Spoiler warning: This blog post reflects on some of the major narrative developments of Homeland’s first season.
I’ve recently finished watching the first season of Homeland (Showtime, 2011-), a series I’d been looking forward to for a good number of reasons. These include the excellent casting: I’ve been a fan of Claire Danes ever since the traumatically cancelled My So-Called Life. With Damian Lewis and David Harewood, the show has not one, but two British actors playing US characters in recent high-profile US drama, joining the likes of House, M.D. and Battlestar Galactica. Of course, Damian Lewis had played the lead character in the HBO mini series Band of Brothers, so his presence in another US cable show concerned with war, but a very different, post-9/11 war, promised to be interesting.
And I wasn’t disappointed; based on Israeli drama Hatufim, Homeland deserves the praise and acclaim it has received, with strong performances all round – a special mention must go to Mandy Patinkin, whom I would have recognized from Chicago Hope had I watched that in the 1990s instead of ER – and a much more mature, intelligent engagement with the War on Terror, issues of foreign policy and personal trauma. I largely agree with The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum’s view that Homeland is a much-needed antidote to the ‘sleek right-wing dreamscape’ that was Fox’s 24 and its cartoon hero Jack ‘I can torture people with a towel and have impressive bladder control’ Bauer.
It is also interesting to consider Homeland in relation to Hollywood action cinema’s response to 9/11, and reading my colleague Lisa Purse’s reflections on this in the preceding blog post ‘Action Cinema After 9/11′, it’s clear that this contemporary television drama is marked by a sensitivity, a willingness to explicitly problematise notions of heroism and a ‘just war’, and indeed, a reversal of both the revenge narrative and the culminating violence found in the action movie’s generic conventions. On his return home after eight years as prisoner of war, Damian Lewis’ character, US Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody, not only noticeably struggles to come to terms with his life, but, it emerges slowly over the first season, is intent on violently avenging the death of Issa – the son of his former captor and terrorist Abu Nazir – until he is talked out of his suicide mission by his own teenage daughter.
But reflecting on the first season, there is something about Homeland’s reversal of the revenge trope that bugged me. And that is to do with the casting of the character Issa, Abu Nazir’s young son, killed in a drone strike secretly ordered and officially denied by the US Vice President. Cast with the actor Rohan Chand, what bugs me is that this child character is very cute. And when I say ‘cute’, I mean cute as in neotenised cuteness.
Of course, I know that all children and child actors have neotenised features to some extent, just as I know that casting cute kids is nothing out of the ordinary for US film and television. But I was struck by just how much Chand’s features reminded me of the Kindchenschema, the ‘small child pattern’ described by Konrad Lorenz, that I learned about at school (probably roughly around the same time My So-Called Life got cancelled, but I digress). With his big eyes, round cheeks and softly tousled hair, Chand’s Issa is clearly meant to evoke a sympathetic response in the viewer, serving the flashbacks’ condensed explanation of the transformation Brody underwent during his captivity. First appearing dressed in a tunic and shown in Muslim prayer with Brody, Issa’s body is a site where racial/ethnic Otherness is negotiated through the aesthetic of the cute.
There is much more to be said about this concept of cuteness, that I lack the space to do here. Reflecting on cuteness as an aesthetic marked by class, race, gender and sexuality, Lorie Merish offers an interesting discussion of cuteness’s preoccupation with Otherness.* Her argument that
‘cuteness engenders an affectional dynamic through which the Other is domesticated and (re)contextualized within the human “family.” Cuteness aestheticizes the most primary social distinctions, regulating the (shifting) boundaries between Selves and Others, cultural “insiders” and cultural “outsiders,” “humans” and “freaks”’ (p. 188)
strikes me as particularly relevant for the representation strategies employed in Homeland that I’m concerned with here.
Watching this young Muslim boy’s first on-screen appearance, I found myself uttering a slight sigh of exasperation and resignation at the sight of the Cute Non-White Kid (who can be found in a range of texts, from films like Slumdog Millionaire to charity appeals). Of course, being a cute child in a narrative situation like the one in Homeland is akin to wearing a red shirt in Star Trek – you just know things aren’t going to end well for this character. I don’t really want to specifically single out Homeland in my criticism; I just wish that contemporary television drama will begin to trust that its audience understands the emotional significance of the death of a non-white child, where that child is allowed to look ‘average’ and where racial/ethnic Otherness is not inevitably framed by cuteness.
