Posts Tagged ‘serial drama’

Maggie Smith between scenes

Dear friends and readers,

I somehow suspect my phrase of praise for Rebecca Eaton and Patricia Mulcahy’s Making Masterpiece that it fulfills the once famous goals of Lord Reith or the BBC to “educate, inform, entertain” might make her uncomfortable: its connotations have become stuffy, elite, even dull; but in fact her book covering a history of PBS’s most famous and long-running Sunday night prime quality (the term now used) serial dramas from the era of the powerful and fine film adaptations, original dramatizations, and multi-episode serial dramas from just before the 1967 The Forsyte Saga up to the 2010-14 Downton Abbey does just that. We learn a lot about the commercial, financial, filming, roles different people play, the TV channels who air the shows, Eaton is unashamedly working for quality in her purchases and commissions and is surprisingly candid.

Along the way she gives satisfyingly step-by-step believable accounts of some well-known to lost forever cult and individual favorites (some never got beyond the arduous planning and early deals) and she lets drops phrases that characterize swiftly how this or that aspect of this complicated art is viewed by its practitioners: such as the eponymous book or novelist-memoirist’s vision is “the underlying material” for the films. While Eaton’s explanations for why the program has held on for so long (they are “family stories, sagas, about love, betrayal, money, infatuation, illness, family deception &c&c) are wholly unsubtle and could be said of poor programming, and she shows that she reflects the commonalty of viewers; nonetheless, now and again for this or that specific series, she also shows she understood very well a political vision, how it fit into a contemporary sociological moment. She lets us know how some of the corporate funding after the mid-1980s when it seemed all but Mobil and the oil companies acted on a new realization that corporations did not need to appear civic-minded or anything but ruthless, and that when their agents discoveed that Eaton would not re-shape a program to fit an ideology (standing firm, sometimes almost alone — she tells instances and names names) she was in continual danger of being fired.

Rebecca Eaton with Russell Baker, the host for the show after Alistair Cooke retired — they are on the set for the introductions in the 1990s — note the fire in the hearth, comfortable easy-chair …. library look)

It is also an autobiography, a seeming Horatio Alger paradigm, écriture-femme style. It’s cyclical. She opens with a photo of her mother, Katherine Emery Eaton, who she presents as a successful serious actress and “glamorous movie star” who gave up her career to stay at home as a mother and wife: its in an old (built in 1800) house, her home for many years in Kennebunkport (labryinthine, spooky), which she cherishes, whose image and memories were part of her core impulse to work for and support Masterpiece Theater, but which she tells us on the first page no longer contain her parents, daughter or husband. She closes on her present apartment in Cambridge, Mass, a divorced woman whose daughter she reminds us was named after her grandmother and is now in theater and close to her. This private story of a husband who adjusted his career to bring up, be more at home with the one daughter (someone had to), and her distant relationship with that daughter until the girl grew up is woven in for about 2/3s of the way.

I say seeming because the story is also a justification, an explanation for why nowadays there are so fewer multi-episode (3 is become common) expensively produced carefully meditated productions from literary masterpieces. She is telling us how she did the best she could, how the recent spread of violent thrillers, cynical reactionary adaptations of contemporary novels (something in the vein of Breaking Bad, British style), seems at times to take over the time slot; her lot is fighting a continually uphill struggle where she lurches from acquiring, purchasing BBC and British productions, to producing them with the BBC and from the 1980s alonside or in competition with increasingly tough competition, in the UK, the ITV (Granada) channels, London Weekend, and in the US, cable, A&E, HBO, new technologies which allow viewers to curate and watch programs according to their own schedule (using DVDs, streaming, Netflix). It’s told in a peculiar way. A single person (named and the boss who wanted to get rid of our heroine) theatens a wasteland. Each curve ball or crisis is averted by the sudden unexpectedly widely popular good quality, subtle, intelligent adaptation. So the book reads like a series of rescues. She is not so much the rescuer as the person on the spot when circumstances come together so that a product (most often only a mini-series can provide the amount of ballast needed) is on offer which rescues them.

