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British TV drama for autumn 2018: water-cooler moments are back

Bodyguard leads pack in strong showing of TV with shows like Succession and Killing Eve that appeal to international and domestic audience

It has been a record-setting autumn for British television. The 10.4 million viewers that the first episode of BBC’s critically acclaimed drama Bodyguard attracted made it the biggest new drama on UK television for a decade. But it is hardly the only show that is able to draw a crowd.

There are the big autumn reality shows – The Great British Bake Off and Strictly Come Dancing – as well as the totally engrossing docu-drama The Mighty Redcar. A trio of media-based dramas have all emerged at the same time: Mike Bartlett’s send-up of the newspaper world, Press; Danny Boyle’s Getty family saga, Trust; and Jesse Armstrong’s media family saga, Succession.

There’s also Hugo Blick’s Rwandan genocide drama, Black Earth Rising; Toni Colette in Wanderlust, David Simon’s pornography and prostitution drama, The Deuce; while Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s excellent cat-and-mouse tale, Killing Eve, starts on Saturday on BBC One. Everywhere you look there is unmissable TV. So where has the deluge come from?

Georgia Brown, director of European originals for Amazon Studios, says it is in part down to the natural rhythm of UK television, with autumn being the time to showcase your best wares. “There’s definitely a back-to-school feel at the moment,” she says. “There’s a natural cadence to the autumn: viewers are indoors, the nights are drawing in and they want to be entertained. Viewers want to sit down in front of the telly and watch fantastic shows. Bodyguard is a great example of that.”

To die for: how Bodyguard became the biggest new TV drama of the decade

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Brown puts the success of Bodyguard – which has continued to grow its audience with 7 million people tuning in on the night for its fourth episode – down to its cast, the reputation of Jed Mercurio and being well timed. But analyst Claire Enders says it is part of a wider television trend where drama is king and channels need to create appointment TV.

“You’ve had, for the last decade, a greater concentration of drama anyway, in the budgeting of ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC. Everyone has put much more juice behind drama,” she says. “Why? Because it is the thing that draws the column inches in the paper, it is the thing that creates the event, like Bodyguard or War and Peace.”

Those “water-cooler moments” felt as if they might becoming a thing of the past as streaming and on-demand meant that viewers were no longer confined by schedules. But Bodyguard’s success (which has been bolstered by on-demand viewing on iPlayer) means that not watching on Sunday evenings means missing out and falling victim to spoilers.

“It’s just great television and sometimes the stars align,” says Brown. “They’ve launched it at exactly the right time, got fantastic credentials behind it: Jed’s a fantastic writer and people know it’s from the makers of Line of Duty. Keeley [Hawes] is fantastic. Obviously, there’s always an element of luck; you never know if people are going to come and watch you on the night.”

For Brown, the impact of streaming sites such as Amazon has shifted the needle and created a frantic rush to secure the best shows and talent. “I think increased competition and demand in the market for great content means that the premium is going up,” she says. “As there are more players on the market, inevitably the quality seems to rise as competition breeds that. Also, the viewers are becoming much more demanding.”

Enders is even more precise when she tries to pinpoint when things shifted. “January 2012 and the launch of Netflix in the UK,” she says. “Since then there’s been a massive increase in the number of TV shows available to viewers. They’re pouring money into the UK in order to get the best scripts and the best talent.”

But not so long ago column inches were being dedicated to the decline of British drama. Back in January, there was a general feeling that 2018’s first batch of British dramas hadn’t lived up to the hype. Britannia, Jez Butterworth’s trippy take on Roman Britain, seemed to baffle more people than it intrigued. David Hare’s state-of-the-nation drama, Collateral, failed to reach the heights of its predecessors, such as State of Play. Hard Sun and Requiem found small, dedicated audiences but never really broke through. McMafia was the most successful (debuting with a peak of 5.6 million viewers on the night of broadcast), but it was criticised for its glacial plot progression and it eventually shed 2 million viewers by its fourth episode. When it comes to ratings, this autumn’s batch of dramas haven’t set the world alight: according to figures from overnights.tv, Trust (1.5 million) and Black Earth Rising (1.1 million) both did modestly well. “Anything over 2 million viewers is a win in the UK,” says Enders. But September’s new TV has impressed critics, where the new year’s offering struggled to do so.

The Guardian’s Sarah Hughes wrote at the time that McMafia’s creators were “so desperate to create a global drama that could play anywhere in the world they forgot to create credible characters we might enjoy watching”. That international appeal is however a vital part of why British drama is flourishing, according to Enders, who says UK TV’s move to longer series means they’re more attractive to foreign buyers.

“The BBC and ITV and the broadcasters here have finally been able to move from three-episode and five-episode series to eight- and 10-episode series – box set length,” she says. “Box set length enables one to put a lot of publicity and juice behind the characters and invest on screen, and to sell abroad or to co-produce.”

This autumn big British dramas, led by Jed Mercurio’s record-breaking Bodyguard, seem to have rectified the problem of combining TV that appeals to both an international audience and demanding domestic viewers. Perhaps more importantly, the terrestrial channels are showing British talent that, although Netflix might have deeper pockets, they can reach large UK audiences on BBC, ITV or Channel 4.

“[Amazon and Netflix] are not putting the same effort into creating the moment, the water-cooler moment,” says Enders. “It’s ‘reach’ that broadcasters live for today. Reaching a very large number of people and doing Bodyguard numbers or The Night Manager numbers. It’s about completely justifying their existence in the eyes of the licence fee payers.”

This autumn’s bumper crop of TV has certainly done that and those who want a second series of Bodyguard should be optimistic, according to Enders. “You get people hooked on something that’s going to show up every week, which means you get more advertising money,” she says. “We’re living in a world where franchises have to develop.” The BBC might have just such a prospect on its hands.

Your guide to autumn TV


Watch live: Strictly Come Dancing (BBC One) or The X Factor (ITV)
On catchup: Killing Eve (iPlayer)


Watch live: Bodyguard (BBC One)
On catchup: Vanity Fair (ITV); No Activity (BBC Two)


Watch live: Black Earth Rising (BBC Two)
On catchup: Pistorious (Amazon Prime); Strangers (ITV)


Watch live: The Great British Bake Off (Channel 4); The Circle (Channel 4)
On catchup: The Deuce (Sky Atlantic/NowTV); Wanderlust (BBC One)


Watch live: Trust (BBC Two); Grand Designs (Channel 4)
On catchup: 9-1-1 (Sky Witness); This Is Us (More 4)


Watch live: Succession (Sky Atlantic/NowTV); Press (BBC One)
On catchup: The Mighty Redcar (iPlayer); No Offence (Channel 4)


Watch live: Gogglebox (Channel 4)
On catchup: Maniac (Netflix); A Discovery Of Witches (Sky1)