Why are dramas such as Teachers and Cold Feet so successful?

In this essay, I intend to look at the factors that help to make reality dramas such as Cold Feet and Teachers successful. Cold Feet and Teachers are two of the most recent dramas to be put on British screens. The ITV television series Cold Feet has become a hit programme on British television, regularly pulling in audiences up to 9 million. (MediaGuardian, Dec 27th 2000) Set in Manchester, the text is based on a group of friends in their thirties and focuses on their everyday lives, from the happy to the tragic in the blink of an eye. As said in the MediaGuardian, (Dec 27th 2000) it has “defined a new genre – comedy-drama.” As Helena Sheehan, a lecturer at Dublin University put it; comedy-drama penetrates deep into the social realities of life. This statement also shows in the second text – Channel 4’s ‘Teachers.’ Set in a London secondary school, this drama follows a group of young teachers whose unruly lives and loves are not dissimilar from their adolescent times. It stars Andrew Lincoln as Simon, (also in ‘This Life’) fighting maturity at the age of 27. It follows Channel 4’s remit of being new and innovative in its service to the public. Despite terrible reviews from newspapers such as The Times, and condemnation from the NUT, Channel 4 has re-commissioned this programme for 2002.

With quality dramas such as this, it is hard to think that Cold Feet is shown on ITV, a channel sometimes thought to produce low-quality TV just to pull in advertisers. As stated in ITV’s current remit:

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“ITV is not required to cater specifically for non mainstream tastes and interests (though it has a wide range of ‘positive programme requirements’), or to meet particular requirements for innovation, experimentation or distinctiveness. That is not to say that these characteristics will not feature in the ITV service, but they are not its defining characteristics.” In my opinion, Cold Feet is innovative in its production by way of rebelling against the traditional ‘old’ stereotypes. The PSB of BBC 2, or Channel 4 were more likely to have shown this. But as David Liddement puts it, “Cold Feet is an important part of how ITV is evolving, but I don’t see it as a radical departure, I see it as part of a tradition” (as shown by Cracker, Prime Suspect, and Band of Gold.) He went on to say that ITV had a reputation for ‘mould breaking’ dramas, and this is mould breaking because times are changing, and Cold Feet reflects this well. It also appeals to the young and more trendy audience that has been targeted so far by BBC 2 and C4.

Cold Feet and teachers both target a similar audience, 18-35 year olds with a high disposable income – Cold Feet being more slanted however to the female audience. This is especially relevant in the case of Cold Feet. Another gratification that can be gained from the media is ‘Personal Identity and Personal Channel 4 has recently been criticised for attempting to constantly ” target and reach a demographically clearly defined audience – the 18-35 year-olds – and single-mindedly commission a bulk of programmes that suits their tastes, however laddish or yobbish.” (Sir Jeremy Isaacs) – it has signed up Richard and Judy from ITV, relies heavily on Countdown for its afternoon ratings, and has effectively binned the ‘old hat’ Big Breakfast show. Channel 4 is evolving into an ever-innovative channel, and this shows in programmes such as Teachers.

ITV don’t have to innovate in this way but in a way they do, in order to compete with the BBC and especially, Channel 4. Channel 4 is a non profit making organisation, as opposed to ITV, and this means that Channel 4 can afford to innovate and fail – it doesn’t matter. Teachers is a very good example of innovation from Channel 4 – it destroys any traditional representations of teachers and makes them appeal to the students – they can identify with the characters. Before this programme was shown, teachers in the UK were seen as effectively a different species by the students, but this text brings the teachers closer to the students. It shows students that Teachers have lives as well, and no person, teacher or not, can have a life without problems. In fact, students are learning about life through Uses and Gratifications – learning when they don’t know it.

Both Teachers and Cold Feet are quality television as since the 60’s/70’s, television was fast becoming the most prevalent form of mass entertainment. Numbers of cinema admissions were declining – in 1960, cinema attendance was at only 500 million, as opposed to 1634 million on 1946. By 1984, this number had dropped to just 54 million. (Business Review). In the early 80’s, the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, brought a Conservative government into power, and with it, a myriad of changes to the way the country was run, and this affected the Media severely. For example, Thatcher wanted to bring competition to the industry, and get rid of the BBC’s monopoly. This did not appeal to the industry and was blocked by the industry and the public alike. There were 2 separate ideologies within the Conservative party battling it out here, and something had to give. Eventually, Channel 4 was formed when the Broadcasting Act of 1980 solved the problem, saying that the channel will not actually physically make programmes, but commission them from a wide variety of sources, and this was good for both ideologies. This concept has been proved in ‘Teachers,’ because it was produced by Tim Bradley, who is also a producer of BBC’s ‘Casualty.’

