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
In an example of (super) slow blogging, I’m finally getting round to writing up my scribbles from the Media Across Borders conference that took place at the University of Roehampton in June 2012. This conference, which focused on cross-cultural adaptation of audio-visual content and brought together scholars and industry personnel, was the first event of the AHRC-funded research network of the same name. I much enjoyed the entire event, which is not surprising seeing as I’m always fascinated by, and readily drawn to discussions of, textual border crossings, whether the border in question is that of medium, nation and/or language. However, I should immediately disclaim that this will be no conference report as such – I’m afraid my mind is far too flighty and my handwriting too unintelligible – but rather some brief reflections on one really interesting ideas that I came across that day.
The idea in question emerged during one of the pre-conference workshops, titled ‘TV Formats: production and distribution’, and specifically the paper that opened the workshop, presented by Sylwia Szostak, who is currently finishing her fascinating doctoral research on Polish broadcasters and American television programming at the University of Nottingham. In her engaging talk, ‘Fiction TV Formats in Poland – Why Bother to Adapt It?, Sylwia argued that foreign players and scripted formats have proven instrumental in laying the grounds for the (re)launch of domestic Polish television series. Drawing on extensive interview research and considering a range of genres, she suggested how broadcasters in developing markets can benefit from international fiction formats in ways more profound than simply helping satisfy a growing demand for local production.
The idea in question emerged during the workshop discussion following Sylwia’s paper, when I invited Sylwia to reflect on the importance of and opportunities for training in contemporary Polish television production, and whether a creative talent pool gets established by (in this case) scriptwriters getting the chance to develop and hone their craft. This is something I’m deeply interested in, and find too often and very regrettably absent from discussions of ‘how to get into the industry’. Sylwia here offered a very interesting idea, namely that undertaking adaptations (for example, Hela w opałach (TVN 2006-2007), the Polish version of Grace Under Fire (ABC 1993-1998); and Wszyscy kochają Romana, the 2011 remake of Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS 1996-2005)) is to be understood as a training period for Polish script writers. This, to me, is really intriguing. (Even more intriguing (or do I mean terrifying?) is the fact that Everybody Loves Raymond somehow managed to run for as many years as it did; but that’s for another blog post.)
There is a long history of anecdotes by comedian writers and performers about how they re-enacted their favourite skits and sketches when they were young (one recent example of this is The Office writer and actor Mindy Kaling in her book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)), and how this benefited their understanding of comedy. However, the act of adapting (and included in this, to some extent, the acts of transcribing and translating), would be less readily seen as a creatively meaningful act, and in some ways lends itself to being dismissed as little more than repetitive imitation. This is partly because of the absence of the live performance, which is much more readily understood as creatively meaningful, and also partly linked to a wider cultural issue, and continual bugbear of mine, namely that translation is not fully enough recognised as the complex transformative process that it is.
Even with remakes that set out to stay close to the source text, the act of adaptation allows for an in-depth, active engagement with structure, dialogue and story-telling techniques. It is not surprising to find in ‘How to’ guides for aspiring comedy writers the advice to transcribe (here, to physically write/type out – a particularly interesting idea in the age of ‘cut and paste’) pre-existing comedy material, in order to develop one’s skill and craft. This is certainly something that will feed into my own critical and practical teaching of sitcom, come the new academic year. While my concern for the nurturing and training of creative talent continues, one of the many interesting ideas that I took from Media Across Borders is a reminder and affirmation of adaptation as a potentially deeply creative act – indeed, as a potentially creative re-enactment, and one that contains (albeit perhaps implicitly) the important recognition of analysis as a creative act in itself.
*or why The Cabin in the Woods makes me feel belittled as a horror spectator.
The first thing I ever thought of when I thought of “Buffy: The Movie” was the little…blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed, in every horror movie. The idea of “Buffy” was to subvert that idea, that image, and create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim. That element of surprise…[and] genre-busting is very much at the heart of both the movie and the series. (Joss Whedon: Welcome to the Hellmouth DVD Commentary)
Recent meta-horror film The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012) has been much lauded for its cleverness about horror as a genre and perhaps film more generally. While there is much to like about the film – strong performances from the cast, horror that isn’t entirely predicated on nastiness – for me there was a central problem from which it could never recover quite from: an insistence on the objectification of female characters in the service of commenting on horror films. Two scenes in particular generated feelings of discomfort about how the male gaze is being used by the film, and raises the question, can the male gaze be used ironically? 
The Cabin in the Woods opens with a scene wherein the main female character, Dana (Kristen Connolly) is only wearing a t-shirt and knickers (and standing near an open window) for no apparent reason, other than the fact this is used as a joke at her expense, as she has apparently not noticed her lack of clothes. Certainly the scene embeds a sense of her vulnerability from the beginning, but other than that it is difficult to see why it was important to introduce her in this way. Later on, once the protagonists are at the titular cabin, a much more direct evocation of the male gaze is offered through the presentation of a dance performed by the other female character, Jules (Anna Hutchinson). By this point in the film, Jules has begun to be identified as the kind of sexually experienced, extroverted and ‘dumb blonde’ archetype that usually dies early on in slasher movies (the film will go on to explicitly label her as such and reveal that she has been drugged to further perpetuate the typology). Her dance begins with a close-up on her bottom as she starts to move it, and the camera gradually moves back, keeping her rear centralized and at about seated head height. In this way, the shot directly places us in a position of watching Jules’ bottom as she wiggles it provocatively, placing us with the other characters whom the dance is being performed for – our awareness of being asked to watch and of her as the sexualized object of our gaze is inescapable. The film achieves an adoption of the male gaze and, in our awareness of the self-consciousness of this via the emphatic framing, a comment on this, placing the male gaze in ironic quotation marks. But, do the quotation marks succeed in canceling out the male gaze? Jules is still objectified by the shot; at this moment we are asked to see her as a bottom and nothing more. 
For me, what makes this use of the male gaze specifically problematic (beyond the general concerns of women being treated as objects) is the way in which this objectification is equated with horror movies, and by extension the people who watch them. Being put into the position of enacting an objectifying gaze on this occasion felt like a judgment on watching horror more generally, both a suggestion that this is what the genre is most interested in, and that this is therefore what the viewer (i.e. me) wants. It is clear from an interview with co-writer Joss Whedon that this is exactly the point of this moment and later shots of Jules topless before she is killed, a scene that definitely puts a strain on the quotation marks around it: ‘There was never a question — the nudity had to happen, because the movie is about objectification and identification and that’s what horror is about.’ The slippage between objectification/pleasure/horror being expressed here is worrying, particularly when it is activated for the purpose of superiority. While I’m not trying to deny that objectification is present in some horror films, to say it is the constituent factor of the genre seems to me to wildly underestimate it. Using the male gaze ironically therefore feels like having your cake and eating it – pointing out what horror does and how unpleasant it is (and thus how superior we are for understanding this and being above it), while also offering the opportunity to enjoy some nudity. Later in the same interview Whedon says as much: ‘Drew and I were not unhappy if the hot blonde took off her shirt — hey, we thought it was a good decision!’.
Now, such a remark might not be so much of a big deal, or at least not so much of a surprise, but when self-confessed feminist Joss Whedon is at least partly (He didn’t direct it, but Drew Goddard was also a writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a television series which, as indicated by the quote preceding this post, made concerted efforts to present an empowered heroine) behind such mis-appropriations of the male gaze, the problem seems worse, especially when said feminist goes on to say: ‘The thing is, once you call yourself a feminist, it can be damaging to only look through that prism. It can take away the full texture of what you’re trying to create, if you have an agenda that you’ve proclaimed. That’s not to say I don’t have an agenda, but it works best if it’s never mentioned. With Cabin, it’s a bit of a departure, but you can’t create fictions based on politics, otherwise you’re speech writers, not storytellers.’ This prompts me to quote Carol Hanisch ‘the personal is political’, or to put it another way, shouldn’t it be once a feminist always a feminist?
Putting such disappointments with Whedon’s apparent lapse in judgement to one side, this equation of horror with objectification, raises wider issues on the concern with who is watching that frequently belies a stance of superiority; a ‘this is how these people watch it, but we know better’ kind of attitude. In her seminal work on slasher movies and the ‘final girl’ figure, Carol Clover takes the position that horror films are primarily watched by teenage boys, so issues of identification and sexuality are looked at through this bias, an idea that as a female (and long-term) viewer of horror I am acutely aware does not fully account for what is at stake in watching horror films.  Not only does it not account for the experience of watching in a way that excludes a plurality of audiences, it reduces the possibilities of what horror is for or about, and therefore permits an ease of dismissal – a kind of equation where the implied audience impacts on judgements about horror that support its limits: these films are only about objectification, and are for one set of people, which explains why the films operate as they do and therefore why they are so horrible etc. In this way, feelings of discomfort or disgust with the genre are more easily parceled away into the sense that they are not ‘for me’ and moreover, disgust with (and superiority over) anyone who does enjoy horror: why would anyone who isn’t a teenage boy wanting to be titillated be interested in them? This progression of ideas leads me to feeling that I have to defend my interest in horror, and particularly when a film is explicitly telling its audience that this is what horror is (objectification etc) and this is why we’re all above it. 
So, back to The Cabin in the Woods. My feelings of discomfort at being implicated in a male gaze reminded me of the opening scene of Whedon’s television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I want to end with. In episode 1, we are introduced to Sunnydale via a young couple breaking into the high school, with the typical dynamic of the boy seeking to scare the reluctant girl so that her fear will make her more vulnerable to his advances. The scene plays out a scenario typical of the slasher film, and does so in ways that are consistent with horrors concerns around gender and looking, but not in a way that limits these ideas to objectification alone. The scene starts with a series of views of the dark and empty high school, and then once the couple have gained access via a broken window in a science lab, they walk down a corridor, the girl trailing behind and looking around.
The coercion of the girl into this scenario is made clear by her continued placement behind the boy, her physical reluctance within the space and in relation to the boy, and her vulnerability increased by her consistent looks out of the frame; women looking at an unseen threat (actual or potential) is a staple of the horror genre. Through positioning and performance she is situated as a woman in peril and our concern is for her under these terms. The show is asking us to be worried on her behalf, while also aware of her vulnerability in relation to the boy and to the ominous surroundings. While she might be the object of the boy’s sexual attention she certainly isn’t placed as such for the viewer, and because of how she is positioned we are able to be both with her and distanced from her (empathetic and sympathetic), worried for her and perhaps also scared as she is, but also to be frustrated that she isn’t being more proactive or getting away from the idiot that she is with. As such this opening looks very directly at horror and the way it works, specifically from ideas around gender, but in a way that negotiates the dynamics of this more subtly and allows for a more inclusive watching experience. That the girl then turns out to be the monster, and our feelings of empathy and sympathy are turned on their head as she transforms into a vampire and the boy becomes the prey, brings us back to Whedon’s idea of genre subversion, though not in a way that excludes the possibility of other ways of looking, of experiencing horror or of feminism (without speech-writing), as in The Cabin in the Woods.
 my thanks to Faye Woods for articulating the question in our discussion of the film via twitter
 The film does offer another example where the male gaze is invoked and then refused: when Holden watches Dana through a 2 way mirror revealed behind a gruesome painting in his room, at first he enjoys watching her unobserved, but as soon as she starts to remove her top he knocks on the glass and lets her know that he can see her.
