British TV in midst of crisis

Scandals, job cuts, online rivals create issues

LONDON — To say that British television is undergoing a confidence crisis is an understatement.

The impact of the phone-line quiz scandals and other scams, the threat from Internet-based rivals and the BBC shedding some 1,800 jobs have all combined to sap the medium’s morale.

Doom mongers argue that television’s tendency to play it safe will become more pronounced as financial and competitive pressures mount.

Well, maybe things aren’t quite as bad as they seem. In fact, judged by two new high-end TV dramas, U.K.-based programming remains a place where ambition and originality can thrive.

Within the space of five days last week, Channel 4 and BBC’s flagship web BBC1 aired two primetime dramas destined to set judges’ pulses racing on this winter’s awards panels.

Skeptics might carp that these superb pieces of television — “Britz” and “Joe’s Palace” — hail from tried-and-tested practitioners and are exceptions to the rulebook that states that formulaic fare must dominate primetime schedules.

But when talent such as Peter Kosminksy and Stephen Poliakoff are on top form, their work proves that the small screen can match the best that cinema and the stage can throw at their more popular rival.

Channel 4 commissioned “Britz” as part of its 25th anniversary celebrations. Written and helmed by Kosminsky, this edgy two-part thriller thrust itself head on into political quicksand.

Not a show for the faint-hearted, “Britz” highlighted contrasting attitudes to Islamic terrorism told from the different perspective of two British-born Asian Muslims who are brother and sister.

In the U.K. Kosminsky has a long track record of taking contemporary politically contentious topics and fashioning them into compelling TV drama, but not all his work is as dramatically engaging or, in terms of their narrative structure, as satisfying as “Britz.”

His starting point was the London bombings of July 7, 2005. In part one, audiences followed law student Sohail’s story as he enlists with U.K. security service MI5 to spy on those suspected of plotting similar attacks.

Sohail ends up spying on one of his oldest friends and eventually his sister Nasima, played quite brilliantly by Manjinder Virk.

Her version of events is told in the second part of “Britz,” as she travels in the opposite political direction to her sibling. Nasima gives up the promise of a medical career and cuts all family ties to become a suicide bomber.

The scenes of her being trained in how to strap on the bomb belt are horrifying in their apparent ordinariness.

Here Kosminsky’s depiction of the banality of evil in a measured, understated way resonated long after the final credits rolled.

The only thing that Poliakoff’s “Joe’s Palace” shared with “Britz” was that it too reflected the vision of a single creative mind.

Visually stunning and impeccably acted, the biggest name in the cast was seasoned British thesp Michael Gambon, who plays tortured billionaire Elliot. Gambon hires one of his cleaners’ teenage sons, Joe, to look after his dead father’s London mansion.

The jeopardy is provided by Elliot’s father’s guilty past and the contrast between Joe’s innocence (captured in an outstanding performance by newcomer Danny Lee Wynter) and the corrupt and troubled world he enters by becoming the house’s caretaker.

To come across two television dramas this distinctive in less than a week is as unusual as it is remarkable.

Two months ago in a keynote speech, Britain’s new media minister James Purnell suggested it will be “the quality of content” broadcasters offer viewers that will determine their futures in these uncertain times.

Let’s hope he’s right. For as U.K. webheads continue to kick themselves for swindling and deceiving audiences, Channel 4 and the BBC can be proud of these two ambitious and fully realized dramas that should help to restore morale in what has been a miserable year for British television.

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