“Britain’s supine film makers need to get up off their arses and make political drama that will rattle the gates of the House of Commons”
Harking back to the dramas of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Ken Loach’s seminal examination of homelessness, Cathy Come Home, Kosminksy dismisses Downton Abbey as a “crowd-pleaser” and “an Upstairs Downstairs remake,” and bemoans British television’s “endless diet of detective dramas.”
I’m sure Peter Kosminsky is a lovely bloke. Our television industry has more than its fair share of utterly ghastly chancers – but I suspect Kosminsky isn’t one of them. I absolutely loved his adaptations of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. He thoroughly deserved the gong he took at this year’s Golden Globes.
But oh dear Peter this (last week’s newspaper piece, pictured) is dismal stuff.
He will doubtless say that he was “misquoted.” I used to be a profile writer and I know just how easy it is to lure some unsuspecting dupe down a dark alleyway and mug them there.
Or you can make a case for this being Channel 4’s fault. Kosminsky has been hired to make a programme for C4 and the station has no doubt asked him to tickle up some headlines as part of the deal. After all, it’s particularly desperate to generate headlines. Faced with the threat of privatisation, and having lost its way donkey’s years ago, it’s currently rather keen to prove it has a reason to exist.
But we can’t entirely blame our shameless friends in the C4 press office. Because what we can also hear in this instance is a man round the back of the wood shed, making a right old racket as he grinds one of his favourite old axes.
For decades now, Kosminsky has fancied himself as something of a caped crusader, a maker of television programmes designed to fight for the rights of the common man (whoever he is) and woman (ditto) by making the rich and powerful quake in their boots. So successful has he been in this endeavour that he was very publicly anointed a handful of years ago by none other than Sir Melvin Bragg.
In this context, he’s probably been a little bit embarrassed by his recent success. He clearly doesn’t want to find himself typecast as the man who films Hilary Mantel’s tales of Merrie England by candlelight.
But is this the best he can give us as an alternative? The Golden Age of British Television? Gritty drama?
The clamour for hard-hitting, controversial television drama reached its height in the years between the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Or, if you prefer, the years book-ended by Look Back in Anger and the defenestration of Hugh Carleton Greene from Broadcasting House.
It was the era in British television that gave us the Wednesday Play. Till Death Us Do Part. And, yes, all the Cathy Come Home rest of it and so on.
Kosminsky now wants to see more programmes like the latter, a Ken Loach film written by Seldom Credited and broadcast on the BBC in 1966. It was dreary stuff (YouTube it if you feel inclined to contradict me), but headlines in the newspapers the next day (slamming it for its feeble attempts to stir up controversy) helped it claim a place in Sixties mythology.
It defined a cul-de-sac explored with diminishing returns for a decade after. No one, we suspect, really wants to go back there. Not even Peter Kosminsky.
The Golden Age of British Television was anything but. And yes, occult Socialism is very much back in fashion again. It’s an unlikely revival – and we’re all suckers for a bit of nostalgia now and then – but I don’t think anyone (outside C4) really believes that flirting with posture politics will ever help you make compelling television.
Deep down, Kosminsky must surely know that the political is the enemy of the creative. The two spheres of activity are inimical. Creative people and political people face different ways: you can force them to breathe the same air but they will have nothing meaningful to say to each other. Not for nothing were artists banned from the gritty urban reality of Plato’s ideal city, way back in the days before Channel 4’s first commissioning editor was ever thought of.
Sadly, though, the arts in Britain are run by political people… and that’s pretty much been the case since the days when (to re-ring an earlier bell) Hugh Carleton Greene was fannying about as director general at the BBC.
If you set out with political ideas and political aims, you end up with, at best, agitprop. You become a choreographer of abstract nouns, a stager of declamatory diatribes.
And, yes, it’s true: we sometimes expect too much of directors. The sad reality is that few are natural storytellers; and some of the very best are well aware of their limitations. They buy in writers, hire cameramen and keep the acting talent sweet. They are ring-masters. Often gloriously so. But still.
Storytellers, on the other hand, work with characters: and a story will grab your lapels only if it features the self-actuating sort. Characters, in other words, who at least believe they hold their own destinies in their own hands. But here’s a thing: the tacitly understood rules, as they currently exist, deter writers from seeking out (or engaging with) such characters in contemporary settings.
Strange but true. Well, not so strange actually. It’s an inevitable facet of our niggardly Puritan era.
But this truth we hold to be inalienable: truly creative people, once they’re out of their teens, tend to realise that if “shocking the bourgeoisie” is your primary (or only) goal, you’ve probably got nothing to say.
We’ll watch Kosminsky’s Channel 4 project with interest when it airs. It will, we have been informed, follow four British Muslims to the Levant and will empathise with their search for freedoms they can fight for. It will in no way be a bit like Shirley Valentine. It will be grittier. Considerably grittier.
Kosminsky has clearly earned the right to speak his mind – and to expect all of us all to nod sagely as he does so. Equally, though, there will be those inclined to remind him that if he’s serious about giving creative people interesting contemporary spaces to inhabit, he is, when he comes out with this sort of gate-rattling stuff, part of the problem not the solution.