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Don't let on-demand distract you from this mini golden age of BBC drama

You don't have to be like Bob the Binge...

Published: Sunday, 20th March 2016 at 9:20 am

Do you have one of those friends who likes to buttonhole you at social occasions to rave about the amazing TV they’re watching? I’ve got several, but we’ll amalgamate them into one – let’s call him Bob the Binge (because that’s how he watches), a man who proclaims his love for his latest on-demand drama with evangelical zeal.


It’s almost as if Bob created the series himself, as if his life-changing appreciation for Narcos or Kabul Kitchen or Mr Robot or whatever is down to the fact that he “gets it” uniquely and specially. It is his. Bob will catch you in the pub, wanting to know if you’ve seen whatever he’s raving about. And if not, he insists you must catch it because You. Will. Love it. (Some people love telling you how much you’ll love things, I’ve no idea why.)

But the interesting thing is how often Bob is floored if you ask him, “So have you seen this week’s Happy Valley?” or “What about The Night Manager, eh?” His sails deflate and his attention wanders, because that stuff is, well, a bit obvious. It’s available to everyone. There’s no rarity value, no street cred.


Bob didn’t bother with War and Peace and will probably skip Line of Duty. The A Word – which starts on Tuesday – will barely register. Which is a shame, because these are the top-notch series the BBC currently turns out like loaves of bread from an oven. They’re part of the hottest streak in mainstream drama I can remember, in two decades of writing about TV.

Bob hasn’t noticed, but we’re in a mini golden age for big, classy dramas. So far 2016 has been thick with them, culminating in nine million people watching Call the Midwife and over six million sticking with The Night Manager and Happy Valley.

And the latter wasn’t some crowd-pleasing romp, remember, but tough, painful stuff that nobody could deny was – to use the word currently deployed as a yardstick for the BBC – distinctive. Plus, it wasn’t about Colombian criminals or hackers or zombies, it was about an embattled policewoman in Yorkshire.


This week’s newcomer The A Word is also set in a recognisable contemporary Britain – the Lake District. It’s not as intense as Happy Valley (very little is) or as enjoyable as The Night Manager (ditto), but it does a sensitive job of showing how a rural family handles discovering that their five-year-old has autism. Not an easy subject, and I don’t suppose The A Word will break any ratings records or tempt Bob away from his binges. But it’s another hot, nourishing drama loaf rolling out of the BBC oven.


We’d better hope these creative fires keep burning – and the present culture secretary doesn’t, as it were, shut the bakery down for making loaves too many people like. If that happens, we’ll look back on today’s boom in quality drama in a few years’ time and wonder why on earth we took it for Sunday-night granted.


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