According to Eaton, Masterpiece theater as “the home for classy drama” (Alistair Cookie’s phrase)


began when the first The Forsyte Saga developed a visible passionate following (fanbases made themselves felt before the Internet too), and attracted a man from Mobil, Herbert Schmertz (who loved dramas set before the 20th century); at the time Mobil was competing with other oil corporations in the 1970s who thought that they need to be seen as civic-minded (no more). The result: a stream of progressive superb mini-series from the 70s,enough of which were as avidly watched (Poldark, The Pallisers) until well into the later 1980s (The Jewel in the Crown). Eaton does not say this explicitly, but the re-creation of Poldark in terms similar to the 1970s is a bid to create a new and bring along the old fanbase for the Winston Graham historical novels (due Spring 2015); so too the filmically innovative Death Comes to Pemberley just before it (fall 2014) is a carefully calibrated appeal to the changed expanded Jane Austen audience

A new Demelza who looks like some of the 1960s illustrations from the Bodley Head Poldark edition — Eleanor Tomlinson is also the new Georgiana, sister of

A genuinely tried Darcy and Elizabeth:

The film does interesting things with Darcy, makes his character more understandable, Elizabeth’s more mature, and as to film: voice-over entangling with shot-reverse shot, scene juxtaposition

The later 1980s, the Thatcher years were the first set back with destructive re-organizations and competitive contracts of packaged dramas at British TV; an occasional return to the old model using new film techniques taken from commercial theater (the 1991 Clarissa) did not seem to help, until the new “savior” appeared: Middlemarch and the art of Andrew Davies.

I still find it painful to watch the failure of Lydgate (Douglas Hodge) unaware how another’s supposed weak view of the world, Rosamund’s (Treveyn McDowell) can wreck dreams no one else can appreciate

I am aware that there are sheaf of essays on the filmic Middlemarch, that it was admired and is still loved — its exquisite historical feel, a breathe of wide humanity, great acting, relevance (the failed career of Lydgate). Eaton recounts losses: how could she have been so stupid as to let go of Davies’s Pride and Prejudice to A&E. It was then she did bow to corporate pressure: a one-time quickie Poldark denuded of all politics will stand for one resulting flop.

But amid these “dark days” she did not forget her job — she attempted to bring into Masterpiece adaptations of good American books. Maybe that was what was needed. If American producers and funders could not begin to understand a British Cornish regional novel, this they might get. She had successes but there are more sad stories, of fine projects that never got off the ground amid a protracted process: The Glass Menagerie with Meryl Streep didn’t happen. She wanted to call her dream The American Collection. Those who helped included Paul Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, and they did Our Town for which Paul Newman earned an Emmy. About the size of what she could achieve was Mark and Livy, the story of Mark Twain and his wife. It seems that Anglophilia is the fuel of Masterpiece and Americans don’t value their own great books. At one point she was told “not to be ridiculous.”

Catherine (Felicity Jones) and Henry Tilner (J.J.Feilds) approach Northanger Abbey

Then another fortuitious rescue occurred. Most people seem unaware that the evolving Jane Austen canon came to the rescue again. Since they were done on the cheap, each only 108 minutes at most (depending on where you watched them, it could be as little as 83 minutes) the 2007-8 Mansfield Park (not noticed for Wadey’s take in which the men are ritually humiliated instead of the women), Persuasion (daringly shown to be the trauma of loss it is), and Northanger Abbey (a delightful Davies product) have not been paid serious attention to by film studies people. But these one-shot Austen films were, according to Eaton, central in reviving film adaptations of classic books subtly and originally done again. The three were great draws. By that time she had gotten the rights to Davies’ 1995 P&P so they were accompanied by this P&P and Davies 1996 Emma. She is a great friend of Davies. The next year ahe was able to execute produce Davies’s Sense and Sensibility (with Anne Pivcevic, a long time associate of his), and Gwyneth Hughes’s Miss Austen Regrets. And she used her technique of purchase and cooperative funding to make a 4 part mini-series once again: the Australian Lost in Austen, better liked than people have been willing to admit.

