TV needs to start gambling to create new classics

And stop relying on the old ones...

113615

Good news: ITV has commissioned a prequel to Prime Suspect. Filming started recently on a new series called Tennison, which will focus on Jane Tennison’s early career as a WPC in 1970s Hackney, north-east London, years before she became one of the Met’s first female DCIs – so before she became Helen Mirren, essentially.

Advertisement

This is good news, isn’t it? I mean, Endeavour found a place in our hearts as a worthy prequel to Morse. And the young Jane Tennison they have cast – Stefanie Martini – is a good screen presence, as she showed in Doctor Thorne, quite apart from having the sort of alluring showbiz name I look forward to seeing in lights any time, any place, anywhere…

So why does the idea of the new series bother me? I’m sure it’s not only me: most of us who loved Prime Suspect back in the day will feel torn, because that wasn’t just another gritty police procedural. It was a bit special – perhaps the best drama about sexism in the workplace ever – and we’re worried that a new take on it will sully its memory.

It’s like the moment you first heard that someone had uncovered an unreleased Beatles demo or an unpublished first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, and you wished they would put it back on the dusty shelf or in the basement filing cabinet, and tiptoe away.

But that is not television’s way. Not at the moment, anyway, when the urge to dust off classics is everywhere. Soon, we’ll see revamps of Porridge and Up Pompeii! and a sequel to Cold Feet. There has been talk for years of a Generation Game reboot to lift BBC1’s Saturday nights. Perhaps this is the equivalent of populist political movements – a sort of “We want our television back!” cry that leans on the idea that things used to be better before someone or something spoiled them…

More likely, it’s simply creative caution from those who decide our viewing. Sure, you and I would like it if TV executives took a few risks and tried new ideas, bold dramas, fresh comedies, but it’s not our necks on the line if the gambles backfire, is it? Much safer for them to trade on the familiar or fondly remembered. It didn’t work out badly for Poldark. Or, for that matter, House of Cards.

Advertisement

If revamps and reimaginings have a creative mainspring of their own, and if they’re good enough to make us forget their forerunners, then all power to them. But what I’ll be scanning the autumn schedules for are the series that could be the classics of tomorrow: the next Prime Suspect or Porridge. Because if TV keeps living in the past, its future will be bleak.