We will never tire of good stories, but we can't predict how we will absorb them next. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing TV dramas for HBO

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.

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. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder