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DUNCAN MACMILLAN in conversation with Lib Taylor

April 29, 2016

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Inside Robot Theatre: A Performance-Lecture featuring Baxter the Robot

April 15, 2016

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At 7.30pm on the evening of Wednesday 20th April, Dr. Louise LePage, one of the Department’s Theatre lecturers, will present a performance-lecture, ‘Inside Robot Theatre’, in Bulmershe Theatre, Minghella Building, Whiteknights, University of Reading. The event features Baxter the robot, two children, and some talented students. Booking is free but spaces are limited (booking details follow below).

Dr. LePage’s research engages with the role of technology – in particular robots – in performance and also more specifically with ways of performing as a human being. She proposes that robots are inherently performative and that, in refracting the human form, they make us wonder if we, too, might be kinds of machines.

Working with a team, composed of staff and students drawn from across University departments (Film, Theatre & Television and Robotics), Dr. LePage has developed a series of scenes, framed by her questions and reflections, which engage with such ideas as the uncanny quality of robots; the role of the imagination, empathy, and theatre in human responses to robots; and ways in which children open up intriguing ideas about, and responses to, robots, human being, and performance. The team has even shot a short film casting Baxter the robot as Hamlet, which will be shown during the performance-lecture.

To book a ticket, follow this link: http://www.reading.ac.uk/news-and-events/Events/Event666491.aspx.

 

Performance-Lecture Poster 1.0

Reading Researchers share their research at “Performing the Archives” Conference, July 2015, National University of Ireland, Galway.

January 5, 2016

During the summer, five researchers from the Department of Film, Theatre and Television, drawn from both the Department’s lecturing and postgraduate research community, participated in the international conference, ‘Performing the Archive’ held at the National University of Ireland, Galway (22-24 July). The conference gathered together over eighty speakers, including academics, researchers, artists, archivists and librarians from thirteen countries who are all engaged in working with archival materials on research and performance projects, in order to explore the uses and possibilities of the archive today from theoretical and methodological perspectives.

Archival materials offer fascinating glimpses into the past, and how the past continues to inform the present. The University of Reading holds a number of outstanding and diverse archival collections, including the Beckett Collection, established in 1971, now the world’s largest collection of resources relating to the writer Samuel Beckett, the archives of Reading-based biscuit makers Huntley and Palmers, and the Evacuee Archive, containing written memoirs, oral history interviews and other research resources relating to former evacuees and war children gathered by the University’s Research Centre for Evacuee and War Child Studies. In recognition of these remarkable archival collections, the University actively promotes Collections-Based research and has established a Collections-Based doctoral training programme (see http://www.reading.ac.uk/collectionsresearch/DoctoralTrainingProgramme/cbr-dtp.aspx).

 

The panels at Performing the Archives featuring FTT staff and current or recent postgraduate students, presented research using these unique archival materials from the collections at the University of Reading.

 

Dr. Teresa Murjas (Associate Professor in Theatre & Performance), along with Dr. James Rattee (Visiting Lecturer in Film, University of Reading,) and Sonya Chenery (PhD student in Theatre & Film, conducting a collections-based PhD in collaboration with MERL [Museum of English Rural Life], University of Reading), presented on a panel entitled, ‘The Matter of War’, and engaged with the themes of conflict, memory, and trauma in relation to archival materials in/as performance.

 

Over the last two years, these researchers have worked on several connected archive-based projects. Dr. Teresa Murjas’s paper, entitled ‘Surviving Objects’, focused on three practice-led projects connected to her research and teaching on conflict and representation, as she considered the process of generating these projects, their relationship to each other, and how they have been shaped and conceptualized through engagement with object/paper-based archives and collections, museums and galleries. Teresa’s projects have in common their focus on war-related matter, their use of artifacts/ephemera and close-up imagery filmed with a macro-lens, and an interest in fragmented narrative style, using recorded storytelling voices and typographical on-screen text.

 

The first, Surviving Objects, is a cross-medial performance combining video projection with live performance, and it draws on auto/biographical models of practice and a small personal archive belonging to a WW2 child refugee. The performance was staged in the Minghella Building, Reading, in 2013.

 

Based on this work, Teresa was invited by MERL (Museum of English Rural Life) and Reading Museum to develop two Arts Council of England (ACE) funded projects as part of an over-arching collaboration entitled Reading at War. The first, The War in Biscuits, was inspired by a collection of WW1 ration biscuits produced by Huntley & Palmers, a Quaker enterprise, and one of the country’s largest and most prestigious biscuit manufacturers. Today, Reading Museum and MERL hold the Huntley & Palmers Archive, which includes materials relating to the company’s role during the First World War.

