Les Revenants (Canal+ France, 2012–15) is one of the most relevant French TV series from the last decade, given its high-concept story and its international success. This chapter aims to explore the nature of Les Revenants’ significance, focusing on the connection between style and substance, and how they shape and nuance each other in fascinating and thought-provoking ways. To tackle this association, this chapter first outlines an overview of how to understand ‘style’ and ‘substance’, the binomial concept around which this volume revolves. Then, it scrutinises the aesthetic strategies at the beginning of the pilot episode, both in its cold open and its opening credits. Through close reading of these two sequences, the analysis details how the interrelation between a noteworthy style and an elusive substance can create a weird, uncanny mood, one of the show’s main aesthetic achievements. Finally, this chapter concludes by exploring how the narrative offers a double reflection on substance: on a thematic level by exploring spiritual issues, and on a metatextual level by renovating the essence of the zombie sub-genre.
The Handmaid’s Tale and the significance of unexpected choice
Produced for Hulu Plus, The Handmaids Tale (THT) is a long-format adaptation of Margaret Attwood’s 1985 novel and a leading example of high-end drama originated for Internet-distributed television. THT’s setting is the nightmarish Gilead, the post-apocalyptic, faux-theocratic and totalitarian society that has usurped most of America. Absolute rule by a fundamentalist patriarchy and the biological imperative to procreate combine to legitimate the ritual rape of enslaved fertile women by Gilead’s leaders. THT’s primary character is June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) who, having been captured, enslaved and ascribed ‘Handmaid’ status, is assigned to Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). In its narrative structure and approaches, THT exemplifies the drama form that I term ‘complex serial’ (Dunleavy 2018), this term foregrounding the use of up to six strategies which together manifest ‘complex seriality’ (ibid.: 105). Although these strategies also differentiate ‘complex’ from traditional high-end serials, it can be argued that complexity itself – especially when subject to expectations for commercial success and longevity – requires some reconciliation between the use of identifiably ‘complex’ and more conventional (or simplistic) strategies. This chapter argues that the reconciliation between complexity and simplicity in THT occurs in its deployment of a situational construct devised to restrict, though not evade, narrative progression. A notable example of the tension between progression and stasis for THT and the ‘moment’ chosen for analysis here is the succession of scenes that comprise the riveting, yet frustrating closing minutes of Season 2.
Style, appreciation and the temporally prolonged problem of The Simpsons
This meta-critical chapter explores three interconnected problems that might have precluded any widespread discussion within television aesthetics of the critically and commercially successful programme The Simpsons (Fox, 1989–). The first concerns the concepts of ‘style’ and ‘substance’, which are construed vaguely in the field, despite constituting the fundamentals of aesthetic appreciation. After clarifying these terms and their centrality to aesthetic criticism, this chapter offers an appreciation of the Season 8 episode ‘Homer’s Enemy’, focusing on a moment that brazenly reckons with The Simpsons’ longevity, its evolving style and substance, and its role as a mass product that is complicit in the culture it critiques. In so impressively foregrounding history, this moment poses a further critical problem: that The Simpsons is a long-running, mutable and highly disunified object of appreciation, for which ‘Homer’s Enemy’ cannot appropriately speak. It is argued that the achievements of ‘Homer’s Enemy’ are particular to one historical moment of The Simpsons’ vast history, which encompasses inconsistent stylistic features of inconsistent substance. Rather prohibiting the appreciation of ‘Homer’s Enemy’, however, this chapter argues that The Simpsons’ unwieldiness problematises a methodology that assumes television programmes ought to be structurally unified works in its insistence that they can be accurately represented by one moment. Turning to Ted Nannicelli’s concept of ‘temporal prolongation’ (2016), which clarifies that programmes are structurally complex works that are constituted by individuated episodes and seasons, this chapter concludes by arguing that these parts can be appreciated as discrete televisual achievements without reference to whole programmes.
This chapter engages with the sitcom Father Ted (1995–98), created by the Irish writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, and made for Channel 4 by Hat Trick Productions. The gently satirical series revolves around three priests (Ted, Dougal and Jack) and their housekeeper (Mrs Doyle) living together in the parochial house on Craggy Island, a small island parish off the coast of Ireland. The chapter lingers on the inciting incident of ‘A Very Christmassy Ted’ (Season 2, Episode 11, first broadcast 24 December 1996), which finds Ted, Dougal and six other priests trapped in the lingerie section of a large department store. Here, the simple act of Christmas shopping escalates into the complex and covert escape operation that becomes necessary in order to avoid ‘national scandal’. This detailed focus allows the rest of the chapter to think outwards towards the series more generally, exploring Father Ted in relation to, on the one hand, its (sometimes deceptive) simplicity of sitcom format, plot structure and comedy performances and, on the other, its (sometimes obscured) complexity, particularly in relation to the intertextual, social, political and cultural references woven through the series’ structure and content. The chapter closes with a consideration of Father Ted’s more contemporary complexity, specifically in relation to gender performativity, and examines how a series purporting to be almost entirely about men can develop a wider resonance in terms of the politics of representation.
