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First up, many apologies for my recent neglect of this blog. I’ve been working on an article for the past couple of the weeks, so doing a film and tv blog at the same time feels a bit like a busman’s holiday. I hope this compensates a little:

Jimmy McGovern’s The Street returns to UK screens on Monday night and I can’t wait.

In my post on The Wire, I suggested that the only UK drama that came close to the Baltimore saga was McGovern’s intricate masterpiece. Set on an ‘ordinary’ road in an unnamed Manchester suburb, The Street takes as its focus a separate set of characters from one or more of the houses each week. Naturally, certain figures appear across numerous episodes with storylines subtly intersecting. More broadly, the drama has a dual structure enabling its episodes to exist as standalone pieces while rewarding committed viewers with a wider narrative focus; with common themes stretching across the arc of the series.  The unique nature of this format tells us much about the success of The Street.

Each episode has its own thematic concerns deeply rooted in the socio-political sphere. Off the top of my head, issues such as age discrimination; racism; immigration; drugs; petty crime and disability, have all been handled with consummate craft as McGovern moves from household to household with each instalment. This engagement with contemporary mores never feels like a lecture or a polemic, as some one-off dramas or mini-series may appear to. Rather, by incorporating the individual topics within a wider narrative system, McGovern exhibits a commercial instinct that ensures a palatable facilitation of his substantial thematic palate. The connections that hold the street – and the series – together provide it with a kind of soap-opera like quality which sees us engaging with the work on two levels: 1) as a serial drama which grips us from week to week and 2) as a set of distinct takes on the social milieu.

This format got me thinking about The Street as a 21st Century ‘Play for Today’. The BBC’s old single drama heritage may no longer be sustainable in a multi-channel dumbed-down age, so McGovern converges the social slant of the tradition with the more immediate and popular generic textures of the soap.

This isn’t the first time such an approach has been adopted successfully, indeed, it would be unfair of me not to mention Paul Abbot’s brilliant Clocking Off which ran from 2000-2003. Like The Street it utilises a large narrative space – in this case a textiles factory – and uses a multi-episode format to focus on a different set of characters in each episode.

The use of these universal signifiers of the everyday – the street; the workplace – invites a reading of their significance in terms of the nation. Setting the action in locations which offer a multiplicity of narrative possibilities in recognisable contexts, allows for a broadness of approach which enables the writer to draw on overarching themes; both social and political, and those of a more subtly humanist tendency; tapping into the connections and disjunctions which define British society. Like the multi-level approach of The Wire, works like The Street dramatise societal institutions to both engage and inform the viewer, deploying cogent narrative strategies alongside an acute awareness of the issues that concern and involve the wider public. 

David Forrest

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