I've always mistrusted the word "improvisation", particularly when applied to acting. I've never understood why it's treated with such reverence. It's only in acting where the word "improvised", or a lack of preparedness, is seen as a good thing. No one would be lost in admiration for a cardiothoracic surgeon who announced before a coronary bypass, "You know what, I'm just going to wing this one and see where it takes us."
True Love, five brief dramas being shown from Sunday to Wednesday this week on BBC1, are largely improvised by their actors working with writer/director/imaginer Dominic Savage. In practice this means an awful lot of actorly staring out to sea. Of course, it's the natural inclination of actors to try to look as if they are communicating everything while saying absolutely nothing.
I understand that, I would do the same if I were an actor. It looks good, it means you can make your eyes burn with piquant emotion. Even better if the drama is set by the seaside (Margate, in the case of True Love, which looks gorgeous) and you can gaze soulfully out across the waves into a series of glorious sunsets as you convey that you're doing a lot of deep thinking. That's what you get when actors are thrown on to their own resources, when they mine their emotional innards like badgers burrowing into setts. This is seen, in the world of TV drama, as a price beyond rubies and is always referred to as getting to the "truth" of a character. (Once you hear this, call the Pretension Police because there are going to be arrests.)
So scripts hewn from the souls of great writers don't allow us to get to the truth of a character or characters? Really? Have we been fooled all these years by (plucking some scripted classics out of the air) Brideshead Revisited, The Shadow Line, Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Singing Detective? If actors had made them up as they went along, would they still be masterpieces that rang with brilliance?
What we have ended up with in True Love are five very slight tales. Which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy them - I did, but in the way I'd enjoy a short story, to fill in time before I moved on to something with more heft. Each True Love drama lasts barely 30 minutes (23 for the last one, with David Morrissey as a lonely dad looking for love) and all have that imprimatur of the unscripted drama - naturalistic speech patterns, all the hesitations of "real" talking. True Love is full of them.
But - and this is truly shocking, though maybe it's a scaredy-cat BBC1 thing, we have to have everything spelled out - they are full of Grey's Anatomy moments; the times when only an explanatory ballad will do. So, in episode one, Roberta Flack warbles The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face as David Tennant claps eyes on his One True Love.
Improvisation didn't do its job properly if the soundtrack has to point out emotional aspects with school disco last-songs (George Michael's A Different Corner, Phil Collins's You Know What I Mean). Improvisation fell down there, didn't it? In the real lives improvisation strives to emulate you can't whistle up a suitable song to point out how you're feeling, because you can't put it into words. It's the equivalent of illustrating your life with your iPod tracks.
True Love begins on Sunday, BBC1 at 10:25pm