*Lorie Mesh, “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple” in Rosemarie Garland Thomson (ed.). Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: New York University Press, 1996, pp. 185-203.
For an interesting discussion of the relationship between cuteness and monstrosity, see Maja Brzozowska-Brywczyńska, “Monstrous/Cute. Notes on the Ambivalent Nature of Cuteness” in Niall Scott (ed.). Monsters and the Monstrous: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil. Amsterdam; New York: Rodopi, 2007, pp. 213-228.
The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is prompting much reflection in the media on both the events of that day and what has happened since. How Hollywood responded is also on people’s minds, as Peter Bradshaw’s overview piece in The Guardian today illustrates. It’s true to say, though, that Hollywood’s response has been the subject of media and academic attention for much of the intervening decade since 2001. In one of the earliest published books on the subject, Wheeler Winston Dixon offered a succinct summation of Hollywood’s immediate reaction:
In the days and weeks after 9/11, Hollywood momentarily abandoned the hyperviolent spectacles that dominated mainstream late 1990s cinema. Films were temporarily shelved, sequences featuring the World Trade Center were recut, and ‘family’ ﬁlms were rushed into release or production . . . Predictably, however, this reversal of fortune did not last long, and soon Hollywood was back to work on a series of highly successful ‘crash and burn’ movies. (Dixon 2004: 3)
But it is in the very ‘crash and burn’, explosion filled action movies Dixon characterizes as a return to the norm that one finds a more complicated picture than one might expect of what Hollywood did next.
Here, as elsewhere in Hollywood output, allegorical explorations of the post-9/11 world emerged, such as the puppet satire Team America: World Police (2004), and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005). But the much more prevalent trend was what David Holloway calls ‘modish’ references to 9/11, Iraq or Afghanistan, or associated locales and themes (2008: 75). This reminds me of something Michael Wood said about the passing references to World War II in early post-war Hollywood: that ‘the world of death and war and menace and disaster is really there, gets a mention, but then is rendered irrelevant by the story or the star or the music’ (1975: 17–18). For example, why open Transformers (2007) on a military base in Qatar, if the action quickly returns to US soil? Similarly Iron Man (2008)’s choice to begin in Afghanistan works to add a modish pertinence to Tony Starck (Robert Downey Jnr)’s arms dealing and the manner in which he learns the error of his ways (incarceration by terrorists); once Starck escapes the terrorists the action is focused once more on US soil. In both cases noisy spectacle replaces any thought about the locations and political implications of the films’ respective opening settings. Equally, some films could be argued as somewhere between allegory and modish reference – where to place Cloverfield (2008), for example, or attack-on-home-soil films such as Law Abiding Citizen (2009)?
I think a more easily discernible trend in post-9/11 action cinema is a developing unease about the viability of notions that are normally at the heart of the action film: heroism and a ‘just war’. Heroism as a cultural idea gained renewed currency in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, stories abounding about people who had risked their lives or died trying to rescue others. Here were acts of human sacriﬁce and bravery that could be heralded unproblematically as heroic, and which were duly eulogised. But the discourse of patriotic heroism was problematised by what happened next. The military interventions by the US and its allies after 9/11 were initiated in the face of anti-war demonstrations and debates about their legal mandate. In the years that followed growing collateral damage statistics and revelations about prisoner mistreatment at Guantànamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and about the rendition of terror suspects put pressure on any notion of a ‘just war’ and called into question the heroism of implicated military personnel, while the reduction of civil liberties flowing from the 2001 Patriot Act and the rising US and Allied troop casualties further muddied public opinion.
In Shooter (2007), Vantage Point (2008), the Bourne films (2002, 2004, 2007) and Salt (2010), amongst others, the ‘just war’ of maintaining national security turns out to be a dirty and corrupt business, with the hero forced to attack the very government forces he thought he was fighting with. Uncertainty about the true nature of the central protagonist’s supposed heroism returns as a pronounced trope in this period: for example, Bourne’s amnesia and Salt’s narrative of double and re-doubled agents repeatedly defer confirmation of the true allegiances of the ‘hero’; in Inception (2010)’s dream levels the subconscious mind of hero Cobb (Leonardo di Caprio) unleashes dark forces that threaten the lives of the rest of his team; and [*spoiler alert*] Source Code (2011)’s Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) struggles to carve out a space for heroic action in a parallel worlds narrative that refuses to resolve its central conflict, revealing Colter at the end as both a physically impaired, comatose veteran and the bright-eyed, healthy hero that saves the day (interested readers might like to check out Dan North’s piece on the film).
