What on earth have our TV scriptwriters got against property developers? It’s starting to look like an obsession. I can only assume that at some point the offices of every channel’s drama department have had their sunlight blocked out by new tower blocks. Maybe that’s why they have sleazy property moguls as go-to baddies in series after series.
Marcella, Doctor Foster and New Blood (Thursday BBC1) are recent examples, but really there are dozens. Just think how many times you’ve watched that scene where a smart-suited businessman pitches his new development to a room full of applauding investors…
I know they make easy hate figures, but it’s so blooming lazy. And it’s part of a wider problem: we need better baddies. Alfred Hitchcock reck- oned, “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.” And for “picture” read drama series, because goodness knows, too many small-screen baddies are cardboard-cutout bogeymen who have all the menace of a paper napkin with “Boo!” written on it.
There are the dodgy developers, yes, but also, time after time (including in New Blood), the big, bad drugs company developing a new drug whose side effects it needs to cover up; or of course the corrupt politician (New Blood had one of these, too).
Yes, politicians… Recent events – let’s just say “recent events” and move on – have meant we’ve had no shortage of real or perceived villains on the national stage. As birds fall from the economic skies and stormclouds swirl, people on all sides have cast around for who to blame.
It’s an instinct – we point the finger and hiss. You may reserve your hatred for Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson, while someone else blames Jean-Claude Juncker or Nigel Farage, but we all need a bogeyman. And in real life, such hate figures are at least complicated, three-dimensional and interesting. So why are fictional villains mostly so flimsy?
Not always, of course. Sometimes a TV drama will throw up a baddie Hitchcock might have liked. Nobody could see the first series of Happy Valley without contracting a mortal terror of Tommy Lee Royce or the second without getting caught in the nightmare of that craven cop who killed his mistress. Part of the reason The Night Manager captivated us was that in suave arms dealer Richard Roper it had a major-league monster. (And all right, it had the Hiddleston fellow, too, but stick to the point…)
Sky Atlantic’s Billions (Thursday) features a cracking bad guy in Damian Lewis’s Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, an all-conquering New York hedge-fund manager. Axe is brilliant, because although he is a snake – insider trading, sabotaging rivals and so on – he’s such a cool, charismatic snake we can’t help the unworthy part of us rooting for him a little bit.
That’s the secret of decent villains: at some level, we feel for them. They’re complicated. They’re not just someone sleazy and rich we’re invited to hiss at. So come on, drama writers, let’s put an end to bland baddies, let’s fight for the right to have proper, grown-up hate figures. Never mind Bonnie Tyler holding out for a hero. I’m holding out for a half-decent villain – and who isn’t a property developer.