 

The objects that form the centre of The War in Biscuits installation are a set of 100-year-old Huntley & Palmers ration biscuits – a staple of the British Army’s diet. The objects have survived partly because soldiers customized them and mailed them back to their families. Some were inscribed with political statements, others with humorous comments mocking the taste of the biscuits themselves, and many were mailed home to loved ones. These objects therefore hold interest on multiple levels: they highlight the experiences of individual soldiers as well as revealing some of the wider industrial processes at work during the war. Our mixed-media installation was mounted at Reading Museum in 2014 before moving, in a reconfigured form, to the Minories Gallery, Colchester (May 2015). Both James and Sonya assisted with this project.

 

The second ACE funded project, the Evacuee Archive project, is currently under completion and explores the archive’s origins through conversations with its founder Dr. Martin Parsons. The archive is the largest holding of WW2 evacuee-related material outside London’s Imperial War Museum. This project takes multiple forms, including an on-line presence, telling the story of the archive’s origins through focus on a selected number of objects, and using formal elements key to the previous projects within a digital space. Sonya’s practice-led PhD also falls within this strand of the work. Building on Teresa’s introduction, James and Sonya examined diverse aspects of each of these ACE projects.

 

Dr. James Rattee’s paper, ‘Reading the Biscuit Town’, examined the process of creating the museum and art-based installation The War in Biscuits, a project conceived in response to material stored in the Huntley & Palmers collection at Reading Museum and MERL.  James’s paper explored some of the key developments in the staging of this installation by looking at how an archive can be opened up through digital and multimedia-based practice.

 

James considered how, in its combination of three inter-linking films, text and audio content, The War in Biscuits seeks to explore a number of perspectives on these objects, including highlighting the biscuits’ material qualities, as well as engaging with paper-based items such as photographs, recipe and leger books, letters, documents and marketing imagery.

 

James reflected upon some of the key creative decisions involved in animating the collection in this way. He also considered how the installation was conceived in order to engage audiences in two very different spatial contexts at the same time as reflecting on how the project was developed through building collaborations between different institutions, as well as between historians, academics and museum and art professionals.

 

Sonya Chenery’s paper was titled ‘Remediating Traces’. Her PhD research is conducted within the Department of Film, Theatre & Television at Reading and she works on the Collections-based Doctoral Training Programme coordinated by MERL, benefitting from access to primary sources, material culture, and the associated professional expertise of a university museum.

 

Her practice-as-research PhD concerns MERL’s Evacuee Archive, the largest of its kind outside London’s IWM. The project was developed in the wake of Teresa’s performance, Surviving Objects. It is distinct from, though in dialogue with, the work that her Reading colleagues are conducting on the evolution of the Evacuee Archive.

 

During her ongoing training in collections-based research and engagement with the Evacuee Archive, Sonya has encountered a range of primary sources concerning the experiences of individuals during WW2. She has become very aware of the dynamic between those archival and published documents in which memories of experience are retold after many years, and other documents such as letters, diaries, and drawings that were created at the time when the experiences took place.

 

Sonya’s paper referred to examples of material from the archive, particularly to reminiscences written later in life by former evacuees, and considered the ways in which these are informed, corroborated or contradicted by earlier letters and diaries, and other material traces of these individuals’ wartime experience. She also draws on her contextual research into stage and screen practices that have engaged with related archival holdings of documents that describe personal experiences and memories, and were produced during times of conflict.

 

 

Research into Samuel Beckett’s drama for stage and screen, drawing on the University’s rich Beckett Collection and other related collections, is an important feature of FTT’s research profile and both Professor Jonathan Bignell and Professor Anna McMullan have led funded research projects in this area: Bignell led a Leverhulme project with artist Bill Prosser on Beckett’s Doodles (2006-9): http://www.reading.ac.uk/ftt/research/ftt-BeckettPhenomenology.aspx and McMullan led the AHRC funded Staging Beckett: http://www.reading.ac.uk/ftt/research/ftt-staging-beckett.aspx which has compiled a searchable database of professional productions of Beckett’s plays in the UK and Ireland.

 

Two of FTT’s postgraduate students, Matthew McFrederick, the PH.D. student working on Staging Beckett, who was also awarded an AHRC international placement to the Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas in 2014, and Niamh Bowe, part of the University’s Collections Based training programme, presented papers on Beckett at the Galway conference, drawing on archival materials.

 

To coincide with the 60th anniversary of Waiting for Godot’s British and English language premiere at the Arts Theatre in London in 1955, directed by Peter Hall, Matthew McFrederick presented a paper on that production entitled “Staging Waiting for Godot at 60: The Arts Theatre and the archive”.  The paper drew upon extensive archival research from several major UK and international repositories including the British Library, the Harry Ransom Center and the Victoria Albert Museum Collections, as well as Reading’s own Beckett Collections.

