They never end, the shifting and twisting turns in the TV landscape these days.
No sooner has everyone got used to Netflix and the bewildering array of programming from here, there and everywhere, but another streaming service arrives. More content, more choices and still, for a lot of viewers, it isn't enough. Where, for instance, is that new British mystery that got a rave review in British papers last week? Where oh where, my dears, could it possibly be?
Well, there is yet another streaming service now and this one is a big disruptor in Canada. BritBox,a streaming service co-owned by the BBC and ITV, launched last week in Canada. And Canadians adore their Brit TV. Mysteries, romances, soap operas and sitcoms with double-entendres. The whole familiar kit and caboodle. There is a huge appetite for British storytelling here. That's why some Canadians will happily support PBS stations with the money. To keep the Masterpiece Theatre – or whatever it's called these days – and Mystery! flowing. That's why Coronation Street is on CBC most weekdays.
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Some years ago, I asked the Audience Relation Department at CBC what series brought the most mail and complaints. At the time, it was Corrie. Move the soap around or delay it and there was outrage. I asked what might be a reasonable sop to viewers if Corrie was moved or delayed. The rueful answer was, The Queen's Christmas Message.
Well, you can watch Her Majesty's Christmas Message any time, 24/7, on BritBox. You can also catch Prime Minister's Questions (formally Questions to the Prime Minister, held every Wednesday at noon when the House of Commons in London is sitting) pretty darnn close to the real-time questioning of Prime Minister Theresa May. And if you are utterly absorbed in matters British you can see The Papers, BBC's lively and occasionally surreal discussion of the next day's papers. It gets surreal because the next day's headlines can vary from The Telegraph's latest analysis of Brexit machinations to The Daily Express announcing that yogurt prevents heart disease.
There is a vast library of British sitcoms on the new service, including "lost episodes" from fabled BBC comedies, including Steptoe and Son, Hancock's Half Hour, and Till Death Us Do Part. Some of the Britcoms are remastered and look dazzling, nothing like the dull, much-aired copies that turn up on PBS stations.
BritBox is a major disruptor here not merely because it has a library of old BBC and ITV series. Yes, if your taste runs to Brit soap operas, then Emmerdale, Casualty and Holby City are there, in all their grit and grand guignol, with extravagantly theatrical and unexpected developments.
But there is dramatic substance too. BritBox,which launched last year in the United States, presented its wares to TV critics in L.A. last month and concentrated its efforts on two superb productions it streams. (It also announced it is reviving The Bletchley Circle, with a new mini-series set in San Francisco.) Trauma is an almost unbearably raw drama about the loss of a child. Created by Mike Bartlett, who also created Doctor Foster, it is about the painful layers of parental grief as a father, played with enormous care by John Simm, concentrates his rage and fury on a doctor (Adrian Lester) who operated on his son after the boy was stabbed. It's a drama that becomes a thriller with a sharp undercurrent of class rage. (Trauma started airing in Britain just last week.) The other presentation was Mum, a first-rate dark and bittersweet comedy starring Lesley Manville as Cathy, a middle-aged woman trying to adjust to life after her husband's death.
There is a major treat to be found in Reg, a one-off drama starring Tim Roth as the real Reg Keys, who stood for election in the 2005 general election in Britain with the sole purpose of finding out why and how his son had died serving in the Iraq war. He stood not only because his son had died in strange circumstances but because of his own and a national, simmering rage against the obfuscations of Tony Blair. Reg is written by Jimmy McGovern, one the greatest of British TV writers, who also created Cracker, The Lakes and The Street.
It is somewhat ironic: one supposes that McGovern was one of those writers who had enormous influence, in a roundabout way, on the Golden Age of television we now inhabit. It was his work and that of others from Britain, in the 1990s, that pointed the way forward for TV drama. They set examples that led to the cascade of classic long-form dramas aired by HBO, AMC and, these days, Netflix. There was a time when British TV was indisputably superior. Now, it isn't, and there arrives this cornucopia of British material for $8.99 a month. It's a disruptor yet it may amount to a mere distraction in terms of quality and sustained excellence.
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