By Jonathan Bignell, University of Reading
Although awards shows are all about the excitement of the moment – that’s why they’re live – this year’s Bafta television crop is more about continuity than revolution. There was mild controversy because ITV outperformed BBC, winning three awards for the drama serial Broadchurch. Like Channel 4’s Southcliff, Broadchurch used a conventional murder investigation form to delve deeply into character and the making and breaking of a small-town community.
But it wasn’t especially radical. Looking at the awards more generally, the nominees all perpetuate a specifically British heritage. There are the short-form or one-off television dramas, the writer-led comedies that rework the traditional sitcom, and entertainment that showcases our national expertise in devising factual formats. While excellent imports like Nordic noir may rise and fall, British TV continues to excel in these categories.
Britain leads the world in devising hybrids of documentary, competition and light entertainment. Pop Idol followed aspirant amateur singers, cooks compete in MasterChef, and celebrities learn a new discipline in Strictly Come Dancing. The Great British Bake-off was nominated in both the Features category and the Radio Times Audience Award. It has been running since 2010 and won a Bafta last year. It was beaten this time by Long Lost Family, but for me Bake-off is the best recent docu-gameshow-entertainment hybrid.
Each episode follows the minor challenges posed by making pre-rehearsed dishes, without hysteria. What matters is “an even bake” rather than a prize. Shot in the kind of marquee used for village fetes, and set in the grounds of a historic house, the Bake-off is nostalgic in that it wants us to admire craft and skill, rather than cunning.
To be sure, it is middle-class and middle-brow, but as Sarah Cardwell has shown, its brilliance is in its tone. Knowing self-deprecation embodied by presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins combines with pride in expertise and draws on a heritage of cooking shows personified by resident expert Mary Berry.
Berry was cookery editor for Housewife magazine in the 1960s and her career as a TV cook started on ITV’s Afternoon Plus a few years later. The Bake-off’s ingredients produce a glow of satisfaction that is made for sharing. It reminds us that television, unlike browsing YouTube on your laptop, works best as a collective pleasure.
We can say something similar about an ostensibly very different show: the sitcom The IT Crowd, which took home two prizes, leading after Broadchurch. Its writer Graham Linehan refused to follow the trend in the last decade for “opened out” location-shot comedy. Instead, he set the show almost wholly in the basement office of its three main characters.
This method of “theatrical” shooting in a three-walled set, open on one side to a live studio audience, is also used in the hit sitcom Miranda and harks back to the “golden age” of 1960s British sitcom. Narratives are driven by dialogue and not physical action, characters are spatially constrained and emotionally trapped. Viewers are invited to join in with the studio audience laughing on the as-live soundtrack. The nerdy protagonists Moss (Richard Ayoade) and Roy (Chris O’Dowd), with their useless boss the “Relationship Manager” Jen (Katherine Parkinson) might be recognisable as stereotyped Microserfs from almost anywhere. But making comedy out of the bleak nihilism and dogged persistence they display is very specific to British sitcom’s heritage of interest in failure and embarrassment.
Samuel Beckett’s 1958 novel The Unnameable ends: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” It is this sentiment which is peculiarly British. Dad’s Army’s protagonists, and Harold in Steptoe and Son used this in front of their live audiences 45 years ago. Both German and US adaptations of The IT Crowd have failed, but this year Ayoade and Parkinson won the Baftas for Male Performance and Female Performance in a Comedy respectively.
But the biggest strength of British television is probably in drama. We more or less invented television drama, initially restaging theatre for the cameras and then developing new, original forms like the social-realist Cathy Come Home in 1966 and the experimental Modernism of Pennies from Heaven in 1978.
Doctor Who was a triumph of that Golden Age. Its beginnings in 1963 were dramatised last year in An Adventure in Space and Time, a nominee for the Radio Times Audience Award. The award in the end went to the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, whose storyline careered back and forth across the Doctor’s centuries-long existence. This was not only a showcase of Doctor Who, but also of the BBC’s international brand. The Day of the Doctor was the world’s largest ever simulcast of a TV drama: it was screened at the same time on TV or in cinemas in 94 countries.
These strengths are all summed up by the Bafta Special Award, which went to Cilla Black, who first appeared on TV in 1968 in her own star vehicle, Cilla. Here we have a reminder that the 60s were not just a time when Britain had the best pop music, best fashion and (briefly) the best football team in the world, but also the best television. And the 2014 Baftas remind us that the legacy of that period still drives and shapes the creative values and shared pleasures of today.
