The Trajectory of Television Drama (Pt. 4)

4: Finding a Unique Identity, Present and Future

Given that some drama programmes have held fast to such signifiers of an older aesthetic, even if their modes of production have reflected “films for television” for much longer, is there room in the modern television production environment for a more fundamental separation from the cinematic model of television drama production?

There is evidence in particular modern drama productions to suggest that there is. Occasional live dramas, such as the remakes of The Quatermass Experiment and Fail-Safe, and live episodes of ER, The West Wing and others, have reminded us of the value of live drama production. The immediacy of this direct link between production and viewer – impossible in cinema, and one of the two unique aspects of television as a medium – enlivened performances, energised productions and led to some very memorable television. The West Wing instalment was particularly instructive, as it sought to be considerably less flashy than its counterparts elsewhere. Instead of attempting to use live drama production as a complex stunt (the ER episode favoured the house style of long, roving takes; Quatermass sought to replicate a variety of interior and exterior settings from the one warehouse), it used the live mode as a strength.

The episode in question consists, a brief introduction aside, entirely of a staged presidential debate. As a regular episode, committed to film in the usual way, this would have seemed uninspired and drab. As a live episode, shot exactly as a real debate would have been shot, it was enthralling. Jimmy Smits and the usually excellent Alan Alda, playing the candidates, offered perhaps the strongest performances of their careers. Occasional line fluffs suggested that Smits in particular was not used to this mode of production, but these stumbles only gave the drama added dynamism, and as the episode progressed they came to be indicators of the actors’ commitment to the moment: for that hour, they were those characters, nervous flaws and all. This is the power of live production, and it’s something that no amount of rehearsal or polish or post-production can better.

So should we go back to the days when everything was live with a bit of pre-record? Of course not: too many opportunities would be lost for quality television that depends on editing. Comedy great Stanley Baxter virtually made an entire career out of playing every part in a comedy, something that could only be achieved live on radio, not on television. But an acknowledgement that television is not the embarrassing half-cousin of cinema would do a great number of drama producers – and their productions – a world of good. More live drama can only encourage the quality of performance and production, given the “all or nothing” mentality of knowing it has to be right on the night. Jason Flemyng, a largely unremarkable player in films, gave his best performance as the new Bernard Quatermass. Harvey Keitel offered his subtlest, perhaps his most profound performance of all in Fail-Safe, alongside other actors who proved themselves to be surprise heavyweights in that production: Hank Azaria, Richard Dreyfuss, Noah Wyle.

“As live” production is something that should also be encouraged. Much in the way of performance is lost through a absence of continuity in the way single-camera television is made. That stop-start approach can be hard-going on performers, and the consequent lack of enthusiasm can reflect on the crew as well. I can only take as case studies my own experience in single-camera and multi-camera production. The former can be an absolute chore, particularly as a production grows more and more bloated. With a minuscule crew and limited demands, guerilla filmmaking can indeed be invigorating – but how much television drama is actually produced in that way? Multi-camera production in an electronic studio, on the other hand, is an intensely exciting prospect on both sides of the camera. The preparation is immense, and “live” translates as “problems are locked in forever”, but the pressure pushes everyone’s commitment and performance up by several notches. This is even true of “as-live” production, albeit to a lesser degree, because post-production opportunities are still more limited, and because the complexity of a single take is that much greater than in a single-camera environment, perhaps more for the crew even than the cast.

Additionally, multi-camera production doesn’t have to appear as tacky or old-fashioned as one might expect. A number of programmes are “cheating” the multi-camera approach by regularly shooting with a second camera but editing in the conventional single-camera style. Australian drama production adopted this approach once it became economically viable. A typical hour of drama can cost anywhere around AU$200,000, compared to maybe 6-7 times that for a Doctor Who episode, or 10-20 times that for most high profile American drama hours. Consequently, it makes sense to get coverage as quickly as possible. The hospital drama All Saints was, in its closing years, produced using two cameras. A more recent innovation for the series, which previously used a single camera, a second was introduced in an attempt to increase the tempo of episodes to suit a changing demographic. The end result is one that appears slicker and quicker, but at virtually no added expense and at minimal cost to its production schedule. This device is also used on the modern version of Doctor Who to similar effect, and was attempted as early as the original run’s twenty-fifth season, where scenes for the all-location “Silver Nemesis” were shot in this way to get footage in the can more quickly.

