Magazine article The Spectator

Spot the Character

Magazine article The Spectator

Spot the Character

Article excerpt

Silent Witness was the BBC's main drama for the bank holiday. It's been a popular series, but it's still a very poor one. If I were the new director-general I would hold it up as an example of how you can pay large sums of money, assemble an excellent cast, and still produce a turkey.

There are four main elements to a successful drama. These are character, character, character and plot. The characters are overwhelmingly important, far more than anything else. They don't need to be sympathetic but they must be interesting. Iago is more engaging than Sam Ryan, the heroine of Silent Witness, because we care what happens to him. We don't care about Sam, even if she is played by Amanda Burton. I'm sure we learned something in previous series, but on Monday there was nothing at all. She sprang from nowhere, with an enigmatic look and almost nothing else. She is calm, sensible, on top of her job, and dull - desperately dull.

Trainee script writers are told that they must know everything about their characters, even details which will never be relevant to the story -- their father's job, their favourite colour, where they go on holiday. It's only when the character is as complete as a real person that they can be slotted confidently into the script. Here's a little test they give. `If your character found there was no milk for their cereal, what would he or she do? (a) skip breakfast, (b) go to a cafe, (c) ask the neighbours or (d) use water? Of course it's silly, but you'd know the answer if it was a close friend, and you have to know as much about your character as about your best mate.

The current Radio Times attempts to fill the gap by sketching in Sam's life story. This isn't good enough. Shakespeare didn't appear at the Globe before curtain-up, flapping his arms and saying, `Look, you ought to know, this Hamlet, his father is dead, and he thinks his uncle might have done it. And, oh, Ophelia, she's the loveinterest. . .' All this information must grow organically from the script.

As in so many BBC dramas there is no humour whatsoever. You might argue that people aren't in jokey mood when they're investigating a fatal helicopter crash. You'd be wrong. It's times like that when people use humour most. At the BBC, when you put people into a grim situation, they just get grimmer. …

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