Jonathan Bignell receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to lead a research project titled ‘Spaces of Television: Production, Site and Style’, studying the relationships between the production technologies and the aesthetics of British TV drama from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Anyone with an even passing interest in British television knows that on 25 December 2013, Matt Smith will cease to be the Doctor, with Peter Capaldi taking over the lead role in long-running programme Doctor Who. Meanwhile, anyone passing through Reading town centre in recent weeks knows that Jacksons, the long-established family-owned department store on the corner of Kings Road and High Street (known as Jacksons Corner), is due to close at the end of the year. What not too many people may know is that there is an interesting link between the two: whilst researching for a chapter on the transatlantic dimensions of Doctor Who, in which I argue that the programme is a British institution marked by significant links to and influences by North Atlantic television, I noticed in late 2011 that Jacksons was using a picture of Matt Smith as the Doctor in their window display for men’s fashion.
Naturally, I decided to write about this in my chapter, in a section devoted to exploring the Britishness of Matt Smith, for which I draw on Barbara Selznick’s thoughtful work on the Britishness of Doctor Who. Selznick has suggested that ‘there are three familiar “brands of Britishness” in the US that are frequently attached to British media: heritage, cool, and eccentric’1 and argued that the 2005 Doctor Who reboot moved away from heritage and the eccentric and towards the cool, and that this contributed to its success in the USA. Tracing the trajectory of casting and Doctor construction from the days of Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant to Matt Smith, I suggest that Smith’s Doctor shifts to the heritage and eccentric:
[I]ndeed, his old-fashioned-ness of dress is in itself eccentric, never more so than when he dons retro aviator goggles while repairing the TARDIS. In his bowtie-wearing and fish fingers and custard-cooking ways, Smith’s Eleventh Doctor is more closely connected to Tom Baker’s unorthodox, scarf-wearing and jelly babies-eating Fourth Doctor than he is to his reboot brethren.2
The current Doctor Who brings together the heritage and eccentric brand with the cool noticeably differently to the classic series, which, as Selznick has argued, experienced problems with US audiences because of how it was managing the brands at different points in time. For example, that Doctor Who’s cool themes did not appeal to US viewers during the early decades was furthered by the fact that ‘they were wrapped up in a heritage style text’.3 Contrary to Piers Britton’s reading (based on various media reports) that the Eleventh Doctor’s first costume is not cool,4 my chapter argues that the current version does not so much wrap up its cool themes in heritage, but, with Matt Smith’s Doctor wrapped (as it were) in an elbow-patched Harris tweed jacket, very explicitly reclaims and reconfigures heritage as cool.
Indeed, that Matt Smith’s Doctor’s sartorial material of choice is Harris tweed, and that Jacksons used a picture of Smith clad in his jacket with the tag-line ‘He chose Harris Tweed. Why don’t you?’ is interesting and part of a wider cultural trend of reclaiming, where items previously deemed old-fashioned become retro-chic. With Harris tweed bearing strong heritage connotations and a somewhat ‘fusty’ reputation, but in recent years having been ‘rediscovered’ by fashion designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Doctor Who’s explicit linking of heritage and cool was here tapped into by a shop that, with its still functioning pneumatic tube system and blog, was itself negotiating these two brands. While Selznick already sees much fluidity between the brands of Britishness through which she discusses the pre-Matt Smith Doctor Who, the current version arguably goes a step further in that it deliberately reclaims and rebrands these brands.
Given that Doctor Who – budget issues and criticisms it has had to contend with under Steven Moffat’s stewardship notwithstanding – is set to enter a new important phase following its 50th anniversary year, but Jacksons is closing down after 138 years of trading, it seems that one of these British institutions managed this reclaiming and rebranding process much more successfully. It is by the quirks of timing that these endings are occurring just as the edited collection, Doctor Who – The Eleventh Hour: A Critical Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era, to which my chapter belongs is coming out. While Doctor Who is set to continue its ‘negotiation of the discourses of connection and distinction, influence and resistance that have shaped it since its very beginning’,5 it remains to be seen how exactly the site soon-to-be formerly home of Jacksons will regenerate.
 Barbara Selznick, ‘Rebooting and Re-Branding: The Changing Brands of Doctor Who’s Britishness’ in Chris J. Hansen (ed.), Ruminations, Peregrinations, and Regenerations: A Critical Approach to Doctor Who (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), p.69.
 Simone Knox, ‘The Transatlantic Dimensions of the Timelord: Doctor Who and the Relationships between British and North American Television’ in Andrew O’Day (ed.), Doctor Who – The Eleventh Hour: A Critical Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era (I. B. Tauris, 2013), p.113.
 Selznick, ‘Rebooting and Re-Branding’, p. 74; emphasis added.
 Piers D. Britton, TARDISbound: Navigating the Universes of Doctor Who (I. B. Tauris, 2011), p. 104.
 Knox, ‘The Transatlantic Dimensions of the Timelord’, p.118-119.
During the third week of the Autumn term the Department of Film, Theatre & Television at Reading was asked by Theatre Royal Stratford East to involve thirty students in a project entitled ‘Home Theatre’, whereby thirty devised pieces of theatre would be performed in thirty different homes across London. The aim was to create a tailor-made performance for each host – where the artist would meet them, discuss the contents of the piece, and a week later have a performance for friends and family to come and watch in the comfort of their own home. The performances took place in a diversity of different households and communities – from high rise London flats to a local hospital ward – one was even performed on a house boat.
Our role as film and theatre students was to meet the host with the artist, work with the artist in the devising process, and most excitingly – film the live event on the night when all performances were being shown across London. Finally, all the films would be broadcast live on Saturday 9th of November over the theatre’s website for all of us – as well as the general public – to watch from our own homes.
Looking back at it now – the best part for me was the idea of home based theatre itself. To be invited to create a performance in someone’s home – someone’s living space – which is so personally connected to the person or people living there, was a real challenge for us as performers who were used to performing on a bare stage. We had been given a fantastic opportunity to use this space to create performances around real people in a space that is so lived in and uniquely recognisable to that individual.
As a Film & Theatre student the project was perfect because it allowed me to work collaboratively with my artist and director on the theatre side – looking at how to structure the performance and how the artist could use the space, whilst also allowing me to have my own individual piece of work to take away from the project with the film – experimenting with composition and various camera angles within the space, how I would work with the quality of light and sound, and how I could feed the camera in to the audiences experience within their homes.
My performance took place in an Indian care centre – within the lounge area of their building. The performance was a massive challenge for me and my artist – dealing with an audience from a different culture and with a different language far from my own. They told us they wanted a performance to make them laugh – something happy and nostalgic – pointing out films they used to watch and songs they used to sing. Although many of the residents were from different regions of India with varying and conflicting languages and religions – all seemed to share collectively with many memorable films and songs they loved from their past lives back home in India; Bollywood film classics such as Pakeezah’s feature song ‘Chalte Chalte‘ and the song by Raj Kapoor – ‘the showman of India’ – singing ‘Mera Joota Hai Japani’, which states within the lyrics that even though his clothes are from different regions of the world – ‘his heart belongs to India.’ This material was extremely enjoyable for me to watch and research as a film student – especially in relation to our new World Cinema module. The performance night itself was incredible – we were full of adrenaline and nervous thoughts, but once they all started to laugh and sing along – leaning out of their seats to shake the performers hand – I felt the warmth and excitement that brings people to the theatre. The songs and films were not just a means of entertainment – they were memories, memories that we brought to life in their own living room. The experience was incredible and emotional – and brought to my attention the benefits of site specific performance when the aim is to create work based on the lives of real people that occupy these spaces.
The show that launched a thousand blogs: The reception of Lena Dunham’s Girls (Television for Women conference paper)
Prompted by the release of season 2 of Girls on DVD and preparing to teach the show on a new module in Autumn, I thought I would put up a paper I gave earlier this Summer at the Television for Women conference at Warwick (15-17 May 2013). This was a paper which charted a small part of the vast discourse surrounding the show’s debut, and as it is a paper about the smart, thoughtful commentary by a range of diverse (largely female) voices I wanted to give a shoutout to the women of my twitter feed who have thought through, blogged and unpicked the show throughout its first two seasons and whose words informed this paper. I also wanted to highlight this post by Amanda Ann Klein, which links out to many of the key pieces and helped me think through this mountain of discourse.
The Prezi that accompanied this paper can be found here.
The show that launched a thousand blogs: The reception of Lena Dunham’s Girls
Television for Women Conference, 15-17 May 2013, University of Warwick
This is not a paper about Girls, rather it’s a paper about people talking about Girls. It is about a discourse, the commentary, the hype that swirled around the half-hour HBO show, created by then 25 year old Lena Dunham, about a group of upper middle class white women muddling through their early twenties in Brooklyn. This paper focuses on the pre-publicity and immediate reception of Girls in its initial week or so of broadcast – this was more than enough for 20m paper.
I want to position Girls as a catalyst for conversation. The show prompted many multi-faceted responses across a range of print, online and social media – which thought-through ideas around race, gender, class, bodies, sexuality, authorship, industry, distribution. This conversation highlighted culture’s ever present need to ‘worry’ about young – white – women’s bodies and voices, yet also showed how online cultural commentary opened up space for a diversity of womens voices. This discourse is intersectional, to use all the fancy words, and closing it down to one thing or another – just female authorship, just class, just race – ignores the complexity of the conversation and women’s place in culture. We are not singular!
So I would suggest that Girls + the insightful, engaged, critical, angry, funny talk – by journalists, academics, cultural critics and all – Girls + this conversation = is a thing. Though the many-voiced messiness made your head hurt at times, it is a prime example of how television is produced and made complex through this discourse. Am going to pull out a few of these key points in circulation, to map some conversations about Girls, but necessarily skipping briefly over complex events.
Girls arrived in a particular cultural context, within the post-Bridesmaids 2011-12 US television season, where a wave of female–fronted sitcoms debuted – primarily chronicling white, heterosexual, twentysomething women who all looked a certain way: 2BG, Whitney, Bitch in Apt 23, New Girl. These were shows created by women – though often showrun by men and had writing rooms where women remained in the minority – thus conversations around gender, race, comedy and authorship were already primed.
Girls arrived via a carpet bomb of hype from HBO and was perhaps fatally overexposed from the get go. As well as traditional media HBO targeted the online cultural spaces frequented by it’s desired demographic of young tech-savvy, female, viewers. Girls was tied fast to its creator-writer-director-star Lena Dunham and her rarity as a 20-something star and showrunner with creative control – her authorship and distinctive ‘voice’ were repeated emphasised. Girls was inescapable, profiled on culture and lady blogs, television review sites, on public radio stations, in magazines and newspapers and billboards the size of buildings.
Critical praise for Girls and Dunham coalesced with the themes pushed by HBO: its ‘authenticity’, realism,verisimilitude. Girls’ ‘universality’ was aligned with Dunham’s freedom with her ‘imperfect’ body and the flawed nature of the women she created. TV critic Willa Paskin at Salon framed Girls as a ‘generational event’, whilst in a New York magazine cover story Emily Nussbaum argued the show was ‘like nothing else on tv’ celebrating it as ‘for us, by us’. But the question of who this ‘us’ began to be asked as Girls spread beyond this press first wave.
Girls had a cross-platform presence, supported by Lena Dunham’s strong social media profile, where she chronicled production via tweets and instagram. Trailers for the show circulated via youtube, and centralised Hannah’s claim that she could be the voice of her generation, well a voice of a generation. A phrase repeated in critical conversations about Dunham herself, beginning the blurring of Hannah and Dunham.
Significantly HBO made the Girls pilot available free on youtube, thus making it a piece of spreadable media – circulated widely across the internet, beyond the largely white, middle-class, North-East-based media world that had framed the initial conversation. New commentaries problematised the claim that Girls was ‘like nothing else on tv’, noting its much vaunted divergence from Hollywood femininity was limited to one ‘non-normative’ body, wrapped up in a safe white, upper-middle class, heterosexual world. This response opened up a range of conversations about what we wanted from our television representations of womanhood and who makes them.
Authorship and autobiography
Throughout the conversations around Girls, Lena Dunham’s status as auteur was intertwined with the questions over her closeness to her protagonist. Dunham suggested in the New York magazine profile that Girls was her least autobiographical project, although in a radio interview with NPR’s Terry Gross she claimed ‘I did write something that was super-specific to my experience’ and that ‘I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me.’ The slippage between Dunham and Hannah was compounded by her previous videos and indie film Tiny Furniture, which mined similar territory to Girls and also starred herself. Alongside her precocious creativity, Dunham’s privileged background – her private school and Oberlin college education, her artist parents – formed a central part of her press profiles, and fed into the privilege critiques which I’ll pick up in bit. What else is there to write about a 25 year old who went virtually straight from college videos to ‘auteurship’?
Whilst the young, female, relationship-based nature of Girls could have marked the show as a delegitimized ‘feminine’ form, the focus on Dunham’s authorship and indie-film cred helped legitimize the show as part of HBO’s channel identity. Though Girls shared DNA with HBO’s low-profile quirky comedies of young(ish) male New Yorkers – Flight of the Conchords, How to Make it in America, Bored to Death – HBO’s hype escalated Girls to the cultural blockbuster level of a Boardwalk Empire or a Game of Thrones (though without their audiences). Thus Dunham was positioned within HBO’s discourses of quality ‘authorship’, Davids Chase and Simon, Larry Sanders, Scorsese etc, a boys club where her gender marked her the ‘diversity’ hire.
Yet her auteurship, her solo voice and achievement at landing an HBO series in her mid-twenties was problematised by the involvement of Judd Apatow, film comedy writer/director/producer /juggernaut. He became Dunham’s mentor after viewing Tiny Furniture and worked with her to develop and sell Girls to HBO, going on to executive produce and write for the series. Apatow was Dunham’s stepping stone, but also something of a millstone.