 To be fair to Clover, although she takes this position throughout her book Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, she does acknowledge this bias and the resulting invisibility of the rest of horror’s audiences to her writing. However, having known teenage boys who watched horror films I remain unconvinced the kind of conclusions she draws entirely encapsulate that sector of the audience either.
 An interesting side note is that a great many people who have praised The Cabin in the Woods seem to identify themselves as non-horror fans, which leads me to think that the position of superiority that the film places the viewer in aligns them with it more easily.
‘You lookin’ at me? If you’re a character in a film, you shouldn’t be. You’re supposed to be unaware that you’re participating in a work of fiction’. Guardian Clip Joint.
‘Alone, I believe, in the history of cinema, Chaplin knew how to make systematic use of a gesture condemned by all of cinema’s rulebooks.’ André Bazin (1999: 345)
‘It is not that these characters are oblivious to the camera. There is no camera in their world.’ VF Perkins (2005: 24)
This blog forms part of a much wider research project on direct address or ‘breaking the fourth wall’. To be precise about what this means, ‘direct address’ refers to moments when movie characters appear to acknowledge our presence as spectators; they seem to look ‘at’ or talk ‘to’ us. I am not talking about other kinds of looks at the camera (for example, those embedded within ‘first-person’ point of view shots [POV]) but the very specific kind of ‘impossible’ look direct address represents. (It is clearly materially impossible because, unlike in the theatre, the spectator is not present to the film performer.) The following thus provides only a snapshot of much wider work on the project, pursued principally through my new monograph. (Send this discount voucher to your university librarian –the book is a must for all University film studies sections!) The publishers, Edinburgh University Press, have graciously agreed for me to make small sections of the book available for free download, including the Preface, which gives a more thorough outline of the project of the book. I have also created a Tumblr, which will provide an ongoing and different kind of snapshot (or series of snapshots) of the book’s project.
Summing up a varied device
The first two quotations at the top of this post neatly summarise the place of direct address within popular discourses on film and within film studies. As Ashley Clark, in a Guardian Clip Joint suggests, looking at the audience is not something film characters are supposed to do. So-called ‘direct address’ has, in the words of the great André Bazin, been condemned by ‘all of cinema’s rulebooks’ for a very long time. As early as 1910, another journalist was writing that if the performer looks at the camera, ‘immediately, the sense of reality is destroyed and the hypnotic illusion that has taken possession of the spectator’s mind, holding him by the power of visual suggestion, is gone’ (Frank Woods quoted by Gunning 1991: 262). According to this view, involvement in the fiction is dependent on us not becoming too aware of the film as an artificial dramatic construct. And, in VF Perkins terms, film fictional worlds are generally constituted by characters for whom the camera simply does not exist; their situation contrasts with that of the actors, whose ‘playing most often creates the camera’s absence’ (Perkins 2005: 24; while this is the ‘usual’ state of things, Perkins actually goes on to suggest how direct address may enrich rather than destroy a fictional world.) Since the development of film studies as an academic discipline, direct address has remained much under-examined and under-theorised. Where direct address has been discussed, it is generally conceptualised in relation to avant-garde and oppositional approaches to film form and discussed in terms of a (often misunderstood, I would contend) notion of the ‘Brechtian’. In reality, it appears in far more kinds of films than is generally assumed and is certainly not incompatible with absorption into the filmed fiction. It is not the place of/there is not the space in a blog to repeat the work of a book, so here I shall limit myself to a series of somewhat random notes about the device and look at some examples.
In the book, I tentatively suggest that direct address most commonly marks seven key things within fiction films/has seven primary functions. (These summations are tentative because, I would contend, that the complexity of the device requires the kind of close analysis of individual case studies pursued at length in Breaking the Fourth Wall.) Intimacy, Agency, Superior epistemic position within the fictional world, Honesty, Instantiation, Alienation and (sometimes) Stillness. I shall say a little something of all of these before going on to examine some individual examples.
This almost speaks for itself for to have a character in a film address the absent film spectator directly is clearly a very particular gesture towards intimacy. Intimacy can be threatening (see further Funny Games [1997 & 2007], which is discussed in this sample section of the book), but direct address functions more commonly in comedy and musical-comedy as a facet of the performers’ in those genres particularly intimate appeal to their audiences. However, in some exceptional cases, such as Make Way for Tomorrow , which is also examined briefly in the book, direct address might be used to suggest we are ‘intruding’ as spectators – it is a marker, therefore, in this unusual case, of too much intimacy.
Generally speaking, direct address will be the province of a single character and that character is often the protagonist or the principal agent of the narrative; in some cases, they might be called the narrator. (See further Alfie [1966 & 2004], High Fidelity , many of Woody Allen’s films.) Wayne’s World  is one of the only exceptions to this rule I can think of in that it has two lead characters who address the audience. Elsewhere, Groucho is the only Marx to look at us and, while Ollie often performs direct address, Stan is much less often aware of our presence – though when he cries and scratches his hair in that famous gesture, he may look towards us. Direct address has almost become a cliché of the horror ending (more on endings below) and its use in the final moments of both The Devil’s Advocate (1997) and The Omen (1976) underline the device’s particular claims to agency – what more powerful agent is there than the Devil? (Well, God of course! Suggestions of examples of God performing direct address on film will be gratefully received).
Superior epistemic position within the fictional world.
Put more simply this means that characters who address the audience directly generally ‘know’ more than other characters; they generally hold a privileged position within the narrative and may gain access to truths unavailable to others – this clearly links with the above examples of agency (to know is to be able to act). One of my major claims in Breaking the Fourth Wall is that direct address is a particularly rich metaphor for expressing a character’s realisation and coming-to-consciousness – therefore, as opposed to being a device that disrupts and destroys involvement with the fiction, it may enrich the fiction and truths that are the province of within that fiction.
This needs clarification because direct address often expresses a character’s claims to honesty but, in actual fact, the character might be deluded, delusional or otherwise hampered by the failures of insight. (See Fight Club , where the narrator – played by Edward Norton – talks to us about film projection and splicing porn into films while his alter-ego in the background – Brad Pitt – avoids addressing us directly. Is direct address then a realisation emerging from the ego rather than from the Id (or Id masquerading as a super-ego)?!?). In High Fidelity, a film examined at length in Breaking the Fourth Wall, direct address is central to the confessional nature of the narrative and the narrator-protagonist’s claims to be bearing his soul. However, direct address, which as a physical gesture and as a feature of a range of films, generally represents clarity of vision/coming-to-realisation, is here used ironically as the narrator is characterised by immaturity and myopia until the character achieves enlightenment in the film’s final moments. Direct address might be, rather, a marker primarily of ingenuousness.
This is a word but not one generally applied in the sense I mean it – direct address conveys present-ness and immediacy within the context of the medium of ‘presence-absence’ that (supposedly) is cinema; it is ‘instantiating’ more often than it is ‘distanciating’ (in what is thought of – often mistakenly – in its ‘Brecthian’ sense, more of which below).
Alienation (if that term is reconsidered).
Direct address may be distancing but film studies has generally over-estimated the extent to which it is ‘alienating’ in the Brechtian sense. Crucially, moreover, many film scholars seem to me to have generally misunderstood what Brecht stood for in the first place and taken his critique of traditional realist methods of characterisation for hostility to characterisation in toto.
This is the most tentative of my tentative summations. I would suggest that eye contact performed with the camera, even when performed in the midst of more frantic actions or intense emotions, can still have a certain stillness to it. For example, direct address in the final moments of Fellini’s Le Notti di Cabiria/Nights of Cabiria  (one of the major case studies in Breaking the Fourth Wall and the richest, most complicated instance of the device I have come across) has, I suggest, the feeling of a ‘sigh’ or a ‘gentle intake of breath’, acting as punctuation to a climax of overwhelming emotionality. More broadly, direct address may occur as a narrative pause, a moment of reflection that arrests or stands apart from the forward motion of the narrative. Linked to this is the fact that, at least since the rise of European art cinema in the 1950s and 60s, direct address features more often at the end of films than at any other point Most famously, Les 400 coups/The 400 Blows  ends with a look at – or almost at – the camera, though I would suggest that the freeze-frame and process zoom mean it is less direct address – appearing to originate with the character – than it is an overt authorial intervention/move. The use of direct address at the end of films is often a marker of an ‘art film’ (or a not-quite-art film) or ‘independent’ film’s aspirations towards contemplativeness and aim to have its spectators leave the cinema reflecting more deeply on the fate of its characters. (See also, for example, This is England , which clearly refers to Les 400 coups.) I shall talk more about some examples of endings (not covered in the book) below.
Guardian Clip Joint
Every week the Guardian website compiles a series of film clips organised around a particular theme. Late last year, after Breaking the Fourth Wall had been submitted to the publishers, one such ‘Clip Joint’ appeared with that very title. I’ll sketch some analysis of the examples there compiled by Ashley Clark.
This edition of Clip Joint is headed by an image from The Arbor (2010), a quite unique documentary on which Ameenah Ayub and Scott Bassett, alumni of Reading’s BA in Film and Theatre worked – the film’s relationship to verbatim theatre links it directly to the cross-disciplinary work of this department. The ontological complexities of The Arbor would make it very challenging to talk about here. The film has actors mouth to camera the pre-recorded words spoken by real people. (One of my colleagues humorously described it as ‘A human Creature Comforts but with more unrelenting misery!)’ The actors therefore might be said to look at the camera in character. However, their words are another person’s that were recorded as this other person spoke to yet another person in interview. Therefore who is doing the addressing? And to whom?! I would have to leave it to others or to another time to consider this text further.
Clark’s first moving image example is one I have mentioned briefly above, and one I have already suggested is not an example of direct address: the famous ending of Les 400 coups. I don’t wish to labour this point at great length except to say that the ending’s use of the freeze frame seems to capture Antoine Doinel/Jean-Pierre Léaud as his gaze meets the camera rather than having the character look out at us. To point this out clarifies what I have found in the device (and certainly in the examples I favour in Breaking the Fourth Wall): that is that the character and/or actor is, in the moment of direct address, given a unique kind of space in which to escape the normal confines of film fictions (see ‘agency’). In Les 400 coups, in contrast, the final moment fixes Antoine (whether it fixes him in a moment of realisation of ‘the terror of growing up’, as Ashley Clark suggests, I don’t know). Readers of this blog might feel differently, but it is not my sense that Doinel looks at us (which is crucial to my definition of direct address); we may look into him but that is something else.
The Guardian Clip Joint’s second example is a classic example of how direct address might work in screen comedy.
Billy Ray/Murphy’s look at the camera is beautifully timed (it is a shame whoever uploaded the clip to YouTube disrupted this timing) and expresses his blank disdain for the way his less-than-benevolent benefactors in Trading Places are addressing him. The character’s look (because, importantly, it is not necessary to read this as Murphy ‘stepping outside’ his character in order to understand this gesture) seeks to join our recognition as viewers of the patronising tone of Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy’s characters with his own. The moment reminds me a little of what Andrew Klevan identifies in his wonderful reading of a moment of direct address in Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert (1933) :
He [Ollie] looks towards us, now that he can no longer look to Stan, with the hope that we, at least (all of us, some of us, one of us), might recognise that his partner has let him down. His look is made more potent by the fact that he stares, not merely elsewhere, but as if into another world, out of his own (fictional) world, the one that includes Stan (2005: 31-32).
What the Trading Places’ look has in common with Ollie’s is that both express something like resignation and that the characters’ aloneness (Ollie has been let down by his friend, Billy Ray has to put up with these patronising a**holes) is marked by the gesturing towards a momentary communion with us.
Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick), Clark’s third example, is certainly an example of a character who is both narrator and principle agent of his story. Ferris’s almost unique ability to ‘see’ us is a marker of a coolness that contrasts with the phonies (he is a pop, 80s version of Holden Caulfield) of the adult world and his up-tight sister (Jennifer Grey). His chief adversary, Principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) does look at the camera in the film’s final, over-the-credits shot as he seems to recognise his abject defeat at Bueller’s hands. As an aside, Ferris’s affinity with the extra-diegetic extends to the film’s use of music – remember the film’s big ‘musical number’? Significantly, as Jeanie Bueller’s starts to ‘loosen up’, she too seems to become more ‘aware’ of the extra-diegetic soundtrack. The affinity between direct address and music is a recurring theme in Breaking the Fourth Wall.
Now, I would have to admit that the Do the Right Thing (1989; relevant part of clip from 1:50) does not fit with the principal biases of my account of direct address. I have favoured what one might call, crudely, humanist instances of the devices – examples of direct address that stress, primarily, its potential as an expression of a character’s individual human agency (even if that agency is as illusory as is the possibility that movie characters might actually look ‘at’ us). This is because, this best represents its use across cinema history and in a wide range of genres; supposedly ‘Brechtian’ uses of direct address have been far more written about. Do the Right Thing sits more closely to instances I would identify as ‘director’s address’, which use the device’s innate reflexivity as a gesture of authorial voice. Funny Games, examined here is axiomatic of this. (In Breaking the Fourth Wall, I also examine Godard’s Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle , Godard being the director most associated with this ‘abject’ use of the device [Bonitzer 1977: 45-46]. Importantly, however, I find Godard’s attitudes to individual ‘agency’ as expressed via direct address infinitely more nuanced and little like Haneke’s.) The moment at which the figures in Do the Right Thing assault the camera with their racial slurs is one of that complexly didactic film’s most didactic moments. However, is it direct address? Though clearly they are not present to each other, their insults are matched so the Black man seems to insult the Italian and the Italian appears to insult the Black man in return. The Latino insults the Korean, while the White policeman seems to address the Latino. Finally, the Korean insults the Jewish policeman (I think). Nevertheless, the performing of these moments to the camera is designed clearly to confront the audience. Are the audience (the North American audience of 1989 at least) meant to recognise themselves in one of speeches (the racist epithets are pretty wide-ranging) and therefore feel themselves addressed/their own prejudices confronted? Either way the performances to camera is confrontational in a way that demands to be talked about in relation to breaking the fourth wall.
Finally, Clark includes a moment from Annie Hall (1977), another of the best known films where direct address is central (with Alfie and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Now, I am embarrassed to say that I find myself with little to say about this example, as well staged and as funny as it is. This ties to what I would suggest has dissuaded analysis of direct address within film studies: the knowing, deconstructive nature of direct address here seems to leave little space for the critic; the film can be taken to speak for its own analysis. Allen’s auto-critique and self-deprecation seems (to my aesthetic sensibilities at least) to dissuade analysis; he seems to have done it for us. (Clearly this is not the case but it would take more effort than I am prepared to muster here to pull against this impression.) In this regard, it is notable that as the character of Alvy Singer undergoes greater heartache and more knockbacks in the film, his direct address recedes; he loses the confidence to deconstruct his own self. The same thing happens in the depressed middle act of Alfie, where the cocky hero has his confidence shaken by illness (this happens in both the original 1966 version and the recent 2004 remake). This suggests a pattern for direct address films such as this – that is, that the device recedes as the narrating figure gets embroiled in the central dramatic conflicts and problems. (Finally, note how the ‘blowhard’, notably discusses Beckett and Fellini, two artists known for their direct address.)
The above begins to suggest problems with Clark’s summation that direct address is ‘the embrace of reality that occurs when characters acknowledge their own fakeness’. This does not seem to me to describe any of the clips he compiles on the Clip Joint. I believe all the characters remain characters even while they assume a position ambiguously inside and outside their fictional worlds. In the context, of comedy, which I suggest in Breaking the Fourth Wall has a very strong ‘documentary’ edge, Clark’s comment ring much truer. A good example of comedy direct address is in the Anchorman example included in the Clip Joint reader suggestions (at bottom of page) of examples of breaking the fourth wall – these reader suggestions actually represent a more representative sample than Clark’s and contain examples that are examined at length in the book!)
If direct address appears more often at the ends of films than at any other point this is partly because, as Gilberto Perez suggested to me, it is a gesture that takes us someway out of the fiction, which is clearly the function of (most) endings. I want to spend the remainder of this blog discussing two endings I saw recently (subsequent to the completion of the book) that will enable me to say some broader things about the particular force of direct address as a way to close a film and in order to better understand why some filmmakers might choose this option.
The first of these breaks one of the main parameters/rules I set out above – that is, it seems to be part of a ‘point-of-view figure’, a camera look that is not strictly speaking, direct address. However, this example usefully illustrates the considerable ambiguity of these distinctions and, in the first place, to stick rigidly to such distinctions runs contrary to the very nature of direct address, which is, after all, an impossible look that operates in an in-between space. I have not chosen the examples examined below because I think the films are particularly strong or even their use of direct address is particularly effective – indeed, in both cases, the use of direct address, to me, approaches cliché. (Though direct address might be much more widely present in films than is generally acknowledged – a major motivation for my writing about it – it remains too idiosyncratic a device to be considered clichéd.) The problems with the endings remain interesting.
Spoiler alert (we are discussing endings after all): We Are What We Are (2010) is a horror film revolving around a family living below the poverty line in a large Mexican city who subsist through murder and cannibalism. After the death of the father (Humberto Yáñez), the principle ‘hunter gatherer’, the family unit begins to degenerate (degenerate further!) and, by the film’s conclusion, all bar one have been killed by the police or vengeful prostitutes (street walkers have provided the main source of food for the family.) The one survivor is the daughter, Sabina (Paulina Gaitan) who ends the film having escaped from hospital.
