Is there too much violence in British television drama?

Violence in any media is always controversial, and British television drama is no exception. The general consensus is usually that there is too much, which this study will scrutinise; coming from a creative viewpoint, I believe most violence to be acceptable providing it is aesthetically justified. Prior to this study, considering dramas past and present, I would have answered “no”—but will my opinion change?

The 1930s saw the first television broadcasts; broadcasting was then suspended for the Second World War, resuming in 1946.[1] The first television drama was The Man with a Flower in His Mouth (1930) and featured no violence.[2][i] Telecrime (1938-9, 1946) was a notable development as most of its episodes revolved around violent crimes, although the viewer only saw the aftermath.[3] Few early dramas exist today,[ii] rendering it difficult to pinpoint the first violent act, but a likely candidate would be The Quatermass Experiment (1950)[iii] in which a brief scuffle ensues.[4] Suffice to say this was not too much.

Mary Whitehouse was a hugely prominent campaigner against violence on television. Having found the boundaries, television began to test them, in step with the permissive 1960s spirit. Expert Peter Browning says, ‘how far the media could reflect the new culture became a major point of controversy.’[5] Whitehouse found herself helping children whose lives had been ‘affected by the immorality’ of television[6] and launched her campaign in 1964.[7] Whitehouse believed ‘if violence is shown as normal on the television screen it will help to create a violent society.’[8] She reasoned, ‘the use of violence for effect could eventually result in its dramatic point being lost.’[9] Whitehouse has never been more right than she is here.

Today, Whitehouse’s legacy exists feebly as MediaWatch-UK,[10] inferring there isn’t too much violence or that others have taken up the mantle. Perhaps Bill Deedes evaluated her role best:

‘If you were to take Mary Whitehouse out of the public scene [you would soon realise we need her].’[11]

Whitehouse’s greatest achievement was irrefutably instigating external television regulation. Despite having first mooted it in 1967,[12] such a body didn’t materialise until 1990 (was violence gratuitous in 1990?) Parliament, the media and the BBC Board of Governors[13] acted as watchdogs but none were substitutes for an ITC[14][iv] amalgamated as Ofcom in 2003.[15] Complaints have risen from 5,405 in 2006-2007[16] to around 27,000, 2008-2010, suggesting excessiveness.[17] (However, these figures encompass much more than just violence, and that it is probably evidence of the public’s increasing compulsion to complain rather than the content.) The other regulator is the 9pm watershed.[18] It is a crucial point because dramas such as soap operas air before the watershed but can be unsuitably violent.

Soap operas have been no strangers to violence. Coronation Street (1960-), unlike many of its successors, was not intended to be “gritty” but to reflect everyday life. Its reputation is a double-edged sword as it garners acclaim but then is more harshly criticised on the odd time it ventures towards controversy.

The story of Sheila’s suicide, 1963, was the soap’s first controversy.[19] The huge media outcry resulted in a hasty rewrite.[20] But it was fitting development and I regret its omission; surely any viewer tempted to imitate would have been stopped from doing so by well-handled aftermath? The stoicism of 1960s society denied audiences the chance to judge for themselves.

When Ernest Bishop was shot in an armed robbery in 1978[21] Granada’s switchboard was jammed by dismayed viewers.[22] Unbelievably, this was the most violent act the Street had ever seen—a distinction that surely allows them a little frivolity here![23] Granada’s defence was that the story was about the loss for widow Emily; justified as that strand was being developed as late as 2006.[24] The Deirdre’s affair storyline culminated in Ken holding Deirdre by the throat. It is cited as a positive development in soaps[25] and no complaints were received. So what makes this more domestic act less shocking than Ernest’s shooting? There are five years interim; the former incident was shocking because it was unprecedented. Maybe by 1983 Street fans were accustomed to violence.

So is this what we should expect? Producer Phil Collinson assured fans that he planned to reduce the amount of violence in the soap.[26] In 2012, fifteen-year-old Daniel Bartlam murdered his mother, imitating a murder carried out by John Stape in Coronation Street. Criminologist James Treadwell said:

‘The problem we have is whether […] violent media influences violent behaviour or whether violent individuals are predisposed to violent media, and I think very often it’s the latter.’[27]

Although nobody should lay the blame at Street’s door, this incident illuminates the severity of this study.

