Sir Humphrey: Plays criticising the government make the second most boring evenings ever invented.
Jim Hacker: What are the most boring?
Sir Humphrey: Plays praising the government.
– Yes, Prime Minister (BBC Television, 1986-88)
There should be no need to make the point that ideology and light entertainment ought to be kept as far apart as possible. That is the case even when the ideology in question is courageously challenging official orthodoxy. It is ten times the case when the opposite is true and the official line is being pushed, albeit presented as ‘daring’ or ‘radical’.
In recent years, almost without anyone noticing, a great deal of broadcast drama has put art or entertainment second to propaganda, and as George Orwell noted, ‘All propaganda is lies.’
By ‘propaganda’, I am not suggesting that soap operas or cop shows are routinely punctuated by exhortations to support Theresa May’s government, or to condemn the Tube and railway strikers. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that broadcast drama has increasingly become saturated with a sort of secular moral uplift and appears to be turning into a vehicle for thinly disguised public instruction.
What is more, the rest of the media seems largely content with this development, indeed barely to notice its existence. But then, the current weakened state of newspapers and their digital offshoots creates incentives for soft-focus celebrity interviews with the actors, actresses, writers and directors concerned rather than for abrasive scrutiny of the rise of pulp television as a vehicle both to ‘change attitudes’ among the great unwashed and to confirm the superior status of those already enlightened.
This, in short, is the world of Preachy TV.
A topical example is Sherlock on BBC One, currently back for a new series. From the (largely) fawning media coverage (Christopher Stevens in the Daily Mail and James Delingpole in The Spectator were honourable exceptions), the proverbial man from Mars would get not an inkling of just how tripey this is.
Sherlock mixes the aforementioned secular moral uplift with grotesquely overblown pretentiousness, and is reminiscent of nothing less than the excesses of prog rock in the early 1970s. The New Year’s Day episode for 2016 had Holmes entering his ‘mind palace’ (no, really) to travel back to Victorian times, which, in turn, allowed him to be totally supportive of the Suffragettes who, for some reason, met in an old church and wore Ku Klux Klan-style hoods.
New Year’s Day 2017 was no better, picking up on a theme from the end of the last full series in which we discovered that Dr Watson’s wife Mary (‘sweet and amiable’ in the original books) is, in fact, a contract killer, presumably to fill up the BBC’s quota of ‘strong female characters’. She was murdered at the end of the show, to the chagrin of all concerned (other than the killer), but has since tottered out of the grave.
Perhaps the people behind Sherlock believe that the mystical, pseudo-psychological mumbo jumbo leavens the stodgy ideology. (Watson is deeply understanding when it comes to his wife’s ‘profession’, implicitly rejecting the notion that there is anything unfeminine about being a hired assassin.) If the programme-makers truly think this all amounts to some sort of balance, they’re wrong.
In terms of wishful thinking, however, Sherlock was left standing by Undercover, another wildly overpraised BBC One offering, this from April last year. It achieved the truly remarkable feat of making the central, highly-improbable premise – an undercover policeman falls in love for real with the young campaigning lawyer on whom he is supposed to be spying, marrying her and starting a family with her – actually one of the more believable aspects of the plot.
Said lawyer (played by Sophie Okonedo) has never appeared for the Crown in a single court hearing, so naturally she is appointed as director of public prosecutions. She tells her new colleagues that their priority is a case she has been following for years – all other cases, presumably, can go on the back-burner.
Furthermore, she takes time off from running the Crown Prosecution Service to jet to America and defend a death-row inmate. She is apparently so successful that the Supreme Court abolishes capital punishment.
The emergence of such dream figures can perhaps be traced to Judge John Deed (BBC, 2001-07), in which a High Court beak (played by Martin Shaw) is prone to conduct personal investigations of cases that he is supposed to be trying. As with the Okonedo character, Deed is presented to us as a truly heroic figure. As, of course, is the central barrister character (Maxine Peake) in Silk (BBC), a woman from a working-class background who triumphs over cardboard cut-out, toffee-nosed male opponents.
Other series seem happy to dip in and out of the world of one-dimensional characters (heroic or villainous) embodying morally-improving messages. Vera (ITV, 2011-17) did a little freelance moralising in one episode in April 2015, when we were asked to believe that the detective of the title (played by Brenda Blethyn) and all her colleagues (it is based in former mining country in Northumberland) were totally behind Arthur Scargill and his men in 1984-85, if only in retrospect.
The on-screen coppers referred to the working miners of that era as ‘scabs’, an expression of which some striking miners at the time had disapproved. Investigating a crime from the strike period, Vera and co. find the guilty party was – you may have guessed – a senior officer who had (a) been in favour of tough policing of the strike and (b) harassed female officers.
Even the normally reliable New Tricks (BBC, 2003-15) has dabbled in the odd spot of moral improvement over its long and enjoyable run. These have included a crime centred on a snooty golf club that tries to bar the chief detective from the premises (she is, like Vera, a woman); a case involving an ambitious state school head-teacher who turns out to have committed arson to further his aims; another case involving Ministry of Defence ‘security’ personnel far more unpleasant and menacing than their real-life equivalents are likely to be; and a homicide at a private school whose headmistress is not only a racist but a murderer.
How to tell when you are watching Preachy TV? The signs are not hard to spot. First, there will be the caricature bad people, twenty-first century equivalents of the moustache-twirling Victorian villain. Second, the good people will be scarcely any less mono-dimensional, their ‘flaws’ – the odd large glass of wine or flash of temper – signalling the televisual equivalent of those who are fond of saying, ‘Of course, I’m not perfect.’ But almost so, is the implication.
Third, as we have seen, there will be the flights of fancy, not simply Sherlock’s ludicrous ‘mind palace’, but also the public official, high or low, who behaves in a way unimaginable in real life, not simply ‘breaking all the rules’ in the manner familiar from The Sweeney (ITV, 1975-78) but defying all convention, common sense and even vague appearance of realism.
Fourth, there are the injustices, past and present, against which the good people struggle. They don’t have to struggle too hard, however, because said injustices will have few or any defenders in the audience: women paid less than men for factory work (Foyle’s War: ITV, 2002-15); gay service personnel living – before the law was changed – in fear of dismissal (A Touch of Frost: ITV, 1992-2010; Kavanagh QC: ITV, 1995-2001; Inspector George Gently: BBC, 2007-present); young women trafficked for prostitution from former Yugoslavia and, more recently, further afield (various).
Finally, there is a hard-to-define sense when watching Preachy TV that to note its flaws as a piece of drama or entertainment is somehow to put yourself at odds with the worthy message being preached. Going some way back, did anyone else fear that to criticise the often slow-moving, self-indulgent and implausible Prime Suspect (ITV, 1991-2006) was to give the impression of believing that there was no real place for women at the top of the police service?
The rise of Preachy TV is a remarkable development, in light of the small screen’s post-war role as a debunker, a leveller, a forum for satire, biting comedy and gritty social realism and above all for challenging conventional wisdom. Its appearance is part of a wider change, the re-emergence of what amounts to a public doctrine, a state-sanctioned secular morality.
And that is a much bigger story.