 

Matthew redressed several lesser known histories relating to this production, starting with the correspondence prior to the play’s performance between the play’s producers, Donald Albery and Peter Glenville, and Beckett, which reveals the obstacles Beckett’s drama faced as it emerged in the UK with censorship and casting issues. It continued by discussing under-utilized archival testimony from the play’s performers, including Paul Daneman and Peter Woodthorpe; cited interviews and memoirs that offer a unique perspective into how Godot was staged, interpreted and received in its first English language performance; and contextualized this production in relation to British theatre during the 1950s. Finally, as previous performance histories of this premiere have tended to neglect this production’s visual elements, Matthew focused on photographs and set designs by Peter Snow, in an examination of this early scenographic interpretation of Godot, a history that began the long and varied association between Beckett’s drama and British and Irish theatres.

 

Matthew’s paper also coincided with the AHRC Staging Beckett Exhibition, “Waiting for Godot at 60”, which he co-curated with Professor Anna McMullan and Dr Mark Nixon for the Happy Days International Beckett Festival in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, following the conference.

 

Niamh Bowe drew on Trinity College Dublin’s Beckett holdings in her paper on ‘Performing trauma and Samuel Beckett’s Kilcool manuscript’. The Kilcool manuscript is an early version of Beckett’s play Not I (1972), one of Samuel Beckett’s most minimal plays. The play features Mouth, a spot-lit mouth speaking a monologue on stage while vehemently refusing to give up the third person, and the Auditor, a silent cowled figure. In Woman and Ireland as Beckett’s Lost Others: Beyond Mourning and Melacholia (2010) Rina Kim notes the importance placed on physical place, gender and the depiction of suffering in the manuscript.  Stanley Gontarski describes Beckett’s method in his movement from ‘Kilcool’ to Not I as an act of abstraction in order to gain acceptable artistic distance. However, Niamh argued with reference to the ‘Kilcool’ manuscript and the drafts of the Not I manuscripts, that the evolution of the performative gestures of the avante-texte presents a rich focus for analysis as a process of ‘distillation’ rather than abstraction, in relation to the concept of trauma.

 

Various elements of Not I such as the fractured non-linear narrative, the depiction of the fragmented body and the refusal to accept subjectivity all accord with what Doris Laub and Shosana Felman describe in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (1992) as the act of ‘witnessing’: the retelling of a traumatic event through dynamic interplay of speaker and listener. ‘Kilcool’, in comparison, also contains these key details with more expansive stage directions and contextualisation. The recent publication by David Houston Jones Samuel Beckett and Testimony (2011) discusses the issue of trauma and witnessing in Beckett’s work, though he focuses mainly on Beckett’s prose. Performance and trauma, in comparison, have not been substantially discussed in regard to Beckett’s later theatre. Niamh argued that the issue of trauma as performative gesture through both the content and the stage directions of ‘Kilcool’ does not begin at theatre rehearsals, it begins at conception in Beckett’s work which fundamentally links archive and performance.

 

In its emphasis on bringing together international scholars with practitioners working in archives and museums, the Performing the Archives conference offered a critically exciting and diverse environment for the exploration of ideas at every level of development. Galway’s internationally renowned arts and performance festival was also in full swing, yielding numerous opportunities for experiencing both new and established work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Researchers share their research at “Performing the Archives” Conference, July 2015, National University of Ireland, Galway

December 2, 2015

During the summer, five researchers from the Department of Film, Theatre and Television, drawn from both the Department’s lecturing and postgraduate research community, participated in the international conference, ‘Performing the Archive’ held at the National University of Ireland, Galway (22-24 July). The conference gathered together over eighty speakers, including academics, researchers, artists, archivists and librarians from thirteen countries who are all engaged in working with archival materials on research and performance projects, in order to explore the uses and possibilities of the archive today from theoretical and methodological perspectives. In its emphasis on bringing together international scholars with practitioners working in archives and museums, the conference offered a critically exciting and diverse environment for the exploration of ideas at every level of development. Galway’s internationally renowned arts and performance festival was also in full swing, yielding numerous opportunities for experiencing both new and established work.

Archival materials offer fascinating glimpses into the past, and how the past continues to inform the present. The University of Reading holds a number of outstanding and diverse archival collections, including the Beckett Collection, established in 1971, now the world’s largest collection of resources relating to the writer Samuel Beckett, the archives of Reading-based biscuit makers Huntley and Palmers, and the Evacuee Archive, containing written memoirs, oral history interviews and other research resources relating to former evacuees and war children gathered by the University’s Research Centre for Evacuee and War Child Studies. In recognition of these remarkable archival collections, the University actively promotes Collections-Based research and has established a Collections-Based doctoral training programme (see http://www.reading.ac.uk/collectionsresearch/DoctoralTrainingProgramme/cbr-dtp.aspx).