Michael Grambon, Judi Dench and Lisa Dillon as Mr Holbrook, Matty Jenkyns, and Mary Smith

I was surprised by her then singling out Cranford Chronicles, to which she also attributes the resurgence of whatever is left of the older Masterpiece theater film adaptation and serious domestic drama impulse. The chapter on Cranford Chronicles is the richest of the book. We go from first idea and objections: whoever heard of Elizabeth Gaskell, much less Lady Ludlow? (Cranford was dropped as a school text in the US at the beginning of the 20th century.) Constant trips, lunches, deals sealed with a famous actress on board (Judi Dench), then unsealed, then lost from view, then picked up again, the whole process of acquiring screenplay writer, of writing with her, the sets, how dissatisfied people are with the first rushes, and how they try again and finally have a winner.

When at the close of the book she talks of Downton Abbey trying to explain its draw she identifies what I’ll call a communitarian ideal (she’d never use that phrase) — it’s this sense of loving socially conscientious community where most of the characters in Downton are well-meaning or basically good, with the exception of over-the-top monsters (Vera Bates) or one violent rapist who we know would do it again, no one is ejected, everyone treated with dignity and concern. Well this is the great appeal of Cranford Chronicles too — and Heidi Thomas does one better by allying the stories with progressive ideals. Eaton though singles Cranford out because not just its wide audience (after all Davies had trumped with a new Little Dorrit, Bleak House, a deeply moving Dr Zhivago rivaling and rewriting Pasternak’s novel against David Lean’s reading) but because she does see how it speaks to our times, fairy tale fashion. It must be admitted in this book she spends little time worrying whether a given mini-series reflects its era or particular author — perhaps she leaves that to screenplay writer, producer and director. I note the same film-makers recur for movies made from the same author (e.g. Louis Marks for Dickens). For her warm-hearted Cranford led to warm-hearted Downton.

Her book is meant to function today, 2014 and that too is why two chapters on Downton Abbey are devoted heavily to Downton Abbey, its lead-in, production, aftermath. She talks about why she thinks the program became a sociological event, and now an adjective: it appeared at the right time that year (before the new Upstairs/Downstairs which she says was found to be too dark, too pessimimistic, to much a mirror of our era); the house matters (as did Castle Howard for Brideshead). I’ve just written a paper on Andrew Davies’s Trollope adaptations as part of an anthology on British serial drama and found it distorting to see its purview (it too begins with The Forstye Saga and ends on DA) skewed by too many references to this program. The book is typical; I’ve seen this over-emphasis repeatedly. After all filmically it’s utterly conventional; if it is liberal in its attitudes towards sexuality and the human topics it will broach, it keeps the old decorum up. Its political outlook is one which looks upon the French Revolution as unfortunate, providing only an amelioration; now if only the Granthams had lived in France during the famine. They’d have provided jobs and meals. Nowhere does Fellowes show us that such a house was a power-house, a linch-pin in repressive controlling economic and political arrangements from the which local magistrates and MPs emerged to conscript soldiers and sailors. Everyone who knows anything about country houses knows this.

She does explain why the fuss. The outrageous ratings — it easily beat out Breaking Bad and Madman the first year in the Emmy prize race. It’s a selling card when you want to pitch a new fine series. And to give credit where credit it is, it is high quality; the characters are (as Eaton would no doubt tell us) compelling, psychologically complex; no expense is spared, the actors superb. It is great soap opera and as a woman defending women’s art, I too cry it up (with all the reservations above) as using brilliantly what this individual form in structure can do. She describes the series as a community — that’s soap opera. Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) rescues Mr Carson’s Jim Carter) old time colleague form the music hall from the local workhouse is a single anecdote, but it gathers all its strength by how its embedded in four seasons of memories about these characters. She does not mention that one of its strengths is it is not limited by a nineteenth-century text censored by Mudie’s Library. We can see how a rape plays out.

Did Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) have a baby out of wedlock and give it up before she married Painswick — soap opera communities license us to look beyond what we can see and hear, to a past to be unearthed

How does an executive producer spend her days. Ceaseless socializing, phone calls, pitches, deciding. She does tell much of this throughout the book and in the chapter on Cranford, but she characterizes her job in another chapter again. She’s in on the film editing, how long the film can be, how its final scene plays. Along the way we learn of how she finally found some stable funding. She garnered as a well-heeled contributor Viking Cruises because a survey she did showed a surprising percentage of people who take cruises to Europe also watch Masterpiece Theater loyally. So she pitched this customer favorite to the running the cruises. She created Masterpiece Trust where wealthy people contribute and get to be named and also introduce the program. Perhaps the unashamed commercials for Ralph Lauren clothes (all expensive artifice) might jar more than the old more discreet pitches for oil and gas companies (but we should remember when we shudder at the anorexic women that they are not encouraging others to drop bombs to ensure Lauren’s profit). One of my books on women’s films has a whole section on how even costume dramas — those set say in the 18th century at any rate and after influence women’s wear. In the 1970s many of the costumes were Laura Ashley like creations — somewhere half between the 18th century and elegant clothes in the 1970s. I note that a certain kind of shawl is now popular since it became omnipresent in the costume dramas of the 2000s Obviously the Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and other stars influenced people — remember Annie Hall, the Annie Hall style … This has long been known and at the close of films nowadays you will see little icons for fashion designers and makers of clothes who the costume designer worked with. So Eaton asked herself who has their product been an advertiser for …

A smaller strand of the book is her relationship with the people who do Mystery! and how and when decisions were made to bring Mystery! material over to Masterpiece. Sometimes it seems as if Masterpiece gets the best of Mystery! they took Prime Suspect (Helen Mirren), and now the new Sherlock (Bernard Cumberbatch). Sometimes a book that one might expect to be on Masterpiece turns up on Mystery!. We are not told why all the time.

With Diana Rigg on the set of The Heat of the Day (Elizabeth Bowen’s masterpiece on a Mystery! set — but then she was hostess for Mystery! for a while)

The book ends on what she called “the Downton effect” and returns to her personal motivation, satisfactions, and present. It does sound a bit lonely in that apartment. She likes to think of this program she’s served for so many years as she does her life, intertwined memories. The book has flaws; it does not begin to tell all. A full history would be a couple of thick volumes. What has made her the success she is, her rough-and-ready way of seeing things broadly, as some common denominator of intelligent person might, her upbeatness still don’t get too much in the way of sufficient candor. She describes behavior on the sets as no love-fest, and in the various stories of programs that never made it it’s often someone’s ego or a demand for a higher salary that got in the way. She says spontaneous group scenes for photographs are rare. The book never drips; it moves on and has a hardness. It’s apparent she’s not retiring yet. She won me over at any rate. The originating impulse was to do all her mother had not been able to do — she sets up the black-and-white photo near her bed on its last page.

She gives credit to where it’s due: Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins’s conception of having downstairs get more than equal time to upstairs after watching The Forsyte Saga.


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Michelle Dockery looking lovely at this years’ Emmy awards (the 65th ceremony): Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey; Katherine, Shakespeare’s Henry V’s queen, in an upcoming Great Performances

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.

Typical shot of Lucy Liu as Joan Watson and Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes

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.

The pair on a NYC bench

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.


Rhys Ifan as Mycroft

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.

with the Dowager Violet, Lady Crawley (Maggie Smith)

How lonely life is going to be for me.


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Shoverdose: @lizzieskurnick’s word for binge-watching a TV series.

Humpty Dumpty: ‘You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word … [Lewis Carroll] For instance, take the two words “fuming” and “furious”. Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first … if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say “‘frumious’.

‘Nowadays people curate their experience of TV and cinema films’

Mr Bates (Brendon Coyle) quietly crying — fired because a disabled man (Downton Abbey, Season 1:1)

Anna Smith (Joanne Froggart) come to comfort the just fired Mr Bates — saying “Tell us how you are getting on …. ” Downton Abbey 1:1) — it is true that we remember this subliminally in the 3rd season whey she & Bates are happy in Scotland

Dear friends and readers,

Among the many unusual subjects treated seriously at the recent American Popular Culture and American Culture Association country-wide conference in DC, was that of soap opera and serial story-telling. This phenomena on TV and in film was treated in sessions on it; in British Popular Culture (which includes mini-series); in Gender Studies on TV ( made up of programs with a serial arch, e.g., Girls, West Wing); and some of the many sessions on film adaptations.

This is a blog about who and how people watch soap operas and serial dramas nowadays; how people participate as fans on the Internet: very differently since we have all these new technologies which put us in control. We curate our experience of TV. Passionate fans influence and shape what they watch if it becomes popular. I offer a new word: shoverdose (show-overdose). I summarize a few papers on specific serials, including those on the CW channel, Days of Our Lives, an older Police Procedural, Downton Abbey, and Poldark and in these you will find summarized characteristics found in soap operas and serial story-telling.

I admit I don’t have any summaries on Jane Austen mini-series — that’s because I didn’t hear any papers on Austen mini-series. I admit to shoverdosing: on the 1995 Ang Lee & Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility; Andrew Davies‘s Little Dorrit and Sense and Sensibility; the 1981 Brideshead Revisited; lots of people have shoverdosed on Davies’s 1995 P&P and Fay Weldon’s 1979 P&P, Simon Raven’s The Pallisers.

So on soap opera and serial story-telling, how we watch these nowadays and a few of them: Two sessions on specific soap operas, one on the Poldark novels versus the two mini-series and Downton Abbey and a paper from a Film session on war films. First I’ll cover how people experience soap opera or serial story-telling on TV today and then specific serial dramas.



On Saturday, 9:45, Soap Opera II (4201) featured two papers, Marion Wren’s “Short Attention Span Theater: The Cultural Status of TV serial narratives in a Post-network era” and MJ Robinson’s “Curatorial Culture and the Future of Serialized TV.”

Wren asked, How do we watch TV? Jessica Helfand has argued that the Internet media has turned people into skimmers, people who multi-task, and skim an article while doing many other things on-line. The result is “narrative deprivation:” people have ceased to deep read.

Pessimism and anxiety lies behind such formulations. For example, Helfand does not take into account the phenomenon of binge watching (sometimes referred to as shoverdose — show overdose) which the availability of DVDs and all sorts of ways of controlling and time-shifting our watching has enabled us to do. Someone sits down and watches a whole season of whatever program he or she wants over several extended hours. This is diametrically diferent frmo the way audiences once watched serials and TV.

She suggested that advertisers have only the crudest methods and points of view on the audiences for such soap operas and serial TV and films. They regard viewers as so many eyeballs and when they can try to count them. So Downton Abbey drew 7.9 million for the 1st instalment of the 3rd season. One element in its success is its framing as “legacy,” as “heritage,” as elite and upper class. Therefore that it becomes the object of obsessive viewing is legimitized. Its upper class content and status as quality drama makes it a form of aspiration. This is what the branding did in this case. In previous sociological events of this type it was Jane Austen (the 1995 P&P), elite books and quality drama (Brideshead), historical heritage and regional cults (Upstairs, Downstairs, Cornwall for Poldark whom Graham said was first likened to GWTW).

Ms Wren then turned to examine what we know of the behavior of fandoms that surround such experiences. Henry Jenkins has written about them in Textual Poachers. Jenkins wrote that these fans are not assive; they are a participating culture; they are creative and extend the universe of the show to fit their preconceptions. They work at this, once upon a time by forming clubs, traveling to sites, writing fan letters, now by blogging, tweeting, again traveling to meet one another, by illegal downloading, by using web 2.0 media (I saw that in Poldark where fake videos misrepresenting the mini-series were made). They influenced the author and later seasons by their aggressive demands and insistent views. Both the makers and the viewers may be said to conspire together to often emphasize surprise to mystify the experience, to guard outsiders and one another from showing their what is the real motivation and need served. Viewers invent legitimizing narratives. The audience are communities to be exploited.

I was reminded of Richard Hoggart’s older book on The Uses of Literacy. He argued way back in the 1950s that TV was used politically; to persuade people they were part of imagined (= unreal) communities who espoused a group of values, values which were in this way proselytized for.

The real problem is to turn this into a business model to make as much money from it as possible. Ms Wren mentioned that AMC did not like when fans came onto twitter as faux characters; they felt this was plagiarism and maybe the fans would make money themselves. Twitter was told to pull such tweets and it did. The fans got very mad and AMC let them go back online as a form of on-line advertising because they did see the unlikelihood most fans would make any money.

Ms Wren seemed to want to suggest that binge watching, tweeting creatively about such a serial is depth viewing. But is it? What do the fans write? They write narratives and stay on the surface and miss much of the nuance of what itself is not subtle. OTOH, shoverdose is such a denigrating word and I know that immersion in a script, close study of parts of a mini-series (the juxtaposed shots) and its course texts and intertextuality yields as much depth of knowledge and understanding as any George Eliot novel.


