Dark TV Drama for Christmas 2016 and New Year 2017

This year darkness seems to be the keyword for some of our best drama offerings on TV: from Agatha Christie: The Witness for the Prosecution:cast-of-the-witness-to-the-prosecution

through Jonathan Creek: Daemons’ Roost;alan-davis-as-jonathan-creek

Sherlock in The Six Thatchers.benedict-cumberbatch-as-sherlock and the Bronte Family in To Walk Invisible.
the-3-bronte-sisters-in-to-walk-invisible

In Sherlock we discovered that Death had an appointment – with Mary Watson in the London Aquarium. Maybe London is Sherlock’s city and he knows the turf. But he was still unable to keep Mary safe, as he had promised. In the Agatha Christie drama, we were drawn in to the personal tragedy of a detective who was finally outwitted by the criminal; in Jonathan Creek we saw our lovable main character largely responsible for the horrific death of a villain; and in To Walk Invisible we were shown a tough and bristly Emily, a Branwell totally lacking in inner resources when things go wrong, a bossy and controlling Charlotte and a rather ineffectual Anne: and all of them powerless against tidal waves of blind misfortune.

I read in an interview with Toby Jones (star of the Agatha Christie episode, and also due to appear as the next villain in Sherlock) that Ten or twenty years ago, Poirot and Miss Marple were cutting edge. But the viewer’s brain processes genre faster now.

I feel this sums up well the challenge facing today’s TV drama writers, screenwriters and novelists.  We can no longer get away with anything that approaches transparency or simplicity in plotting or tone or characterisation; especially if we write crime, suspense or thrillers, we have to be at least two or three steps ahead of the viewer / reader. For us, “the game” of which Sherlock speaks has to be the game we play with the reader’s expectations, which are now razor-sharp. In our books we can only get away with characters like Mrs Hudson saying things like “I’ll just go and make a nice cup of tea shall I?” if there is some kind of double or even triple irony bound up in the package of words and character and context.

Against all this perhaps, the Outnumbered Christmas Special was refreshingly light, unless you count the darkness of 1) being led astray by a mischievous old man, now deceased, to travel a long distance to scatter his ashes in a random beauty spot 2) the abrupt discovery that your son plans to disappear off to New Zealand long term, and 3) walking away defeated from a car accident having trashed your car, totally unaware your daughter has obtained evidence that the other party was completely at fault….

All of these dramas, though, are essentially English, and all are about life, and we love them, together with their characters and situations. The darkness in some way is cathartic for us; we identify, we exercise our powers of empathy as we are drawn into the tragedy and horror and irony of the characters’ experiences… and this is why drama, and fiction, is a gateway to truth, and so profoundly important in our lives.

The Psychology of Mother and Son in the Psycho Prequel “Bates Motel”

My daughter Abigail, Creative Media Production student, has recently completed a project on Alfred Hitchcock’s editing technique in Psycho.

Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece Psycho
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho

So I’ve watched Psycho again several times recently. And my fascination with the subject led me to pick up the books Abigail had gathered for her project, and read them myself. Editing techniques in film can of course be applied to fiction writing too; what you choose to show, and the way you cut it together, can play a vital role in creating an emotional response in the audience. Hitchcock was the master of this, and profoundly influenced the history of film with his genius.

Over the last week we’ve been watching the DVDs of the US TV series Bates Motel, which is a prequel to the events of Psycho, set in the contemporary world, and showing how Norman developed to become the figure Anthony Perkins so famously portrayed in Hitchcock’s 1960 film.

We’ve now watched 6 episodes of Bates Motel in which the young Norman is played brilliantly by Freddie Highmore, (who looks like a young Anthony Perkins); his mother Norma is played by Vera Farmiga; and an additional character Norman’s older brother Dylan, is played by Max Thierot.

This is the most discerning portrayal of dysfunctional family dynamics. As a writer of psychological suspense fiction myself I cannot help but be mesmerised by the skill with which Norman’s early life is portrayed, and by the clarity and focus with which it accounts for Norman’s behaviour in Psycho. The series is highly focussed in what it says about unhealthy mutually-interdependent relationships, in this case, between a mother and son.

IN particular Vera Farmiga as Norma is outstanding, as she portrays the toxic mix of Norma’s psychological make-up. We watch mesmerised as the pace of events, and the choices she makes, precipitate her into rapid changes between being over-affectionate, unreasonable, controlling, proud and hard, aggressive and emotionally manipulative. Finely blended into this mix, we find flashes of callous indifference, mental cruelty and martyr complex, as she puts guilt on Norman.

Dylan, the older brother is an inspired addition to the gallery of characters, one whom we didn’t see in Psycho. In Bates Motel he represents normality. As he says about Norma: “She’s always got a drama, and she always will. She’s like an addict. And when you have an addict in your life the best thing you can do for them is walk away from them…” “You’ve just got to get away from mum,” he says to younger brother Norman. “She’s just going to bring you down with her.” How prophetic of the events in Psycho.

And as you follow the twists and turns of the plot, you see how Norma has a talent for creating alternative scenarios when things go wrong, which serves only to complicate things further and make them far worse.

Dylan tries to persuade her to “stop making up stories”. As you watch the drama, you just long for Norman to accept Dylan’s offer to leave his mother and go to live with Dylan instead. You start to persuade yourself that this could be the vital moment of choice, when, if Norman had taken this step, he might have been saved from the tragedy and horror of the future as presented in Psycho.

And yet you still can’t help thinking: would that help? How would Dylan deal with Norman’s mental health problem? Would Norman end up killing Dylan instead?

If you’re at all interested in the psychological suspense/thriller genre, do get hold of the DVDs of “Bates Motel” and see for yourself!