Some action films harbored ambitions to engage with the post-9/11 world more explicitly, placing their protagonists in relatively naturalistic Middle East settings and at the apex of conﬂict (in one way or another) in order to explore more explicitly the intricacies, tensions and pressures of the situation, films like The Kingdom (2007), The Hurt Locker (2008) and Green Zone (2010). Each of these demonstrates in its own way the risks inherent in this noble endeavour, the way in which the action film’s generic framework – its focus on individual endeavour rather than social context, its tendency to polarize characters into heroes and villains, its wish-fulfilment resolutions achieved through physical violence – risk a failure to express the complexity of the post-9/11 world. I discuss both The Kingdom and The Hurt Locker in Contemporary Action Cinema, but would like to make some brief observations about The Kingdom in the space available here to demonstrate what I mean [once again, here be *spoilers*].
Having emphatically linked its fictional world with the real post-9/11 context via a remarkable contextualizing opening montage, The Kingdom follows the endeavours of a team of FBI investigators hunting the bombers of a US compound in Saudi Arabia. The film is at its best communicating small moments of conflict and tension in the interactions between the US team and the Saudi police forced to chaperone them: both parties draw our sympathies and understanding. But genre conventions are already in sway that gradually blunt the nuanced treatment the opening promised. The set-up immediately establishes that this is a revenge narrative, the US team keen to avenge the killing of ‘one of our own’. Early images of their grief and anger at the death of a FBI colleague killed in the compound attack prepare us to cheer them on in the revenge mission, a mission which will, incidentally, quickly push them to disregard national border controls and political and cultural sensitivities. The film initially pays a kind of lip service to Saudi sovereignty, but the Saudis are quickly co-opted into the cause, as foot soldiers for the FBI team.
The film draws heavily on the buddy action formula to bring together its primary protagonists, FBI team leader Fleury (Jamie Foxx) and his Saudi counterpart Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom). Antagonism shifts to awkwardness and then to respect in the course of their joint detective work, until a striking declaration by Al Ghazi affirms his allegiance to the US team’s cause, and works to reiterate the primacy of the revenge narrative:
I ﬁnd myself in a place where I no longer care about why we are attacked. I only care that one hundred people woke up a few mornings ago and had no idea it was their last. When we catch the man who murdered these people I don’t care to ask even one question. I want to kill him.
The phrases ‘I no longer care about why’ and ‘I don’t care to ask even one question’ betray a response to terrorism which is much more emphatically in line with the action film’s revenge trope than with the opening credit sequence’s evocation of complex causality. Thought and analysis have been rejected to be replaced by violent retribution as the only possible outcome. This moment is indicative of the way that generic conventions gradually upstage the film’s other ambitions. Al Ghazi’s words (echoing both the jingoistic language of the Bush administration’s ‘war on terror’ discourse and the desire to deliver some form of retribution that many have felt after 9/11 and other subsequent terrorist atrocities) prepare us for the action film’s conventional narrative resolution – a culminating violence – while pointing away from the real-world realities of anti-terrorist strategies, which must include intelligence gathering and analysis as well as more direct forms of action.
Thus aligned, Al Ghazi becomes Fleury’s action ‘buddy’ in a final extended shoot-out that gives all six of the investigators – the four Americans and the two Saudis – the opportunity to give vent to their desire for revenge, to express a violent heroism in place of more sedentary or reflective modes of investigative action. And in another long-standing convention in Hollywood action movies, the racial ‘Other’ – in this case (in a conflation of ethnic and national difference that Hollywood frequently falls into) the Saudi Al Ghazi – must be sacrificed for the US hero’s cause.
The Kingdom is in my view an underrated action movie, notable for its ambitions as much as for its failings (the terrorists are cyphers that draw on familiar racist stereotypes, while the Saudis and Americans can only bond over family ties and US popular culture, rather than on the basis of mutual cultural respect). The film’s tensions – genre and wish-fulfilment versus the realities of real-world geopolitics – are certainly indicative of the challenges action movies faced in the decade following 9/11. But given Hollywood’s reliance on wish-fulfilment and familiar genre reference points, these tensions may also tell us something about the negotiations Hollywood has generally had to make during the last ten years, as it shaped the relationship between its fictional universes and the real world beyond.