By “Curatorial Culture” Ms MJ Robinson meant how viewers today can organize, select, arrange their own programming: “nowadays people curate their own experience of TV and cinema film.” In the past 5 years what has happened to TV watching resembles what happened in the 15 years to music listening and the last decade to journalism. TV watching used to be top down: the executives chose when you would watch, and you had to stay within the patterns of airing set forth by the channel. TV now can be consumed at any time, any where on a variety of machines. TVs come with “apps”. On YouTube viewers make their own movies. There is such a behavior as “churning:” people join briefly to watch whatever is the promotional offering and then unsubscribe.

Thus the Nielson family viewer ratings which the TV larger channels still cling to (partly they don’t want to know how few people might watch a program or who they are or even what is preferred for real) are hopelessly outdated. The “televisual has become an undifferentiated landscape.” What happens is programmers are fighting for audience shares that they do not know how to translate into direct revenue. Or they are trying to monetize the serial watching in new ways. For example, Netflix did a deal with a Norwegian company to release 8 episodes of a very popular serial, but it was set up in a way that forced the viewer to watch them sequentially.

The aim is to find out when content is used and attach an advertisement to the use. There was always a problem predicting popularity which often increases slowly. So Seinfeld had ratings in the basement in the first season and in the second, soared. The Poldark mini-series was at first ridiculed. Now the difficulty is much greater. On the Internet you find an increasing number of “apps” where to watch a program you have to click on “facebook” first (or twitter or some other social media place) and that way you are counted.

Companies keep their data to themselves. Netflix does not release its the ratings it has from its rentals publicly. There are laws against cable companies mining their data; your privacy is protected unless you are thought to be part of Al Quaeda. They’ve never been able to predict with any ease what the public will make a cult about next.


Helen Mirren as Concerned Cop (Prime Suspect, Season 6)

Soap Opera II at 9:45 also had a paper on a channel dedicated to soap operas for teenage girls, and Soap Opera III at 11:30 (4301) papers on what made a commercial success, a specific mainstream program breaking taboos and types of programs not seen as soaps but have the same characteristics.

A brief survey of the serials discussed. Kayti Lausch discussed the CW channel and its teen serials, i.e., Gossip Girls, Vampire Diaries (any title with the word “diary” in it is aimed at girls), Secret Circle, Melrose Place, The Beautiful Life. Voice-over also identifies a show as for women. In type they are very like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The characters are often mean to one another and there is a lot of conventionalized sex. The characters are rarely at work or school, and when they are there, their interest is not in their work; there is little for the young women to do, and every week there’s some sort of party.

Melissa Ames suggested that when the content really reflects the mood and of a given era the serial is a success. The problem with this is you end up offering a tautology as an explanation, e.g., since this show demonized the rich was a success its era was one where the rich were propagandized against. She described repeating typical stories: revenge is popular, melodramatic deaths, mistaken identities, the fragility of loyal love, tawdry trials, and of course the family is central. She suggested the programs she studied shows any sense of shared sacrifice has faded, people blame victims, escapist content preferred. She had in mind programs like Dallas, the Sopranos, Games of Thrones, Mad Men and Downton Abbey.

Kimberly Smith discussed the introduction of gay characters into The Days of Our Lives. Gay characters had been seen in soap operas from 1991 on, but Days of Our Lives made Sonny Kiriakis, a character central to the series, a member of one of the primary families, and Will Horton, a son of another family fall in love. Ms Smith screened a powerful scene where Horton’s father comes in to object and is clearly intensely hostile, and another where the two lovers behave sentimentally and emotionally the way heterosexual couples are often filmed. Some of the fans protested hysterically but enough accepted to make this pair of characters a staple of the show.

Roberta Brody described a specific serial called Law and Order, which has since had a number of imitations: it did not tell the personal lives of the police; the story was tightly organized, a new case or set of characters brought in for each episode; little back story even for the central case; it’s an ensemble cast (so costs less as there is no star salary); heavily event-driven, with abrupt closings. These share elements with soap operas: melodrama (provocation, pangs, and penalties); themes include heinous rimes, victims who are victims but if they have committed a crime are punished; a conflict of duty and personal feeling; hidden babies, rejected children, rebellious teenagers at risk; poor choice of partners (husbands, wives); substance abuse, mental illness, and loneliness for central characters. She went over a typical story. Her thesis was that the soap opera elements are rarely acknowledged and part of the reason for the series’ success.