The look at the camera at the end of this film is embedded in a point-of-view structure but its embedding is loose. Sabina is seen looking into the camera but in the subsequent shot the skinny man (an odd choice of meal for a cannibal it must be said) is only just looking up at her – thus shot 3 in the extract (the shot in which Sabina looks at the camera) cannot quite be seen as originating with the optical point of view of the skinny man. Though the look to camera has an alibi within the fictional world, it is as if we, the spectator, via the conduit of the skinny man, have been picked out as the next meal. The choice to add this loose point of view frame can be related to the film’s aspirations towards constructing a more ‘realist’ approach to the horror genre – the film is realist in its ‘gritty’ visuals but also in its focus on cannibalism as a seemingly logical consequence of extreme poverty and urban alienation. However, it remains a quasi-conventional horror movie ending in its use of direct address. I mentioned above The Devil’s Advocate and The Omen but another example that springs to mind is Eden Lake (2008), where the ‘monstrous chav’ Brett (Jack O’Connell) looks at us in the film’s final frames. Horror movies often want to ‘get in our heads’ and they therefore might use direct address in order to seek to implicate us/involve us in the film’s horrors and have us leave the cinema (or our sofa) remembering a villain who looked at us and seemed to threaten us in the end. The title itself and certainly its appearance at the end of We Are What We Are also makes it, for me, an example of direct address and underlines the film’s political aspirations. Indeed, the title, in adopting a first-person plural position (‘We are’ [Somos]) presupposes the existence of an audience – the ending (and the film more broadly) seems to say something like, ‘We are what we are… and you must face this’. It appears in conjunction with the crescendo of the score in an almost sloganistic, declamatory fashion, giving the sense of threat and warning.
Shifting genres (and national cinemas) completely, The Ides of March (2011) also ends with a moment of direct address, again embedded within a frame that grounds it semi-realistically. Direct address, here, felt to me totally inevitable and, indeed, my wife, sitting next to me on the sofa as we watched the film, said, ‘He’s going to look at the camera!’ as the moment unfolded (of course she has become cued to look out for such things!). This is a longer extract as the build up to the moment of audience address is longer.
The ending of The Ides of March sits in a long line of films in which, at the end, the character has achieved a hard-won wisdom or, at least, a greater degree of understanding. Bitter experience might lend the final performance of direct address a degree of cynicism. (For example, the end of This is England isn’t quite cynical but certainly marks the fact that the child protagonist is not as innocent as he was at the film’s outset.) This ‘wisdom’ is ambiguous in Clooney’s film because, without giving too much away or going into too much detail, the narrative concerns the compromising of political idealism; the lead character, played by Ryan Gosling, has done some unscrupulous things in order to achieve the position of chief campaign manager to presidential hopeful, Mike Morris (Clooney), a position he assumes in this final scene. Again, context might make one question whether we are meant to take Stephen Meyers look to the camera to be one at the audience. As soon as the ear piece is put in, we hear the feed we assume Meyers is listening to of the TV newscast that he is about to be interviewed for. An interviewer asks him a question and he then looks at the camera. Is his look meant, therefore, to be one at the diegetic camera? The one filming the interview for the news show that is within the fiction? Again, here we see a kind of ‘realistic’ framework for direct address. (Many other films, it should be stressed, don’t bother with such alibis). However, for me, context once more gives the character’s gesture the force of direct address. The proximity of the camera through which the spectator of The Ides of March is viewing Stephen Meyers/Ryan Gosling (the camera tracks in on him) is in no way equivalent to the position the diegetic TV camera filming the character would occupy – indeed, we see the diegetic TV camera and it is fixed on a tripod. Moreover, the pacing of the look arrests it from the diegetic setting – we linger for approximately 4 seconds on Meyers look into the camera after he has been asked the question by the TV reporter; the character may be looking inside himself to consider his conscience but he is too composed to freeze like this on live television. Above all, the rhetoric of the ending is felt most forcefully in the ironic juxtaposition of Mike Morris’s words, ‘Dignity matters! Integrity matters!’, with the move in on Meyers’ face – dignity and, especially, integrity. have been sacrificed to get this character to this point. As discussed in Breaking the Fourth Wall, direct address is often a marker of film irony and this, again, grounds the ending of The Ides of March as direct address. Finally, I want to say something of the way direct address contributes to the final shot’s particular focalisation on the character. It is focalisation in two senses: the final shot stresses his point of view (a camera’s move in on a face can achieve this but, crucially, the soundtrack asks us to share his point of audition more than his point of view); the camera moving in on him also has the feeling of putting him under the microscope, subjecting the character to our intense scrutiny, scrutiny to which he then finally seems to respond. Ultimately, this ending not so different from the horror ending(s) discussed above. Ides of March is an indictment of the American political system and the final look at the camera is a gesture which, superficially at least, seeks to remind us of our implication in this bankrupt culture.
And on that note, I turn to the camera, nod towards the audience and fade to black.
Bazin, André (1999), Qu’est-ce que le cinéma (onzième edition), Paris: Les Éditions du cerf.
Bonitzer, Pascal (1977), ‘Les deux regards’, Cahiers du cinéma, 275, 40-46.
Gunning, Tom (1991), D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: the Early Years at Biograph, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Perkins, V. F. (2005), ‘Where is the world? The horizon of events in movie fiction’, in John Gibbs and Douglas Pye (eds), Style and Meaning: Studies in the detailed analysis of film, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 16-41.
Mild spoilers for episodes one and two of The Bridge.