In EastEnders (1985-), creator Julia Smith wanted ‘realism’.[28] Thus, whereas Street is maligned for less, EastEnders gets away with more, but pushes more too. Evidence for this stark contrast can be found in the first episode: Street’s was violence-free, [29] but less than a minute into EastEnders, the body of a murdered man was discovered![30]

Whitehouse called EastEnders ‘a threat to family viewing’,[31] complaining about ‘Sue madly smashing the glass jar […] cutting her own wrists with it, then threatening bystanders with its jagged edges.’[32] Although unacceptable, EastEnders was in its infancy; it’s part-and-parcel of soap progression. Whitehouse also raised the omnibus issue; [33] even if the violence shown is acceptable at 7.30pm, it may not be on Sunday at 2-3pm. This is even more prevalent today, as some soaps are repeated as early as 6am.[34]

EastEnders follows the morality that bad things happening to bad people are justified because their villainy calls for it, e.g. Janine Butcher.[35] This could lead to a laissez-faire attitude and if the justice-bringer is also violent, isn’t this showing bad triumphs over bad? It’s a continuation of a long-standing tradition in literature. Whitehouse didn’t approve of it in EastEnders.[36] One doesn’t see her complaining about the Brothers Grimm.

In September 2008, EastEnders launched a paedophilia story between Whitney and Tony. Seventy complaints were received after just the first scene.[37] Deborah Orr asked, ‘Who needs to be educated about this?’ That is the most ludicrous quote I have come across. Orr even criticised the lack of similar scenes beforehand—asking for it to be less tasteful than it had been![38] Aida Edemariam said ‘the subtle blackmail [is most disturbing]… the viewer starts to feel bullied too.’[39] These people want to ignore it but EastEnders, admirably, won’t. Good drama should have the ability to unsettle viewers. The fact that EastEnders strives on despite a public which misconstrues their purpose is commendable.

The Archie Mitchell story covered several violent incidents, many of which were broadcast on “event days” like Christmas. This is dubious as they are likely to have an increased child viewership and there is a question of appropriateness. Stacey, who murdered Archie, escaped without getting her comeuppance because ‘she’d suffered enough.’[40] It is a slight, but contextually-justified, deviation.

The benefit of EastEnders showing violence is that it helps raise awareness for violence-related issues. Kat’s sexual abuse increased calls to the NSPCC by 60%.[41] Erin Pizzey[v] said Little Mo’s story ‘has done more to highlight […] spousal abuse in two years than she had done in twenty-five.’[42] The BSC[vi] upheld complaints against one scene, broadcast (again!) on Christmas Day,[43] but if EastEnders hadn’t been bold enough to show it, doesn’t that equate to condoning it? The most recent controversy (not violence-related, but illustrates the point best) was the Baby Swap Plot furore. It was the most controversial story in EastEnders history.[44] But why? Even Ofcom, who usually favours viewers to shield themselves from controversy, cleared the BBC[45] and the story received (ignored) positive feedback.[46][47][48][49] The BBC prematurely ended the storyline[50] and poorly timed the announcement of actress Samantha Womack’s departure,[51] looking like an admission of failure and a consequence of the outcry respectively. The BBC needs to trust the ability of the producers, otherwise the effect of the show is reduced. John Yorke, then-Executive Producer, spoke in 2002, putting forward the most accomplished defence of EastEnders imaginable:

‘Our immediate reaction when we came up with the [Kat storyline] was that no-one would want to watch it. Ironically, this confirmed our belief that it was the right story to tell… EastEnders, like any truly successful programme, is not born of cynicism; its heart – even if it has sounded a little preachy at times – has always been in the right place. So […] if we are to define morality as helping others, in exposing evil and in giving a voice to the voiceless, I have no hesitation in defending the show… EastEnders is rarely described as a force for moral good.’[52]

Emmerdale (1972-)[vii] is said to appeal mainly to an older demographic. However, in the last fifteen years the soap has made big steps towards “youthification”; does this have to go hand-in-hand with violence?

