When the coronavirus lockdown first loomed, many saw a silver lining when it came to the arts. Shakespeare wrote King Lear in plague quarantine, after all – so surely, as in other dark and difficult periods in humanity’s history, these “unprecedented times” would produce some powerful, creative works that will stand the test of time?
For all we know this may indeed be the case. At the moment it’s impossible to say what long-term projects people may have been working on in lockdown, what brilliant novels, screenplays and pieces of visual art are coming that we would never have had if not for our current straits and enforced downtime.
But when it comes to TV, I’m more sceptical. While lockdown necessity has been the mother of filming invention when it comes to keeping the lights (or at least the plasma screens) on at the major broadcasters, it’s hard to look at any of the TV shows produced in this period and imagine them lasting.
Yes, it’s great that the BBC found a way to keep Have I Got News For You, The Mash Report and The Graham Norton Show going – but will we see these lockdown episodes repeated ad nauseum on Dave? Will they be old classics revisited again and again? Will there be some classic Graham Norton moments going viral on YouTube? Well, no – because compared to the “real” shows, they’re still pretty thin gruel.
The same goes for more or less all entertainment formats released over the past few months (bar Gogglebox, which has largely lucked out by its style already fitting lockdown restrictions) – while nice to see, it’s the same downgrade of seeing your friends over Zoom rather than in person at the pub. TV evolved to have audiences, interaction, studios and atmosphere for a reason – because it worked and connected with people at home – and the novelty of make-do measures wears off after a while.
But what of drama? So far, the scripted projects actually created in lockdown have been few and far between – most of what has aired was shot before the pandemic, and others are still on hold – but those that have been created have tended to be heavily focused on the process of lockdown itself.
To that end we’ve had Jeff Pope’s series of 15-minute ITV dramas Isolation Stories, filmed in actors’ homes and with family members, David Tennant/Michael Sheen videocall comedy Staged, self-isolation Emmerdale episodes and numerous “lockdown special” skits and sketches from the cast of shows like W1A, Stath Lets Flats, EastEnders and more.
In and of themselves, these projects have individual merits – Staged in particular has had a very positive reaction online – but also fill a specific niche. With lockdown rules eased, Pope’s Isolation Stories already feel dated, and it’s easy to imagine other pandemic-based stories being left behind as our lives change once more.
And in months and years to come, will we really want to revisit stories related to the lockdown? Doubtless, as with any major worldwide event there are powerful stories to be told about this time, but we may need the perspective of the rearview mirror to truly understand them.
The best lockdown stories can only come when we actually know the final outcome, which could be a long time coming – and it’s possible that some might not even want to revisit this period anyway once we get back to something resembling a more normal society.
The projects made during this time are entertaining, useful snapshots of a particular moment, but it’s hard to imagine them becoming TV classics. If nothing else, they suffer from the same issue as the entertainment shows, with the charming, ingenious lo-fi production values just looking low-value or subpar as time goes on.
Of course, there are always exceptions. Plenty of online theatre projects have found ways to innovate and tell stories using video in lockdown, and the upcoming BBC recreation of Alan Bennett’s monologue series Talking Heads – shot using socially distanced filming techniques on the disused EastEnders sets – looks set to use the limitations of the format to its advantage, delivering a type of drama seen less and less on mainstream TV channels today.
But generally speaking, the “lockdown TV” created so far feels like it served a purpose at the time – entertaining and connecting us all with a quick turnaround – but is likely to be swept under the carpet once people can make “normal” TV again.
Looking forward, it’s hard to see when that “normal” TV will come, with rumours abounding of new limitations on filming (good luck shooting a kiss if the actors aren’t already a couple in real life) and the prospect of some sort of lockdown looming for the foreseeable future.
Whatever happens, we’ll definitely have TV to keep us occupied in the meantime. How many lockdown King Lears will be created remains to be seen.
Talking Heads begins at 9pm on BBC One on Tuesday 23rd June – check out what else is on with our TV Guide