Oh, please, give me a break! I don’t have time for all your dramatising | Sophie Heawood

What is it about today’s cultural offerings? Wherever you look, we’ve lost the art of brevity

Immensely pleasing to see the chairman of the Booker prize judging panel, on announcing its shortlist, admit the judges had to read an awful lot of waffle to get to that point.

“We occasionally felt that inside the book we read was a better one – sometimes a thinner one – wildly signalling to be let out,” said Kwame Anthony Appiah. It’s not that he’s opposed to long books – the man went on to emphasise that The Overstory, by Richard Powers, is 500 pages long, one of the very longest they read, and it proved brilliant enough to make it to the final six. What they were surprised by was the amount of woolly waffle that judicious editors had not pruned out of other books. “The chastening pencil has its role and subtraction can be as potent as addition,” said Appiah.

First, can we just rejoice at having someone in public life who uses phrases such as “wildly signalling” to be let out and the “chastening pencil”. Second, yes, this is a real issue and not entirely the fault of authors being precious. Writer friends of mine, even if they have already published a bestseller, tell me that getting a good editor’s time is a rare dream nowadays and that they long for more help with structure and the fine tuning of the thing.

And have you seen the state of the telly? No, I don’t mean that there’s nothing to watch these days – there’s absolutely masses, which is the problem. The minute somebody says to me: “Ooh, have you seen that new American drama series about the crooked senator and his gay lover” or “that drug-dealing Jewish housewife with a bomb in her mid-century modern coastal meth lab”, I have to cover my ears, lest it become another thing that’s impossible to drop into for a few episodes, for fear that 47 further series will promptly appear, making the ongoing Brexit negotiations look positively racy.

Let’s all remember Fawlty Towers, the much referenced classic comedy of which only two series of six episodes each were ever made. The Office, well at least the English original by Ricky Gervais, did the same thing. Sixes are good – the current gripping Sunday night BBC drama Bodyguard ends on its sixth and final episode, but there are already rumours of a second series. Which is all well and good, but if they don’t tie up every single existing loose thread in this finale I will be livid.

The director Sam Mendes recently noted, in a New Yorker profile, that writers, once employed to pen 90-minute movies, are now showrunners of series such as Breaking Bad or Mad Men that run to 60 or 90 episodes. He wasn’t saying one was better than the other, purely making the good point that long-running shows have taken over from the one-off movie in cultural prominence.

What he didn’t mention is that actors are losing the plot too. The other day, I interviewed Dominic West, who has been starring in The Affair for several years now, another show that started off as brilliantly gripping and then, somewhere in the next 41 episodes, lost it. West told me he was off to America to shoot what would be “the fifth and, I hope, the final series”, which is not how actors used to talk to journalists in an official promotional capacity, but nobody can be arsed any more.

Not everything is getting long-winded, though: pop music has preferred the single to the album for years. Of course, catchy hits have always been the essence of the industry, but doing a whole album was always the dream that lay at the end of such hit-making. Look at the 2018 Mercury awards for albums: people wondered why it was full of such long-established oldies such as Lily Allen, Florence + the Machine and Noel Gallagher.

Well, the thing is that many younger artists aren’t releasing albums any more so aren’t eligible for the award. Look at Mabel, a young pop star very much of the digital, Snapchat generation, who has been releasing songs since 2015, done a high-profile stadium tour, been in the official top 10 and won an MTV award – but she hasn’t released an album. Her scene is all about singles and EPs and mix tapes.

So perhaps Mabel could come in as a script editor on Game of Thrones, because how there is anyone left in it to be disembowelled or defenestrated, I have no idea. And how there is anyone left in Los Angeles for the characters in Transparent to have initially impulsive and radical but eventually remorseful sex with, who knows? Someone told me that Homeland was still going the other day. Homeland! Is it really? Don’t get me wrong, the first series of Homeland was the highlight of my week when I was stuck at home breastfeeding my newborn daughter. It’s just that my daughter is about to turn seven.

The Crown, meanwhile, has gone through so many years of the royal story that a whole new cast is now playing older versions of the same people – frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t just spin the drama out more so we could watch Vanessa Kirby play Princess Margaret from her childhood to her death in real time.

I love all these programmes – I just think it’s time that everyone died now. Groundhog Day was a film with a clever idea, not a prophetic prediction of how the future of film itself would turn out, with films being knocked off the top spot by episodic TV made by the biggest directors and stars, in which the same story would happen again and again and again. Wildly signalling to be let out.


Sophie Heawood

The GuardianTramp

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