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The eyes have it – Channel 4’s Utopia and violence on screen

Channel 4's Utopia, written by Dennis Kelly won two prizes at the RTS Craft and Design Awards.
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Dennis Kelly? He’s the one who wrote the musical Matilda isn’t he? I bet his television drama on Channel 4 is going to be just as much fun to watch – but with less singing.

If these words went through your head when you tuned in to watch Utopia on Channel 4 this week, you may well have been disappointed.

Not that the opening episode of the drama wasn’t good – it was excellent, in fact. But there wasn’t any singing. Or dancing. Oh, and it had a torture scene. A torture scene that involved a spoon, some sand, bleach and chilli powder. Oh, and someone’s eyes. Ouchie.

When I watched the drama at a screening at the end of last year, several audience members couldn’t watch the scene in question, opting instead to cover their eyes or turn away. And I admit that, although I am an ardent horror fan – one of these strange hybrids who can enjoy watching Mamma Mia! as much as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – I found it difficult to watch. Mainly because when I go to the cinema to see a horror, I know what I am in for, generally. But with this, the scene came out of the blue somewhat. Yes, the characters responsible for the torture were introduced as bad sorts from the word go, but that didn’t necessarily mean I was prepared for what they went on to do. With a spoon. And some bleach. And did I mention the chilli powder?

The question I asked myself though, having watched it, is whether the violence was justified? Necessary? Kelly was asked the same question at the event and this is what he said:

The only violence I find personally offensive is violence that doesn’t shock you. Every time I have seen violence in real life – every time I have been near violence or been involved in violence –  it has always, always been shocking. It has always been really awful. And when you are making something like this, once you’ve had the idea and you believe it’s the right thing for the story, you kind of have to go with it, unless you’re a coward. It is easier to back out and think I won’t do that so people won’t get upset with me.

And I agree with him. It wasn’t easy to watch, no. But it shocked, it made us uncomfortable, just as seeing violence in real life shocks. Shouldn’t drama do that? I don’t want everything to be Downton Abbey cosy all the time. And to my mind it served the story too.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating all violence on television. And according to a report issued by Ofcom last year, 36% of viewers feel there is too much violence on television. Soaps in particular, which are broadcast before the watershed, are the ones that seem to attract the most complaints, mainly because they are more accessible I assume. A few years ago Ofcom ruled Emmerdale had breached its broadcasting code with some scenes that were unsuitable at a time when children may have been watching.

It’s unlikely children were watching Utopia, which started at 10pm. Not only that but there was plenty of warning that the drama contained violence, which basically meant watch it at your own risk. Fools.

If anything, the drama may have benefited from starting earlier, maybe at 9pm, as it didn’t get great ratings. Maybe viewers were put off by the thought of watching a 90-minute opening episode that would keep them up until 11.30pm on a weeknight.

Personally, I’ll be going back for second helpings though. And I’ll be ready for you this time, Kelly. Spoon or no spoon.


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