These two shows would not have been successful if not for the audience. Both Cold Feet and Teachers fulfil the audience’s Uses and Gratifications. One reason we watch TV, and especially Comedy-drama is to create a diversion from our real lives. This is one of the Uses and Gratifications of TV viewing, proposed my Mcquail, Blumler and Brown. Joanne Kenny, of the University of Dublin, described TV as “evading reality by relishing it, warming to it, criticising it, eating with it, and waking up to it,” which is largely true. ‘It presents the use of media in terms of the gratification of social or psychological needs of the individual.’ (Blumler ; Katz 1974) Cold Feet and Teachers are perfect examples of this – we are drawn into the lives of the characters, and we are drawn out of our own. We also watch to learn. When we watch a show such as Cold Feet or Teachers, and put our own lives to the back of our mind, we can see our lives from an objective point of view. If characters in the show also have a similar problem to your own, you can learn from the show, and implement it into our lives. This is the term in the spectrum of Uses and Gratifications we know as ‘Learning’, or ‘Surveillance.’ We find out about relevant events and conditions in our own surroundings, society and the world, we seek advice on practical matters, or our choices in life, we seek information about how to make our choices.

We also like to satisfy curiosity and general interest, satisfy our need for general knowledge, and gain a sense of security through our knowledge. For example, a lot of people in Britain would be seeking advice on how to cope with losing a baby through a miscarriage. Cold Feet dealt with this issue and could help the specific audience identify and deal with the problem. Students in Britain would be worrying about how to deal with situations such as bullying, and, although the teachers are portrayed as irresponsible and immature, they are still portrayed as in charge, and able to sort out such situations. We are in the age of Information and knowledge. With the rise of the Internet, Digitalisation and the shrinking of the world into the global village, we as a society have more access to information, knowledge and understanding. With this access come more stimuli to learn from and use in our daily lives. Cold Feet teaches us about relationships, the breaking of the class system in Britain, parenthood, marriage break-ups, babies delivered by emergency caesarean and weddings, to name but a few.

Other gratifications we gain from the Media are called ‘Personal Identity’ and ‘Personal Relationships.’ Personal Identity refers to ‘finding out who we are, what we’re like and how we compare with others. We do this in our interactions with other people of course, but we can use the media to gratify that need as well.’ (Mick Underwood, CCMS website.) Personal relationships refers to how the audience forms relationships with people on the TV. “We can find out how other people live; we can identify with people in the media and thus gain a sense of belonging; we can use the media as a source of things to talk to other people about” (Mick Underwood, CCMS website.) Through Cold Feet and Teachers, we do this – identify with the characters, discuss with other people around us, for example, parents and friends, the issues and debates thrown up by the texts. By doing this, we compare ourselves to others, form opinions about characters, and also, if we like the character, we try to copy them, in hair, clothes and even speech sometimes.

Unlike Cold Feet, Teachers (in a typical Channel 4 way,) challenges stereotypes. Teachers deals with issues such as cohabitation, sex education, social lives, marital problems, and also teaches the younger audience about lives of the teachers outside school. It shows that teachers actually have problems in their personal lives, and they are not necessarily the angels that they are stereotyped to be. The NUT slated this programme because it was apparently representing the teachers as having ‘behaviour worse than the students.’ (cited by Glen Owen, Education Correspondent, The Times) But this could also have a positive effect on the teenage audience – seeing teachers in a different light. In fact, David Blunkett, when shown the synopsis, had a very different view from that of the NUT. He said that “we think that the more successful the lead character is in his sex life, then the more young people might be tempted to see some of the many benefits that come from entering the profession.” (cited by Glen Owen, Education Correspondent, The Times )

This is a very ‘Labour’ response. Thatcher would have had a very different view. Cold Feet has avoided stereotyping gender roles, and in fact, reversed them. Stereotypically, the woman will do all of the housework, cook, clean, wash and iron, while the man works. In Cold Feet however, when Jenny was pregnant with Pete’s baby, she didn’t do any housework, preferring to laze on the settee and watch TV. Pete however, was obsessed with planning the arrangements for the reading all the books he could find concerning childbirth. He even planned the quickest route to each of the possible hospitals that Jenny might be taken to. This reflects the New Age Male culture.

Both Cold Feet and Teachers are examples of programmes being a ‘child of the time.’ One factor that makes Teachers and Cold Feet a product of the time is culture. Raymond Williams describes culture as “A way of life.” Both the texts are completely British ventures, written, paid for, and filmed (mostly) in Britain. In many texts, the British are represented as conservative, (Yes Minister) unemotional, class ridden, long suffering, traditional (the Trooping the Colour programmes, As Time goes by, Watercolour Challenge), and patriotic. (football). We drink to get drunk, like sport and team games, tend to queue more often than needed, like to set up home (look at all the DIY and Gardening shows!), and are also workaholics. That is how other cultures see us. We are seen through the tinted eyes of the Media. To get a greater audience, Cold Feet re-presents this to us – we like to recognise ourselves – it reaffirms our views of eachother. Relating this 90’s Zeitgeist to the text, Pete is an avid football fan. Adam and Pete were always going to DIY shops, and this shows the 90’s preoccupation with setting up ‘home.’ David is obviously the upper class type, with a well paid job in the city, with his wife Karen being a sort of go-between to link the 2 sets of people together. The concept of our British class-ridden society has not been put into the text – this is why David and Karen are friends with the others – the series is based on friendships – not class-based or working relationships. David however has been given status through his highly paid job, and this comes through in his character. (his attitude sometimes to the nanny, and his reaction at the wedding in Australia to the naked swimming pool scene.)

