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After Bodyguard, Inside No 9 and Killing Eve, why are our TV writers still underrated?

Melvyn Bragg explains how a desire to debunk cultural snobbery led him to devote his new series of The South Bank Show to creators of small-screen drama

In the 1960s and 70s I was lucky enough to see a lot of plays in the West End. Yet, again and again, I returned to television and thought how much better – and more powerful – the writing was, and the acting. Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter wrote for television in those days and mixed in well. But the real drive came from writers who devoted themselves to this new, often snobbishly dismissed, medium: Dennis Potter, David Mercer, Jack Rosenthal…


What we have done on The South Bank Show ever since is to follow and nurse that strand of popular creative talent. I was determined to broaden the spectrum of “the arts”, and so I began our coverage of drama with a Potter TV Play – a study of the Royal Shakespeare Company had to wait for a few weeks. (In the same way, I began our music coverage with Paul McCartney, followed later by the Berlin Philharmonic).

Since the first time we came to air in January 1978 we’ve done programmes on Fay Weldon, Lynda La Plante, Jimmy McGovern, Paul Abbott, Russell T Davies, Sally Wainwright and many others. But today’s television drama is so outstanding that this season I thought we’d go en bloc. Acclaimed drama series such as A Very English Scandal, Killing Eve, Bodyguard and Patrick Melrose have shaped the national conversation.

We start with a study of the creator of Line of Duty and Bodyguard, Jed Mercurio, and then focus on Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, who write the BBC’s darkly comic Inside No 9 together. We also have a programme about Jack Thorne, who, while writing successfully for the stage, is also behind National Treasure and This is England. Then we look at the work of Call the Midwife writer Heidi Thomas, who also adapted Cranford.

In the early days of television, its writers were lucky to get one or two appreciative mentions, despite attracting audiences of many millions. It was odd, to say the least, that writers of such quality were seen as mere footnotes when compared to playwrights whose work in the West End was seen by just a few thousand over an entire run. Quantity does not equal quality, but these television writers are of the highest order and certainly bear comparison with contemporaries in theatre and film.

So why has television drama been undervalued until recently? Partly it is down to the stain of snobbery which has discoloured culture in this country every bit as much as it determined the bonds of class. Telly, “the gogglebox”, could not possibly be as good as Covent Garden or the National Theatre. Of course, live drama and television are chalk and cheese, and offer quite different experiences. But when we look at the quality of the writing, the boldness of the subjects and the brilliance of the execution, then the old hierarchical pyramid crashes to the ground.

Cultural snobbery still holds sway in many areas of the arts. Yet I have been to many productions in the forums of the elite that have just not been very good. It was often the grand context and a sense of history that made them seem significant.

By contrast, the touch-of-a-switch public access to television breaks through all that. A stage play might have the advantage of being repeated later elsewhere by other companies, giving it what could be called a living posterity. But television drama does have repeatability. And it can now stand on the shelf alongside a novel.

Thomas’s 10 million viewers for Call the Midwife are not watching a cosy show that offers the comforts of a cup of tea. It’s fierce, it’s difficult, it’s painful. And it’s the truth of it that draws in such a devoted audience. The extraordinary and sinister artistry of Pemberton and Shearsmith is currently unmatched anywhere on the screen or the stage, and the fury of Thorne, especially coupled with Shane Meadows, makes us face a country which is vivid, difficult, bleak and full of guts.

Mercurio’s Bodyguard, meanwhile, seized the nation by the throat; his last episode was eventually watched by 17 million viewers.

We seem to be good at the arts in this country, and their importance should not be underestimated. We need them now more than ever in order to unleash imagination in schools and colleges across the country. The creative industry employs about two million people and, given a bit of a push, that could double in the next 10 years. Out of the mire of the moment, the arts could become the hub of a post-Brexit Britain. Why not? What else is there?

Television drama today faces up to the best and to the worst, the bleakest, the most complicated and the most joyful of subjects. Why did it take me so long to devote a whole series to it?

The new series of The South Bank Show begins on Sky Arts on 16 July

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