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Serial killers

Whatever happened to the epic TV dramas of old? Simple, says James Morrison, they got squashed. So how do you tell the story of Henry VIII in just two parts? And can the condensed 'Colditz' ever live up to the 1970s original?

05 October 2003

Peter Morgan is trying to convince me he isn't getting enough work. "I've done nothing for eight weeks," he laments, theatrically wringing his hands. "I've got a wife who's pregnant with a third child and we're in the middle of moving house. The only thing I want to do is work; the most relaxing thing I could do is work."

This claim to be starved of meaty assignments seems a little disingenuous, coming as it does from the author of Channel 4's lauded Blair-Brown drama The Deal, next week's ITV 1 dramatisation of the life of Henry VIII and Granada's audacious forthcoming re-invention of the Colditz story, to name but three.

In fact, whatever else it may lack, television is currently offering no shortage of work for talented dramatists, as even the most cursory glance at the autumn and winter schedules will testify. From last weekend's rumbustious period romps Byron and Boudica through next month's gritty BBC1 depiction of the republican-loyalist confrontations at Belfast's Holy Cross Infant School to BBC2's upcoming adaptation of Jed Mercurio's scabrous medical satire Bodies, the main channels have rarely served up such a feast of eclectic "prestige" dramas.

Even Channel 5, once the home of soft porn and tacky game shows, is getting in on the act, with Hear the Silence, a one-off drama about the MMR controversy starring Juliet Stevenson and Hugh Bonneville.

Yet for all the undoubted range and ambition of these productions, you will struggle to find one that lasts for more than three or four hours in total. While returning series like Waking the Dead are routinely allotted seasons of six episodes or more, today's literary adaptations, historical serials and political dramas tend to run for three or four instalments at most.

The Deal lasted 90 minutes, while ER star Alex Kingston's portrayal of the life of England's most celebrated warrior queen was crammed into a two-hour film. Henry VIII has been given a comparatively generous four hours, over two episodes, and next month's BBC 1 dramatisation of the life and loves of Charles II, starring Rufus Sewell, has the same running time, but over four nights.

Even Gunpowder, Treason and Plot, an exploration of one of England's most turbulent periods starring Robert Carlyle as James I and scripted by Jimmy McGovern, the award-winning author of Cracker, has been reduced to a lightning blitz through Jacobean history. Though described by BBC publicists as an "epic", it is only four one-hour episodes long.

Similarly, next year sees a four-part adaptation of Anthony Trollope's He Knew He Was Right by Andrew Davies, the wizard of the Sunday night costume drama, while William Golding's mammoth trilogy, To the Ends of the Earth, will be condensed into three 90-minute episodes for BBC2.

It's a far cry from the days when everything from The Singing Detective through The Buddha of Suburbia to Pride and Prejudice automatically qualified for six glorious episodes. So why the current obsession with brevity - and is it, though undoubtedly helping to foster diversity and experimentation, leaving viewers short changed?

Jane Tranter, the BBC's head of drama, thinks not. To her, the sprawling dramatisations of yore are simply not necessary or desirable any more.

"I would like to do something slightly longer again at some point, but there are basically two reasons why we don't do them like that generally now," she explains. "One is cost: the cost of a major drama per hour is so prohibitive that we really have to be sure we need so many episodes to tell the story in.

"The other factor is that the way people experience television has changed dramatically in recent years. We are used to things being a lot more fast-paced, so viewers no longer want or expect dramas to go into every tiny detail in the way they once did."

Morgan, who has recently made his name through an enviable ability to distil the essence of complex historical and political sagas into tightly crafted TV dramas, espouses much the same view, albeit with a tinge of regret.

"There's a different way of watching things now," he says. "The serial is out of fashion, partly because people have increasingly busy lives and there's a feeling that if they miss one episode they can't catch up very easily.

"Watching a lengthy serial is different to following The Sopranos or The West Wing, where to some extent you can plug in again even if you miss the odd episode."

The age of video and DVD, he feels, has transformed TV into a "shop window" for drama, rather than the primary place one goes to experience it. In catching an episode of, say, State of Play, one gains an impression of whether one would like to see more of it. It hardly matters if one forgets, or is too busy, to tune into the subsequent instalments when they are broadcast: if one wants to see them, one can simply buy or rent them at a later date.

