Champion of Comedy Drama
Rampton, James, The Independent (London, England)
Tim Firth is fed-up with formulaic drama. "I'd like to submit a drama under a false name about the British Transport Police - the only part of the police that hasn't yet been dramatised - called Get Off, You're Pissed and see how far it got. It would be eight episodes of the police chucking drunks off trains." The depressing thing is, in the present climate it would probably be commissioned and become a big ratings grabber.
There is still a place for the type of drama Firth writes under his real name, however. His wonderfully quirky Preston Front - a sort of comic Our Friends in the North West - returns for a long overdue third series on Monday. With its sparkling array of original characters interconnected through the Territorial Army, it is very far from mainstream, by-the-yard drama. There's not a vet or a pathologist in sight.
Preston Front is like the white rhino of the TV schedules; it is that rarest of breeds, a comedy-drama that works. "When dramas are not formulaic, they do stand out," Firth declares. "When a treatment rests on a formula, what you get is limp drama. If I have a passion for anything, it's not for writing real comedy-drama, as opposed to something that's neither. You can't let yourself get away with it being either not funny enough to be a sitcom or not dramatic enough to be a straight drama. Comedy-drama is the holy grail of television. When it comes off, it outstrips everything else. The fact that you can still pick out shows like Boys from the Black Stuff and Auf Wiedersehen Pet shows how difficult it is to do. "The problem is that comedy drama has often been used as refuge rather than a goal," he continues. "A lot of things have been thrown into the comedy-drama sin-bin. It's the equivalent of saying, `This drama isn't good enough for adults, let's do it for children.' My final aim is to make comedy-drama that's both, all the time. Like The Larry Sanders Show - when you watch that, half of you doesn't want to laugh because it's damaging." Firth's other great skill is his deft conducting of an ensemble piece; unusually for a mainstream drama, Preston Front has no fewer than nine leading characters. "It's more fun to orchestrate something for nine instruments," he says. "With the group scenes, you can have a piccolo chirping away in the background while a big bassoon comes in and makes a huge impact every once in a while before going back to eating biscuits. …