Finally, A British TV Drama To Match The Americans

Why Utopia should be a blueprint for the future of home-grown TV 

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Living as we are in TV’s much-trumpeted golden age, there is always a difficult decision looming as to which boxset will be next.

But while the choice – and standard – can be bewildering, the chances are high that whatever it is you choose, it won't be British.

Having long congratulated ourselves as masters of the small-screen art, the sad proof is in the even sadder pudding. Where exactly are the must-see British dramas? During a recent discussion on the subject with a friend, he answered this question with a long pause, before hesitantly offering up, “Cracker?”

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While many of us want to believe in British TV drama, a very large chunk of it has been stuck in a gritty cycle of hammed up melodrama, dreary realism and a surprising reliance on clichéd characters and unconvincing dialogue.

Even the heavily-hyped like last year’s Line of Duty and Peaky Blinders are pale imitations of the very best from around the world. And it’s not just because of American budgets. In recent years, Sweden, Denmark and France seem far more capable of producing significant, weighty series that can compete with the best.

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If Sherlock and Top Boy were flawed but impressive attempts to at least throw some fresh ideas into the arena, there’s one show that illustrates just what’s possible: Utopia, currently into its second series on Channel 4.

How do you describe it? Live action comic-book, alt-reality dystopia, conspiracy theory thriller - whatever you want to use, the first thing that hits from episode 1, which screened back in January 2013, is that it looks like nothing else on TV.

Director Marc Munden has created a striking, cinematic look using vivid colours on set, camera filters and beautifully-lit and framed cinescapes. Some early criticisms were that it was too stylised. Maybe, but that’s also one of its main plus-points. In order to break away from the stodginess of what came before it had to be bold and it was. And that includes the eerie electronic soundtrack by Canadian Cristobal Tapia de Veer, who aparently locked himself in a London bedsit in pursuit of the perfect score.

The premise is similarly ambitious. A scarily credible conspiracy theory that throws some genuinely interesting ideas at the future of the human race. This is no tired cop-on-the edge-trying-to-make-a-difference-in-a-mixed-up-world here, and Dennis Kelly’s script unfolds at a brutal pace.

While it is consciously trying to be ‘original’ in homegrown TV terms, it doesn’t try to make the mistake of trying to replicate American TV by number either.

It’s still very British, with nicely observed scenes of office life and contemporary dialogue that allows the ensemble cast to put their own stamp on the disparate band of characters. From the terrifying heavy-breathing and dead-eyed killer Neil Maskell (Kill List) to Paul Higgins (The Thick Of It) as a put-upon civil servant who unwittingly is pushed into centre stage, the talent on show is never in doubt.

It won't be everyone’s cup of tea. It's violent, brash and tough to watch in places. What it does show is that with a clear vision and a willingness to take a few risks, there's hope for a new era of British TV drama ahead.


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