I asked if these had evolved in Police Procedural like Prime Suspect and Five Full Days where we do learn about the detectives’ lives, and have feminist themes. She insisted that these “new” kinds of Police Procedurals did not belong to “proper” Law and Order programs; had been influenced by PBS or BBD mystery series. I asked if the Law and Order programs had been aimed at men, and instead of answering this, she said that when it was discovered men watched more than women, women were added to the permanent cast.


Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley, officer, saving one of his men, another man waiting to help (Downton Abbey 2:1)

I heard three papers on Downton Abbey. The first, by Joanna Abtahi, was one of three on depictions of WW1 in Film and History (Thursday 9:45 am, 2244). She said DA was the first season presented as frivolous escapist fare which climaxed suddenly in the Earl of Grantham declaring the nation is at war. The second season saw a dramatic transformation. This character-driven drama now presented itself as accurate. She presented the view of the great war as a useless waste of millions of life, futile, with the ordinary man seen as indispensable as simply the “conventional usual view;” and argued that DA was countering this with the idea that the war created meaningful experiences, showed that the patriarchy was concerned for the social order, with the community pulling together in the face of “great peril.” Matthew’s behavior shows he deserves his authority; The snobbish selfish Mary becomes care-worn, Sybil a nurse who runs off with Branson, Thomas hitherto a villain, an understandable man, who destroys his hand to escape death on the battlefield, and cries over a suicidal patient. She suggested that the program suggested today the UK is more trustful of its government (! — ignoring the huge strikes against the destructive Tory elite gov’t).

John Greenfield and Janice Blandford gave papers on Downton Abbey in “British Popular Culture 4 (Thurs, 1:15 pm, 2420) which startled me: they took the program at its surface value and did not critique its values; Ms Blandford seemed to think the portrait of Robert Grantham (she called him Robert) was realistic. Ms Blandford bought into Edith as vicious, Daisy as dutiful and therefore gaining an obliged new father who helps her “assert herself.” Robert feels the “way elite people then felt about their estates” (high idealism); upholding the social order right and good. Mr Greenfield claimed in the 3rd season Robert (he also did not call the character Lord Grantham) is humiliated and defeated in the 3rd season (victim of new technology and world); Mrs Hughes is strong in the way she befriends Ethel and defies Mr Carson; Edith has become a feminist; a gay plot came to the forefront (! — it has been there all along); Tom transcends his old role; it all ends on “the exhilarating [?] birth of the child.” The death of Matthew he thought must’ve prompted shouts of “swerve” “swerve” across “the nation.” He conceded the woman servants were oppressed.

The reality is Lord Grantham remains in charge throughout and only he has the power to make the police go away and not arrest Matthew. He says he values Matthew for his cricket-playing.

Mr Greenfield discussed serial story-telling in a Freudian way. He suggested its serial production allowed for twists and turns and multiple plots and death, and that Fellowes has mastered the form and uses it captivatingly. He quoted Linda Hughes and Michael Lund on the serial novel in Victorian magazines: pleasure may be discharged again and again as female sexuality is supposed enjoyed (as opposed to male which does not practice sustained arousal).

I raised my hand and said, “lets imagine Anthony Trollope seeing this series. He’d laugh raucously. Great houses are political linch-pins where wheeling and dealing and patronage goes on. As to all these abstractions, he’d see through it as unreal.” I described Trollope’s fiction which Fellowes has been influenced by but where Fellowes’ mind is fuzzy and narrowly aimed; Trollope is precise with wide and thorough knowledge of his era.

Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark returning from the rape of Elizabeth (Poldark, 1975-76, Part 15)

Julie Taddeo’s paper (in the same Thursday session on British Popular Culture) was on the treatment of women in the Poldark worlds’ she compared the way Ross’s rape of Elizabeth was treated in TV mini-series as opposed to the Poldark novels. For a summary, see continuation in comments section.


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