The Beeb and the BFI should be applauded for The Reel History of Britain that’s just started airing at teatime on BBC2. Here, to quote the BBC, we are shown ‘the fascinating stories of life in Britain from 1900 to 1970 through the archive collections of the British Film Institute and other National and Regional Film Archives’.
20 episodes is an exciting prospect, with an accompanying BFI website offering a triumph of cross-institution 360 degree commissioning. Melvyn Bragg tootles round the country in an refurbished Ministry of Technology mobile cinema to talk to those featured in the treasures of the BFI’s non-fiction archive, their memories made real on the bus’s – and our TV’s – screen. In doing so the programme seeks to build a picture of Britain through archive and oral history. This is a fabulous aim, though, like The Guardian‘s Sam Wollaston I wish there was a little more archive and a little less chat.
My real problem, though, is with the fact that a programme and a project that trumpets the value of the archive and preservation is hacking up archive footage shot in 4:3 to fit television’s contemporary widescreen frame. I’d noticed this happen recently on BBC4 – of all places, seeing as its the shop window of our cultural heritage – in its short season on documentary. Here, Britain Through a Lens, telling the story of the British Documentary Movement presented clips from 1935′s Housing Problems and many others which were pan and scanned (or, perhaps tilt and scanned) from their original ratio to create a widescreen image.
In doing so reconfiguring the aesthetic meanings created within the original frame – the woman in the space, the housing which she is describing – and re-presenting a 1930s image as a 2010s image. Not ideal in a programme discussing the importance of the documents produced by these filmmakers.
Similarly The Reel History of Britain shows us, in its opening moments, viewers watching the archive footage in the cinema, the archive image in 4:3…
Then cutting into the archive image, which is now reframed into widescreen, removing detail from what is being presented as a historical document;
A moment from We Are The Lambeth Boys (i’m very interested to see if they catch up with participants of one of my favourite documentaries – seek it out people!) has surrounding detail clipped. Its participant reframed and removed from her more mundane framing to something more balanced and aesthetically appealing to the modern eye. Shifting the focus onto the individual rather than her actions and environment;
Those black bars in the original image are the tip off for what I assume is a directorial or higher-up editorial choice. On our flash flat widescreen telly screens, the boxy image of a film or programme shot in 4:3 is marooned in black space. It is aesthetically unappealing for an audience now hardwired to the widescreen image. Perhaps it was thought that shifting backwards and forwards between the 4:3 archive and the widescreen present-day interviews may seem strange to a tea time BBC2 audience (god knows what the justification is for doing it in a BBC4 documentary though). Or perhaps the black bars were felt unsightly.
But this is archive, it is our cultural history. This movement between ratios shows the shift and relationship between the past and the present, the historical image and the interviewee remembering. It is also a cultural artifact, you didn’t see BBC2′s The Impressionists pan and scan a Monet. OK, there may be rostrum movement across a still image, but the paintings themselves are eventually shown in full. I hate to Beeb bash (particularly at a time when the press’s national sport is threatening its very future) and this isn’t Ted Turner colourising the MGM archive, but its a significant issue.
I am worried that three (as another BBC4 documentary on direct cinema and cinema verite did the same) makes a trend and this is how archive will be increasingly presented on our TV screens. It mis-represents our cultural heritage and certainly makes these great new documentaries all but useless as an academic teaching tool. However, after the Britain Through the Lens debacle I was relieved to find that BBC4′s new series The Story of British Pathe keeps its archive images intact. Fingers crossed it was just a blip;
Anyways. As the BFI’s website that accompanies the project is so beautifully and informatively presented, and it’s archive footage is offered complete and un-interfered with, with bountiful examples of footage only offered in fragmented moments on BBC2, this is perhaps a project that is best experienced in its multi-platform form rather than from the comfort of our sofas.
I’ve been a lecturer for a few years now, and I love my job. One of the things I appreciate the most about it is the diversity of spaces, situations and contexts in which I find myself doing different things with different groups of people: be it engaging with students in a stimulating debate about the boundaries of documentary in a seminar room; looking at a rough cut of students’ practical work in an editing suite; or sharing ideas with fellow scholars at an academic conference over coffee and (hopefully) biscuits. These activities are all part of the texture of my working life, and as different as they can be, what they have in common is this: the use of my hands. I use my hands a lot.