Apatow’s role in Girls creation played into discussions of both Dunham’s privileged background – her access to him via the elite cultural circle she was born into – and the worldview/lifestyle of her characters. In part as a way for some observers to unpick her success and devalue her creative worth - ‘here’s how Girls really got made’. In part to question the ‘universality’ the early hype claimed for the series, the narrowness of Dunham’s storyworld.
As Girls exists within a world of privilege, these are young women making their way in New York – well Brooklyn – but with a parental safety net. The catalysing event of the series as a whole being Hannah’s parents withdrawl of this safety net. The blurring of authorship and autobiography / Dunham and Hannah – and perhaps a tonal problem in the pilot’s writing – fed into conversations around how much Girls was valorizing or satirising Hannah’s entitled worldview, displayed in the conversation with her parents that was the centerpiece of the widely circulated trailer.
Here Girls stepped into a combination of ongoing cultural conversations: of privilege and ‘first world/white people problems’, of entitled Millennials and an anti-hipster mockery. Privilege fermented perhaps the most vitriolic of the show’s critiques and was where misogyny hid most plainly: with charges of nepotism highlighting the cast’s parental connections as daughters of the cultural elite – musicians, artists, playwrights, broadcasters. As daughters of privilege, it was inferred their success was owed to connections rather than talent, highlighted in a much circulated photoshopped poster.
Yet as others rightly pointed out, male showrunners’ family connections and privilege are never credited for their success – Buffy’s Joss Whedon comes from a long line of Hollywood writers, whilst Scrubs and Cougartown’s Bill Lawrence is an American blue-blood.
Yet this conversation made privilege visible – Dunham does come from a background and world that gave her access to film funding straight out of university, her parents Manhattan loft to shoot her first film in, access to Apatow, and a lifestyle that is more highly valued in television. In contrast a young black woman – Issa Rae – from a similar background, with a hit web series – Awkward Black Woman – and the mentorship of Grey’s Anatomy’s showrunner giant, Shonda Rhimes struggled to get a pilot off the ground at HBO or ABC.
In tandem with discourse surrounding Girls privilege, was the conversation around the show’s racially monochromatic world, its largely absent people of colour, who, when present, were coded as working class. Dodai Stewart, editor of feminist culture blog Jezebel, which had excitedly hyped Girls, voiced her own weary disappointment, ’Girls was meant to be different from what we usually see on TV: Highly current, thoroughly modern. But the casting choices are not different.’
Earlier that season another ‘girl’ sitcom 2 Broke Girls, faced a critical drubbing over its use of regressive racial stereotypes. Whilst 2 Broke Girls was a critically maligned text, there was a squeamish response to a critically cherished one such as Girls being highlighted over diversity. The second wave of commentary came from culture websites, who targeted the same educated, liberal female demographic as Girls. Particularly the influential feminist and ladyblogs – from Jezebel to Racialicious to The Hairpin – sites whose contributors were largely more diverse than the staffs of traditional news media – and television writers rooms. They offered thoughtful, witty posts by women of colour who shared the lifestyles and backgrounds of the Girls, yet voiced their dashed hopes this ‘universal’ and ‘authentic’ representation of young women would mean they wouldn’t have to, yet again, read themselves onto white women. Jenna Wortham at The Hairpin noted that ‘the problem with Girls is that while the show reaches — and succeeds, in many ways — to show female characters that are not caricatures, it feels alienating’.
On Gawker Cord Jefferson voiced the continuing, wearing nature of this exclusion;
‘The thing that sucks about those shows is that millions of black people look at them and can relate on so many levels to Hannah Horvath and Charlotte York and George Costanza, and yet those characters never look like us. The guys begging for money look like us. The mad black chicks telling white ladies to stay away from their families look like us. Always a gangster, never a rich kid whose parents are both college professors. After a while, the disparity between our affinity for these shows and their lack of affinity towards us puts reality into stark relief: When we look at Lena Dunham and Jerry Seinfeld, we see people with whom we have a lot in common. When they look at us, they see strangers.’
In the interview with NPR’s Terri Gross Dunham spoke of the ‘accident’ of her default to white protagonists, and her fear of tokenism. Yet, as further commentaries suggested, are we really faced with either racial tokenism or nothing at all? Was the experience of women of colour so very alien to white writers? TV critics such as Mo Ryan made valuable arguments as to the institutionalised whiteness within HBO and television as a whole, yet here the wrapping of Girls so tightly around Dunham’s authorship returns to haunt critics. For if you are to celebrate Dunham’s creative freedom and choices, crediting the show strongly to her ‘voice’, you must lay these race-based choices at her door too.
