Dear readers and friends,
I’ve been working on a paper on Andrew Davies’s two film adaptations of Trollope novels (The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right), and was able to read some of what will be published in the coming volume and came across the (to me) intriguing phrase, “a television novel” used of Downton Abbey and The House of Eliot in a paper on serialized drama. The author was quoting an analysis of types of serials by Michael Hammond (Contemporary TV series/serials).
The phrase charmed me and I thought the differentiation of types of narratives useful. There are three basic useful ways one can divide them (the paper has other divisions) and look at the serials as novels. There are the closed ones, serials which have definite closure and an ending since they are based on already extant novels (The Forsyte Saga, The Pallisers, Poldark; all the Austen movies); there are the open-ended with self-contained episodes where we meet characters who dominate a particular week and are never seen again with the continuing characters and place providing a minimum of background continuity (Duchess of Duke Street, and in the earlier seasons, Upstairs Downstairs); then there is the series which is open-ended, has some self-contained story arcs, but also story arcs which not only cross an entire season but are continuous from season to season (Downton Abbey, West Wing, apparently The Sopranos).
I extrapolate: in novels the first type is found inside a single novel (Vanity Fair by Thackeray). The kind of omnibus volumes with a couple of central characters whose stories are important to but where the emphasis is on this week’s or this story’s or this novel’s characters to be set adrift after you shut the book is found in Sherlock Holmes and typical mystery series, also Prime Suspect (which however also developed the central female detective’s story marginally and occasionally centrally too. The second type: open-ended with self-contained episodes or stories, characters who dominate a given book and then disappear for the most part describes Trollope’s narrative art in his Barsetshire and Palliser series. The third type where emphasis is placed on continuing characters and each novel is part of a continuing storyline reminds me of the Poldark novels, or Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time.
It fundamentally changes the experience of a written novel which is tightly structured to turn it into a serial drama — the way so many Austen books are filmed.
I tried to watch the first episode of this year’s Elementary because I so liked the new Sherlocks on PBS with Bernard Cumberbatch and Martin Friedman and very much like Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram and Mr Knightley (Mansfield Park 1999, Emma 2009) as well as the intensely neurotic types he played on Prime Suspect. He did not disappoint: the character has again been partly reconceived, this time the emphasis on edginess, something coming near breakdown or cracking (coming close to Friedman’s brilliant embodiment of Watson) while the new Holmes character in his down-and-out dowdy wintry clothes, nonetheless holds up and does all the marvelous sleuthing, ratiocinative thinking and talk (Miller is superb at this talk).
Don’t be fooled: this is no more feminist than the recent Sherlocks. Lucy Liu as can be seen in the above and many other stills is Holmes’s secondary side-kick and follower. She is violent all right — this is the series’s stupid idea of making her masculine, but there to feed him lines, fill out the scene in the way of the Conan Doyle’s Watson or the Watson of the Jeremy Brett series.
But I only managed a half an hour. The program was so larded with commercials I gave up after half an hour. It might be a fun TV novel but was not being given a chance to breathe, to have any extension without interruption. It’s a shame for here is a program which does not celebrate wealth, gregariousness, conventional glamor and success. He’s troubled; his brother Mycroft turns up having taken over Sherlock’s flat and gotten rid of Sherlock’s things, replaced them with soulless fashionable furniture.
In this case it’s the look of the stills, the caught moments in front of famous statues in their scruffy clothes with their worn faces that makes the series intriguing more than anything. I shall have to wait until it’s produced as a set of DVDs and ask someone to buy me them for Xmas and then try to watch for real. I did not know that Gielgud played (read aloud on radio) Holmes, and I’d never have recognized Hugh Laurie in that make-up: favorite Sherlocks (perversely omitting Basil Rathbone).
New translations of works continually renew our understanding of them: a great or fine or merely archetypally engaging and popular work which is understood by its first audience in a specific way may not pick up much that is in the work, especially popular understandings; the author may not see all that is there. Yes what grows up around a work becomes part of it; it’s not written in a vacuum in the first place. So too film adaptations work this way, and literary criticism adds its insights.
In the specific area of Holmes films — there are a huge number, possibly more than for Dracula or Frankenstein, especially if you count each film per story as one. In the volume my paper on the Pallisers was published in (Victorian Literature, Film Adaptations, edd Bloom & Pollock) is a paper by Tamara Wagner on the Sherlock Holmes canon. She examines what I suggest can’t stand real scrutiny: she suggests that the Basil Rathbone series are no more accurate than say the Jeremy Brett ones; 1940 is not 1890 and the audience these were intended for were a preWW2 post WW1 audience. For me the imaginative realization that is closest to the text as I imagined it will probably be the Jeremy Brett: that tells something of my age. The Cumberbatch are too devoid of any feminism and there is much feminism of the Edwardian protective sort in the originals (think of the back story of “Hound of the Baskervilles, 17th century girl kidnapped, raped in an upstairs room by rakes for fun). I enjoy these new version for what they shed a new light on: the relationship of Watson to the stories (his psyche) and then Holmes secondarily, and what they show us about our era. Miller and Liu mean to react against worship of luxury, money, rank, but they substitute a new set of somewhat absurd fetishes: drugs and depression as flare.