I use my hands to gesture and visually articulate ideas, especially those of a temporal, spatial and/or conceptual kind. I want to focus on the use of my hands here in relation to teaching, because this is when it tends to come out at its most colourful. There’s many a cohort of students familiar with (and probably quite amused by) the energetic motion of my hands during teaching; indeed, I have been known to encourage admirably conscientiously note-taking students to ‘look up; I’m doing a thing’.
Be it expressing the complex narrative folds of soaps (see shot 1); the potential presence of a disruptive Other in experimental drama (see shot 2); or the importance of a cohesive structure of argument in a PhD thesis (see shot 3) – my hands are essential to the way I teach. I feel that, when I have put something well into words and hands, then there’s a connection made with my students in ways that I can’t quite pin down, but that I know is there.
This is absolutely important to me as a teacher and scholar (and it is something I share with many peers); and yet it is something that I realized the other day might never get a mention in my written work, which is why you’re currently reading what you’re reading. But I’ve also decided to write this post for another reason, and this is because of my impression that current debates on teaching and learning seem quite focused on the use of web 2.0 tools; be it blogs, Twitter or wikis. Now, I don’t wish to deny that these hold attractions and many positive uses; indeed they do, and I have seen colleagues use them with great effect. I myself have used some of them for my teaching (although the closet I have come to understanding what a widget is, is that ‘it’s a thing’ and then my brain switched to white noise). But what I have been concerned about for a while is a recent trend whereby innovative teaching and the use of web 2.0 tools are too readily conflated.
What strikes me is that, while scholarship has moved to embrace the body, there is a danger that the teaching of scholarship is becoming strangely disembodied, and the innovative qualities of ‘hands-on’ teaching are at risk of being overlooked. As my own research interests are moving towards phenomenology (which you can tell by my title’s punning reference to Vivian Sobchack’s seminal essay ‘What My Fingers Knew’),* I want to explore the phenomenology of pedagogy and the embodied, experiential quality of teaching further. To paraphrase Sobchack, the teaching experience is meaningful not to the side of my body, but because of my body. I feel I should want to tweet, skype, and blog to my students, but what I really want to do is to sit in a room with them and cast strange shadow plays on the walls. It’s how iTeach.**
* Vivian Sobchack, ‘What My Fingers Knew: the Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh’, in Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004: 53-84.
** I can’t resist the opportunity for a punomenon. Evidently.
Julianne Moore in Not I by Samuel Beckett (from the ‘Beckett on Film’ season, Channel 4, 2001).
I made a brief visit to Damascus in Syria in March, to talk about television plays by Samuel Beckett. My visit was supported by the British Council in Syria, and was part of a longer programme titled ‘Beckett in Damascus’. The participants in this programme of activities were members of Damascus Theatre Lab (DTL), a forum that brings together directors, actors, playwrights, stage designers and cultural critics. The DTL aims to create a more energetic cultural scene for live theatre performance, to complement the ‘official’ theatre and music staged in the city’s major venues. The founder of the DTL and my host on my trip was Dr Oussama Ghanam, a native of Damascus who gained his PhD in theatre in Paris and now teaches theatre at the Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus.
I gave a presentation first on Beckett’s five plays written for television, the subject of my recent book Beckett on Screen. These dramas are little-known, but introduced what was to become a theme of the DTL workshop, namely the relationship between performance for the stage and for the screen. We also analysed the spatial composition of Beckett’s plays for TV. We discussed ideas of flatness and depth in TV images and theatre staging, visual composition, and the role of the camera’s point of view.
In the second session of the day, I focused on the TV adaptation of Beckett’s theatre plays in Britain and Germany. The topic of TV versions of theatre was of particular interest to my Syrian colleagues because of the different role of television there in comparison to Europe. Syrian television has no equivalent to Britain’s public service broadcasting policy, and our workshop discussed how it is that Beckett’s work has made it to the airwaves.
Billie Whitelaw in Not I by Samuel Beckett (BBC2, 1975).
For the BBC in the 1960s up until the 1980s, Beckett’s Nobel Prize-winning work lent prestige to TV and his plays were screened in mid-evening. Beckett was usually willing to offer advice about the plays, or co-direct them for the screen. The plays offered the BBC opportunities to emphasise excellent performances by well-known actors such as Ronald Pickup or Billie Whitelaw, who were experienced Beckett performers in the theatre and recreated or adapted their work for the screen. The image above from the BBC’s version of Not I in 1975 shows Billie Whitelaw performing in the TV version of a London theatre production.
On the other hand though, Beckett had strong views about how his work should be realised. For example, the language and setting of the plays could not be altered from the pre-existing play text. In comparison to more mainstream drama, Beckett’s plays are very slow, and seemed boring to a significant number of BBC viewers. In our workshop, we assessed these questions of suitability for television by discussing three different TV versions of Beckett’s theatre play Krapp’s Last Tape.
Jack McGowran in Krapp’s Last Tape (PBS, 1971).
Patrick Magee in Krapp’s Last Tape (BBC2, 1972).
Harold Pinter in Krapp’s Last Tape (BBC4, 2006).
In a further lengthy workshop, we focused on the Beckett on Film project in which versions of all 19 of Beckett’s theatre plays were staged for the camera in 2001. The image at the top of this post is from the 2001 version of Not I. Michael Colgan and the film producer Alan Maloney produced the films, with backing from the Irish TV channel RTE, Britain’s Channel 4 television, and the producers of the musical Riverdance, among others. Channel 4 used an unconventional pattern of scheduling that must have contributed to the season’s low ratings. By 2004, the plays were being scheduled as educational broadcasts for schools. Beckett, it seems, has become canonical and significant, but has lost his prime-time slot.
We discussed the visual and performance style of some of the Beckett on Film adaptations, especially because DTL members were working on performances of three Beckett plays. There was a general wish that Syrian television might adapt short Beckett dramas. Drama is very popular on Syrian TV, with the highest-profile serials being screened to coincide with the holy month of Ramadan. Some DTL participants are performers in Syrian soap opera, and relished the idea of working with a very different aesthetic.
It was a great pleasure to visit Damascus even for such a short time. I am very grateful to the British Council for its support of my visit and especially to Oussama Ghanam for his generous hospitality. The Damascus Theatre Lab participants were bursting with ideas and creative energy.
Whilst watching Miranda Hart ‘in conversation’ with Grace Dent last night at BAFTA, I was thinking (asides from ‘I’m so glad I got tickets, this is aces’) about Tina Fey’s essay collection Bossypants. Having recently eeked out and savoured Fey’s coming of age stories and backstage tales of working in US TV comedy I was left wanting more about life behind the scenes of SNL and 30 Rock. So the TV production wonk in me was interested to hear the construction and production process behind Miranda, one of my favourite British sitcoms. Whilst there was inevitably a certain amount of repetition from the raft of interviews and often highly problematic ‘Miranda? Why?’ articles (one such ill-informed piece is interestingly taken apart by writer/script editor Andrew Ellard here), I encountered some interesting detail that I thought i’d write up here. (Please note, this isn’t exhaustive, its just some bits and pieces I found interesting!).
In many places Hart has noted her debt to Victoria Wood and Morcambe & Wise, particularly the latter in her fourth-wall-breaking address to camera, which whilst feeling nicely reflexive to a contemporary audience, has a long comedic legacy. At one point in the evening Hart described Miranda as a sitcom combined with elements of light entertainment, which she linked to the use of dancing and ‘you have been watching’ (which I remember from Hi-De-Hi back in the day), which definitely links to M&W and their more sketch-based form. And it’s perhaps this – along with the celebrated physical comedy and her
decision to make a multi-camera studio sitcom – that makes critics call the programme ‘old-fashioned’ or claim it as a ‘guilty pleasure’. Hart noted that she never expected the industry or critics to like it, it was ‘traditional’, it was multi-camera when single-camera was in vogue, it was ‘mainstream’ (shudder). Yet its tendency to skip around in time, with flashbacks used as punctuation or a gag – the quick-cuts to illustrations of Miranda making her own fun living alone are one of my favourite elements, from making fruit friends, to drumming along with Eastenders‘s duff-duffs – feels very contemporary ‘single camera’ (a la Spaced or 30 Rock). In this combination I feel like Miranda shares kinship with How I Met Your Mother perhaps more than the 70s sitcoms critics bring up.