In September 2011, Aaron’s mother Chas discovers he is self-harming; ‘It’s not about wanting to die,’ he explains, ‘it’s more about […] being able to live.’[53] She holds a knife to her wrist: ‘you say hurting yourself makes you feel better, well I want to feel better too!’ It is intrinsically moral. The credits were accompanied by the Samaritans’ contact details; [54] common practice now for soaps, it excuses issue-coverage by providing refuge. Overall, when Emmerdale evolved, violence appeared, but generally it knows how to present it.

Hollyoaks (1995-) is more overtly issue-led (potentially more violent) than any other soap, and directed towards teenagers.

Ste Hay used to abuse girlfriend Amy[55] but has been rehabilitated, making him a fantastic role-model. In 2010, he became the victim of different domestic violence plot, with Brendan. A conversation between Ste and Amy in November 2010 spells the issue out: ‘there is never a reason to hit anyone.’[56] Brendan’s defence (‘We’re blokes. When we step outta line, we get a slap.’[57]) is firmly dispelled in the following episode. Nevertheless, the breaking of the homosexual domestic abuse taboo is Hollyoaks’ greatest achievement. A month later, it is completely eroded. Joel asks his violent father, ‘You’d never hit a woman?’ to which he replies, ‘Never.’ Joel and therefore the viewer, is satisfied by the sexist double-standard.[58]

The writers of Jacqui’s rape, 2011, decided to be ambiguous as to whether she was lying or not.[59][60] Unusually, stupidly, it was a jury of viewers who decided Gilly was innocent.[61] The problem with that was it meant that one of two long-running well-liked characters was suspected of having committed an atrocious crime for almost a year! It was eventually revealed that Gilly was guilty.[62] Writer Sushayla Bushra said, ‘it was shocking how […] damning of Jacqui’ viewers were.[63] Rather than educate, the writers allowed ambiguity to hang over the story which could be very damaging to real-life rape victims.

Hollyoaks is the most unnecessarily violent of British soaps, because it is never subtle in anything, violence included. However, it has also demonstrated the ability to be ground-breaking; it is the only soap that intermittently utilises a post-watershed timeslot.[64] Could this manifest itself as a solution to violence in soaps?

In September/October 2011, I conducted a survey investigating which soap is the most violent. I recorded the number of acts per episode of every soap. I then conducted another week-long survey six months and a year later. I predicted that there would be 2-4 acts per week per soap. The results show that EastEnders is the most violent with an average of 3.6 acts per week. Coronation Street was the least with 1.04. These findings meet my expectations, but I think the “textual” evidence has more worth. Both suggest violence in soaps is generally moderate.

Doctor Who (1963-1989, 1996, 2005-) has a long history of violence, stemming from the debate as to whether it is a children’s show or not. Fundamentally, the show was directed at a family audience.[65]

The first serial, An Unearthly Child (1963) ,[ix] depicts violence from the Doctor himself, who picks up a rock and makes to bludgeon a caveman.[66] This is categorically unacceptable from Who. Presumably the production team allowed it because Ian, who intervenes, was at this point more the “hero” than the Doctor.[67] Enthralling, it is also excessive.

The Edge of Destruction (1964) also saw violence from one of our “audience-identification” characters. In part two, Susan wields a pair of scissors, before screaming and stabbing them into a bed repeatedly.[68] Producer Verity Lambert says:

‘To use household instruments in a threatening way, where they can be imitated, I think is a bad thing. […] The wrath of the children’s department came down on us for that. We had to apologise, and they wanted the whole series taken away from us’. [69]

It is excessive. But it is also engaging, intelligent drama, and if boundaries can’t be readjusted for that then there is little point in drama at all.

Violence was next an issue when The Daleks’ Master Plan (1965) was censored by ‘countries with tighter censorship controls’ than Britain.[70] This infers that Britain was amongst the most relaxed in the world.

The 1970s saw Who grow up (allied with UNIT: gun-toting alien-fighters) but producer Barry Letts was conscious that television exerts an influence.[71] In Doctor Who and the Silurians (1970), Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart blows up the Silurians. Letts ensured the moment did not go unmarked.[72] This new era saw an increase in violence, but sensitive handling too, which negates it.

