Monday, 14 October 2013

Selling Downton to the Chinese

Are 160 million people really watching Downton Abbey in China, as George Osborne claimed on the Today programme this morning? Probably not. As Tom Chivers points out, the figure was a projection based on current trends. The show only started airing in China this year. But Chinese thirst for British costume drama seems real enough. A recent survey found that 9% of the discussion of foreign TV on Chinese social media sites concerned British dramas like Downton, while the proportion was significantly higher among graduates and white collar workers. British costume drama has the same snob appeal in China as it does in the United States, it would seem. In what is described as a "disdain chain", "British drama fans look down on fans of American shows, who look down on Korean soap fans, who in turn look down on fans of domestic dramas."

Two or three centuries ago, a rising British middle class went crazy for Chinese tea and porcelain. Now wealthy Chinese are returning the compliment: one in four Bentleys sold, for example, is now sold in China, while English public schools are setting up Chinese subsidiaries. Britain seems insular in comparison. It's hard to imagine sizeable chunk of the British public enjoying a weekly drama in Mandarin exploring the private lives of Chinese aristocrats during the dying days of the Ching dynasty. And if Osborne's 160 million figure remains aspirational, it does at least give a hint as to the sheer vastness of the potential gains to be made in the world's largest market.

There's no doubt that Downton Abbey is a phenomenon. Julian Fellowes' period soap continues to hook viewers worldwide despite its wooden scripts, its psychological superficiality and the contrived plots (including the recent attempt to liven things up a bit by having one of the best-loved characters gratuitously raped). It may not actually be a quality period drama: the show is, for all its leaden forays into attempted social realism, simply honest escapism. But it looks like one, and it capitalises on a well-established British niche. Last year, for example, it was among the most-watched TV shows in Denmark, the Netherlands, Singapore and Brazil, where it runs in a "slot dedicated to contemporary fiction", according to an executive at the network that broadcasts it. The global audience was estimated at 120 million even before transmission began in China.

British TV may have struggled in recent years to come up with anything capable of comparison (even unfavourable comparison) with The Sopranos or Mad Men, or with the slew of lugubrious Scandinavian cop shows, but slightly cheesy costume drama is the field in which this country remains the gold standard, even if Downton is no Brideshead Revisited.

So should we celebrate a great British success story, a stellar example of cultural soft power and an export triumph to boot? To some it may be a matter of regret that the world has yet to acquire a ravenous appetite for our more contemporary products - The Office was probably the last modern-set British TV show to strike a global chord, and that largely through national re-imaginings with local casts, languages and situations. But since the UK has cornered the market in nostalgia porn it would be foolish not to exploit it. The world clearly wants our frocks and boaters, our class system and our stiff upper-lips. "Theme park Britain" it may be, but at least it gives the country a strong and attractive international brand. If nothing else, it's good for tourism, even if the Home Office seems determined to drive potential tourists away with a a visa system that is expensive, bureaucratic and off-putting. And today's tourists might even become tomorrow's investors.

There are obvious dangers if the nation's image abroad (and perhaps its self-image too) is based on the past rather than the present or the future. The danger of looking irrelevant. The danger of not being taken seriously. Downton Britain is charming and traditional, but fatally unrealistic. In the series itself, Lord Grantham's essential appeal as an aristocratic paragon is bound up with his failing struggle to adapt to a changing world. He is romantically doomed, as is his miniature kingdom, to obsolescence. Is this the image of the UK that millions of international viewers are imbibing? Or is it the other way around, and Downton is successful precisely because it embodies and reflects an image that Britain has so far failed to shake off? Boris Johnson's Woosterish public persona also goes down very well abroad.

By contrast, attempts by the last government to rebrand the UK as "cool Britannia" largely flopped. National clichés die so hard that many visitors still expect to find London's streets clouded with fog and its countryside peopled with fox-hunting aristos. And for all the lip service paid to British pop culture as an antidote to the Brideshead/Downton effect our most popular and influential musical export is still the Beatles. Other British cultural exports with global appeal are of a similar vintage: think James Bond or Doctor Who.

So perhaps this country, despite all our vaunted hi-tech start-ups and cutting-edge research, is destined to be the world's leading purveyor of cosy nostalgia. There are worse fates. The 21st century belongs to China, and if Western countries are to have an economic future it will be through selling what China, and other rising nations, want to buy. And if that something turns out to be Downton Abbey it may be unfortunate for them but is great news for us.
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Thursday, 3 October 2013

So what is Paul Dacre playing at?

