Thursday, 3 April 2008

Ignorance is Strength

Even in the rarefied climes I inhabit, halfway up Rather Liking British Television Mountain, there are still noises that waft to me from the valley below now and again that tend to annoy me.

Quality American Television
This one’s one of the biggies. At some point it was decided in TV criticism circles that Quality Television is a phenomenon that was created at some point in the 80s and 90s when HBO started making dramas outside the US network system that were glossily produced, cinematic in scope and intelligently written. This gets my goat because this is then alleged to have influenced things in UK TV that happened before it- a move from studio to OB and often filmed production, changes in cutting style etc.
Not only does this rewrite history, it also overplays the influence of US TV on the UK, and assumes an automatic superiority of film over TV. '16:9 ratio good, 4:3 bad.' It is forgotten that UK TV once had a form of its own between theatre and radio- intimate and character driven (which suited the domestic setting in which it was consumed just fine). More like film is not necessarily better, and an obsession with filmic concerns leads to a devaluing of what TV did when it simply wasn’t film and simply couldn’t be either.

It’s Just Television
I’m sure you’ve heard people dismiss the output which comes into almost every home in the country and fills our evenings with news, sport, comedy, drama, discussion and music in this way. Sadly, I’ve even heard people who work in television say the same. It’s just television.
That’s right, damn a work by the means of its delivery. The rather sniffy attitude is that none of the background to our lives is worthy of consideration. The worry is, is that when TV is made and consumed with that outlook, no attempt to challenge or be challenged is made, and of course, all that old stuff, some of which isn’t even in colour, or speedily edited and doesn’t even fill the whole of your modern set properly is somehow inferior, because it isn’t quick and easy enough anymore.
It’s just old books. It’s just some old drawings. That isn’t an attitude you normally get.
One of the reasons I think TV suffered until lately in critical analysis is that TV studies arose as a subset of film studies, at a point when film studies was rather wedded to the idea of film as an auteur’s medium in which the director was (rather like the creator of those old books and drawings) a single artist using a tool to create art, which as a bonus critics could also use as a kind of parlour game to explore his or her (but usually his) drives, obsessions and interests.
TV on the other hand was production line stuff, which had insufficient thought and time involved to allow the director this role, particularly as his (not hers often) role in the creative process tended to be much more limited than a cinema director’s. The TV director was a mere hired hand.
Thankfully, as film studies has grown up, going through its rather solipsistic stroppy teen era in which it assumed everything you looked at was merely a series of ambiguous symbols you could use to analyse the way you yourself looked at the world, the idea that film is a collaborative medium in which different authors worked either together or against each other (and even writers were in someway involved) has slowly become more prominent. This has given TV a chance to be taken, sort of, seriously at last, but the damage will be slow to undo. We have a whole generation of arts graduates running the country who have been conditioned to be as snotty about the medium and its history as the general public and jaded industry professionals.

It’s not a patch on the (insert other medium) version
I suspect this is the reason the BBC’s DVD release of the 1954 version of Nineteen Eighty-Four continues to be blocked by the Orwell estate. The estate doesn’t respect the television medium, and so judge the TV show against the novel and find it wanting.
Firstly, the play (remember when it was TV plays not films?) explicitly imposes a then topical post-nuclear framework on the future it depicts which is ambiguous at best in the book, in which the alleged nuclear war is referred to in a piece of faked anti-state propaganda, that most readers (and all film versions) tend to skim through.
I can’t help imagining that the keepers of the Orwell flame sat around expectantly on initial transmission and immediately despaired at the opening narration, seeming to turn the serious art of Orwell into nothing but cheap science fiction (see the previous Clarke post for more about this), possibly even mumbling “Dear Lord, it's a travesty, I'm surprised it even did the title in words rather than in numbers!” to themselves.
Closeness to the text, would seem to be a serious consideration (because we know ‘books- good, adaptations of books to work in other terms- double-plus ungood’).
This appears to be why the 1956 cinema version of Nineteen Eighty-Four has also been suppressed by the estate. It takes serious liberties with the book, and you can’t have liberties being taken with Big Brother, can you? The estate had similar concerns with the ending of the Halas and Batchelor Animal Farm apparently, which tried to make a satisfying cinematic climax out of that undeniably superb prose ending, which really just wouldn’t have translated so well into pictures.
Secondly, the drama is undeniably creaky in parts if you go in expecting your TV drama to be like a trip to the pictures, and what seems to have particularly caused problems for any release over the years is that there is a very close adaptation of the book available in colour, a film too. This was for years the preferred version- it’s even got John Hurt and Richard Burton in it, who are proper actors.
There’s now reportedly another film version on the way to become the definitive adaptation, and it seems a DVD of some such scratchy old telly version coming out any time near that would confuse, and perhaps weaken, the Nineteen Eighty-Four brand.

Of course we, we band of brothers, we happy few, obsessed with telly, probably mainly as a result of the cheap fantasy and vaudeville turns it brought into our parlours when we were too young to know any better, know the BBC’s 1984 to be important.

Questions in the House, comments from the Palace, sleepy rats covered in cocoa, live presentations and the fact we only have take two, wind up gramophones, the lost paperweight, Peter Cushing being undervalued as a telly actor before he was undervalued as a film one, Donald Pleasence (also in the suppressed film version, fact fans), Nigel Kneale, Rudolf Cartier, Wilfrid flipping Brambell... it’s all here!

This is a cultural document, a work of art in a lost form, and almost entirely composed of a whole string of our favourite anecdotes. We could Christopher Frayling our way through this whole piece like it was a culturally important Italian made Western or something (I love him by the way, he’s top) if necessary.

British telly matters, Orwell estate! It’s part of our history, don't try to rewrite it, it isn’t all your tacky rubbish for the proles like Big Brother and Room 101 you know. Oh hang on…

Mind, Diamond Dogs is probably better Bowie for your non-collaboration so thanks for that, I guess.

This entry is to be passed to the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, for revision.


Stuart Douglas said...

Bravo Ian (not the 80s US telly loving digital channel) - blog post of the week. I actually re-watched the Cushing 1984 the other night and it's a wonderful piece of television, adding not subtracting layers from Orwell's book.

Also Diamond Dogs is, as you say, great as it is.

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