Why don’t British dramas keep us guessing?

David Butcher wonders why only foreign dramas like Channel 4's Witnesses really jolt us...

“So the mother drowns, presumably?” said my wife as we watched the early scenes of The Outcast a few weeks ago. We’d reached the riverside picnic scene, the effects of which would destroy the hero’s life, and she could see what was coming. She generally can.

She and my sons have an unnerving sensitivity to what’s around the corner in films and television dramas. Some people do – they simply have a finely tuned plot radar that picks up incoming developments from miles away.

I have to say, I’m not one of them. I’ve always been tone deaf to what’s going on in most whodunnits, for instance, and shocked when it turns out that the person whose corpse was found burnt beyond recognition in an early scene was never actually dead, or whatever.

It’s not a handicap. In fact I’d argue that being slow about such things makes enjoying dramas easier. The trouble is, recently, I’ve noticed this changing. More and more, even I can spot the narrative weather patterns coming over the hills. I don’t think that’s me getting smarter, I think it’s writers using the same old tricks and tropes that audiences have seen many, many times before.

To take a trivial example, while watching BBC1 thriller The Interceptor, it became clear that whenever two minor characters had a romantic clinch of some kind it meant either (a) one of them would die; or (b) one of them was in fact spying on the other; or (c) their lives would shortly be ripped apart by evil gangsters. Every time.

Which made sense. Why else would the writers waste screen time establishing a touching romance between non-essential characters? But once you’re tuned in to these narrative devices you can’t de-tune. And we’re all tuned in, more and more. We’re all savvier but, as far as I can see, writers and script editors haven’t caught up.

Which makes series that don’t follow the usual patterns all the more precious. It’s one reason why I’m loving Witnesses on Wednesdays on Channel 4. It really is a swirl of strange and foggy French plotting, full of je-ne-sais-the-faintest-quoi. It’s centred on a permanently overcast channel port where someone is digging up corpses and posing them in show homes, apparently to get at a former police chief.

Like Homeland at its height or The Returned, Witnesses has stepped far enough out of its genre confines to deliver the odd coup de theatre, such as having a real-life wolf turn up now and then – no idea why. It knows how to jolt us. In a similar way, this is one reason people love Game of Thrones: the terms of trade mean you can never be sure your favourite character isn’t about to die horribly.

But none of these examples are British-made,  you’ll notice. For my money the best thing a drama can do is not cosset me or reassure me but genuinely, properly wrong-foot me, and lately that hasn’t happened nearly enough. So come on TV writers: stop ploughing the same furrows and try something bracingly, shockingly new. Surprise us. We’ll love you for it. 

David Butcher is deputy TV editor of Radio Times

The Witnesses continues on Wednesdays on Channel 4 at 10pm

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