Have we reached peak playwright on TV?

With award-winning playwrights like Lucy Kirkwood, Jack Thorne and Jez Butterworth all writing shows for TV, Sarah Crompton examines what it means for the two industries

Jez Butterworth, Lucy Kirkwood and Jack Thorne
Jez Butterworth, Lucy Kirkwood and Jack Thorne
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

If you want to see who is hot in theatre writing today, just turn on the TV. We have reached peak-
playwright with new series from Jack Thorne, Jez Butterworth, David Hare and Mike Bartlett all
following hot on the heels of each other.

I remember a time when writers such as Dennis Potter, Tony Garnett, and Alan Plater chose to write TV dramas because the theatre wasn’t for them. They saw TV as the ultimate democratic medium, bringing art and thought to the widest possible audience. They weren’t seen as "playwrights". They were something different. Now you can start in theatre, and then hop all over the place and no-one seems to mind a bit. Good writing is good writing and that’s all there is to it. Hurrah for that.

I can’t imagine any aspiring writer turning up at a commissioning editor’s door with a script as bonkers as Britannia

In principle, I agree with this. I think writing can be medium-blind. But faced with so many
playwrights all dominating the screens at the same time, I began to wonder whether there is
anything different about the way they write for TV and the way in which a specialist – Jed Mercurio, say, Jimmy McGovern or Paul Abbott would.

I tend to think that television in their hands, does actually become more theatrical – partly because the people in charge of putting drama on TV like the theatre and relish the idea of bringing some of its qualities into our homes.

For example, I can’t imagine any aspiring TV writer turning up at a commissioning editor’s door with a script as bonkers as Jez Butterworth‘s for Britannia. It is Butterworth’s reputation that got it made. Now bringing in around 2 million viewers on Sky and Amazon (the first co-production between them) it has the scope and range of a fantasy epic such as Game of Thrones or indeed the many movies (including James Bond’s last outing) on which Butterworth has a writing credit.

Trauma could have been on stage and lost not an ounce of power

But you also hear authentic voice of the man who wrote The Ferryman and Jerusalem in the pithy thrust of the dialogue; it is sharp and almost stagey, fully of brilliantly timed swearing (a speciality) and a sense of swaggering delight in the impact it is having. "Bring me my torque!" I love it, though I can see why it has been called the "barmiest thing on TV". These are stagey tricks, brilliantly applied.

I am also much enjoying David Hare’s Collateral, on BBC2. Hare is a dab hand at film and TV, since he cut his teeth in the old Play for Today format and went on to be Oscar-nominated for his
screenplay for The Hours. You can feel the weight of his experience as he stretches out across this police murder format, mixing his societal themes with a plot that holds the attention as it ducks and dives from refugees to politicians, to women vicars. What Hare brings to TV is an old-style willingness to use it to explore subjects that matter to him, things he has noticed about the world around him; it gives his drama satisfying scope.

Jack Thorne shares that passion. His recent Kiri for Channel 4 cleverly used a storyline about the death of a black girl, adopted by a white family, to raise all kinds of issues about the role of social workers, our views of race, the pressures put on the workings of the social services by the views of the press. I was hooked. But the longer I watched, the more I noticed how often the actual drama sprang from a scene of confrontation: of two people sitting in a room at odds with each other.

Playwright’s TV attracts the cream of the acting profession who recognise a gift laid before them

In the hands of a TV native, I suspect there would have been a lot more emphasis on the police
investigation and rather less on the child’s grandfather (the wonderful Lucian Msamati) talking to
the police inspector (the equally wonderful Wunmi Mosaku) about their respective views of black
responsibility. I began to long for fewer scenes where good actors (and Kiri was full of them)
revealed their brilliance in static settings and for a little more sense of what was going on in the
world that Thorne was clearly so keen to explore. The best scenes in Kiri – for me – were those that set Sarah Lancashire’s social worker at odds with the rules and regulations that stopped her applying her common sense. I wanted more state of society exploration and fewer stagey duologues.

Yet what playwrights find easy (and what the constraints of theatre have taught them to do) is
setting two people in conflict and exploring the relationship between them. It makes for uniquely
satisfying and often very tense viewing. In Trauma, Mike Bartlett‘s drama for ITV, this format became the dominant mode. The world of the drama – a teenager being stabbed in a fit of jealousy – shrank to a series of dialogues as John Simm’s wounded, working-class father clashed with Adrian Lester’s arrogant, well-off surgeon over whether the latter had lied when he failed to save his son.

It was gripping; both actors were superb. But it was essentially a two-hander acted out in front of
the viewer; it could have been on stage and lost not an ounce of its power. In fact, this entire piece could have been staged. It didn’t feel like TV and it made me feel restless because it left so many questions unanswered. We were told not shown things about the characters’ emotional states.

Theatre can enrich TV, but television is its own cultural force

In Doctor Foster, his hugely successful series about a vengeful woman and her errant, obnoxious husband, Bartlett revealed his ability to make a relationship drama spring to life. Yet once you notice his fondness for the impactful confrontation scene (oddly, not something he over-uses in his stage plays) you see Doctor Foster through a different lens as well. It has the trappings of a film – the different locations, the car chases – but in essence, its force springs almost entirely from the scenes between husband and wife, played with incredible intensity by Suranne Jones and Bertie Carvel.

This, of course, is the other thing about playwright’s TV. It attracts the cream of the acting profession, who recognise a gift when it is being laid before them. All of these series are notable for the calibre of their casts and the way in which the writing gives them plenty of space in which to show their ability.

I enjoy them. I am looking forward to Channel 4’s adaptation of Lucy Kirkwood‘s Chimerica, one of the best plays of recent years, when it hits our screens. But even as I write that, I begin to wonder. Chimerica's appeal on stage was that it showed a vast landscape into a tiny span, darting between continents in a space the size of a handkerchief. On the face of it, it will benefit from being able to spread its wings. But it will become something different in the process.

Theatre can enrich TV. But television is a cultural force in its own right. The fact that Jimmy
McGovern, or Sally Wainwright don’t write for the stage arguably gives their dramas a texture and a power that is entirely suited to the different medium. I hope its commissioning editors remember that and don’t get into the habit of reaching for a default playwright to fill their drama slots. It might be an easy option, but it isn’t necessarily the right one.