Letts left in 1974, making way for Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes,[73] whose ‘taste for the macabre’ courted the attention of Mary Whitehouse.[74] The Deadly Assassin (1976) episode three’s cliffhanger sees the Doctor throttled under water.[75] Whitehouse heard a child saying, ‘when [my brother] makes me cross […] I shall hold his head under the bathwater until he’s dead like […] Dr. Who’.[76] She was concerned that that was ‘the image left’ in the children’s minds for a week.[77] So is this acceptable because the disturbance is short-term? Could an indicator of excesses be whether the child’s disturbance continues after the resolution? Roger Murray-Leach interestingly suggested it was unacceptable because of the absence of a companion.[78] Is this the solution to drama violence – characterisation? The offending shots were cut on its repeat in 1977.[79] ‘By then there was a febrile atmosphere in the BBC’, Hinchcliffe recalls.[80]

Companion Leela was a ‘savage’, designed not to glorify violence but as a feminist who ‘challenged [the Doctor’s] pacifism and he had to justify his stance.’ She is the series’ bravest gesture towards ensuring morality. With the guidelines set, Who was ending the mollycoddling; one must make one’s own choices, and hopefully one will take heed of the right advice. The show was in safe hands.

Eric Saward was script editor[81] in 1984 when Who inexcusably took leave of its senses. The brash Sixth Doctor was to be a deliberate contrast to his predecessor. With a light touch, this could have worked. The Doctor strangling companion Peri is not a light touch.[82] It is the most appalling violent act, essentially domestic abuse, in family drama. ‘We were […] releasing the handbrake on violence,’ says Saward, with no justification. Attack of the Cybermen (1985) sees such atrocities as Lytton writhing on the floor, his hands crushed, but more grotesque is Saward’s defence: ‘That’s how it would have been.’[83] The show under Saward lost its way.

BBC bosses put Who on hiatus[84][85] when they should have surely removed the production team, or offered moral guidance; this shows the fault lies just as much with them. They later nonsensically sacked Colin Baker rather than sort the violence issue.[86] Who had now had enough warnings to prevent further moral wavering. The show was axed in 1989.[87] This time no-one could attribute the decision to violence, although when it returned briefly in 1996, it was still struggling to iron out its tonal issues.

Doctor Who was revived by critically-acclaimed writer Russell T Davies in 2005.[88] It was to be a Saturday night family drama, broadcast at 7pm.[89] Davies clearly defined the moral boundaries:

‘I won’t have a human picking up a gun, especially a revolver, and aiming a bullet at another human… It’s very hard […] but that’s the challenge built into the format about a man who doesn’t carry a gun but nonetheless he’s got to blow up the Daleks at the end. Since the whole ethos of Doctor Who is optimism, the Doctor leading the moral way, then taking care […] becomes even more important.’[90]

‘Leading the moral way’ became a defining aspect of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors. The Ninth was ‘born out of’ the Time War,[91] forced to commit genocide. But the series doesn’t gloss over it; it is the backbone of Davies’ era. In Dalek (2005), the Doctor tortures the Dalek; companion Rose protects it. He says, ‘That thing killed hundreds of people’, and she says, ‘It’s not the one pointing the gun at me.’ He lowers the gun.[92] This installs a clear morality, even anti-xenophobia, in young viewers.

The Doctor/companion relationship affecting his morality was developed when the Doctor wipes out the Racnoss in The Runaway Bride (2006). Donna tells the Doctor, ‘you can stop now’ and that he should ‘find someone… I think you need someone to stop you.’[93]

In Turn Left (2008), in a ruined world in which the Doctor doesn’t exist, an ‘England for the English’ policy sees the Colassantos taken away in a truck. Wilfred says, ‘Labour camps. That’s what they called them last time.’ Donna screams after them, ‘Where are you taking them? Where are you going?! Where are you going?!’[94] This example, horrifically, is wholly suggestion.

In The Waters of Mars (2009), Adelaide’s impending death is a ‘fixed’ point in time, but the Doctor saves her anyway. ‘As she steps inside [her house], just a glimpse – she’s taking her gun out of her holster. The door closes… Then… Bang!’ This makes the too-powerful Doctor realise he’s gone too far.[95] Davies is specific in the script because he knows this is dark,[96] but that is the point.

The Doctor initially refuses the revolver he is offered, (‘Never.’), in The End of Time (2009-2010). He then changes his mind. He flits between pointing the gun at the Master and the Time Lords, two immoral decisions, before opting for the right one: shooting the connection, forcing the Time Lords back into the War.[97] The Tenth Doctor’s death is the ideal opportunity to examine what he stands for, but culminates with his morality intact. The series has never handled violence so well as under Davies.