 

The panels at “Performing the Archives” featuring FTT staff and current or recent postgraduate students, presented research using these unique archival materials from the collections at the University of Reading.

 

Dr. Teresa Murjas (Associate Professor in Theatre & Performance), along with Dr. James Rattee (Visiting Lecturer in Film, University of Reading,) and Sonya Chenery (PhD student in Theatre & Film, conducting a collections-based PhD in collaboration with MERL [Museum of English Rural Life], University of Reading), presented on a panel entitled, ‘The Matter of War’, and engaged with the themes of conflict, memory, and trauma in relation to archival materials in/as performance.

 

Over the last two years, these researchers have worked on several connected archive-based projects. Dr. Teresa Murjas’s paper, entitled ‘Surviving Objects’, focused on three practice-led projects connected to her research and teaching on conflict and representation, as she considered the process of generating these projects, their relationship to each other, and how they have been shaped and conceptualized, through engagement with object/paper-based archives and collections, museums and galleries. Teresa’s projects have in common their focus on war-related matter, their use of artifacts/ephemera and close-up imagery filmed with a macro-lens, and an interest in fragmented narrative style, using recorded storytelling voices and typographical on-screen text.

 

The first, Surviving Objects, is a cross-medial performance combining video projection with live performance, and it draws on auto/biographical models of practice and a small personal archive belonging to a WW2 child refugee. The performance was staged in the Minghella Building, Reading, in 2013.

 

Based on this work, Teresa was invited by MERL (Museum of English Rural Life) and Reading Museum to develop two ACE funded projects, using the Huntley & Palmers and the Evacuee Archives, as part of an over-arching collaboration entitled Reading at War.

 

The first, The War in Biscuits, was inspired by a collection of ration biscuits from the Huntley & Palmers archive. They were originally produced by the company, a Quaker enterprise, were subsequently artistically modified by diverse WW1 soldiers in the trenches (through painting, inscription, collage and/or framing) and mailed back to their families.

Our mixed-media installation was mounted at Reading Museum last year before moving, in a reconfigured form, to the Minories Gallery, Colchester (May 2015). Both James and Sonya assisted with this project.

 

The second, the Evacuee Archive project, is currently under completion and explores the archive’s origins through conversations with its founder Dr. Martin Parsons. The archive is the largest holding of WW2 evacuee-related material outside London’s IWM. This project takes multiple forms, including an on-line presence, telling the story of the archive’s origins through focus on a selected number of objects, and using formal elements key to the previous projects within a digital space. Sonya’s practice-led PhD also falls within this strand of the work.

 

Meanwhile, Dr. James Rattee’s paper, ‘Reading the Biscuit Town’, examined the process of creating the museum and art-based installation The War in Biscuits, a project conceived in response to material stored in the Huntley & Palmers collection at Reading Museum and MERL.  James’s paper explored some of the key developments in the staging of this installation by looking at how an archive can be opened up through digital and multimedia-based practice.

 

During WW1, Reading town was home to one of the country’s largest and most prestigious biscuit manufacturers, Huntley & Palmers. Today, Reading Museum and MERL hold the Huntley & Palmers Archive, which includes materials relating to the company’s role during the First World War.

 

The objects that form the centre of The War in Biscuits installation are a set of 100-year-old Huntley & Palmers ration biscuits – a staple of the British Army’s diet. The objects have survived partly because soldiers customized them. Some were inscribed with political statements, others with humorous comments mocking the taste of the biscuits themselves, and many were mailed home to loved ones. These objects therefore hold interest on multiple levels: they highlight the experiences of individual soldiers as well as revealing some of the wider industrial processes at work during the war.

 

In James’s paper, he considered how, in its combination of three inter-linking films, text and audio content, The War in Biscuits seeks to explore a number of perspectives on these objects, including through highlighting the biscuits’ material qualities, as well as engaging with paper-based items such as photographs, recipe and leger books, letters, documents and marketing imagery.

 

Building on Teresa’s introduction to the project, James’s paper reflected upon some of the key creative decisions involved in animating the collection in this way. It also considered how the installation was conceived in order to engage audiences in two very different spatial contexts at the same time as reflecting on how the project was developed through building collaborations between different institutions, as well as between historians, academics and museum and art professionals.

 

Sonya Chenery’s paper was titled ‘Remediating Traces’. Her PhD research is conducted within the Department of Film, Theatre & Television at Reading and she works on the Collections-based Doctoral Training Programme coordinated by MERL, benefitting from access to primary sources, material culture, and the associated professional expertise of a university museum.