Trying to read James Redding Ward’s Female Detective: a very early set of detective stories (1862), with (as the title indicates): a female detective, Ward in convincing drag — these center on women’s world and their real distresses, vulnerability, blighted lives
I’ve been trying to watch TV in the evenings because I’m now alone and too tired to read all night or even watch a movie with attention. TV invites a relaxed approach. Alas, I get too relaxed and continually fall asleep so I can’t say I’m succeeding. Jim says (he still can understand what I’m doing and comment wittily) I’m bored. I don’t think so; it’s more that there are too many programs on, most of which is junk and when I do find something I think I might like, I often don’t understand what’s happening since the series moves too swiftly, relies far too much on intuitive memories of cliches and stereotypes so the program makers need only allude to a kind of incident or story rather than dramatize anything at length; the dialogue is so naturalistic, I can’t catch what the characters are saying. I do better with older series (Inspector Morse) or say watching a classic drama: Shakespeare’s Richard II last Friday was superb, and I mean to watch Henry IV Part 1 tomorrow night.
I’ve noticed these mystery type genres have taken over serial dramas on the so-called better channels. My view is this supposed masculine plot-driven active sub-genre is a mask for revealing deeply troubled private material of our society. And Ward is doing that. This is part of the gothic mode. Women have been relegated to private life; to hide our private lives under some regimes of law allows beatings, killing, horrible exploitation as women are shamed and terrified into silence. So to see a woman detective is liberating.
I can stay awake for news and some kinds of documentaries: for Amy Goodman and DemocracyNow.org on the Howard University Channel, Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff’s PBS news hour, David Attenborough and his worlds of animals. Amusingly they keep telling me they’ll see me next time, when it’s I who see them; they do not see me. With the documentaries on commercial channels there is the problem of continual intrusions of signs on the screen (visual ads), to say nothing of quick successive many commercials. I know the so-called program is supported as an excuse for ads and there is care taken lest the program have any values which run counter to the ads. The ideology of TV is in the continual advertisements intertwined with everything, one another no matter how ludicrously inappropriate the juxtapositions are; even PBS does it: corporate sponsorship it’s called there. TV is flow; you turn it on like a faucet and the water pours away and I find I have trouble entering this flood. What’s sold is a false picture of prosperity and success through entrepreneurship, desire for goods one does not need but give prestige; goods which deliver youth, health, popularity, social success. I try my best to ignore them but they are very loud and viscerally aggressive.
Lady Sybil (Deborah Brown Findlay), in the fiction of the show, now gone with Matthew Crawley, William Mason (footman, Daisy’s husband and Lavinia Swire (Matthew’s bethrothed) (all in the burial grounds)
Gentle reader, what would your definition of a TV novel be? It comprises far more than a narrative form. Something within that holds us into its world.
Downton Abbey starts on British TV next week. It’s been promoted for weeks, with continual stills released, a new Behind the Scenes with book — on heavy art paper with lots of beautiful photographs. If you count these couple of weeks, and then at least 13 episodes until Christmas, and then the same 13 run on US TV, then the re-runs and release of the scripts, the show goes on all year long. Not that I mind. It’s to my aesthetic taste. I loved the way Dockery looked at the Emmys: better than any other woman there, her costume redolent of an earlier time in the 20th century, I would be surprised if the costume designer of Downton Abbey didn’t have a hand in it. I watched the speeded-up YouTube covering the season to come jokily
I’m happy to see Anna (Joanne Froggart) back with a spiffy hat, complete with brown velvet ribbon:
To me Cora, Duchess (Elizabeth McGovern) is beautifully ethereal if far too thin (semi-anorexia allows her to take on a younger kind of older woman):
And I hope Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) comes into her own as journalist, mistress of the proprietor, a Jane Eyre character as seen by a complacent reactionary Tory (Jerome Fellowes): here she is contemplative and not anorexic at all:
Yes as with a novel I’ve bonded with these characters (as I did with Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison). I don’t miss Dan Stevens as I never bonded with his character: he was too much into compromise and conventionality. I hope a less centrally wholesome male will emerge (but with Fellowes I doubt he would allow a hero to be a Jonny Lee Miller type). Thomas the footman might take a lover. I hope. Ethel get her baby back as she learns to be this splendid cook. I’d say I’ll miss Miss Obrien (Siobhan Finneran) with her scepticism subverting the Dowager’s, but she was so often a target of misogyny (as Finneran said she was tired of being contemptible). And there’s Daisy (with her father-in-law and farm), Mrs Hughes (wry, sceptical but hard) and Mrs Patmore (who can make me cry) — these women have not been similarly promoted with beautiful photographs — showing the tenacious hierarchy of the creator’s mind. At any rate I have tonight cheered myself by remembering them too and their mostly lucky (rich as they are) stories. It may be that the character who will make me cry for real is Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) mourning the death of her beloved son — look at her face, it’s being held together.
How lonely life is going to be for me.