I enjoyed Hart kindly telling-off people who mentioned ‘laugh-track’ or ‘canned laughter’ as this is always a bug bear of mine when people discuss studio sitcom (which Ellard addresses in his blog post). Noting – as Fey does in Bossypants with regards to developing 30 Rock - that the industry and the BBC were focused on single-camera sitcoms (at one point she was asked to rewrite the pilot as single-camera), Hart spoke of her desire from the beginning for it to be a studio sitcom. Interestingly she explained that as a performer she works best in front of a live audience and arguably part of the charm of her character is the relationship constructed with the audience through the address to camera. Through this address she invites the audience in to experience her own responses to events – particularly the awkward social situations she gets herself into – the exasperated wide eyed head shake at herself encourages us to laugh with not at her.
For me this is part of Miranda‘s welcome distancing from the ever-present sad female singleton longing for love. She is still partly this, with the programme partly constructed around her longing for dreamy Gary (one of the perks of writing your own sitcom – casting dishy love interests). But the focus is more on others - particularly her mother’s – dismay at her single status and her lack of conventionality, whilst she embraces living alone and the silly games played with your girlfriends. Whilst an audience
question tried to draw her into the issue of ‘middle-class’ comedy at the BBC, Hart noted that whilst she thought little about class whilst writing, she did feel conscious of being a woman, and worked on making the comedy universal. (The complicated issue of women in comedy and particularly 30 Rock is something that has engaged the feminist blogosphere of late). Noting that she felt uncomfortable with the farce sequence in ‘Let’s Do It’, which went outside her need to make her situations relatable, she highlighted how she added an address to camera noting its ‘French farce’ element to make herself more comfortable with the situation.
I’m getting distracted with my own thoughts here – but this is why I enjoy Miranda, it brings up these things whilst simultaneously making me laugh out loud – so i’ll attempt stick to production detail from now on. Hart honed the character that became Miranda through many years of taking her act to the Edinburgh Festival and eventually to London pubs and clubs – though not pure stand-up which she felt her act was not suited to. After nearly 10 years finally breaking through in the mid-00′s with roles in Hyperdrive and Not Going Out, which allowed her to stop temping and start working on her own pilot. Ultimately she took 18 months working around other jobs to develop and hone the project and character into a pilot – the one piece of explicit advice she gave was to take your time and not be rushed when writing comedy. Knowing that her pilot had been commissioned by the BBC whilst filming her second season on Not Going Out she observed how the director and technical departments worked, learning the construction and choices made, which informed her own writing and refined what she wanted her sitcom to be. Hart is notable in that the discourse surrounding Miranda highlights her authorship, and she seems to have been allowed the status as that rare female comedy ‘auteur’ (particularly when, for example, Jessica Stevenson’s authorship is so often written out of Spaced‘s history in favour of the Pegg/Wright writer/director dual-auteur).
Hart writes primarily alone – with help from outside writers at the storyline and structure stage and with a final gagging up . The technical construction involved in comedy was made plain by her explanation of how her office holds 3 separate walls of ideas – jokes, set-pieces and story – and how she literally graphs the structure and beats of an episode out. She spoke of how freeing she felt to write the season 2 episode ‘Just Act Normal’ as it freed her from the constraints of sitcom construction. The episode broke with the established format for the series and focused entirely on an enforced session of ‘couples’ therapy for Miranda and her mother, a fruitful subject for the series’ comedy. Hart notes her progression as a
writer between the two series, with the second series relying less on her address to camera and more on the ensemble as she became comfortable with the characters and refined her physical comedy. She seemed to want to play down the critics focus on the address to camera and pratfalls, feeling they were a small part of the series’ comedy. Though she interestingly highlighted how she practiced them – listing the range of ways to fall off a stool – and viewed their refinement as akin as delivering a line.
I could go on more – the issues of constructing emotional/serious moments in a studio sitcom, her character and happiness – but I have meandered too long and still not really unpicked my thoughts about the programme’s pleasures. All in all I found it an entertaining, interesting evening and i’m eagerly awaiting season 3!
Following the Arts Councils cuts, the fight to represent British Chinese communities has just got harder.
Whilst a great many “good causes” have been lost in the recent round of Arts Council cuts, there has been a double blow to British Chinese culture. Though from the post-cuts discussions, you’d be forgiven for not noticing.
Yellow Earth, established in 1995, is the most visible theatre company for showcasing British East Asian theatre, and is an important source for new generations of British East Asian actors. It has just received a 100% cut in Arts Council funding, placing its future in jeopardy. The Asian Music Circuit, a promoter of Asian music in the UK since 1989, has also received a 100% cut. Although much of the latter’s work is South Asian focussed, it remains a significant means of enabling British Chinese musicians to perform, and more importantly, to educate.