 

Her practice-as-research PhD concerns MERL’s Evacuee Archive, the largest of its kind outside London’s IWM. The project was developed in the wake of Teresa’s performance, Surviving Objects. It is distinct from, though in dialogue with, the work that her Reading colleagues are conducting on the evolution of the Evacuee Archive.

 

During her ongoing training in collections-based research and engagement with the Evacuee Archive, Sonya has encountered a range of primary sources concerning the experiences of individuals during WW2. She has become very aware of the dynamic between those archival and published documents in which memories of experience are retold after many years, and other documents such as letters, diaries, and drawings that were created at the time when the experiences took place.

 

Sonya’s paper referred to examples of material from the archive, particularly to reminiscences written later in life by former evacuees, and considered the ways in which these are informed, corroborated or contradicted by earlier letters and diaries, and other material traces of these individuals’ wartime experience. She also draws on her contextual research into stage and screen practices that have engaged with related archival holdings of documents that describe personal experiences and memories, and were produced during times of conflict.

 

Research into Samuel Beckett’s drama for stage and screen, drawing on the University’s rich Beckett Collection and other related collections, is an important feature of FTT’s research profile and both Professor Jonathan Bignell and Professor Anna McMullan have led funded research projects in this area: Bignell led a Leverhulme project with artist Bill Prosser on Beckett’s Doodles (2006-9): http://www.reading.ac.uk/ftt/research/ftt-BeckettPhenomenology.aspx and McMullan led the AHRC funded Staging Beckett: http://www.reading.ac.uk/ftt/research/ftt-staging-beckett.aspx which has compiled a searchable database of professional productions of Beckett’s plays in the UK and Ireland.

 

Two of FTT’s postgraduate students, Matthew McFrederick, the PH.D. student working on Staging Beckett, who was also awarded an AHRC international placement to the Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas in 2014, and Niamh Bowe, part of the University’s Collections Based training programme, presented papers on Beckett at the Galway conference.

 

To coincide with the 60th anniversary of Waiting for Godot’s British and English language premiere at the Arts Theatre in London in 1955, directed by Peter Hall, Matthew McFrederick presented a paper on that production entitled “Staging Waiting for Godot at 60: The Arts Theatre and the archive”.  The paper drew upon extensive archival research from several major UK and international repositories including the British Library, the Harry Ransom Center and the Victoria Albert Museum Collections, as well as Reading’s own Beckett Collections.

 

Matthew redressed several lesser known histories relating to this production, starting with the correspondence prior to the play’s performance between the play’s producers, Donald Albery and Peter Glenville, and Beckett, which reveals the obstacles Beckett’s drama faced as it emerged in the UK with censorship and casting issues. It continued by discussing under-utilized archival testimony from the play’s performers, including Paul Daneman and Peter Woodthorpe; cited interviews and memoirs that offer a unique perspective into how Godot was staged, interpreted and received in its first English language performance; and contextualized this production in relation to British theatre during the 1950s. Finally, as previous performance histories of this premiere have tended to neglect this production’s visual elements, Matthew focused on photographs and set designs by Peter Snow, in an examination of this early scenographic interpretation of Godot, a history that began the long and varied association between Beckett’s drama and British and Irish theatres.

 

Matthew’s paper also coincided with the AHRC Staging Beckett Exhibition, “Waiting for Godot at 60”, which he co-curated with Professor Anna McMullan and Dr Mark Nixon for the Happy Days International Beckett Festival in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, following the conference.

 

Niamh Bowe drew on Trinity College Dublin’s Beckett holdings in her paper on ‘Performing trauma and Samuel Beckett’s Kilcool manuscript’. According to S.E. Gontarski and Rosemary Pountney, the Kilcool manuscript is an early version of Beckett’s play Not I (1972), one of Samuel Beckett’s most minimal plays. The play features Mouth, a spot-lit mouth speaking a monologue on stage while vehemently refusing to give up the third person, and the Auditor, a silent cowled figure. In Woman and Ireland as Beckett’s Lost Others: Beyond Mourning and Melacholia (2010) Rina Kim notes the importance placed on physical place, gender and the depiction of suffering in the manuscript.  Stanley Gontarski describes Beckett’s method in his movement from ‘Kilcool’ to Not I as an act of abstraction in order to gain acceptable artistic distance. However, Niamh argued with reference to the ‘Kilcool’ manuscript and the drafts of the Not I manuscripts, that the evolution of the performative gestures of the avante-texte presents a rich focus for analysis as a process of ‘distillation’ rather than abstraction, in relation to the concept of trauma.

 

Various elements of Not I such as the fractured non-linear narrative, the depiction of the fragmented body and the refusal to accept subjectivity all accord with what Doris Laub and Shosana Felman describe in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (1992) as the act of ‘witnessing’: the retelling of a traumatic event through dynamic interplay of speaker and listener. ‘Kilcool’, in comparison, also contains these key details with more expansive stage directions and contextualisation. The recent publication by David Houston Jones Samuel Beckett and Testimony (2011) discusses the issue of trauma and witnessing in Beckett’s work, though he focuses mainly on Beckett’s prose. Performance and trauma, in comparison, have not been substantially discussed in regard to Beckett’s later theatre. Niamh argued that the issue of trauma as performative gesture through both the content and the stage directions of ‘Kilcool’ does not begin at theatre rehearsals, it begins at conception in Beckett’s work which fundamentally links archive and performance.

 

 

Three videographic exercises on Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)

October 13, 2015

Collected below are three short audiovisual essays, each focussing on one of the main characters of Notorious.

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 21.20.22

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to take part in ‘Scholarship in Sound & Image’, a two week workshop on videographic criticism held at Middlebury College and funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, specifically the Institute for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities. The workshop was designed and led by Christian Keathley and Jason Mittell. As well as bringing together a great group of participants – scholars from different stages of their careers and specialising in different aspects of film and television studies – it also drew on the experience of some of the pioneers of this exciting, developing field: Catherine Grant, Kevin B. Lee and Eric Faden, not to mention Christian Keathley himself. The workshop was excellently supported by Ethan Murphy, Francisca Drexel and Stella Holt, and found to be an outstanding experience by all who took part.

In the second week we each worked toward a full video essay, as well as discussing a range of issues: formal, technical, scholarly and pedagogical. In the first, we worked on a series of five exercises, to very tight deadlines, in most cases on a different film or media object from the one we were intending to explore in the second week.

These exercises were carefully designed to focus attention on different aspects of the form and different technical means, often applying very tight constraints. I found a strong affinity between these exercises and the tradition of practice teaching here at Reading, where students are encouraged to develop their appreciation of different elements of theatrical or filmic decision-making by organised and tightly constrained briefs in which, as is so often the case, the constraints enable creativity.

The Middlebury assignments were set at the end of each morning, following the discussion of the previous day’s work, and our videos had to be uploaded onto the server for 9am. In this post I’ve collected three exercises addressing the film I was working with at this preliminary stage – Notorious.

Exercise 2 invited us to engage with voice over but the instruction was that the voice over should ‘tell a story’ rather than offer a more traditional critical commentary. It also had to work with one continuous sequence from the film: duration could be manipulated but no cutting was allowed. My response to this brief aimed to draw out the gothic fairytale in Notorious.

In Exercise 3 the brief involved creating an alternative trailer, using only sounds and images from our film / programme, and using precisely three titles of no more than 5 words. Each of us also had to follow one of four different formal parameters: mine was that no shots could include camera movement, though I was later surprised to notice that I’d failed to follow this rule at one point in the project, in my deepening involvement with one of the film’s emphases. Inspired by a particular shot from Notorious, which hints at a dimension of the film which could be elaborated if the narrative were oriented slightly differently, this video attempts to amplify the idea that the spy plot of Notorious is a means to articulate ideas around gender, jealousy and sexual insecurity.

Finally, the ‘videographic epigraph’ exercise, which encouraged us to integrate a quotation with a sequence, taking inspiration from some of Catherine Grant’s work in this area. Among the constraints for this exercise were that the quotation couldn’t have a direct relationship to the chosen sequence, and that we had to work with a single sequence, in which the sound and image had been altered in some way.

You can read more about the workshop on the Middlebury website, in Jason Mittell’s own account of the project, and in a post by Melanie Kohnen for Antenna, which also provides links to some of the work made by other Scholarship in Sound and Image participants in responding to these briefs.

The best is yet to come: a special issue of [in]Transition in December will present some of the second-week, fully-fledged essays produced at the workshop. Chris and Jason are also working on a book for the Kino-Agora series from Caboose, which will discuss the workshop and the issues it raises for teaching, research and scholarship.

British TV success lies in its continuity with its past

May 23, 2014

The IT Crowd (Channel 4).

By Jonathan Bignell, University of Reading

Although awards shows are all about the excitement of the moment – that’s why they’re live – this year’s Bafta television crop is more about continuity than revolution. There was mild controversy because ITV outperformed BBC, winning three awards for the drama serial Broadchurch. Like Channel 4’s Southcliff, Broadchurch used a conventional murder investigation form to delve deeply into character and the making and breaking of a small-town community.

