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At separate points on my walk home yesterday I saw two people with copies of The Wire. It got me thinking. With the BBC’s current (if long over-due) broadcast of all five series in their entirety, and the huge demand for the show at retailers like Amazon and rental services like LOVEFILM, the popularity of The Wire is both genuine and substantial in this country. Yet it is an American drama series, ostensibly about American life. Could there be a British Wire? Sadly, I think not.

Like all successful television serials The Wire gives us gripping storylines, superb performances, and a set of characters that we genuinely believe in. However, what I think is most gratifying for the viewer, is that we are able to enjoy this ‘pushing of the right buttons’ in a context which is rich with educational value. We genuinely learn about the key sociological and political discourses of American life in a palatable and engaging format. While each season takes as its focus a separate arm of Baltimore’s institutional fabric, overarching themes as fundamental as American foreign policy, the decline of the organised working-class, and the impotence of the capitalistically modified American Dream underpin The Wire as a whole, and are delivered with a subtle mastery only glimpsed in truly great works of art.

One could say that The Wire provides America with a ‘national conversation’, a function that Reith idealistically envisaged for the BBC in Britain. That The Wire has prospered in the ruthless free market conditions of American television is testament to both the commitment of its audience (strong global DVD sales were a key factor in its continuing success) and the uncompromising nature of its key creative forces, David Simon and Ed Burns. In Britain, where public service broadcasting is still alive (though not kicking), you would expect that it would be easier for such ambitious projects to be given life, yet where is our ‘national conversation’?

The relative success of socially conscious and expansive dramas such as Holding On and Our Friends in the North now look like the death knell rather than the rebirth of a great tradition in British television. Where the likes of Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach were able to cut their teeth in the ‘Play for Today’ and ‘Wednesday Play’ series of the 1960s and 1970s, no such forum exists today. While some like Paul Abbott (State of Play, Shameless, Clocking Off), and Jimmy McGovern (whose The Street can be seen to re-ignite some of the traditions of ‘Play for Today’) continue to soldier on, there is no mass impetus for risky and uncompromising television drama across any of the terrestrial platforms in Britain.

With rapidly rising commercial pressure, success is now measured with increasing impatience and the BBC naturally plays safe with sensationalist and cheap series like Waterloo Road, and continues to vomit money into mind-numbing reality formats.  We are told that David Cameron would freeze the license fee if he were Prime Minister, what chance for a British television of substance under a Tory government?

The Wire is a slow-burning, but ultimately rewarding television series. It is one of the great masterpieces of American culture. Its success tells me that given time, audiences in this country would respond with enthusiasm to a British work of similar scope and ambition. We may never find out if I am right. 

David Forrest

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