I rarely feel ‘You’re middle class now kid’ more keenly – except perhaps when i’m ordering my organic veg box – than when I sit down to watch my BBC4 Scandinavian drama serial. As a friend noted on twitter, Danish drama is the new The Wire for the tweeting media peeps, in terms of obsession and “oh you must watch it, its so much better than anything else” Quality TV snobbery. The Guardian is awash with it, and even Clive James in The Telegraph is arguing Danish Drama > US Drama > British Drama, upending the eternally infuriating ‘Why can’t Britain make The Wire’ critique (Predictably, James’s article was named ‘Why British Drama Has Lost The Plot’ in the print edition). Now we have The Bridge to fawn over, but on the evidence of the first two episodes i’m a bit hmmmn, however the experience of watching it prompted me to think about the issues involved in importing a dual-language European drama.
With a long history in European imports – my dad was always partial to French drama Spiral, ahead of the curve! – BBC4 returns to its Scando sweet spot with The Bridge (now that the Italian Inspector Montalbano has shuffled off, his collar turned up grumpily). A co-production between public service broadcasters Denmark’s DR – home of the beloved BBC4 hits The Killing and Borgen - and Sweden’s SVT, it follows police from the two countries teaming up to investigate a grisly murder and a seemingly social-motivated serial killer after a body is dumped on the bridge that links the two countries. The co-production’s dual language status is highlighted from
the off, with dual language credits that play off the bridge motif. This appealed to the TV nerd in me, which was further intrigued when the credits revealed it was also co-funded by Norwegian and German public service broadcasters. Trans-Euro ‘Quality TV’/strong lady crime procedural! However as a devoted fan of Danish crime drama The Killing (Forbrydelsen) and political drama Borgen, and not a watcher of the Swedish crime drama Wallander (also on BBC4) I found myself slightly at sea.
As my GCSE French showed, I don’t have a natural ear for languages. Whilst like Edina in Absolutely Fabulous, my The Killing (and Borgen) fandom made me fancy I could speak Danish, when really the best I manage is ‘Tak’ (thank you). My language lack was shown as the first episode of The Bridge unfolded; I was heartily confused – was I in Denmark or Sweden, which copper was which? What language were they speaking to each other if they were from different countries? (Like most Brits my ignorance of European language and relationships is astonishing). Once i’d worked out blonde and leggy: Sweden, rumpled vasectomy: Denmark, I felt vaguely on my feet, but as soon as we cut away from the police I had no idea which country I was in. An occasional name gave me a clue – “hang on do umlats tend to be Swedish?” – and as the episode progressed Sweden seemed to be all of grim council blocks, 70s era styling (handlebar moustaches, grotty fur collared coats, knee high boots and beige polo-necks) and bleached flat light. Denmark, house-porn to-die-for interiors, grumpy teenagers and the imposing stone arches of the police station.
This was all exacerbated by having a single set of subtitles whether characters were speaking Danish or Swedish – presumably when the series was shown in its respective countries the other language was subtitled (forgive my production ignorance, my spoiler-phobe nature has limited my research). Some different shading in the subtitle might have helped us poor Brits. But asides from feeling stupid, I felt like I was missing out on jokes in the Swedish station at the Dane’s expense and, I suspected, the dramatic meaning of moments when characters switched languages. The plot is based around the links (and perhaps differences) between the two countries – quite literally in the corpse – and the killer spreads his word on a website that is mirrored in both languages. But without differentiation and my with my language-averse brain, all the nuances of cross-border tension blended into one indistinguishable Scando-blur. It’s going to take me a while – and the help of the sterling group of Europeans in the comment section of The Guardian episode blog – to make sense of this.
And I don’t know if its my natural leaning towards the Danish side, but it feels like we’re naturally meant to favour our rumbled Danish detective in the face of the abrupt Swedish blonde. Obviously made in the mold of The Killing‘s Sophie Lund, The Bridge‘s Saga Norén is as single-minded as her predecessor. I’m all for a prickly lady who trucks no nonsense, but it all feels a bit too much: the leggy blonde, with her leather trousers, classic car and her changing of t-shirts in the middle of the office, her casual attitude towards sex and her oh so clearly telegraphed lack of social skills and love of rules which all but scream ‘Autism spectrum’. It all feels a bit ‘really?!’
Maybe its because i’m currently in a deep lady crush with another blonde, abrupt, casual with her sexuality, but infinitely complex lady investigator in Homeland‘s Carrie (and the welcome return of Claire Danes’ Crying Face). Maybe its because I miss the smiling steel of Borgen‘s Birgitte Nyborg a bit too much. I’m still not sold on Saga, or The Bridge. Maybe this is a Scando-drama too far. After all, not all British drama is created equal, so neither are all Scandinavian imports. But we’ll see.
Call it slow blogging, call it retrospective writing, call it being too darn busy, I want to write about some television that happened 3 months ago. We often write about TV we experience on DVD, the narrative whole of the prestige drama consumed in a gulp. But soap opera seems so ‘now’, almost live in our daily flow, that it feels strange writing about events from a distance, but here I go.
As 2012 arrived Pat Evans (or ‘Fat Pat’, previously Harris, Beale, Wicks and Butcher – the latter how we really remember her) departed Albert Square and EastEnders. Dying at home surrounded by family, final words written by the masterful Simon Ashdown, born tribute by a very rare re-writing of the credit’s theme (like Peggy’s departure this is a reworking of Julia’s Theme, which I discuss here). Around this time, the sadly cancelled US daytime soap On Life to Live was featuring nostalgic flashbacks and going out in flames of meta-narrative, which made me glad that British prime-time soaps are in such rude health, the centrepiece of our schedules. With the death of Pat prompting EastEnders to look back on it’s own history, it got me thinking about soap’s engagement with narrative history and memory. I wanted to chronicle how this played out to mark the loss of Pat.
A beloved character – along with the recently departed Peggy Mitchell, the reigning matriarch of latter-day Albert Square – Pat had been with the show since 1986, about a year after the programme began, but so steadfastly woven into the show I always thought she’d been there all along. The tribute documentary airing after her last programme showed her striding onto the street all bleach blonde hair, dark glasses, trench coat (knowing Pat, with a garish dress underneath) and the ever present earrings. Oh those earrings, one of my favourite memories of television watching was when, after a row her Roy, her husband of the time (the couple shared my parents names, which always gave them a special place in my heart) he told her he’d never liked her earrings. My living room roared with laughter and through the walls of our victorian terrace we heard the neighbours either side do the same.
But this post isn’t a tribute to Pat, who I loved dearly in all her ballsy fire and strength, second only to Stacey Slater in my devotion. It’s about the storytelling that EastEnders wove around her passing. After surviving a string of heart scares Pat succumbed to pancreatic cancer, whose symptoms the heart problems had disguised. As she lay in her bed, in the house she’d held onto by her fingernails whilst caught up in the ever-present money troubles of her extended family, she was visited and comforted by visitors present and past. Her son David returning at the very last minute (as the character departed in 1996, the actor now busy playing a doctor on Saturday night medical soap Casualty) to seek forgiveness crouched at her side, whilst raging at her failure as a mother (Pat, was once on the game, the bedrock of her tart with a heart character and the source of her sorrow at her failure as a mother). Her other son Simon returning outside the narrative, shown post-credits in a later funeral episode, laying flowers and a goodbye at her grave under cover of night, never to be seen again (the influence of current showrunner Bryan Kirkwood, longtime Hollyoaks chief, is shown here in this event’s coda structure. But that’s another blogpost). Janine – her step-daughter by Frank Butcher – their relationship the very definition of love/hate – sought comfort and forgiveness, before curling up on the bed alongside her (I didn’t really care about whether David made it back, this is the resolution I really needed for my cathartic cry).
Pat’s passing demonstrated both the emotional power of soap opera, but also its storytelling depth. Around her death was woven a string of storylines, resolving themselves and unfolding anew. At this point I was teaching the programme with my first year students, and we charted a week’s storylines on a long, long piece of white paper, the stories starting, stopping, connecting and forking off in ever shifting patterns. The pleasures of teaching come in the look on dismissive students’ faces when they realise the complexity of the storyworld. Quality TV be damned, this is real narrative complexity.
As Pat’s death demonstrated, whilst EastEnders is at pains to represent contemporary culture – its value as public service programming – it is also steeped in the histories of the square and its entangled families. Sometimes in the history of the London East End itself – as in the first of its celebrated two-handers where Dot and Ethel recalled their shared youth in post-war London – for what is soap if not location and family. New characters rarely arrive without connection to existing family structures, characters return after years away, bringing with them audience memories of their pasts. The recently returned – after a 17 year absence – Mandy Slater, in possession of a shady past herself, paid tribute to Pat’s past kindness to her dressed in a fur coat that echoed Pat’s own, suggesting a passing of the baton. Phil Mitchell has been pursued with steadfast determination by DCI Marsden, who pops up to try to nab Phil once and for all with each criminal act he gets tied up in, the Javert to Phil’s Jean Val Jean. This reliance on audience fondness for past characters could demonstrate poverty of imagination, the inability to develop new distinctive blood, but these references thicken character interactions and histories, rewarding the steadfast viewers – a central narrative pleasure of soap. In Interpreting Television Karen Lury talks eloquently of her television memories of locations in the Square, and past events haunt each space I see on screen.
Pat’s death – like the off-screen death of her ‘great love’ Frank Butcher a few years ago – was a chance for EastEnders to revisit its past in eloquent ways. The programme loves this – particularly in its two-handers, where characters often dredge up and work over their shared past – but here something more complex was constructed. 3 layers of history which stretched beyond the audience’s narrative experiences. Surrounding her death and in the week that followed, characters processed their grief by speaking warmly of their own past with Pat and particularly of her relationship with Frank. These were stories audiences could recall from their own memories, narrative history that we’ve experienced together as a viewing community. But into this was woven another narrative, of the distant past, built from fragments of anecdotes and passed-down tales, a story of Frank and Pat’s first meeting as teenagers in 1950s Essex seaside town Clacton, unfurled in tearful fondness by family members.
Mo Harris – an similarly brassy pensioner and dodgy-dealing antagonist of Pat, based on long held grudges since teenage years and beyond – tearfully returned the sash she’d stolen from Pat after the latter won a beauty contest on the trip. But central to these memories was the holiday romance between Frank and Pat; the night they’d spent together, falling fast in love before Frank parted to return to his pregnant girlfriend, later to be wife and mother of Ricky and Janine. 3 layers – today / narrative past / character memory, 2000s / 1980s & 1990s / 1950s – all playing out at once. Pat’s narrative past was complex and unweildly (which allowed her death and the emotion surrounding it to be so fraught, precipitating screaming fights in rain drenched streets, pleaded entreaties in cramped hallways). The Pat in bed was a whispering ghost of herself, the surrounding narrative of her death filled with sorrow, but this youthful Pat built from a patchwork of memories and stories was dazzling and full of life. Here Frank and Pat – who in viewers memories had a passionate and turbulent relationship, troubled by adultery and mental illness – are crystalised and cemented as star-cross teenagers, a great love that was destined to be. Pat’s family and the viewers were heartened with the knowledge the characters were finally together wherever EastEnders characters go when they die.
This Easter saw the similarly beloved Dot Cotton questioning her faith after a friend’s death in a series of beautifully written scenes by Daran Little. Dot is frail and birdlike, she’s getting on. I’m a bit worried about her dying. But I know when she does, it will offer another chance to weave the history of her life in the East End with my own televisual history, just like Pat’s.