How did telly get so damn good?
The market of course!


I must confess I was never the biggest Game of Thrones fan. I thought it was all right and I kept up with it so I could avoid the social stigma of being the only person in the office not to have seen it – Westeros Leprosy if you like – but that all changed after I binged on the last series this week (we probably would have managed it over a couple of nights had it not been for our own little Wildlings demanding bedtime stories).

Season 6 blew me away and not just the epic scale of it, which is pretty much guaranteed given the enormous budget. Acting, costume, direction, make-up, location, lighting, photography, script, plot – everything about it oozed quality and the emotional engagement with the characters was like nothing I had experienced since The Sopranos.

As I sat drained and exhausted after episode ten I couldn’t help but ask one simple question – How did telly become so damn good?

21st Century TV has just been immense. The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Borgen, The Bridge, Lost, True Detective, Fargo, Stranger Things, Six feet Under, Deadwood, 24, Boardwalk Empire, Band of Brothers, Arrested Development…I could go on (No, I really could. And every one of you has just thought of five shows I’ve forgotten about).

And it’s not just high profile imports – Peaky Blinders, Life on Mars, The Office, Peep show, Shameless, Humans, Top Boy, Sherlock, Luther, Misfits, The Inbetweeners, This is England, Rev. and Broadchurch all show that the Brits can hold their own too.*

The sheer volume of high quality, prestige dramas on offer at the moment is absolutely mouthwatering. We never have to tolerate crap again.

And, let’s be honest about it, that’s exactly what telly used to be – crap. Our eyes glaze over and we go all nostalgic for the TV of our youth but the fact is most of it was bloody atrocious. Can you believe that 20-30 years ago Bruce Forsyth’s faux exasperation at a tattooed sheet welder’s inability to throw a clay pot was considered prime time entertainment? Not to mention the excruciating sight of 60 year old Barbara from Pontefract scoring 19 on Bullseye (and narrowly missing the studio lights with her 3rd dart).

And soap operas! Jesus H Christ! How much of our lives did we waste watching soaps? Up to 2 hours a night and double that on a Bank Holiday. I would rather spend Christmas day at Jeremy Corbyn’s for a nut roast followed by selected readings from Das Kapital than watch 4 hours of Soaps. Even with John McDonnell getting lairy after finishing his contraband hip flask of Bells.

I know it wasn’t all bad but even the good stuff was tainted, compromised in some way, and never as good as you remember it. I Claudius was a masterpiece but most school productions have better sets, if it wasn’t Muhammad Ali or Billy Connolly every Parkinson interview was basically the same (“Tell me about your roots Orson/Bing/Emu”) and I dare you to try a Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special on youtube. You won’t last 10 minutes.

So what happened? How did we go from The Queen Vic to Queen Cersei? From Jack and Vera to Tony and Carmella?

Once again it is the wonder of the market.

The truth is that back then we simply had no choice. With only three or four channels you were a prisoner to the whims of a handful of producers. The highest viewing figure in UK TV history for a non-live event is for a 1979 episode of the appalling BBC Sitcom To the Manor Born. Nearly 24 million people endured the season one finale, in no small part due to the fact that ITV was off the air due to a lengthy strike.

In an age of Online, On Demand, downloading and streaming, where the viewer is in command of a limitless catalogue of entertainment, poor quality will no longer suffice. Our living room sofas have now become X-Factor style judging panels where we can instantly call time on anything that doesn’t cut it and bring on a fresh competitor. Now that’s what I call Power to the People!

The TV companies have responded to this devastatingly responsive market place by increasingly the quality of their product immeasurably and as budgets have increased the creative prestige and artistic influence has risen accordingly. In the 80s Nick Nolte and Jeff Bridges turned down Miami Vice as TV lacked the remuneration or the kudos of the big screen. Now Hollywood struggles to prise the talent away from our beloved box. Indeed this market is so receptive that HBO were able to produce Game of Thrones season 6 before the book was even written. Such is the power of capitalism.

So if a Lefty ever tries to portray Corbyn as a bearded Daenerys Targaryen, storming into the capital to free the slaves, remind them that without capitalism the Khaleesi would be nothing more than a figment of George. R. R. Martin’s imagination.

*No, I didn’t forget Downton Abbey. Downton is the exception that proves the rule.

Martin was a lifelong Socialist who saw the error of his ways, making a sharp right turn. Follow him on Twitter: @righturn79

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty