Before we start, it should be noted that I’ve never written a hit TV show. Or any kind of TV show at all.
However, I’ve watched a ton of them, and there appear to be a few common threads to the ones that have achieved worldwide success in recent years, so it’s worth being aware of them before you start writing.
Of course, if you’re in the middle of creating the next best thing since Sherlock Who, you’ll know all of this already.
Establish your tradition
It’s no coincidence that the biggest British shows of recent years hearken back to a tradition of some kind, even if it’s just a case of setting the thing in a bygone age. Downton is in a long line of costume dramas; the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or Arthur and Merlin, have been told many times before. Even Doctor Who is fifty years old, and yet it remains a horror TV show pretending to be a science-fiction TV show. That’s not to say a new idea can’t work without tradition, but it’s harder to establish.
And once you have established the world in which your characters work…
Break with your tradition
This can just be a matter of putting thrillingly sharp language in the mouths of people your audience would expect to be fairly grand and boring (Downton Abbey), or changing the expected dynamic between your two leads (to make Merlin younger than Arthur, or Watson just as grumpy as Holmes). Whatever it takes to make the tradition start to buck and writhe, do that.
Cast against beauty (sort of)
When you think of the lead actors in the current crop of Brit hits, they all have one thing in common: while they are by no means ugly, they’re not so conventionally handsome the audience suspects they’ve been hired because of their looks. Matt Smith is a strikingly charismatic young man, and would turn heads even if he worked in a bank, and yet, as the Doctor Who team observed when he came to audition, he also looks as if he comes from another planet. In Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch has the face of a haughty man who does not care about the way he looks. When you come to cast your show, go for the person who looks like your character, not like a handsome actor.
Make use of national treasures
British theatrical tradition is a treasure trove of wonder and delight when it comes to casting actors for TV shows. Even if your leads are all new faces, there’s no reason why you can’t stick a much-loved and familiar face in there somewhere. And it really works!
Every current Brit hit requires a lot of time spent bickering. The reason Being Human took off in the first place was that, amid the supernatural goings on, you had three people in a house, arguing. Merlin and Arthur, Sherlock and John Watson, the nuns in Call The Midwife, Dame Maggie Smith versus everyone. It’s a constant snark war, even between characters who clearly love each other very dearly.
Speaking of which…
Bury affection deep, but don’t smother it
The Brits pride themselves on being unsentimental in nature, which isn’t remotely true. But what moves audiences far more than unsolicited compliments and unearned hugging is the merest hint of a kind word from someone whose default position is scorn (or in the case of the Doctor, excitable distraction).
Cock a snook
This doesn’t necessarily just apply to British TV shows. Storytelling is about people deviating from normal modes of behavior and the consequences of their actions. This applies just as much to Dirty Harry as it does to Little Red Riding Hood. The difference with British shows is there’s an inbuilt belief within the audience (no matter where you’re from) that the people who best represent those modes of normality are the British. As far as your audience is concerned we’re a hidebound culture, and you don’t have to look far to find a stuffed shirt to bring in, so your lead character can be all mavericky in his face. If you’re really clever, you’ll make him an engaging character too, and then you’ve got a Brigadier or Mycroft Holmes to add to your arsenal.
Be contemptuous of stupidity
Where the person with the purest heart would win the day in some dramas, our current hits suggest that audiences now want wit and cunning instead, especially at the Sherlock/Who/Merlin/House end of things. Don’t be afraid of making your hero a smartass, but make sure he or she has a sidekick that is also pure of heart, just to be on the safe side. The curious exception to this is Harry Potter, which reverts to the classic format of one unprepared, but gifted hero going toe-to-toe with a devious and powerful mastermind. If Harry Potter was a current hit British TV show, it would be called Hermione Granger.
Hold things together with string
One of the principal differences between Doctor Who and Star Trek – and therefore between the best of British sci-fi and the best of American sci-fi – is that the TARDIS has never fully worked. Oh sure, the Enterprise takes hammering after hammering, bits of it fall off, other bits are brought into use to save the day, but it’s a Rolls Royce of a vehicle, there are plenty of spare parts, and it always gets fixed in the end. The TARDIS is an old jalopy, made up of bits of other cars, motorbikes, drum kits and shoehorns, and it also just happens to be the most wondrous and charming craft in all of science-fiction history. Take this attitude and use it wisely. If you have a medieval castle, sometimes the plumbing won’t work, or your throne will have woodworm. Undermine the nobility of your characters with minor irritations, and they will rise to the occasion.
Slow things down, then speed them up.
Pace is very hard to get right in any TV format, but a very rough guide would be to say that British TV tends to be a little bit slower than American TV. The action arrives at a less hectic tempo, to leave lots of room for the bickering. Then, just as you think the whole episode will be two people taking wry potshots at each other, make everything happen in a big fluster. And have three or four big endings, one after the other. That’ll show ‘em!
And of course, No. 11 is the cop-out clause: if you have a brilliant idea that ticks none of these boxes, don’t ruin it just to try and fit in.