Is the front man (or woman) more important than the show?
With the new series of Endeavour starting this evening and the latest instalment of BBC franchise Top Gear (minus Clarkson, May and Hammond) being imminent, I though it was worth re-visiting this issue.
The many twists and turns of the ‘Clarkson fracas’ debate of 2015 opened up the question of how important a single individual is to the success of a tv show. As a writer, I find this concept fascinating. It is almost like asking whether the Sherlock Holmes mysteries would have been as successful without the leading character (the answer to this being a very definite ‘no’, as Conan-Doyle was required to bring the pipe smoking detective back from the dead after an outcry from his readership).
But occasionally, a popular show, which would appear to utterly rely upon a certain acting star or lead character for its success, actually fares perfectly well without them. There are a few such shows currently airing in the UK and US. Here is my pick of those.
1. Silent Witness.
One of my favourite crime shows which I believe got even better after the departure of Amanda Burton in 2004. Sam Ryan was great, but Emilia Fox hit the ground running as forensic anthropologist Nikki Alexander, injecting a fantastic spark to the show with the sexual frisson between her and Harry Cunningham. And now that Harry and Leo have left, the series has undergone another transformation. It is pulling in more viewers than ever. The new dynamic which exists between actors Liz Carr and David Caves is unique on British television. The latest series, airing in Jan 2018, explored the issues surrounding the rights of disabled patients in care homes – from the perspective of a disabled lead character. This is groundbreaking indeed.
Since first airing in 2000, this forensic crime show has been a worldwide success. But when William Peterson, who played the incredibly popular Gill Grissom, decided to hang up his latex gloves in 2008, there were fears the show may not maintain its ratings. In fact, CSI still remains the most popular international dramatic series, with producer Jerry Bruckheimer realising that the format was a winner despite who was in the starring role. This led to the creation of a number of equally successful spin-offs.
3. The Story of Tracy Beaker.
Who knew that this long-running CBBC drama based on the books by Jacqueline Wilson could actually carry on without Tracy (played by Dani Harmer)? With a healthy injection of new characters, whilst at the same time maintaining the spirit of the original series, ‘The Dumping Ground’ was born, now being one of the most successful shows currently airing on children’s television.
I have mixed feelings about this one. Inspector Morse was the programme that really got me into crime dramas in the first place. The plot, direction and performances were brilliant. For me, Lewis never quite got close to the original. The writing didn’t contain the same edginess and subtlety. It was all too pedestrian. But the new format, promoting Sergeant Lewis to the key role, was certainly popular with viewers and defied those critics who thought that the show could not go on without the late, great John Thaw.
Endeavour, on the other hand, could actually give its predecessor a run for its money. Shaun Evans is perfect as the young Morse. The scripts are tight and full of subtle nods to the issues of the times. There are complex clues derived from crosswords and a poignant musical score. As a companion piece to Inspector Morse, this outing comes the closest to matching its melancholy brilliance. I look forward to the new series starting this week.
Along with the winners, there have been those experiments which failed. According to my parents, New Tricks has been on a steady decline since the original cast began to leave. The nail in the coffin being the departure of the wonderful Amanda Redman. Early 2000’s Sunday night Scottish drama Monarch of the Glen tried to limp on for a series or two after the main characters had moved on to pastures new. And arguably, The Archers has never been the same since Nigel fell off the roof.
So the answer is that a great show can survive the absence of a central character, but the programme needs to forge a brand new direction in order to achieve this transition, perhaps even trying something daring or groundbreaking. In summary, the writers will have to work extremely hard to make it a success.