From all available evidence, the soap opera Home & Away continues to employ a multi-camera style, but this has been offset aesthetically by a variety of techniques that allow it to look more polished than one might expect the mode to allow. Lighting is carefully planned, and is no longer solely dependent on a preponderance of overhead fill. Daylight is convincingly simulated through judicious use of direct, coloured side lighting, which also increases some amount of shadow detail. Lighting has improved tremendously since this experiment began, with sets now resembling moodily lit location interiors. Despite remaining a bland, teen-oriented nightly soap, Home & Away is arguably the best lit programme on Australian television.

Even where lighting in a multi-camera mode remains comparatively flat, there is a growing tendency to build lighting into sets, so directional lighting should not need be such a challenge for multi-camera work as it once was. (A strong example of this approach to lighting was Blue Heelers, which used a combination of directional lighting and set design to create many shadow opportunities that lent images a more textured aesthetic.) More significantly, Home & Away occasionally employs old tricks learned from Casualty; chiefly, the judicious use of hand-held cameras. These of course lend a drama production a sense of immediacy, and automatically suggest a terrain not suited to fully rigged electronic cameras.

But one area television can afford to exploit before the new wave of digital cinema overtakes it completely is in the sustained take. Long favoured by such film-makers as Robert Altman and Quentin Tarantino, boundaries have been steadily pushed aside by the advent of digital cameras in cinema, which have already led to at least two pioneering productions (Time Code and Russian Ark) that employ no cuts for their durations. Here is a mode of delivery that television pioneered, albeit from a lack of means, that it could well afford to reclaim. The immediacy and honesty that come from a live or as-live production with no edits could signal a return to the intimacy that was seen in television’s earliest days as its greatest asset.

Television’s other unique selling point is of course its ability to tell long-form stories. Here, there is already a sea change for the better. British television has never really ceased to cope well with long-form narratives. The serial form – by which I refer not to soap opera but to self-contained, long-form narratives – is a mode that has somehow remained uniquely British, despite best attempts elsewhere to adapt it into the mini-series. The key difference here is that the mini-series is very much more “event television”, whereas the serial has always presented itself as nothing more than a series with a finite run. Yet the two have more recently bled together in the American schedules, in the form of such series as 24, Prison Break and the aborted Heist. That an entire run of episodes could be devoted to a single focus – planning an escape from a prison, or a single jewellery heist – is something almost traditional in British television1, but a breakthrough when married with the American style of drama production. This strengthening of long-form storytelling – not merely in the form of a story arc, but an actual single, sustained plot across some twenty or so episodes – has proven to be largely successful, and with good reason. It is, in narrative terms, television’s one great selling point, and I find it symptomatic of where television drama has gone wrong that it has not been considered more fiercely in the past. Indeed, whether it continues to thrive is open to debate, as few successors worthy of the mantle have emerged since the demise of those antecedents.

Television drama needs to embrace the uniqueness of its medium and exploit this to lend itself a particular uniqueness. Success is already evident on the storytelling front, but in the way those stories are told there remains much room for improvement. Television is, and always has been, an immediate and intimate event. It is beamed – live, no less – into our homes. By virtue of the remote control, we are its masters; once a spectator is in a cinema auditorium, one’s options are to stick with the film or leave. Television itself stays with us in the long term, so for a drama to likewise stay with us it should reflect the appeal of this immediate, intimate access. Cinema is for telling big stories; television as it its best when it tells broad and deep stories. But it’s even better when it tells those stories with a directness that cinema can’t, employing a visual aesthetic that radio can’t offer and the theatre can’t match. It doesn’t need to be the bastard child of any of these three older modes of dramatic storytelling; rather, it should find itself and be that.

Apologies for a lack of references throughout. Sources include The Intimate Screen by Jason Jacobs, The Story of Light Enertainment (BBC), the programmes themselves, a book on early British television whose title presently escapes me, innumerable issues of DWB and Video Watchdog, and probably several others I can’t think of at the moment.



  1. Not to mention Brazil, where the telenovela flourishes.

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