How UK crime dramas became go-to TV

LONDON – Police shows have been a popular UK export for decades, but a recent batch of big-budget, critically-acclaimed BBC thrillers ha...


LONDON – Police shows have been a popular UK export for decades, but a recent batch of big-budget, critically-acclaimed BBC thrillers has drawn record weekly audiences here, keeping viewers mesmerized in a state of shock. constant and existential fear.

Part of this attention comes from the fact that the main characters in a series can die at any time. Earlier this year, 15 million viewers watched the series finale “Line of Duty,” a police proceeding that killed a central character early in its first season, and then another in the first episode of the second. This made it the most watched episode of a 21st century British television series to date, based on ratings for the first seven days of a show’s availability.

In 2018, 14 million people watched the finale of “Bodyguard, A political thriller that unexpectedly lost a key character, according to data from PA, a news agency.

And the BBC’s latest offering, “Vigil,” a drama investigating a mysterious death at a nuclear submarine looks set to continue this trend, has drawn double-digit millions of viewers in its first episode, according to the BBC. Scheduled to air on US streaming service Peacock later this year, it’s fair to say that “Vigil” is also full of unexpected twists and turns.

Ratings like these in a country of 67 million people, combined with the critical success of dramas, are reminiscent of the kind of dates we haven’t really seen for network dramas in the States. -United since “Game Of ThronesWhich ended in 2019 and also regularly killed off its most beloved characters.

All broadcast on the BBC in Britain, “Line of Duty”, “Bodyguard” and “Vigil” were also all produced by the same British production company, World Productions, based in London. According to Simon Heath, the company’s creative director, the producers realized that engaging viewers enough to keep them tuned in week after week meant defying some of the expectations of the longtime British criminal genre.

In the past, “you knew the main characters were going to survive, because they were under contract for a whole series, and the idea was for audiences to invest in those characters,” Heath said in a video interview. But “as soon as you introduce an element of threat to the characters, the potential that they can be killed early, then audiences are going to look everywhere for it,” he added. “So everyone’s on edge.”

Much of the audience for these dramas is live, in part because there is no option to binge on current seasons all at once. The episodes are only available on the BBC’s streaming service once they’ve already aired on TV, and teasers for upcoming episodes make viewers guess at future plot points. As a result, nearly 13 million people watched the “Line of Duty” finale the night it aired, and more than half of the 10 million viewers who watched the first episode of “Vigil” in its first week saw it the same day it aired.

Streaming services often drop seasons all at once – a trend Netflix started with “House of Cards” and continued with other tense dramas like “Ozark” and “Spirit hunter. “Bodyguard” also caused a stir when its six episodes arrived in bingeable form on Netflix in the United States, earning Richard Madden a Golden Globe for his lead performance.

For legacy networks with their own streaming services, like HBO, there is some evidence that it can still pay off to keep people waiting. Earlier this year, the popular “Easttown mareAired on a weekly basis, with its finale becoming most viewed original episode on HBO Max. (The night of its broadcast, the finale of “Mare” drew 4 million views on HBO platforms; in comparison, the finale of “Game of Thrones” was watched by almost 14 million people the night it aired.)

As well as giving all that tension a bit of a breather after each episode, the weekly episode airing means UK viewers have the opportunity to obsessively dissect and discuss the storylines between each episode, as the media releases their stories. own theories on what might happen next.

Shrine of duty”, A podcast hosted by Rebecca Shekleton, Hannah O’Connell and Brendan O’Loughlin, dissects the intricate points of the plot of“ Line of Duty ”scene by scene to spot hidden clues.

“It made the show a much bigger event because not everything is available to binge on all at once and people have to wait week after week,” O’Loughlin said in a Zoom interview.

These dramas all contain complex writing and interwoven storylines that contain multiple theories of guilt, fueling debate and intrigue. “You need six days to kind of build on that, before you move on to the next one,” O’Connell said.

The pandemic may also have fueled this go-to-see culture. “One of the things I felt last year during the pandemic was that people lacked shared social experiences,” Heath said. “And one of the very few ways to reproduce that was to watch TV programs at the same time.”

While these popular crime dramas have different authors (“Line of Duty” and “Bodyguard” were written and created by Jed Mercurio, “Vigil” by Tom Edge), the team at World Productions want the stories to be in full swing. series evolve organically during the writing process, said Heath. Rather than planning a full season early in production, Mercurio gives his shows’ editorial teams a preview of the first script, Heath said, and “basically, Jed is writing one episode at a time.”

“We read the plan and we give feedback, but in a way we behave like an audience would be watching it for the first time,” Heath said. “We don’t know what’s coming.”

As a result, he added, “you are never in danger of reporting history.”

For Piers Wenger, head of drama programming at the BBC, writing is the key to the success of these shows.

“These writers in particular have proven to be so enjoyable and appetizing for the audience because they are very, very good at presenting the plot and manipulating it in such a way that it is hidden just long enough from the audience,” he said. said Wenger.

Dramas are intrinsically linked in that they explore public institutions that may appear somewhat opaque to the general public. “Line of Duty” is about a fictitious police unit dedicated to eliminating police corruption, “Bodyguard” explores the ethics around national government surveillance and “Vigil” explores the balance between national security and accountability public.

“The Navy is not going to show you around a submarine or tell you about all their mistakes, the near misses they’ve had over the past 30 years,” Heath said. “The vast majority of incidents that happened during the ‘Vigil’ series, you could probably find real-world correlates if you look closely enough.”

Each show also features identifiable characters who typically fight for a cause of public interest.

“They provide the opportunity to explore a kind of moral complexity and moral grayness,” Wenger said. “They also provide the opportunity to explore the distrust of the establishment and authority, and the power of one or two individuals to resist this.”

“I think it’s something that is part and parcel of the national mood,” he added.



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