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Maggie Brown: TV drama needs to get real if it wants to compete with Netflix

Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret in the latest series of The Crown on Netflix. Photo: Sophie Mutevelian Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret in the latest series of The Crown on Netflix. Photo: Sophie Mutevelian
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Producer David Puttnam recently observed that it was great to see documentary films doing so well at the box office, including Three Identical Strangers, the real-life story of how three triplet boys were raised separately in the US as an experiment, only to be reunited by chance.

This was very timely, since the rescue of the stranded Thai ‘Wild Boars’ boy football team was underway as Puttnam made his comments, and the world was willing the miracle rescue to take place. There was even a heart-stopping moment as water pumps failed just after the last boy escaped.

As Finnish cave diver Mikko Passi observed, without a scriptwriter: “It was as if the goddess of the cave was saying, ‘You got the kids out, now this place is mine again.’ ” Who could dream up Elon Musk’s mini-submarine? No wonder Hollywood was in attendance. It cast me back to the surge in docudrama created by the thrilling 2003 survival film Touching the Void, about a near-fatal climb in the Peruvian Alps.

But this is happening against a backdrop of national broadcasters obsessing over how to compete against or unite with new global disrupters, led by Netflix.

The BBC contrasts the £100 million budget for The Crown’s two seasons with the 80-plus hours of drama it could supply for that money. Even if Netflix could be over-reaching, with TV advertising funding flat, creative business minds are drumming up fresh sources of programme cash from big brands, making product placement seem like child’s play.

Surely the way to compete with Netflix et al is to focus on stories about contemporary UK themes, with the best possible scripts and British actors

Meanwhile, our faith in Britain’s heritage, our defensive instinct to project a Ruritanian view of ourselves, coincided with news that a Downton Abbey film is underway, with its original cast and production team from NBCUniversal companies including UK originator Carnival Films. “The UK and its talent combine to become the sweatshop for Hollywood,” said one jaundiced TV executive.

Surely the way to compete with global streaming services is to focus on stories about contemporary national themes too, with the best possible scripts and UK actors. That ranges from ITV’s project with Andrew Davies, producing a completed version of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, to last year’s Three Girls, re-enacting true stories of sexual abuse and child grooming in Rochdale.

In contrast, I have found this summer’s TV drama offerings unappealing, switching off Poldark in June, exasperated by its formulaic pastiche. The Durrells was charming but silly. Channel 4’s Humans, about robotic synths and human interaction, lost me. The Handmaid’s Tale was just so grim.

National broadcasters have been slow to recognise the audience’s appetite for box sets. They also need to focus technical standards of their streaming services. The BBC has plans to win back teen viewers with “rite of passage box sets”, on sex education, cars and alcohol. Really? How about making them laugh?

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