What is the secret to a great TV revival?

With the superb Worzel Gummidge having returned for another festive special, David Craig investigates why some revivals work better than others.

Worzel Gummidge season 2 on BBC One (Mackenzie Crook)

Revivals have become an increasingly prominent part of the television schedules over the last 20 years or so and while some fans decry the notion of ‘rebooting’ a franchise as lazy, the reality isn’t so black-and-white. When a remake comes along that’s made with genuine love and care, it can easily set itself apart from what came before and establish itself as a sterling artistic endeavour. But for every Worzel Gummidge, there’s a Van Der Valk and that begs the question: why are some attempts so much better than others?

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There are several factors at play when deciphering the secret to a truly great television revival, but let’s start with the basics: money helps (shocking, I know). If a broadcaster is willing to really invest in a project – put their money where their mouth is, as the saying goes – it opens up a lot of doors in terms of what the show can accomplish and with whom. This is particularly true in the sci-fi and fantasy genre, with Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica being two prime examples; it would be fair to say that both shows came from humble origins, but a financial boost allowed them to reach new heights.

That said, cash alone does not guarantee success, as proven by the numerous awful blockbusters churned out of Hollywood every year, many of which are produced for $150 million or more. Of course, you need the right mix of talent deciding how best to utilise those resources in any case, but particularly when revitalising a beloved franchise. The involvement of the creator can be a huge asset but they should be prepared to take cues from fresh-faced talent. Staying too committed to the original format will only create the Red Dwarf effect: a show that still has viewers, but hasn’t won over any new fans since 1999.

Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper in Doctor Who (BBC)
Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper in Doctor Who (BBC)
BBC

If the creator has passed away or is otherwise unavailable, the project should be placed in the hands of someone with genuine respect for the source material. Such was the case with Russell T Davies, a die-hard Doctor Who fan since the 1970s who had been campaigning for its return long before Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor made his screen debut. Mackenzie Crook is a slightly different case, having openly admitted to being unfamiliar with Jon Pertwee’s incarnation of Worzel Gummidge, but instead taking great care to adapt the original children’s stories by Barbara Euphan Todd.

Writers with knowledge and adoration for that which they are bringing back will be more likely to understand why the original was so popular to begin with, although this too isn’t without its pitfalls. Netflix’s Arrested Development revival made a fatal misjudgement from which it could never truly recover, despite retaining much of the show’s creative team. Alas, Mitch Hurwitz and co. seemed to forget that the brilliance of the initial three seasons largely came from playful interactions between the full ensemble cast, but these were virtually impossible to orchestrate in later episodes due to clashing talent schedules.

Keeping this in mind, perhaps to know when to revive a TV show, we must also understand when not to bother. The vast majority of fans would rather have no revival than a terrible one, so the idea shouldn’t even be entertained unless there’s confidence that it can be pulled off. Likewise, honest questions should be asked about whether a show truly needs to be introduced to a new generation. Take ITV’s recent Van Der Valk, for example. Panned by critics and viewers alike, one has to wonder whether yet another murder mystery procedural was truly necessary on a channel that regularly airs the likes of Vera and Midsomer Murders (even if those shows have proven to be regular ratings winners).

Above all, producers must resist the urge to commission a revival on the basis of having a familiar title in their Autumn line-up and instead assess whether there is real artistic value in bringing back that particular series. If not, all the money and stars in the world won’t ensure a show worth tuning into.

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Worzel Gummidge returns on Christmas Eve at 5:55pm on BBC One. While you’re waiting, check out our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight.