The Bafta shortlists offer an annual freeze-frame of trends in TV. And the most striking thing this year is that two of the strongest contenders have never been shown on television – as it has been understood for most of the 62 years over which these prizes have been given.
Streamed on Netflix, the second-Elizabethan drama The Crown, with five nominations, has received more individual recognition than any of the dramas screened by the BBC, British TV’s historically most powerful fiction creator. Another triumph for new viewing is BBC3, which despite being reduced to a part-time online channel in 2016, has achieved a remarkable eight nominations between the dramas Murdered by My Father and Thirteen and the comedies Fleabag and People Just Do Nothing.
In the scripted comedy category, those BBC3 shows are up against Camping from Sky Atlantic and Channel 4’s Flowers. It’s notable that these dark, daring comedies are all created by minority channels (nothing from BBC1 or 2, or ITV), which raises the concern that edgy humour is being forced to the margins by a mainstream TV culture fearful of causing offence. Fleabag was later promoted to BBC2, but could it ever have started there?
And, though these are prizes mainly for British achievement, the international category contains a warning to UK producers about the escalating power of the work being done elsewhere: the four competing foreign dramas – The Night Of, The People vs OJ Simpson, Stranger Things and Transparent – are so strong that you can’t envy the judges who have to pick a winner.
It will also be tough to separate as leading actress, Claire Foy, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Sarah Lancashire. Their performances in The Crown, NW and Happy Valley – respectively as Elizabeth II, a racially conflicted lawyer and a morally troubled police officer – took TV acting into rare areas of vocal and facial nuance.
The most notable loser is BBC1’s The Night Manager, which, despite being rapturously received on air and voted best contemporary drama of the 21st century in a recent Radio Times poll, got only one nod, for Tom Hollander in the best supporting actor category.
Perhaps juries – including the drama series panel, which overlooked the show – decided that there was less to the John le Carré adaptation than met the eye, or perhaps the show was a victim of timing. In Hollywood, movies considered Oscar potential are deliberately released close to the voting period, to keep memories fresh, whereas TV (at least of the old-fashioned variety) goes out when the schedulers choose. As these Bafta awards cover January-December 2016, The Night Manager, screened in February, is now 14 months old. Dating also almost certainly counted against Sherlock, which had only one edition broadcast last year, going out on New Year’s Day, and has received no nominations.
Or possibly The Night Manager, even though Hugh Laurie played an arms dealer referred to as “the worst man in the world”, was considered too cheery a show. For the drama categories are, to a startling degree, dominated by tragedy.
The single drama competitors involve parents whose child is killed (Damilola, Our Loved Boy), a child killed a parent (Murdered By My Father) and a London street stabbing (NW). A drama about a natural disaster with 144 fatalities (Aberfan: The Green Hollow) completes the bleak lineup.
There’s no escape from pain in the mini-series category either, where Channel 4’s drama about a celebrity sex criminal, National Treasure, vies with three shows featuring multiple murderers: The Secret, The Witness for the Prosecution and The Hollow Crown.
Admittedly, the last of these, BBC2’s mashup of Shakespeare’s English history plays, features a higher class of serial killer, Richard III, who also wins a best actor nomination for Benedict Cumberbatch. 400 years after he died, England’s greatest dramatist – also acknowledged for Cunk on Shakespeare, a mockumentary presented by Diane Morgan’s comedy character, Philomena Cunk – is one of the most strongly represented writers. His rivals include Sally Wainwright, whose two shows, Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax, get four listings and Phoebe Waller-Bridge: Fleabag, a comedy of modern single life, adapted from her solo theatre show, gets three picks.
Impressively, Daniel Mays has been nominated for best supporting actor despite appearing in only one episode of Line of Duty, although the recognition is deserved: his long and complex speech of self-exoneration, as a police officer accused of an unjustified shooting, was a remarkable interrogation scene even by the standards of a franchise that specialises in them.
It’s good to see Norma Percy and Brian Lapping, geniuses of topical documentary, picked out for their Inside Obama’s White House (BBC2), which will become a key source for presidential historians.
As for omissions, I regret the absence of Line of Duty from the best drama contenders: as its fourth series is currently demonstrating, Jed Mercurio’s police corruption drama walks a terrifyingly original line between procedural realism and eye-popping plot-twists. And while Jared Harris’s King George VI and John Lithgow’s Sir Winston Churchill have some of the stand-out scenes in The Crown, it seems a pity that the supporting actor shortlist found no room for Alex Jennings’s wrenching portrayal of the abdicated Edward VIII.
Overall, the 2017 Bafta nominations commendably honour diverse and emerging talent – including Adeel Akhtar, Wunmi Mosaku, Jodie Comer, Babou Ceesay, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird – and new ways of making TV.
The 2017 Bafta TV awards are on 14 May.