I would suggest – as others have – that this conversation about Girls did valuable work in making race and in particular, whiteness visible, highlighting the cultural default to whiteness that Dunham vocalised. This wasn’t Girls, it was White Girls. In a post on Flow, Camille DeBose highlighted a key quote from Richard Dyer’s seminal book White;
“… there is something at stake in looking at, or continuing to ignore, white racial imagery. As long as race is something applied to non-white peoples, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they/we function as a human norm… There is no more powerful position than that of being ‘just’ human. The claim to power is the claim to speak for the commonality of humanity…” (1997:1-2)
As DeBose pointed out, in naming the whiteness of Girls, these conversations problematised the claims for the Girls’ universality of female experience.
Arguably this conversation about authorship, class and race did mutate into something more problematic – the early thoughtful critiques of race and class were used as excuse for misogynist attacks on Lena Dunham and her crime of creating-whilst-female. Yet, these remain conversations we are having about Girls, about race and class in television, about cultural squeamishness over the display of womens bodies that do not conform to ‘ideal’ femininity or sexual roles, about female anti-heroes, about the paucity of female voices in culture and the boxes we put them in, about womens refusal, as TV critic Alyssa Rosenberg put it, to ‘stay in her assigned story’. One things for sure, we’ll never stop talking about Girls.
Here at FTT we thought we’d make use of the blog from time to time to point out new publications by members of the department.
This month sees the publication of my article that shares the name of this post in Critical Studies in Television (paywall warning), bringing together my longstanding interest in US Teen TV and my developing mapping of the field of contemporary British Youth Television. Teen TV has built a solid scholarly foundation in the wealth of Buffy Studies texts and the fine edited collections bringing together essays on Teen TV largely from the US. However British Youth Television is still finding its feet in the academic waters – partly due to its slow roll out in international distribution, but many texts are now appearing in the US via online platform hulu – thus i’m currently embarking on a larger project setting out its academic stall.
Offering a study of what happens when US Teen TV meets British Youth Television the article uses a case study of The OC‘s airing on Channel 4’s weekend ‘hangover’ slot T4 to explore the assimilation of the US form into the British flow of programming. As T4 has recently been cancelled as part of a ‘rethinking’ of Channel 4’s ‘youth’ provision, and with my analysis focused on a era when E4 was still fumbling its way into its eventual purple identity previous to digital TV’s tipping point (and also, was still not free-to-air) the case study forms a time capsule of British Youth TV at the edge of change, the last gasps of niche focus within the broadcast era.
Part of the article includes a close analysis of the sometimes charming, sometimes cringeworthy ‘Schwartz Reports’ which occasionally accompanied The OC‘s Sunday afternoon airings. Here T4 presenters Steve Jones and Miquita Oliver reenacted modified scenes from that episode of The OC. These were framed by the device of showrunner ‘Josh Schwartz’ (Steven Jones playing the nerdily handsome Schwartz as a puppetlike strangely Nosferatu-esque figure) talking us through a sequence from The OC before explaining how he originally wanted the scene played – queuing up the amateurish skit which presented the scene in a new light. Not wanting to unveil more of my own analysis (As River Song would say, spoilers sweetie), as Critical Studies in Television 8.1 can be found in all good academic libraries, I thought i’d put up the screen grabs that copyright prevented me from including in my original article. As a taster, and as an added extra for those who read the article!
Here’s the abstract, below, the screengrabs, completely decontextualised!
This article explores the presence of imported US teen TV in the schedules of British youth television and the relationship between the two national forms. Focusing on the broadcast of The O.C. on the Channel 4 youth strand T4, it considers the role of the spaces ‘in-between’ programmes in framing the audience’s experience of the imported US text. It demonstrates how the T4 supertext employed presenter performance, critique and parody to assimilate the glamorously aspirational US teen TV text into the cynically engaged flow of British youth television.
This week Parks and Recreation finally debuts on BBC4, after long talk of negotiations and promises and anticipation and all manner of teasing with ‘the deals done!’ ‘no its not yet!’ gossip on twitter. Its a rare US sitcom import for the digital channel (we still miss you Mad Men, *sniff*) and it couldn’t be a more perfect home for it.
In brief, Parks & Rec is a warm-hearted (and in my view, hilarious) NBC sitcom set in the parks and recreation department of fictional Indiana city Pawnee. The department is headed up by the indominable Ron Swanson, played in a piece of deadpan mastery by Nick Offerman. He enjoys woodwork, brunettes and breakfast food. He does not enjoy government. As an avowed libertarian, he hates it and the department he runs. He also possesses a fine moustache. Ron Swanson is awesome, he created a pyramid which explains it all.