But it wasn’t especially radical. Looking at the awards more generally, the nominees all perpetuate a specifically British heritage. There are the short-form or one-off television dramas, the writer-led comedies that rework the traditional sitcom, and entertainment that showcases our national expertise in devising factual formats. While excellent imports like Nordic noir may rise and fall, British TV continues to excel in these categories.

Britain leads the world in devising hybrids of documentary, competition and light entertainment. Pop Idol followed aspirant amateur singers, cooks compete in MasterChef, and celebrities learn a new discipline in Strictly Come Dancing. The Great British Bake-off was nominated in both the Features category and the Radio Times Audience Award. It has been running since 2010 and won a Bafta last year. It was beaten this time by Long Lost Family, but for me Bake-off is the best recent docu-gameshow-entertainment hybrid.

Each episode follows the minor challenges posed by making pre-rehearsed dishes, without hysteria. What matters is “an even bake” rather than a prize. Shot in the kind of marquee used for village fetes, and set in the grounds of a historic house, the Bake-off is nostalgic in that it wants us to admire craft and skill, rather than cunning.

To be sure, it is middle-class and middle-brow, but as Sarah Cardwell has shown, its brilliance is in its tone. Knowing self-deprecation embodied by presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins combines with pride in expertise and draws on a heritage of cooking shows personified by resident expert Mary Berry.

Berry was cookery editor for Housewife magazine in the 1960s and her career as a TV cook started on ITV’s Afternoon Plus a few years later. The Bake-off’s ingredients produce a glow of satisfaction that is made for sharing. It reminds us that television, unlike browsing YouTube on your laptop, works best as a collective pleasure.

We can say something similar about an ostensibly very different show: the sitcom The IT Crowd, which took home two prizes, leading after Broadchurch. Its writer Graham Linehan refused to follow the trend in the last decade for “opened out” location-shot comedy. Instead, he set the show almost wholly in the basement office of its three main characters.

This method of “theatrical” shooting in a three-walled set, open on one side to a live studio audience, is also used in the hit sitcom Miranda and harks back to the “golden age” of 1960s British sitcom. Narratives are driven by dialogue and not physical action, characters are spatially constrained and emotionally trapped. Viewers are invited to join in with the studio audience laughing on the as-live soundtrack. The nerdy protagonists Moss (Richard Ayoade) and Roy (Chris O’Dowd), with their useless boss the “Relationship Manager” Jen (Katherine Parkinson) might be recognisable as stereotyped Microserfs from almost anywhere. But making comedy out of the bleak nihilism and dogged persistence they display is very specific to British sitcom’s heritage of interest in failure and embarrassment.

Samuel Beckett’s 1958 novel The Unnameable ends: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” It is this sentiment which is peculiarly British. Dad’s Army’s protagonists, and Harold in Steptoe and Son used this in front of their live audiences 45 years ago. Both German and US adaptations of The IT Crowd have failed, but this year Ayoade and Parkinson won the Baftas for Male Performance and Female Performance in a Comedy respectively.

But the biggest strength of British television is probably in drama. We more or less invented television drama, initially restaging theatre for the cameras and then developing new, original forms like the social-realist Cathy Come Home in 1966 and the experimental Modernism of Pennies from Heaven in 1978.

Doctor Who was a triumph of that Golden Age. Its beginnings in 1963 were dramatised last year in An Adventure in Space and Time, a nominee for the Radio Times Audience Award. The award in the end went to the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, whose storyline careered back and forth across the Doctor’s centuries-long existence. This was not only a showcase of Doctor Who, but also of the BBC’s international brand. The Day of the Doctor was the world’s largest ever simulcast of a TV drama: it was screened at the same time on TV or in cinemas in 94 countries.

These strengths are all summed up by the Bafta Special Award, which went to Cilla Black, who first appeared on TV in 1968 in her own star vehicle, Cilla. Here we have a reminder that the 60s were not just a time when Britain had the best pop music, best fashion and (briefly) the best football team in the world, but also the best television. And the 2014 Baftas remind us that the legacy of that period still drives and shapes the creative values and shared pleasures of today.

The Conversation

Jonathan Bignell receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to lead a research project titled ‘Spaces of Television: Production, Site and Style’, studying the relationships between the production technologies and the aesthetics of British TV drama from the 1950s to the 1990s.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Goodbye Matt Smith’s Doctor and Reading’s Jacksons: British Institutions and the End of an Era

December 21, 2013

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Anyone with an even passing interest in British television knows that on 25 December 2013, Matt Smith will cease to be the Doctor, with Peter Capaldi taking over the lead role in long-running programme Doctor Who. Meanwhile, anyone passing through Reading town centre in recent weeks knows that Jacksons, the long-established family-owned department store on the corner of Kings Road and High Street (known as Jacksons Corner), is due to close at the end of the year. What not too many people may know is that there is an interesting link between the two: whilst researching for a chapter on the transatlantic dimensions of Doctor Who, in which I argue that the programme is a British institution marked by significant links to and influences by North Atlantic television, I noticed in late 2011 that Jacksons was using a picture of Matt Smith as the Doctor in their window display for men’s fashion.