Both Cold Feet and Teachers follow the ancient rules of storytelling laid down by the Italians. (http://www.waynesweb.ualr.edu/scholars/Neoclassicism.htm)

During the Renaissance in Italy, a group of dramatic critics ‘rediscovered’ observations from ancient playwrights such as Aristotle, who studied Greek plays. They called themselves the Neo-classicists and made these observations into rigid rules on performances. This was subdivided into ‘rules’ that a play of a story should follow. One of these was called ‘Unity of Time’ and stated that a play should not cover more than 24 hours at a time. ‘Unity of Place’ recommended that the play should not be too spread out – it should cover only a couple of local places. ‘Unity of Action’ suggested that there should be just one central storyline and it should not have subplots. It should also not have many characters. They thought that the main function of storytelling was to teach moral lessons, and that anything the actors do should be morally acceptable – also that there should be no violence on the stage.

The two texts follow some of these rules in that both sets of episodes usually cover the passage of time in 1 day. Both are set in a relatively small number of places (Cold Feet has more than Teachers) and both teach the audience moral lessons throughout. This is sometimes at the cost of the interpretation that the actors should all act morally – but this is to enforce the points to the audience and show the bad things that will happen if you are immoral. Violence is used in both texts, but also it shows that whoever is using the violence is in the wrong and therefore reprimanded. For example, in Teachers, a student has a fight with another student, and they are both punished by the teacher.

Unlike Teachers, Cold Feet is set in Manchester. The original city of choice was London, yet the writer Mike Bullen thought that “so much of the Media is in London and so much of the country isn’t.” (Bullen, cited by Tina Ogle)

With that and due to Granada’s connection with Manchester, and also its popularity from shows such as Coronation Street and Brookside, it was decided to set the show in Manchester. Although Manchester is still not what a lot of people would think as a strong, vibrant, rich and cultural city like London, it does have its bonuses. Manchester United, one of, if not the greatest Football Club is based there, and this fits in nicely with Pete’s interest in the game. The music scene is also well known throughout the world, with rock bands such as Oasis originating from here. As the Guardian wrote, ‘Whoever dared to declare that this part of the world was “grim” should do themselves a favour and take a train to where it’s at. They may then be forced to eat their words. Bon Appetite.’ -( 27th July 2000)

Cold Feet and Teachers seem to be both home grown productions for the British only market. Yet the growing trends in the worldwide media industries have encouraged sales of Cold Feet to rocket. Cold Feet is one of a small genre named Two-Way Transatlantic’ by ‘Variety’ magazine. It describes the way that British texts such as ITV sitcom Babes in the Wood, BBC’s Ballykissangel and Channel Four’s Don’t forget your toothbrush are appealing to worldwide, and especially American audiences, and, with America, this is very difficult to do. Other examples of the Britain to America boom are The Weakest Link and Who Wants to be a Millionaire, the latter being sold to over 50 countries of the world. This boom has been brought about mainly by the current Labour government of Britain. It has responded to the growing Americanisation, globalisation, and cultural imperialism by selling the countries programmes to less developed countries as well as America. This spreads the phenomena throughout the world, promoting our western ideologies, our norms and values. Less developed countries are slowly losing their cultures because they are bombarded with American culture. CNN news broadcasts to 208 countries over the world via satellite – their viewer numbers reach at least half a billion people. (Mass Media and Communications)

Other international satellite systems broadcast a myriad of channels to the world, and this is turning the world into one culture. Due to these trends, you’d expect to see all the American norms and values within the text. To an extent, we do – the clothes, the music and the general attitudes to life. However, in many American texts, there is a happy ending. This is a major difference between the British and the American TV/Film directors. The British match their culture with the music and also TV/Film. The last series of Cold Feet ended with David on a plane home from Australia, in tears because Karen left him. This is obviously a sad ending, and occurs in many other texts – Coronation Street and Eastenders concentrate more on sadness, and American TV shows such as Friends all end with a funny or happy ending. This is perhaps because Britain still wishes to be individual within the ever-consuming American culture.

In conclusion, both Cold Feet and Teachers have many similarities and differences. Cold Feet is concerned with class more than Teachers, which puts the teachers on a similar social level to the students. Cold Feet breaks the traditional stereotypes of British culture an people, and Teachers also does this in the different way of reversing roles of teacher/pupil. In both texts, the audience learn about different aspects of life from the texts, and appreciate the opportunity to escape from their own lives for a while. This increases ratings in this country, and abroad as well, spreading the Western culture around the globe. Both Cold Feet and Teachers play an important role in the Media in showing that Britain has many different things to offer than just country houses and the houses of Parliament.