New showrunner Steven Moffat’s Who is rather less moral. The first trailer showed the Doctor smacking a Dalek with a hammer, firing a handgun (completely diminishing The End of Time) and punching someone.[98] Conversely, Cold Blood (2010) showcased the message: ‘the minute you pick up a gun, you’ve lost the argument.’[99] And yet Amy shoots an astronaut in The Impossible Astronaut (2011)! The incident is completely glossed over.[100] The Doctor defeats the Silence by transmitting the subliminal order to the human race to ‘kill [them] all on sight’. The Doctor and River Song then massacre the Silents.[101] One wonders whether any of that was necessary.

Doctor Who is a fruitful case-study because it spans the decades and “visions” of several production teams, and spawned spin-off satellites equally mindful of demographics. Whitehouse was always ignorant of the fact that television can be censored in multiple ways; it is made to be viewed, therefore the viewing public’s opinion holds huge sway. Many violent stories are fan-favourites[102][103][104] – surely they would fare worse if they were excessive? In 1972, The Daily Express reported that Who was on a “blacklist” of violent programmes.[105] It is a testament to the series’ record that I am certain this is fabrication.

Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures (2007-2011) shows Sarah Jane to be even more of a moral-crusader than the Doctor; her viewership is even younger than his. She often registers her disagreement with UNIT: ‘Too many guns.’[106] In Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith (2010), she encourages Clyde to use a gun because her judgement is being affected by an alien entity.[107] So integral to the series is her morality that sudden enthusiasm for violence is the main clue that something is wrong.

Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-1967) depicted the titular character carrying a swordstick, with which he would kill enemies.[108] The series satirised 1960s and Edwardian societies; it was ridiculing his archaic methods.[109] Seemingly, television was still freely regulated, and the 1960s the series satirised was meta-textually responsible for its own licentiousness!

Grange Hill (1978-2008) was often excessive. In 1986, a fibreglass incident was imitated in Bideford School, Devon[110] and Judy’s graphic knifing in 1998 prompted the BSC to state that even for a show with a ‘reputation for realism’, this was too much.[111] Hill’s rarely showed the moral comment that makes the violence satisfactory.

Sarah Jane creator Davies says of ‘brilliant’ but ‘strict’ children’s television boss Martin Hughes:

‘I’d always write comedy sketches with someone getting hit over the head with a frying pan and he’d say, “No, you don’t hit people on the head because that’s […] genuinely violent. […] It’s got to be with a big, soft comedy mallet.”’[112]

Thus, it is clear that striking a balance in children’s drama is an art.

Adult drama is equally difficult to decipher because whilst producers have more freedom, there must still be limitations. It stumbled upon violence by surprise; ‘In keeping with the desire to express contemporary concerns’ “horror plays” started to emerge after the war.[113] In Quatermass, Nigel Kneale “discovered” ‘evoking terror’; his Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) caused the first violent drama controversy.[114] Called ‘sadistic’ in Parliament,[115] one report alleges it caused a housewife to die of shock.[116] ITV’s creation in 1955 led to competition, with violence often employed as a tool for criticising the opponent; excesses, to attract viewers; or a purposeful lacking, to attract viewers. Between 1950 and 1955, television drama grew from nothing to something important.

Shortly after came the advent of the anthology series; ‘the main source of violence’.[117] The “Golden Age”, the 1960s-1980s, was a breeding ground for innovative concepts—but occasionally short-sighted to the implications of its output.

Cathy Come Home (1966)’s moving finale shows Cathy, having gone from domestic bliss to nothing, punching and screaming as social services prise her children away.[118] It disturbed viewers to prompt change[119] and was controversial because of what the violence represents: a deficiency in society.

Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle (1976) was censored because a ‘mentally-handicapped woman’ being raped by a “demonic visitor” and ‘thus liberated from her vegetable state’ was deemed unacceptable.[120] The fact it was withdrawn suggests that violence in the 1970s was restrained in broadcast content, and the fact it was allowed in 1987 infers the 1980s were more excessive.[121]

“Cosy” dramas like Dixon of Dock Green (1955-1976) emerge when “gritty” dramas have been in vogue, to catch apathetic viewers as they pendulum swing between two extremes. ‘We would never put in violence for its own sake,’ says creator Ted Willis. ‘There is some truth’ to the criticism that it is unrealistic ‘just as it is true that other programmes emphasise [the violence.]’[122] Z-Cars (1962-1978) showed violence routinely, but was overtaken by The Sweeney (1975-1978); from cosy/gritty to gritty/gritty, suggesting too much violence in the 1970s, and indeed that there was call for it. Sweeney’s Inspector Regan was ‘not afraid to break the rules in order to apprehend the villains.’[123][124] The fights are (unlike the more theatrical, studio-bound violence of the past) real-looking. The cosy negates the gritty, thus drama is continually restricting itself.

In I, Claudius (1976), Caligula stabs his pregnant sister in the stomach and, off-screen, eats the foetus.[125] It is moderately tastefully-shown but is conceptually the most violent act of all-time. Is it more acceptable to see violence in historical dramas, because modern-day viewers know such barbarity would not occur today? The series’ popularity suggests viewers were unaffected by it[126] but I was horrified.

In Series 1 of Queer as Folk (1999-2000), Stuart is happy to tell the prejudiced to ‘f*** off’,[127] but in Series 2 he treads progressively deeper into darker territory. He says, for some homophobes like Mrs Perry, that’s no longer enough. He mimes a gun to her head and later even blows up her car. At the end of the show, when someone calls him ‘queer’, this time he raises a real revolver.[128] Davies presents this as representative of holding the world to rights, which is highly thought-provoking, as opposed to excessive.

Torchwood (2006-) is another Who spin-off, for an adult audience, therefore violence is prominent but no more facetious. Series 3 culminated in Captain Jack killing his grandchild to save the world, which was edited due to his status as a children’s hero.[129] Some dramas have trouble tailoring standards for one demographic, let alone two!

Skins (2007-) caused controversy because of its irreverence and glorification of violence. In Franky (2012) ‘there’s a sense of exhilaration’ about the fighting. Franky is corrupted by it, and so is the viewer. Catriona Wightman said ‘we’re a bit desensitised’ to Skins;[130] a worrying prospect. Recently, this type of drama has been ducking out of the schedules, making way for costume and crime dramas, which could be good (the former often depict restrained, un-violent societies) or bad (the latter relies on violence).

The post-watershed crime drama is the most popular genre. Holby Blue (2007-) attempted to ‘redefine’ pre-watershed television,[131] but all they did was (inappropriately) put something that would have been comfortable at 9pm on at 8pm, resulting in excessive violence.

The Regan tradition of detectives who are violent or rogue is problematic for morals. The titular character of Luther (2010-) is darker than that: he genuinely could be a force for evil. In episode one, he allows a criminal to fall to his death.[132] (Prequel novel The Calling fleshes out the criminal;[133] I am more forgiving of the violence of the drama having read that, demonstrating that tie-in material impacts on this debate too.) Perhaps it is Idris Elba’s comforting performance that makes this acceptable.

Writer Amanda Coe highlighted the ‘alarming’ flippancy of modern crime dramas,[134] heightened by fast-paced shows like Law & Order: UK (2009-). Coe praises Danish series The Killing (2007-) for showing ‘the ramifications’ of crime;[135] there is an appetite for less casually violent crime drama that British television hasn’t yet recognised.

The sub-genre (e.g. comedy drama) in which violence is shown is important; ‘you’re going to have a different context in your brain,’ reckons Browning. In Teachers (2001-2004), the pupils fight in every scene. Scott & Bailey (2010-) is a light-hearted account of two detectives – until the story crashes into the horrific violence they investigate. Saying a victim was ‘raped and mutilated every which way this side of Christmas’ is not an acceptable way of presenting violence. Would violence be acceptable in a broadly farcical scene and not the next, if that was straight-drama? Hybrids can blur the boundaries.