‘It’s not a question of ignorance, Laurence, it’s a question of taste’
Abigail’s Party, Mike Leigh’s excruciating comedy of suburban manners remains one of the writer/director’s most enduring and iconic works. The play is a claustrophobic portrayal of a nightmarish drinks party, hosted by beautician Beverly and her workaholic estate-agent husband Laurence. Guests include working-class neighbours and an older, upper-middle-class divorcee, the mother of the off-stage adolescent punk Abigail. First produced in Hampstead in April 1977, its broadcast as a BBC Play for Today in November surprisingly attracted sixteen million viewers. Drawing on primary and secondary sources, this chapter offers a textual and sociocultural analysis of Abigail’s Party (especially its portrayals of class and taste) and of critical and popular responses to its life on stage, television and DVD. Many regard it affectionately, but some critics damn it as cruel and snobbish—a ‘Hampstead sneer’ at aspirational suburban mores. While arguments about supercilious intent and audiences may have credibility in the context of the original theatre production, how pertinent are they in understanding the immense popularity of the television version? If the play reflected little more than North London elite prejudices, would it really be enjoyed by so many? This chapter suggests that the appeal of Abigail’s Party may partly be due to apparent similarities with television situation comedy. This claim may seem to justify criticisms that this is a play of caricatures and lazy stereotypes, but sitcom is a genre that can, at its best, offer finely drawn characters and complex, tragi-comic narratives whose large audiences relish the frisson of recognition. Arguably, therefore, it was on television that Abigail’s Party realised its democratic and critical potential.
Producing theatrical classics with a decorative aesthetic
Unquestionably the most powerful figure and the most prolific producer in the history of television adaptations of the stage play in Britain, Cedric Messina (1920–93) was responsible for the majority of theatrical adaptations produced by the BBC between the 1960s and 1980s. A much larger audience watched these productions than would have seen the plays in the theatre, meaning that a generation’s understanding of the dramaturgy of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw and much of the classical theatre canon was realised through Messina’s conception of drama, and his approach to theatrical adaptation became the one that people instinctively recollected as the general standard. This chapter describes Messina’s position within BBC Television, together with his artistic ethos and the form that it took in his productions. His productions were predicated around ‘straightforward’ storytelling, utilising leading actors and presented with the intention of imparting an experience of visual pleasure. Messina’s approach is examined through close analysis of three 1970s Play of the Month productions of plays from different periods of theatre history, all directed by Messina himself: George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1973), William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1972), both recorded in the television studio, and J. M. Barrie’s sentimental Victorian comedy The Little Minister, made with outside broadcast technology on location at Glamis Castle (1975). The chapter highlights the achievements of and exposes certain problems specific to Messina’s mode of production through looking at three aspects of these adaptations: the intention that lay behind the television texts, the texts themselves and their reception by audiences.
Screen adaptations of plays by early modern dramatists other than Shakespeare have only recently begun to attract critical interest. This chapter analyses the archival record for three BBC Television productions from 1938 of plays by early modern dramatists—namely, The Duchess of Malfi, The Shoemaker's Holiday and The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1938). Since no audiovisual record survives for these productions, the chapter draws on print materials such as set diagrams, camera scripts and internal memos to reconstruct salient narrative and stylistic features of these television programmes, showing how they made creative virtues out of their technological limitations and exploring what role the plays’ stage traditions might have had in their selection for television production. Particular attention is devoted to The Duchess of Malfi, for which production documentation has survived and which was reviewed in depth for The Listener by the critic Grace Wyndham Goldie. Analysing these archival traces, the chapter explores the narrative choices made in the adaptation of the text, which was significantly shortened, and the innovative visual techniques employed by producer Royston Morley.
