Unlike its cinematic sibling (which tends to be very much ‘the Oscars-lite’), The British Academy Television Awards (or BAFTA TV, since the film and television awards were separated from each other in 1997) are focused specifically on programmes made in and by the UK, and as such are often eyed with curiosity by those seeking to get a read on the state of the nation. Who will win and who will lose, and which stories and ideas will be validated along the way? These are, of course, rather reductive questions which cannot give an accurate weather forecast of the national cultural climate; however, the perennial centrality of television as part of our national identity makes them valid and interesting questions to ask nonetheless.
One of the features of the current election campaign sees political parties from across the spectrum busily accusing each other of wanting to drag the UK back to the past, so perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was the resistance to this rhetoric demonstrated by the victory of BBC 1’s Happy Valley in the Drama category, the only non-period drama nominated. The success of Happy Valley also puts the sword to the fashionable myth that improvements in television drama in the last few years have come solely on the back of the increased investment made by US companies like HBO and the online streaming services of Netflix and Amazon. Of course, increased investment is a significant factor in improving quality, but as Netflix learned last night with the lack of awards for The Crown (nominated in five categories, and coming in at an eye-watering £100 million for the series) this is not simply a linear equation: big budgets and cinema-style production values do not necessarily make for better telly.
Indeed, many of the awards demonstrated how British television, for all of its successes in the heritage marketplace, places a premium on stories that articulate contemporary Britain. From the fourth wall-breaking filthiness of Fleabag and the millennial mockumentary People Just Do Nothing (BBC 3) to the heart-breaking and very real tragedies of Hillsborough and Damilola, Our Loved Boy (BBC 1), this year’s awards also appeared to be a genuine celebration of British diversity across gender, race and class lines. This was not, as many on social media inevitably suggested, a tokenistic version of diversity designed by and pandering to the metropolitan elite, but a real reflection of the ongoing shift in representation. Muslims Like Us (BBC 2) did not win the Reality and Constructed Factual award because of a politically correct agenda, but because it was an insightful social experiment with much to teach an often narrow-minded nation; Adeel Akhtar was not the first non-white actor to win the Leading Actor award because ‘it’s about time’ (although it clearly is), but because his performance in the harrowing Murdered by my Father (BBC 3) was simply magnificent.
There is certainly a case to be made that most of this year’s winners, for all their apparent diversity, still largely constituted a rather traditional view of Britain: how else to explain the fact that the BBC walked away with 19 of the 25 awards available? Awards for Planet Earth 2 (BBC 1), Steve Coogan (as Alan Partridge in This Scissored Isle, (Sky Atlantic) and, Ant and Dec (for Saturday Night Takeaway and The Queen’s 90th Birthday Celebrations, ITV 1) all feel like they could have been handed out a decade ago and so clearly there is still much progress to be made as we slowly modernise our media.
However, the 2017 BAFTA TV awards also showed that in a world dominated by blockbuster projects like The Crown, quality ideas can still reign supreme.