Dramas with a fantastical context also add a new dimension to this debate. The Prisoner (1967-1968) contains scenes of the Rover[x] suffocating people.[136] Being Human (2009-) stunned with the image of the Box Tunnel 20 Murders in Series 2.[137] It was unprecedented and initiated Mitchell’s fall.[138] Superbly done, it then encouraged the show to get bloodier, to the detriment of that image. Fantasy is less of a defence because, unlike comedy, it does not provoke a different reaction; it is made to believed as much as any drama. In Whitehouse’s words: ‘strangulation—by hand, by claw, by obscene vegetable matter [is equally unacceptable]’.[139]

Adult drama has started to come full circle with a recent trend of reviving shows, providing an opportunity for comparison; Bouquet of Barbed Wire (1976, 2010) latterly employed less suggestion in its domestic abuse story,[140][141] and new Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-1976, 2010-2012) was more violent than old.[142][143] Generally, adult drama is not too violent; it excels in a difficult position.

Broadcasting has changed beyond recognition in the last twenty years. From Sky, 1990,[144] to the birth of digital television,[145] more hours of drama litter the schedules. The “watch-it-when-you-want-it” culture saw commercial releases, pausing and recording prosper. And these developments just keep coming.[146][147][148][149] BBC Director-General Mark Thompson recently enthused about a (near) future in which programmes will be always accessible to anyone.[150] But crucially, this could mean drama violence should be reduced. The more accessible programmes are, the more likely causing offence is. +1 and iPlayer services have made the watershed redundant. Is it too much to say that high-definition means decency is imperative because every punch, weapon and wound can now be seen clearer? Admittedly, guidelines have evolved alongside and those that have grown up with these developments seem to believe violence is not excessive.[151] But violence is more of a watchword because the ‘ether’ of broadcasting is now bigger.

There is not too much violence in British television drama. But why is violence such an issue in the first place? Writer Russell T Davies says:

‘Television has to shift its morality away from cosy family rose-tinted morality into something more real. Where bad things can happen and no one gets arrested and the world carries on because that is the world.’[152]

I agree; no other art form feels the need to stick stringently to decency, other than for the impressionable. Do people watch drama for reality or escapism? Televisual “reality” ‘is still a pretend world,’ Browning argues.[153] When Davies says ‘real’ he doesn’t mean reality, because life and drama are two different things. So drama must present a new reality. Violence is not the key to good television drama, but it is an element that can be manipulated for both the viewers’ and the makers’ gain. Whitehouse thought the BBC’s ‘aim should be to lead the people on and up’[154] but drama will only go ‘on and up’ if it can indulge intermittently. ‘It’s got to keep roughly in step with [public opinion]’, Browning says.[155] Frankly I think it should race past public opinion because when Yorke, Potter and Davies did that, the public catch up quickly, and if it fails, they turn off and makers reboot. Hopefully, this is where drama is heading.


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[5] Browning, Peter, ‘The Development of Mass Media in the 20th Century, 1896-1996’, Chapter 3, as yet unpublished

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[i] Very early television dramas such as these were radio productions really; the voiceovers were accompanied with still photographs, barely justifying their visual broadcast! Therefore, even if violence had been covered (it was not in The Man with the Flower in His Mouth) it probably would not have been visually realised.

[ii] Early television dramas were basically stage plays but filmed live in a studio, with no means of being recorded, hence why none exist today. When said dramas were “repeated” they were actually restaged, sometimes with extensive changes. Even once dramas could be recorded, because film tape was expensive, the tapes were often wiped to make way for new programmes. The archives are patchy until the 1970s.

[iii] Episodes 1 and 2 of The Quatermass Experiment (1950) are the two earliest surviving examples of British television drama, as reported by Lez Cooke in ‘British Television Drama: A History’.

[iv] Denotes Independent Television Commission.

[v] Pizzey is an internationally-famed women’s rights activist.

[vi] Denotes Broadcasting Standards Council, a successor of the ITC.

[vii] Emmerdale was actually titled Emmerdale Farm until 1989, but for the purposes of cohesion, I will only give the former name in this study. The renaming was part of the “youthification” integral to the analysis of this soap.

[ix] There is a dispute as to the exact titles of some, particularly the earliest, Doctor Who serials, as each episode had an individual title until 1966 and an overall story title was seldom provided. For the purposes of this study, the titles given will follow the titles used on the BBC DVD releases.

[x] The Rover, although only named on-screen once, is the name usually given to the large, white, inflatable balloon-like object from The Prisoner (1967-1968) which stopped prisoners of the Village escaping.

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