Sky are, it seems, determined to prove that money equals good drama. It’s why almost everything they produce looks so expensive, has such a recognisable cast and is on such a big scale. Take Moonfleet, their Christmas swashbuckler. That starred Ray Winstone and Aneurin Barnard and had the appearance of a small screen Pirates of the Caribbean. The biggest dramatic success for Sky, however, must surely be their adaptions of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels – more flights into fantasy then. In truth they’ve had significantly more success with their affront on comedy in recent years. Trollied, Moone Boy and Stella have all been hits, while their Alan Partridge and recently cancelled Spy even won BAFTAs.
The next Sky drama attempting to set the world alight is The Smoke, a series surrounding a team of firefighters in London in the aftermath of an ‘event’. Law and Order UK’s Jamie Bamber fronts the cast and he’s joined by Jodie Whittaker, who’s ‘hot stuff’ post-Broadchurch, but has little to do here. It definitely looks expensive, but the scale’s smaller than you might expect – in the intense, tight camera sort of way. Aside from the bold, striking opening, the focus of the first episode was on the effects of the accident (nine months previously) upon the characters involved.
It was a far cry from the fantasy of the Discworld, instead opting for proposed realism in a colder world. This proved most successful in the aforementioned opening as we were dropped straight into the fiery action: heavy breathing, smoke, shaky cameras and uncontrollable flames made for an impressive display. Though the character impact that followed worked well too, it was all overshadowed by stomach churning shocks for much of the time. Rather like one of those ‘fire kills’ adverts, it was an often brutal and tough watch, and one in which you really didn’t know what to expect next.
The programme did, however, suffer from a number of faults. The main issue with the opening episode was the problem that, tonally, it was as fractured as Bamber’s horrendously distressed Kev. I always find comedy important to making drama feel true, but here it felt brash and deeply jarring alongside the more horrific incidents throughout the hour. Lines like ‘Do you want your buns toasted?’ were taken lightly but felt horribly distasteful in hindsight given the final reveal – a searing impression of the true lasting impact of fire damage.
In addition, Whittaker was underused. I imagine that she’ll have more of a role as the series progresses (owing to her prominent place in the promotion), but here she willowed about mournfully, providing the more tender moments within the hour. I did wonder whether her role was as much to comfort us as it was Kev – we needed it by the end.
Another issue was the location. For some reason, programmes that want to be ‘real’ have to take place in heavily urban, working-class environments. Therefore, the public were a bit too ‘street’ – we knew this because they had a stolen shopping trolly and a battered car – and were reduced to growing cannabis and hurling abuse at the firefighters. “Firefighters are fitter on the telly,” said one as another tried to think of decent swearwords to yell. I guess this demonstrates their natural street aggression towards any form of authority. Innit. The fighters themselves were a bit cockney too; the word ‘guv’ner’ was thrown around with panto vigor and one of them was seen to be trying to sell dodgy DVDs to some girls. Needless to say, this did slightly undermine the more believable moments.
Have they done it then? Have Sky conquered drama? Not yet. The Smoke’s start was a promising one, and won’t be easy to forget; but if it is to take off the script could do with an iron and a few tweaks. Success is within reach.