act out their roles mainly to elicit some reaction from the large cast of secondary, but more permanent characters, usually sat around the bar of the pub.
There was almost always a comedy sub-plot involving the â€˜mechanicalâ€™ character Â â€“ originally Bill Maynard but later Geoffrey Hughes and ending with Â Gwen Taylor. Sometimes the two plots ran totally separately â€“ the characters in each never interacted â€“ which was again quite bizarre.
So I think â€˜Heartbeatâ€™ was more than a small part subversive â€“ the more so because it seemed so conventional â€“ and thereâ€™s quite a lot of â€˜Heartbeatâ€™ that has made its way into the Angel.
Of course many of the characteristics of long-running drama series are shared by soap operas â€“ long standing characters, anchored settings, traumas and plot points occurring almost as in real life rather than by dramatic convention and so on.
Some people have said that there are soapy elements too in my novel extracts and I agree to some extent â€“ and also bearing in mind the point that some soaps are examples of exceptionally good dramatic writing that are worth aspiring towards — and I like the emotional directness that’s often exposed in soaps where characters are pushed to breaking point (the drawback for soaps is that these events happen implausibly often to the same characters) .
In â€˜The Angelâ€™ I have a pub setting and a small cast of characters who will inter-relate closely. What Iâ€™m finding is that Iâ€™m working with a nod towards the soap genre rather than try and write something that goes in the opposite direction (e.g. a pub where the most exciting thing that happens is someone cleaning the beer lines every week).
One of my first blog postings was on the plotting of â€˜Spooksâ€™ last autumn â€“ and this is another series which regularly kills off its key characters — except for the perennial Harry who’s always wondering about leaving. I’m looking forward to seeing how the new Sophia Myles character develops (I loved the Doctor Who episode where she featured as Madame deÂ Pompadour) as I never really liked Hermione Norris’s Ros.
‘Spooks’ returned again this week. Graeme A. Thomson (author of â€˜Under the Ivyâ€™) tweeted a review on The Arts Desk website which described the series as something like â€˜last weekâ€™s newspaper headlines fed through a scriptwriting programâ€™.
I tend to agree â€“ the characters dialogue has to be short and punchy because if it was any more contemplative then the issues involved would be so ponderous and loaded with politics that each episode would turn into a moral treatise. But the dialogue is not really the point about ‘Spooks’ — it’s an excellent example of how fast-paced plotting (and editing) can transform the mundane. Apart from the one spectacular explosion per series, almost all the scenes are on anonymous London streets, in ‘The Grid’ or somewhere pretty dull like the bridge of a container ship — all intercut with stock footage of places like the Freemason’s Hall on Great Queen Street (not the real Thames House).
Yet it all works brilliantly on its own terms (like ‘Heartbeat’) which means it doesn’t matter that the scenarios are complete nonsense and the script seems to have been written by people who are fortunately unencumbered by any knowledge of computing or the internet.
It’s a bit of a salutary lesson to what I’ve been writing recently — which has been pages and pages of two characters explaining how they feel about each other. I’m not sure whether in the end I’ll take a hatchet to this dialogue but it does help me explore what the characters are feeling. If I leave much of it in, though, it will probably take the reader as long to read about two characters talking over breakfast than for a plot for London’s imminent destruction to be planned, discovered and foiled in ‘Spooks’!