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TV drama needs to get its act together

Did you ever watch Lark Rise to Candleford?

Set in an idealised version of Victorian rural England, it was in many ways the ultimate Sunday night costume drama, a bit like a nostalgia-soaked Hovis ad that had collided with a Catherine Cookson novel. Lead character Laura Timmins – constantly emoting and straining against her stays about something – could hardly walk down Candleford High Street without tripping over a skipping urchin or a flock of waddling geese. The whole thing was bathed in light the colour of golden syrup, which was ladled on to the script in great, sickly dollops. Your blood sugar peaked just watching it.

None of which is to say it wasn't enjoyable. It was, in a shamelessly escapist, wouldn't-French-and-Saunders-have-fun-with-this sort of a way. I mean, come on, you've got to have a costume drama on a cold night, haven't you?

Not necessarily, at least not according to the actor David Morrissey. He would prefer less of Lark Rise and its ilk (Downton Abbey, The Paradise, Call The Midwife, Mr Selfridge) and more series about real people's lives in the here and now.

It's hard to argue with him on the latter point. We Brits simply aren't producing zeitgeisty talked-about contemporary dramas the way that the Americans are. Where they have Homeland and The Wire, what have we got? Danish imports like The Killing and Borgen.

What American programme-makers do so well is to produce entertaining TV that zings with intelligence and originality, and taps into issues that preoccupy modern America, like social breakdown or the threat of home-grown terrorism. The Wire brilliantly dissected what has gone wrong with US urban society and its impact on the poorest. In five series, it took apart the city of Baltimore, its politics, unions, schools and criminal justice system. Britain has produced nothing to compare, even with the creative gift of recession.

Why should that be? Morrissey believes it is essential the next 10 "very challenging" years are reflected in drama, but perhaps it says something about our collective state of mind that, faced with a difficult present and an uncertain future, we keep taking refuge in the past. It hasn't always been like this. Thirty years ago in the midst of another economic crisis, when unemployment rocketed to three million, screenwriters and TV commissioning editors rose magnificently to the occasion, charting the experience of working class families caught up in the hurricane of history. Alan Bleasdale's epoch-defining drama Boys From The Blackstuff, about five unemployed men in Liverpool, and the long-running Auf Wiedersehen Pet – telling the story of migrant construction workers leaving recession-hit Britain – gave voice and form to the concerns of millions. Whole families wept as they watched. Now we have The X Factor.

It's not that there has been nothing at all to fill this gaping hole. There has been The Street, Jimmy McGovern's brilliant series about the residents of a Manchester road, following their personal dramas and illuminating the social and political environment they – we – live in. There were the two excellent series of Criminal Justice, starring Ben Wishaw and Maxine Peake, and Freefall, the satire on the mortgage crisis. Perhaps there would be more, though, if reality TV hadn't colonised the niche that drama used to fill. Remember how revolutionary Driving School seemed in 1997, following the multiple attempts by Welsh cleaner Maureen Rees to get her licence? Now there are flies on every wall.

That doesn't mean, though, that we should park up the black mariahs and throw sheets over the mock Chippendales. Britain does costume drama well. Downton has won a Golden Globe and six Emmies; that ought to count for something. And not all costume drama is escapism. Some, like Stephen Poliakoff's Dancing on The Edge –exploring prejudice and class in 1930s Britain – helps us understand where we have come from.

No, it's not the costumes that are at fault. What's needed is for TV executives to take more risks on contemporary drama.

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