February 11, 2015

“Grim, grim, grim”? What kind of endings do British audiences like?


Too much?

Too much?

British television audiences have experienced their fair share of the grim and gloomy in recent times. Scandi-crime exports such as ‘The Killing’ and ‘The Bridge’ brought hard violence and murder into living rooms on a weekly basis, and the great British public lapped it up, even going so far as pulling on knitted jumpers to mirror the protagonists.

The first series of ITV’s current flagship crime drama ‘Broadchurch’ was set in a seaside town where every character looked equally shifty and guilty, each one seeming capable of child-murder. Whenever someone even announced they fancied a solitary walk on the beach, you began to seriously worry.

Do viewers disengage when TV storylines are grim? The above examples say no. But according to screenwriter Sarah Phelps, who has adapted JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy for a BBC series, she’s given the story a new happy ending because:

What works in a novel doesn’t always work on screen. Nobody wants a finger wagged in their face, and I learnt on ‘EastEnders’ that if you just go ‘grim, grim, grim’, viewers will simply disengage.

JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy takes place in a perfect English village. All goes wrong when a vacancy comes up on the parish council. Going wrong, in this case, means revelations of “poverty, deprivation, drug addiction, child neglect, domestic abuse and a middle class turning a blind eye”, as The Telegraph put it. One reviewer said the book was “so howlingly bleak that it makes Thomas Hardy look like PG Wodehouse”.

Which Thomas Hardy though? A recent infographic judged Jude the Obscure as the most grim, but I always thought Far From the Madding Crowd was quite fun. Phelps clearly wants to steer clear of any Jude the Obscure or Tess associations:

If you’ve invested three hours of your leisure time to watch a show and get involved, there’s got to be a reward. You’ve got to think that it was worth it and that the characters aren’t just a pack of s—s [shits?]; they’ve got to be a little bit funny, a little bit understandable.

Coming from a one-timer writer from ‘EastEnders’, the British soap set in London’s east end, this seems baffling. ‘EastEnders’ exists on the premise that everyone is a bit of a shit, no one is ever safe, there is no end to suffering, and even death offers no resolution: a character can always be resurrected (‘Hello, Princess”), should the storyline call for it. And some people watch ‘EastEnders’ for their entire lives.

But perhaps ‘EastEnders’ is not a fair comparison. BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Archers’, Britain’s longest running soap, has a setting more akin to that of The Casual Vacancy. It describes itself as “contemporary drama in a rural setting” and follows the goings-on of the fictional village of Ambridge. With an army of dedicated and opinionated listeners (I’d know, I’m one of them) the show is quickly called out if it becomes too sensational.

It happened in January when critics and listeners began accusing the programme of having become too “sexed-up” after the arrival of a new editor. (Archers side-note: this happens every time ‘The Archers’ gets a new editor, or makes any significant changes. Many listeners still feel angry about the killing off of Nigel Pargetter in the 60th Anniversary episode of the programme back in 2011. The BBC said at the time that it would “shake Ambridge to the core” and it had been a “tough decision”. You bet. Nigel slid off the roof of his stately home in bad weather conditions, and many of us can still hear the sound of him falling.)

So violent was the furore in January—former home secretary David Blunkett who served under Tony Blair and was responsible for Britain’s response after September 11, said the developments in ‘The Archers’ left him “losing the will to live”— that the BBC director general Tony Hall had to step in to make reassuring noises.

Perhaps Phelps has a point, then. She’s promised that her adaptation of The Casual Vacancy will offer an ending that audiences apparently want:

It’s still heartbreaking, but I had to find some kind of redemptive moment at the end of it all, that sense that after the tragedy, someone gets to stand with a slightly straighter back.

According to the Telegraph, “Rowling, she said, had trusted [Phelps’] instincts and let her “just get on with it”, approving her suggestions and offering comments on the script.”

Of course, as ever, the true test will be the audience reaction, and British viewers never shy away from sharing it. Viewers and critics alike are loving the TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and we all know how that ends. Maybe everyone deserves a little light relief then, and Rowling has been willing to give it to audiences in the past. Dumbledore died, Hedwig died, Dobby died, but Harry came back and lived happily ever after.



Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.