The 1972 stage play Black Feet in the Snow was adapted for BBC2’s Open Door community strand in 1974. Written by Guyanese poet and playwright Jamal Ali, it featured a cast of Brixton-based, non-professional Black actors drawn from Ali’s theatre group RAPP (Radical Alliance of Poets and Players). Over sixteen scenes which meld acting, poetry, music and dance, the play tells the story of Jahn-Jahn, a polite Guyanese ‘country boy’ whose impression of Brixton as a ‘crazy violent ghetto’ spurs his ‘re-birth’ as radical firebrand who leads his community in a riot. As such, the play was politically radical in its championing of the nascent British Black Power movement, its visceral depiction of racial discrimination and its critique of Britain’s colonial past. However, the play’s radicalism extended to its form—an innovative mix of Caribbean orature and Brechtian elements. This chapter draws on interviews with Ali and material from the BBC Written Archives Centre to explore the intersection between radical Black theatre and television drama. It is suggested that the creative collaboration between Ali and BBC director Brian Skilton, allied to the unique ‘discursive space’ of Open Door, allowed for a television adaptation that further enhanced the radical intention and diasporic hybridity of the stage play. Indeed, Black Feet in the Snow’s non-naturalistic approach, both aesthetically and formally, signified an important divergence from documentary realism—the then-dominant mode of Black expression in 1970s television drama. More broadly, the chapter argues for the importance of identifying television plays that reside in ‘alternative’ strands in order to gain a holistic understanding of Black creative expression both in and beyond the decade.
In late 1968, Granada Television hired a group of actors—including the young Maureen Lipman, Richard Wilson and John Shrapnel—and converted a former railway building in Manchester into a fringe theatre. The intention was that The Stables Theatre Company would mount a programme of plays, a selection of which would be recorded in the television studio for broadcast, and for the next two years the ITV contractor supported The Stables as it mounted for local audiences an extensive and well-reviewed programme of plays and revues and recorded a number of these productions in the television studio. Apart from a version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, all of these were new plays, the majority of which were commissioned by The Stables. After two years, however, Granada recognised that the venture could not be profitable and cut off its financial support. The Stables mounted a public appeal to continue without the broadcaster’s backing, but by the end of March 1971, the unique experiment was over. On no other occasion in British television history has a broadcaster owned and operated a theatre company. Drawing on an interview with the artistic director of The Stables, Gordon McDougall, press coverage of the relationship between The Stables and Granada, other documentation including company reports and private memos and viewings of three of the television productions preserved in the ITV archive, this chapter explores the aesthetic aspirations of The Stables project and the reasons for its failure. The chapter considers the fit between McDougall’s original idea and the interests of Granada Television and the company’s founder, Sidney Bernstein, who had expressed a wish to set up a theatre as a testing ground for new playwrights and plays. The legacy of The Stables includes support at an early stage in their careers for a number of prominent playwrights, including Arthur Hopcraft, Trevor Griffiths and Peter Ransley. But the problems posed by endeavouring to align the interests and concerns of a small theatre company shaped by a strong artistic vision with the industrial processes of commercial television production, combined with the financial loss incurred by Granada, meant that no comparable experiment was tried elsewhere.
This chapter discusses the use of British television productions in the major British scholarly editions of Shakespeare’s plays published in the last thirty years, including those specifically prepared to inform readers of the history of the plays in performance. It examines editors’ introductory material but also explores the use made of television productions in the commentaries, notes and glosses tied to particular scenes and words. Editors of scholarly editions of Shakespeare’s plays took a long time to include discussions of plays in performance. Stage history sections initially focused on professional theatre or productions in other media. Since the 1990s, however, editors have increasingly begun to broaden the scope of these sections. Interestingly, their use of television productions has proved to be both disproportionately small and disproportionately large. Considering that Shakespeare has been by far the most frequently performed stage dramatist on television, at least within Britain, television has featured very little in his editors’ thinking; and when they have written about it, editors have found difficulty in abandoning the concept of ‘stage history’, reflecting a deep-seated resistance to the television medium, a resistance no doubt fuelled by intellectual, cultural and social snobbery. On the other hand, considering the tiny number of television broadcasts compared to the number of performances on stage, both in the same period and since the plays were first performed, television Shakespeare could be thought of as being served extremely well in the world of the scholarly edition. Of the editors in the Arden Shakespeare’s third series and the Oxford and second New Cambridge series, 68% referred to the BBC Television Shakespeare broadcasts, which broadcast thirty-seven plays from 1978 to 1985. The BBC series was issued commercially, first on video and later on DVD: the fact that editors could study them at leisure, and were no longer reliant on published reviews or their own notes or memories, obviously skewed some editors’ attitude to their importance. While this might at first sight seem to be indefensible, editors can justifiably argue that their readers, most of whom will be students, can now consult and analyse minutely these recordings under something approaching their original viewing conditions and that the original audience numbers are now infinitely extendable. Television Shakespeare has thereby transformed the reach and value of stage history. These issues raise important questions. What function does performance history as a whole serve within a scholarly edition and how it should be written? Given that it can never be comprehensive, what are the principles of selection and emphasis that should inform it? And are these principles changing or likely to change in the future?