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I say tomayto, you say tomahto

Last week I received the latest copy of ScriptWriter, UK’s screenwriting magazine edited by Julian Friedmann. I’ve been a subscriber for a year, and I need to renew my subscription now–I won’t let it lapse.

ScriptWriter is a magazine that focuses on intelligent, well-written, and in-depth articles on issues of substance that are relevant to screenwriters. Much as I enjoy its American counterparts (I subscribe to both Scr(i)pt and Creative Screenwriting), ScriptWriter has an uniquely British perspective on the craft that is often refreshing in an industry that can appear to be Hollywood-dominated. That is not to say that the British industry is lauded above its American equivalent–far from it, in fact. The magazine is interrogative of the relationship between the two countries, and the pros and cons of the industry on both sides of the Atlantic.

Discussing the American versus British viewpoint is a tricky issue. There are excellent, and sometimes conflicting, attributes in both cultures.

I think that I have a decent grasp on both cultures. I was born in the USA, but my formative years and education was in Ireland. When I was older I worked and lived in America, and I have deep roots and strong friendships in that country, even though I reside in Ireland at the moment. I visit the UK often, and have friends and family living there too. Irish people have many similarities in culture with the British, as well as our divergences.

Today Danny Stack pointed to an article from Sunday’s Observer, in which six British TV writers (Tony Marchant, Andrew Davies, Paul Abbott, Neil Biswas, Abi Morgan and Paula Milne) discuss their craft. I read it with interest, but was disappointed to see disparaging remarks being trotted out about American television drama. Not all of them are inaccurate, of course. I agree with some of the criticism levelled at Lost, for instance. There is an irritating “prick-tease” quality (as Tony Marchant describes it) in regards to the plot and the central mystery, yet Lost is deeply engaging as a character-driven drama.

Marchant’s comments, “It would have been much more interesting if they’d looked at how a society works – or remodels itself – after a disaster,” serve to highlight the US/British divide, and proves that Morchant doesn’t get the central premise of the show. The British always look for serious social commentary, while the Americans are interested in examining people first. The individual always has primacy in American culture.

Let me tie this back into the current issue of ScriptWriter, and the article “Complexity and Emotional Depth” written by Patrick Spence. Spence examines the history of American television drama, using NYPD Blue as the show that trailblazed the direction of current television programmes in the country. He compares it to Cracker, which was an exceptional contemporary British drama. Towards the end of the article Spence makes some articulate observations about the differences between American and UK drama:

Either way, I believe here lies the real difference between us: in the UK we won’t want to face up to our demons; we don’t want to stop drinking; we don’t want to be better people. As a nation, we aren’t seduced by therapy, not yet, anyway. Pilates is fine if you read The Guardian, but vulnerability and intimacy are another thing altogether and our approach to storytelling reflects this discomfort.

Too often we are unwilling or unable to really open up characters or take them on a journey of recovery or self-awareness for fear of embarrassment or failure. We abhor idealism without realising that it lies at the heart of the dramas we admire. We are more comfortable instead with cynicism, which somehow feels more honest, despite its cowardice. To create dramatic heroes, we use irony where the Americans use emotional honesty, as if the two are mutually exclusive, and as an industry we allow ourselves to feel superior, somehow, for doing so. It’s a shame because our audiences are prevented from connecting with so many of our characters on a deeper, more emotional level as a result.

I’m not saying that American dramas are better than their UK counterparts. There is much to be admired about both. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. American drama has an unfortunate tendency to veer towards mawkish sentimentality–which is overblown for UK/Irish tastes–and yet there is an intellectual aloofness that occasionally borders on snobbish superiority in British drama. It’s why the British produce sterling comedies such as The Office, Peep Show, and Extras. Jaded cynicism and sarcasm are excellent comedic devices.

I believe that we can learn from drama from both sides of the Atlantic. Observe the weakness, highlight the strengths, and figure out what translates from one culture to the other. American shows like Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Lost, and Nip/Tuck (to name a handful) are very popular in Ireland and the UK so people here do respond to them. Then again, take a look at the British drama Shameless for instance–it’s a fantastic achievement.

The one thing that is without dispute, and the Observer article notes the fact, is that the increase in quality in American drama has had knock-on effects on this side of the Atlantic. The BBC, Channel 4, and even RTÉ in Ireland are taking drama seriously again. The reality TV shows are still with us, but the broadcasters have been reminded that people love stories that explore the human experience with honesty, humour and flair.

This is good for writers, and with the wealth of material to draw upon from America and the UK (and sometimes Ireland) there is much to inspire us to tackle new and innovative stories.

2 Comments

  • Brid Cph

    Interesting. I interviewed a well-known writer/teacher here (Dk) recently and he more or less said the opposite. Must work on it and get it published in ScriptWriter. Yeah!

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