The Arts Council would no doubt argue that it has a justifiable rationale in cutting financial support to these companies, but it is a testament to the relative invisibility of British Chinese communities that the likely impact of these cuts in terms of ethnic representation in the arts has barely been registered. Had flagship Black British companies been cut, wouldn’t this have been pointed out already?
Of course, there were always going to be winners and losers, and no doubt many other worthy causes have similarly suffered. But it has been a hard-won battle to get the British Chinese any kind of decent cultural visibility, and Yellow Earth and Asian Music Circuit have played an important part in this fight. One only has to look beyond the work of these companies to see what they are up against.
In contemporary mainstream media, the British Chinese are virtually absent. In soaps like Eastenders, where at least some kind of attempt is made to reflect the cultural diversity of Britain, an obvious absence is a British Chinese family. Where are they? The programme makers clearly think that the Chinese influence does not extend beyond the borders of Chinatown, placed as it is in that oft-mentioned but rarely seen district known, quite camply, as “up West”.
But just as you wonder what British Chinese actors have to do to get on television, along comes BBC’s Sherlock with a horde of Chinese gangsters whose command of English is, to the say the least, basic. Sherlock may have updated some of the Victorian themes from the time of Conan Doyle, but the producers obviously felt comfortable with portraying ‘Chinese’ characters in a way that Dickens would probably have found clichéd.
The appearance of student Xin in Coronation Street at least demonstrates that Chinese characters are exclusive neither to violent crime nor to London, and she can even speak English like everyone else. Well, maybe not like everyone else in Corrie – her accent is rooted to the South, even if she isn’t. But if her accent marks her as an “outsider”, this is reinforced by the mispronunciation of her name, which, oddly, she never deigns to correct. Xin is pronounced as “shin” in Mandarin, “sam” in Cantonese, though the locals comically mispronounce her name as “Sheen”, making her sound like a well-known brand of furniture polish.
The dramatic interest centres on the fact that Xin is not ‘British’, and as her student visa expires she has no alternative but to collude with the gormless Graeme to marry her way to a British passport. Yet more criminal activity. Though quite why she wants to stay in the UK is an enigma. With China still experiencing 8% growth, I doubt it is because she might not get a job; the best job she has managed on Corrie is in – yes, you guessed it – a Chinese restaurant.
Perhaps Corrie is making a veiled statement about the Human Rights situation in China? For the inhabitants of Coronation Street at least, the East is some deplorable, undemocratic, uninhabitable place; somewhere beyond the viaduct – itself the scene of recent carnage – and Xin must be saved from this certain, though unspecified, doom. But with the inevitable arm of soap-land law waiting around the corner, it is only a matter of time before the marriage is revealed as a sham and she is sent packing. It’s sad but true: characters with R.P. accents can rarely cut it on the cobbles.
British East Asian actors have complained that they feel like they are living in the Britain of the 1950s, and from contemporary mainstream media, it is not difficult to see why. The ‘British Chinese’ are invisible, stereotyped or transient.
This makes the work of Yellow Earth and the Asian Music Circuit all the more important in asserting an on-going British Chinese presence, and they have done so for decades. But in acknowledging the part these companies have played in trying to counter reductive stereotypes, they also have their weaknesses. Yellow Earth has come up with some great work, but its track record is by no means consistent. Similarly, Asian Music Circuit may promote performers who play ‘traditional’ instruments, but is this at the expense of supporting British Chinese musicians whose preference is to explore alternative musical styles? After all, for some British Chinese artists, their ethnic heritage is an irrelevance. These companies can’t please everyone. This is especially the case when they are creating both the work and the political platform for its representation – and without the support of major institutions, like the BBC, who could and should be doing more.
So, with their funding cut, what is the future? It’s certainly not the end of the battle. Should Yellow Earth and Asian Music Circuit be forced to close, Chinatown Arts Space, based in London, will remain an important force in commissioning British Chinese performance, and the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester will continue to support the work of Chinese artists, including those from British Chinese communities. Yet, opportunities for visibility will be scarcer, and the battle for fairer representation harder to fight. Either there needs to be a concerted effort to save these institutions, or a reconsideration of how British Chinese communities seek to express themselves through the performing arts. One thing is for sure: the mainstream media won’t do it for them, and as it stands, the Arts Council isn’t helping.