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2011.

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2011.

Naturally, I decided to write about this in my chapter, in a section devoted to exploring the Britishness of Matt Smith, for which I draw on Barbara Selznick’s thoughtful work on the Britishness of Doctor Who. Selznick has suggested that ‘there are three familiar “brands of Britishness” in the US that are frequently attached to British media: heritage, cool, and eccentric’1 and argued that the 2005 Doctor Who reboot moved away from heritage and the eccentric and towards the cool, and that this contributed to its success in the USA. Tracing the trajectory of casting and Doctor construction from the days of Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant to Matt Smith, I suggest that Smith’s Doctor shifts to the heritage and eccentric:

[I]ndeed, his old-fashioned-ness of dress is in itself eccentric, never more so than when he dons retro aviator goggles while repairing the TARDIS. In his bowtie-wearing and fish fingers and custard-cooking ways, Smith’s Eleventh Doctor is more closely connected to Tom Baker’s unorthodox, scarf-wearing and jelly babies-eating Fourth Doctor than he is to his reboot brethren.2

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2011.

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2011.

The current Doctor Who brings together the heritage and eccentric brand with the cool noticeably differently to the classic series, which, as Selznick has argued, experienced problems with US audiences because of how it was managing the brands at different points in time. For example, that Doctor Who’s cool themes did not appeal to US viewers during the early decades was furthered by the fact that ‘they were wrapped up in a heritage style text’.3 Contrary to Piers Britton’s reading (based on various media reports) that the Eleventh Doctor’s first costume is not cool,4 my chapter argues that the current version does not so much wrap up its cool themes in heritage, but, with Matt Smith’s Doctor wrapped (as it were) in an elbow-patched Harris tweed jacket, very explicitly reclaims and reconfigures heritage as cool.

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2011.

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2011.

Indeed, that Matt Smith’s Doctor’s sartorial material of choice is Harris tweed, and that Jacksons used a picture of Smith clad in his jacket with the tag-line ‘He chose Harris Tweed. Why don’t you?’ is interesting and part of a wider cultural trend of reclaiming, where items previously deemed old-fashioned become retro-chic. With Harris tweed bearing strong heritage connotations and a somewhat ‘fusty’ reputation, but in recent years having been ‘rediscovered’ by fashion designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Doctor Who’s explicit linking of heritage and cool was here tapped into by a shop that, with its still functioning pneumatic tube system and blog, was itself negotiating these two brands. While Selznick already sees much fluidity between the brands of Britishness through which she discusses the pre-Matt Smith Doctor Who, the current version arguably goes a step further in that it deliberately reclaims and rebrands these brands.

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Given that Doctor Who – budget issues and criticisms it has had to contend with under Steven Moffat’s stewardship notwithstanding – is set to enter a new important phase following its 50th anniversary year, but Jacksons is closing down after 138 years of trading, it seems that one of these British institutions managed this reclaiming and rebranding process much more successfully. It is by the quirks of timing that these endings are occurring just as the edited collection, Doctor Who – The Eleventh Hour: A Critical Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era, to which my chapter belongs is coming out. While Doctor Who is set to continue its ‘negotiation of the discourses of connection and distinction, influence and resistance that have shaped it since its very beginning’,5 it remains to be seen how exactly the site soon-to-be formerly home of Jacksons will regenerate.

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2013.

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2013.

[1] Barbara Selznick, ‘Rebooting and Re-Branding: The Changing Brands of Doctor Who’s Britishness’ in Chris J. Hansen (ed.), Ruminations, Peregrinations, and Regenerations: A Critical Approach to Doctor Who (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), p.69.

[2] Simone Knox, ‘The Transatlantic Dimensions of the Timelord: Doctor Who and the Relationships between British and North American Television’ in Andrew O’Day (ed.), Doctor Who – The Eleventh Hour: A Critical Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era (I. B. Tauris, 2013), p.113.

[3] Selznick, ‘Rebooting and Re-Branding’, p. 74; emphasis added.

[4] Piers D. Britton, TARDISbound: Navigating the Universes of Doctor Who 
(I. B. Tauris, 2011), p. 104.

[5] Knox, ‘The Transatlantic Dimensions of the Timelord’, p.118-119.

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2013.

Jacksons department store, Reading, late 2013.

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