If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing TV dramas for HBO

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

Kevin Spacey.
Kevin Spacey as Congressman Frank Underwood in Netflix's House of Cards.
Kevin Spacey’s James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture on 22 August at the Edinburgh International Television Festival was a fine example of effective speechwriting. It had charm, wit, a strong argument and spectacular anecdotes – delicious titbits from the conversations of A-plus celebrities. As with all good speeches, the ideas and the stories merged into a single effect. Who can resist a primer on cultural history when it is peppered with talk from Hollywood’s high table?
 
Mainstream television, Spacey said, has stopped taking risks, stopped backing talent. It seeks easy winners and commercial certainties. He argued that creative industries become sclerotic when the balance of power swings away from creative talent and towards executive bean-counters. It started in film. He quoted from David Lean’s 1990 speech bemoaning the state of Hollywood: “We don’t come out of many new holes any more. We try to go back and come out of the old ones . . . If we don’t [give new storytellers encouragement], we’re going to go down and down and down and lose it all – to television. Television is going to take over.”
 
The same problems soon afflicted television. Spacey recalled how NBC sent a memo to the writer Steven Bochco just before the first season of Hill Street Blues aired. It listed the company’s concerns following focusgroup testing: the main characters had “flawed personalities”; they were never completely successful at work and their lives were a mess; there were too many loose ends. In other words, the show veered towards art, whereas the executives wanted fantasy. But execs don’t know what people want. The “flaws” that defined Hill Street Blues provide the explanation for the success of The Wire, Mad Men and Spacey’s series House of Cards (recently streamed by Netflix). As Henry Ford said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”
 
I would add three points to Spacey’s. He describes a world in which original talent is thwarted by executive philistinism. Yet often that situation, whatever the creative sphere, is supplanted by a subtler but no less depressing status quo. Creative talent, disappointed enough times, begins to self-censor, to think along permissible lines of inquiry. It starts to “go native”. Writers become conditioned by what they know – or imagine they know – their bosses will like.
 
So a bleak mutual reinforcement of risk aversion develops, trickling down from above but also seeping up from below. That’s why there is a strong case for writers not to spend much time around executives, editors and producers. Being an outsider protects essential naivety. If you don’t know the boss’s tastes, you are protected from pandering to them.
 
Almost as depressing as the cynical, riskaverse, focus-group-led sequel/prequel/re - make is film or television that is more determined to be edgy and original than it is to be good. This danger was captured in C S Lewis’s broader warning: “No man who bothers about originality will ever be original; whereas if you simply try to tell the truth . . . you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
 
Finally, Spacey doesn’t allow for the reality that declining creative industries cannot always be rescued by greater risk-taking. All art forms have a natural life cycle; talent realigns itself to follow opportunity.
 
Golden ages are not always mythical. In the late 19th century, opera towered triumphantly over the rest of the arts. Debussy’s remark that Wagner’s operas were “a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for dawn” proved brilliantly prescient. Both Wagner and Verdi were born 200 years ago this year. Even the most devoted fan of classical music would struggle to argue that the two men would be writing musical dramas if they were alive today.
 
Art forms can wind up frighteningly fast. Film once enjoyed a magical dual frame of reference: it looked back to the stage play while pointing forward to something new. Whenever I watch films such as Rear Window and Dial M for Murder, I’m struck how much it feels like I’m watching a play in my living room, albeit a play with special tricks. (Dial M for Murder was adapted from the stage, Rear Window from a short story.) In contrast, because today’s viewers are more used to effects than theatre-style dialogue, film directors usually serve up scenes lasting only a few sentences.
 
Remember the singer-songwriter? It is no coincidence that a single generation produced the clustered greatness of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Paul Simon and Jackson Browne. They could express themselves in a new artistic medium: the album. Most consumers don’t even recognise the word today, let alone the idea of a sequence of songs that has a particular atmosphere and artistic unity. I remember my parents’ friends telling me that if Shakespeare had been alive in the 1960s, he’d have been a pop star. Now, it’s more likely he would be writing television dramas for HBO.
 
This shows how art forms can be brought back from the dead, often through technological good luck. “Fifteen years ago . . . television was considered a lost cause,” Spacey admitted. “I wouldn’t have been up here lecturing you because my agent would never have allowed me to even consider being on a television series after winning an Oscar, much less something ‘streaming’.” What happened? Television allowed for intelligent characterisation, while the DVD box set, which united the immediacy of the screen with the narrative sweep of the novel, made The Wire and its ilk a staple of civilised conversation. We could feast on one episode after another, the characters becoming part of our lives.
 
Technology is the headless horseman of history, galloping through our lives without intention or care. We will never tire of good stories, as Spacey pointed out. But no one can predict the next form in which we will absorb them and how that will change the storyteller’s craft.