With his self-deprecating humour and impish grin, there is something endearingly subversive about Morgan. He claims to be an advocate of no-nonsense storytelling ("what I try to do is to write a feature film for television", he says) and yet is hopeless at disguising his love of the more rambling approach of old.

"Do you remember Brideshead Revisited?" he asks me suddenly, a glaze of nostalgia clouding his eyes. "It was brilliant wasn't it? You couldn't get away with a three-minute sequence of a car drawing up on a gravel driveway these days, but I loved it. It was magic."

Like Abbott perhaps more than Davies, Morgan is seen less as a safe pair of hands than a genuinely original talent - a writer who can be relied on to stamp his own, wholly individual, mark on each project. To this end, he has re-written the time-worn story of Henry VIII as the tragic tale of a misunderstood monarch whose psychopathic tendencies are the product of an emotionally abusive upbringing.

"Henry's a lost little boy who never got his father's affections," he postulates, flashing that grin. "His father told him the only thing that was important in life was having a son. Most people in the past have done the story of the wives. This is the story of Henry's quest for a son."

Morgan has been ably assisted in his interpretation by the presence of Ray Winstone in the title role. "Ray does two things better than any actor in Britain today: one of them is be angry and the other is be hurt," he says. "The truth is that my view of Henry VIII revolves around those two emotions. Most historians will scream in protest, but he spent most of his life being hurt or hurting other people. Who better for that than Ray?"

Morgan has also called time on much of the other standard baggage we have come to expect from portrayals of the Tudors. "We are not wheeling on Greensleeves and there are no banquets with chicken drumsticks," he says. "There's no lute music - I think we had a no lute policy."

Similarly, next year's big project, Colditz, will be a world away from the painstakingly earnest, by-the-book 1970s BBC1 dramatisation of the Nazi prison camp saga. Not only will it flit between the ardour of camp life and the machinations of MI9, a seldom explored arm of Britain's wartime security services, but it will even feature - whisper it - some sex.

"We have a ban on handlebar moustaches and stiff upper lips," Morgan laughs. "In fact, the lips will be decidedly quivery. Society has changed. Having behaved well throughout horrific ordeals like this is no longer seen as being so important - the sort of attitude that says 'at no point did my side parting go' or 'I shook hands with my jailer' is no longer expected of people going through this kind of trauma."

The sex (or "love interest" as it will doubtless be billed) comes in the form of an affair between one of the British airmen who manages to evade capture by the Germans and the girlfriend of one of those who doesn't. In a neat, if historically questionable, plot twist, the former is seconded to MI9, from where he attempts to manipulate events to prevent his erstwhile comrade-in-arms from getting back together with his fiancée when he finally escapes Colditz.

What strikes you as Morgan breathlessly describes these iconoclastic scenarios is how much fun he seems to be having. But why is this? Given the constraints of contemporary TV drama and his obvious reservations about those pressures, how come he is not itching to head for Hollywood? It quickly becomes clear that he has already peered over the other side of the fence - and has no illusions the grass is any greener.

"I've done my fair share of Hollywood whoring," he ventures, reeling off a best forgotten John Goodman vehicle, King Ralph, and Bridget Jones's Diary, on which he shared co-writing credits with five other scribes, as his most notable achievements in Tinseltown.

His latest brush with the big studios, a version of the Tristan and Isolde legend to be produced by Ridley Scott, may sound impressive, but he insists that, for every prestigious job he has landed, he can list a gazetteer of failures and missed opportunities. Take the time he blew the chance to write a script for Jack Nicholson, in the mistaken belief that its director (the then rookie film-maker Alexander Payne) would never be able to persuade the three-times Oscar winner to appear in his movie.

"I turned down - twice - About Schmidt," he begins ruefully, visibly recoiling at the memory. "The film sounded like cinematic hokum, and at the time Alexander Payne hadn't made Election. I thought, 'Jack Nicholson isn't going to sign for any kid out of film school'. Then I found myself walking past a news stand and the cover of Variety magazine said, 'Jack Nicholson signs for About Schmidt'. The running gag of my time in Hollywood was that About Schmidt moment."

So it's fair to say, then, that the life of jobbing TV hack still holds some charms for a gifted screenwriter anxious to leave his mark



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