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Don't frighten the viewers: John Nettles (centre) as Inspector Barnaby in "Midsomer Murders"

It's been a long day. You're tired. Your partner is tired. You know that if you try to talk to each other, conversation will degenerate into pointless argument. You just want to watch something to fill the hours before bed.

What do you do? In theory you can see the best television and films in the world via Netflix or one of the other online rental services. But be honest, do you want art? Wouldn't you prefer to catch a "quintessentially English" crime drama, instead? Midsomer Murders, maybe, or Lewis, or perhaps the BBC's Death in Paradise, which is rapidly becoming a staple of the schedules.

Critics don't talk enough about mediocre work. We either write raves — a new drama is innovative, exciting, the best you will see in years and so on — or stinkers that damn the show and the gormless audiences who watch it. Both styles have the unbeatable advantage of showing off our astuteness. The mediocre programmes that tens of millions watch barely concern us. The omission is a pity because if British television is good at anything it is good at producing mediocre work. I don't mean to damn with faint praise. It is not easy to be good at mediocrity any more than it is easy to write a best-selling airport novel. Only a few can find excellence in the ordinary, and mediocre British television is very good indeed.

The first thing that strikes if you take middlebrow drama seriously is the absence of true feeling. The most successful series are crime dramas. Brian True-May, the creator of Midsomer Murders, boasts that ITV has sold his show to "230 territories — that's more countries than there are in the world". But the viewer is never frightened, let alone terrified. The victims, and there are many of them, are like collateral damage in warfare. The producers sacrifice them for the greater good of keeping the plot moving. There is no hint of tragedy about their deaths. The programme makers do not make you pity them or feel the agony of their final minutes. Nor do you feel a cathartic release when the detective identifies their killer.

Most viewers most of the time don't want tragedy. They want classy tosh. Britain excels at providing it because of the lingering hold of le style anglais on the global imagination. Just as oligarchs want a town house in Chelsea and an English public school education for their children, so a slice of the world's population wants to see murders set among the English upper class. The producers and writers respond with a kind of artistic integrity. The authors of Midsomer Murders in particular do not write to please an international market but take an ironic delight in spreading violence through the obscure corners of genteel rural life — the amateur dramatic club, village fête, civil war re-enactment society, organic cheese maker. Unlike with Downton Abbey, you never watch Midsomer or Lewis or a repeat of Lewis's predecessor Inspector Morse and think, "They've just put that in to please the Americans," or "That's a caricature Englishman only a German could believe."

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R Taus
March 24th, 2013
9:03 PM
They might read, or knit, or play the piano badly? Anything other than TV would do,even silly arguments: better out than suppressed.

Lucas Amos
March 13th, 2013
11:03 AM
UK TV is dire, I cannot remember the last time I watched anything that wasn't American.

Paul D. Brazill
February 28th, 2013
10:02 AM
Which allows me to shoehorn a link to something I wrote about British crime TV last year...

Brendan Staunton
February 27th, 2013
8:02 PM
I went to a seminar by four English TV screenwriters. They said that most new writers have to work on East Enders and the like first. I don't think this is a good practice. True artists are sensitive; force them to work with two dimensional characters week in, week out and eventually they won't be able to write any other kind. I see the traces of East Enders dialogue in every type of UK drama.

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