As Ron does not care much for government work, he leaves his deputy, Leslie Knope, to run the whole shebang. And Leslie LOVES government work and LOVES Pawnee. And I and many others LOVE Leslie Knope – I talk about her here as part of In Media Res‘s great week on Parks & Rec. Alongside 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon, Leslie is a masterpiece of televisual comedy womanhood. Leslie is one of the two key reasons for the perfect fit of this show and BBC4. I’ll get back to that.
The other reason is that Parks & Rec sits within BBC4’s fine lineage of workplace comedies like Getting On and The Thick of It. Whilst it shares a back-stage political theme with The Thick of It, in tone and setting it hones closer to the small town politics of the mundane found in the recently concluded Brian Cox sitcom Bob Servant Independent, whose slot it inherits. The peculiarities of local government and the quirky world of Pawnee – and Leslie’s enthusiasm for them both – are what makes Parks & Rec tick. Britain likes its comedy a touch skewed with a particular worldview and whilst Parks & Rec is set in the American heartland it resonates with our off-centre-but-loving sitcom communities a la Gavin and Stacey or Miranda. Incidentally, Parks & Rec has its own master of physical comedy to rival Miranda Hart in the form of Andy Dwyer (played by Chris Pratt), displayed in this Vulture supercut.
However Leslie Knope – brought to life by the wonder that is Amy Poehler – is my main argument for the perfect fit of Parks & Rec and BBC4, as she sits comfortably alongside the channel’s parade of awesome ladies. Leslie’s energy, tenacity and single-mindedness aligns her with BBC4’s cast of Scandi-drama ladies: The Killing‘s Sarah Lund and Borgen‘s Birgitte Nyborg (though I remain unconvinced by the male-writer-fantasy of The Bridge‘s Saga Noren). Particularly Birgitte, a fellow driven, lady politician with a sense of fun.
I’d also suggest that Leslie’s giddy, geeky, passion for her job and her quirky smarts in turn aligns her with the BBC’s lady historian titans such as Mary Beard, Amanda Vickery and BBC4’s own Lucy Worsley. I can’t help but imagine that Leslie would love the tales of Georgian women’s rum lot in life and small victories of power spun by Worsley – a fellow petite yet indomitable blonde.
Now, I give you fair warning that Parks & Rec does take a few episodes to find its feet, 5 of the 6 episodes of season one are almost a wash. But from ‘Rock Show’ the show works out who Leslie is and how the people in her department (I haven’t even talked about wannabe-player Tom Haverford! Or the morosely tortured April Ludgate, or Jerry – damn you Jerry) operate around her. As season two swings into gear, the show starts a multi-season long hot-streak unmatched in recent decades of the US sitcom (just my humble opinion). Luckily, BBC4 is showing it in double bills, so we get through the rough stuff quickly.
So, BBC4, Wednesdays at 1opm. Parks and Recreation. Stick with it. You’ll be rewarded.
When watching the first episode of The Paradise, BBC One’s new, slightly humdrum Zola adaption (of Au Bonheur des Dames (1883); The Ladies’ Delight or The Ladies’ Paradise – it feels fancy when I write it in French) I noted on twitter how the tracking shot of a lady’s bustled skirts has become as much a convention of period drama as the establishing shot of the grand country seat. It immediately put me in mind of BBC Two’s masterful adaptation of Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (2011), which displayed a similar shot. The shot works to immediately signify the period – the bountiful fabric of the Victorian bustle – and each programme’s gendered focus, the female POV. Yet it also works to signify the nature of our heroine – she is walking through the streets, she is active, moving forwards. Yet the differences between these shots illustrate the diversity of British period drama. The gothic, fragmented at times expressionisticly oppressive Crimson Petal whose swooningly beautiful imagery is a world away from the softly light and bustling wide shots of the classically framed The Paradise. And with that skirt shot conjuring Crimson, in my mind the latter unfortunately pales in comparison.
Both programmes offer the standard aspirational proto-feminist heroine, following working class women in Victorian England whose intelligence marks them out as worth more than their current standing. Both ladies will service you, but in very different ways. Denise the shopgirl is a fount of retail ideas, coveting both The Paradise’s owner and his managerial position, whilst Sugar the prostitute scribbles a florid, bitter novel between clients and advises her client (and later lover) William on business matters.
Both also have professions which allow them active movement – distinct from the upper class women bound by society rules, daintily sipping tea in drawing rooms, or their rigidly controlled domestic servants. The department store setting of The Paradise allows us the relative rarity of Victorian working women who aren’t ‘working girls’. Serving the wealthy by day the shopgirls escape to spend their evenings dancing and drinking in the pub – though, notably our sensible, pure, sensible heroine Denise does not partake.
