BBC Radio 4:Rhidian Brook - 15/09/2017

Good Morning,

‘What do I watch next?’ my friend asked. Game of Thrones was over and he’d finished series one of Ozark. I said there was a new show, about a serial-killer, that’s told backwards; there was a psychosexual who-dunnit on ITV; and if that was no good he could watch the drama about a cop who takes revenge when his son is murdered. Later, I wondered if this is how we measure out our lives now: watching box sets of ever increasing darkness.

I confess I watch a lot of this stuff, and that I once wrote scripts for Silent Witness, a show always built around a dead body. There’s certainly an appetite for these things. Look at the amount of crime drama being made. Death and violence sell and makers of today’s dramas know it. Recently I was pitching ideas to a TV company when a producer said, with great portent, ‘what we’re looking for is something dark.’ I had to stop myself from saying ‘Isn’t everyone?’

It seems that television drama is now in a kind of arms race, with each series trying to be bleaker and blacker than the last, with ever increasing body counts and more extreme ways of killing people. While the better shows portray the violence as necessary, it often just seems gratuitous. It’s as though the makers fear they won’t hold our attention unless they shock us every five minutes. Increasingly I watch these shows using the fast forward button to get through the gore. Dark is the new black.

Except, of course, it isn’t new. Dorothy Sayers once wrote: ‘Death provides the mind with a greater fund of innocent enjoyment than any single subject,’ and it was ever thus. The trouble is that if things get too dark no-one can see anything. Most art forms need the chiaroscuro, the light and the shade, to connect. Real life – for all its suffering and trauma – is never one note and the creators of the best shows recognise this. There has to be humour and humanity, some illumination, to see through all this dark.

So what explains the fascination? Is it, as John’s Gospel puts it, that ‘people loved darkness rather than the light?’ or is it something else? Whilst some watch for the violence, I think most watch hoping for an interesting plot, for justice to be done, and for the truth to be exposed; there’s a need for conclusion in a narrative and moral sense. Most dramas – no matter how pretentiously noir - are looking for this resolution, this redemption, and are relying on our innate desire for it.

The most powerful stories may need darkness. But they also need light to be believable. This is as true of the gospels as it is of Game of Thrones. The gospel drama is bad news before it’s good. And a lot of violence, suffering and death has to be faced before the light breaks in.