This week's Private Eye has an interesting (should you care about such things) item about the future of legendary Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre.  It reports that Dacre's incentive package was amended in 2010 from a five-yearly bonus to one in which he was to be paid "an additional £500,000 for each full year that he continutes working until he is 65".  We also learn that "his contract was also amended last year from a rolling one to 'the residual term until his 65th birthday on 14th November 2013'."

A big hint there that Dacre is being eased out.  The 65th birthday looks like an excuse, or a face-saving formula.  There's no reason why he shouldn't continue as editor after then, should he wish to and should his employers want him to stay on.  On the other hand, were he really ready to quit, why would he want to cling on until a symbolic retirement age? 

Assuming this account is accurate (and the evidence for the Eye's story seems quite clear), it provides some context, at least, to Dacre's kamikaze-like behaviour in recent days.  It's not clear whether or not he personally decided to run the now-notorious article about Ralph Miliband, which might otherwise have passed without much fuss, under the headline "The Man Who Hated Britain". But there's little doubt that it was he who responded to the criticism from Ed Miliband with a trenchant refusal to apologise, indeed a determination to repeat and underscore the allegations about the Labour leader's Marxist father.  And the Mail's attempt to link the story with its campaign against press regulation certainly has Dacre's fingerprints all over it.  So what is he playing at?

It could well be a case of the devil coming in great fury because he knows his time is short.  Nothing to lose, now, after all.  Better to go down all guns blazing in a fight to the death with Ed Miliband than to just slink off to his retirement home.  His departure, even if postponed until November, will (at least in his own eyes) take on the lineaments of a martyrdom.  Perhaps he believes that he can bring Miliband, or the whole regulatory process, down with him.  Or perhaps it's simply his last hurrah for the Blackshirts.  Either way, he will be enjoying his final battle.

There's a risk here, of course, which is that Dacre's behaviour will hasten the dawn of Leveson-style regulation, by increasing Miliband's determination to accept nothing less (feelings of outraged filial piety now joining his longstanding desire to muzzle newspapers like the Mail).  Already, pro-regulation campaigners scent blood: the fury with which the Mail is now being pursued is somewhat opportunistic, however genuine the anger behind it.  They will not be appeased by securing Dacre's scalp (as it will inevitably appear); the removal of their most rabid opponent will be no more than a first step.

As Roy Greenslade has it:

In truth, the whole affair has blown up in Dacre's face because of his intransigence. The Mail editor has become the centre of a story that has legs.

In the process, he has achieved the reverse of his intentions. A dignified Ed Miliband has emerged with an enhanced image. As for press regulation, he has made it infinitely more difficult for the matter to be resolved in favour of the system he favours.

But perhaps Dacre doesn't really care, and this last campaign is part of a scorched-earth policy.  There's said to be little love lost between Dacre and the man often touted as his successor, Mail on Sunday editor Geordie Greig.  Greig himself today issued an abject apology for one of his reporters gatecrashing a memorial service for Ed Miliband's uncle.  He was insistent that he had nothing to do with it (but then who did dispatch the reporter without his permission?  One of Dacre's minions?).   The subtext to Greig's grovelling is presumably to signal that the Mail under his control will be softer, gentler affair, a labrador puppy to Dacre's pitbull; and no doubt there's also a hint of panic that the scandal might cost him his long dreamed-of prize. 

Ed Miliband, meanwhile, has gone over Dacre's head to the present Lord Rothermere, demanding a thorough enquiry into the ethics of the Mail.  Such an enquiry could only satisfy by presenting the Labour leader with Dacre's head on a platter.  But if Dacre is leaving anyway, the sacrifice can only be a symbolic one.  Unless, of course, it gives Rothermere a most convenient opportunity to remake the Mail's image by loading all of its sins onto a scapegoat, who will then be cast out into the wilderness with only a vast pension to sustain him.  Or unless Dacre has raised the stakes so high that his departure now would look too much like a victory for the supposed enemies of a free press.  In which case the plans for his retirement might have to be revisited, and Rothermere (and the whole country) might be stuck with him for logner than originally expected.  Who knows?

UPDATE: The Press Gazette is reporting that Dacre is staying on for another twelve months at least, having agreed a new contract. It's not clear when he negotiated this. In any case, it puts paid to any "scorched earth" theory, but I doubt the timing is entirely coincidental. Perhaps his new lease of professional life has gone to his head.
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