The Paradise opens with a tracking shot of a woman’s plain, slightly dingy skirts as she strides along a pavement. She moves, she is dynamic, she seems determined, she is notably alone, independent. The camera rises up to reveal our heroine Denise as she arrives onto a high street with her luggage, cementing us into her POV, the new arrival from the country. Earth tones dominate, browns and dingy creams, Denise is somewhat beige, with her blonde hair blending into the creamy browns of her outfit, the wan country girl (all the better to create contrast with the refined uniform she ends up in – see top image) the chipped dark facades of the shops and pub signify our urban setting, but have seen better days. Denise then stops, entranced, and we cut to follow her gaze to The Paradise, revealed in a crane shot, the real star of the show. The bright creamy white facade and blue detail startling against drab brown surrounds. Dominating the space, a thing of beauty.
Whilst it showcases working class life, The Paradise‘s department store setting still allows its audience a pleasurable immersion in the aesthetics of past-ness. A temple to consumption inside which covetous beauty and opulence abound, reams of fabric shimmer, dainty gloves are cooed over, crystal and silver glisten as the camera tracks around and hovers on detail. Women dreamily describe the store as ‘a kind of heaven’, swooning along with the audience at home, the Sex in the City post-feminist pleasure in consumption read onto the Victorian age.
The Paradise‘s celebration of the coming of modern consumerism – care of the industrial revolution – appears as the contemporary British high street is in sharp decline and we carry out our transactions in anonymous virtual spaces rather than with attentive shop assistants. Whilst The Paradise threatens the business of small local shops (including Denise’s uncle’s), the store is distinguished from the faceless clone towns and supermarket sprawl of the 21st Century high street through its depiction as a community. One ruled by a benevolent manager a la Downton Abbey‘s Lord Crawley (though one who has worked his way up and married well, with the mysterious death of his wife giving him rakish intrigue for our heroine). It trades on the same cosy nostalgia that department store John Lewis cannily exploits in it branding of itself as a British institution. I like to view The Paradise as John Lewis’s origin story (Denise would be a dab hand at a whimsical xmas advert).
But whilst The Paradise‘s depiction of Victorian life through the frame of retail life offers something refreshingly different from the same old society courtship and intrigue (though there is plenty of this here, as the shop’s owner somewhat shadily romances the local banker’s daughter, enticing her and her high society friends into the store) and offers me a plucky, smart working class heroine, overall The Paradise fails to engage. It feels so utterly conventional. So Sunday night rote light costume drama (but on a Tuesday), so Lark Rise to Candleford (BBC One, 2008-11), Call the Midwife (BBC One, 2012-), Downton Abbey (ITV, 2011-). Like Downton, The Paradise is as much a character as its human leads (oh that old chestnut) and whilst it doesn’t share Downton‘s conservative worldview it does share the same unadventurous reliance on wide shots of heritage splendor. It is as if the aesthetic dynamism of Bleak House never happened. Contrast the above focus on a lady’s skirts with similar moments from the opening sequence of Crimson Petal:
I could screen grab and discuss this forever, but I will save you from that. This skirt tails sequence is part of a fragmented, abstract opening to episode 1, where we glimpse bits and pieces of Sugar, here speed after her through the gothic, fearsome streets, nightmarish faces rearing into her POV. This aggressively asserts itself as not your Sunday night BBC One Victoriana and is the handiwork of Marc Munden, who also directed the visually dynamic Vanity Fair (BBC Two, 1998) and Channel 4’s majestic civil war drama The Devils Whore (2008) and its Dutch master sidelight. His work is so luscious, so dense, you can almost taste and touch it – the physicality of Crimson Petal is strong, tactile; fabric, skin, bodily emissions. Sugar is an object of desire for men, but she is a survivor, thinks and moves fast, the tails of her jewel-like dress and its folds of fabric float above the mud as she stomps, we cannot catch her, she is not made for this world (later, when she is installed in her lover’s home as his nanny, she is still as a statue). We move to BBC Two, we move from period drama as romantic heritage splendor (perhaps I am slightly unfair, there is the wonder of North and South (BBC One, 2004) and its play with perspective, memory and that deathly white cotton snow) to period drama as dynamic postheritage sexuality.
Two skirt tails, two active (independent?) Victorian working class women, two BBC costume dramas. A change of channel makes a whole world of difference.
2. BBC/Origin Pictures
3. Screengrabs from BBC iplayer
4. Screengrabs from DVD