Better stories reassure TV audiences

MEDIEVAL MARVEL: Donald Sutherland as Bartholomew, centre, is an imposing and welcome figure in any series.
MEDIEVAL MARVEL: Donald Sutherland as Bartholomew, centre, is an imposing and welcome figure in any series.

The near-glut of seriously good television, much of it New Zealand-made, makes a useful counterpoint to the debate over the demise of TVNZ 7.

TV One's New Zealand Sunday Theatre season has been outstanding, with this week's Siege an especial hit. These TV movies have more than held their own against such new and dazzling overseas offerings as Hemingway and Gellhorn, SoHo last Friday, Saturday's vivid account of Boy George, Worried About the Boy, UKTV, and the previous week's Page Eight.

Given a serious industry trend in Britain, America and Australia towards committing major writing, acting and directing talent to television rather than cinema, our local industry seems to be on the right page.

Yet the major debate politicians are having about publicly funded television has centred on TVNZ 7, which is a heavily studio-based, talking heads deal.

It's cheap and cheerful, but surely lacking much ambition as a flagship for this country's public-service television ethos. It was set up as a sort of bait station to get viewers used to digital TV, and was always intended to be a temporary vehicle.

Use of misleading viewing figures by some campaigners to save it doesn't help the case. Nor does the fact that the channel has quite a small, fixed gene pool of programme-makers.

While it's heartening to see one, possibly more, of the better-regarded TVNZ 7 programmes being picked up by other channels, the good public reception of TV One's Sunday season suggests the high-end productions are where the real attention on public-service television should be focused.

Such programmes are hideously expensive, but when you see a meticulous, in-depth take on living history like Siege you can tell that every dollar has been made to earn its keep. Sure, it's the worst possible time to try to interest a government in spending more money on nice-to-have areas of the economy. But these TV movies would be easy for the flintiest politician to defend to the taxpayer.

For further evidence that serious quality storytelling is where TV is headed - albeit in tandem with ever more gore-blimey reality fare - SoHo introduced The Pillars of the Earth on Monday.

Once again, resistance is useless. It's gorgeous to look at, well stocked with vivid characters and it has made a global commercial hit out of, of all things, the development of gothic architecture in 12th Century Britain.

Based on Ken Follett's best-seller -the author even pops up playing a merchant - this series is swaggeringly big-budget. The cast is basically every bankable actor who didn't star in the vaguely similar Game of Thrones, though with a few double-ups. The likes of Ian McShane as a plotting clergyman, Donald Sutherland as a nobleman and Matthew Macfadyen as a monk are queuing up to put on hooded robes and have sword fights, and it's easy to see why. Taking part in such a lavish production must be enormously enjoyable.

The story starts as a shipwreck claims Henry I's heir, leading in time to a period of civil instability known as the Anarchy, as rival factions seek to establish the succession. Follett's story follows both the royals and their political allies, the church leaders of the time, and the related fortunes of a jobbing builder hired to build a new cathedral in a fictional town caught up in the hostilities.

On paper, this admittedly does not sound like the makings of a TV or even literary blockbuster. But the franchise packs in plenty for just about every kind of viewer. The battle scenes are spectacular and gruesome, the costumes sumptuous, the politics vicious and there's enough soppy stuff to round it all off nicely.

Already Rufus Sewell will have won over all-comers as the noble, battling builder. David Oakes as evilly ambitious social climber William Hamleigh is stacking up as a terrific red-headed villain. Sutherland, with his basset hound countenance, makes a terrific self-sacrificing nobleman, and McShane might have stepped out of a medieval painting.

In this country, of course, only Sir Peter Jackson and Andrew Adamson can come anywhere near this kind of budget. But the last few weeks' Sunday nights have shown that we can produce dazzling telly with the little money there is. Viewers deserve even more of it.

One To Watch

The GC, 8pm, TV3

Love it, love to hate it or simply find oneself transfixed with horror, the final of this reality show will be an inescapable talking point, just like the rest of the series.

The Dominion Post