Some of you may have read my previous blog on Comfort Telly, where I pondered if in the end the value of this type of TV Drama is in its actors and performances. (Granted, that the writing is central as well.) Last year ITV resurrected or rebooted their nineties success series Cold Feet (ITV, 1996 -) and with its return this week, I’ve been thinking back on series 6 or series 1 of the reboot. I must admit that far from thinking that the resurrection of Cold Feet last year would be an aid to relaxation and serenity on Monday evenings, it seemed opportunist, mercenary and just a very bad idea from the trails.
Come the opening night and as an ageing TV Studies person, I was in need of some TV induced comfort. So beer at hand, I watched at home waiting for it to crash. In my viewing it did not, in fact I stuck with it. As did a significant section of the audience (Peaking at 8.5 m, settling at 6.5m BARB). The familiar characters – Adam (concerned, but not always tuned into the needs of others), David (financial go-getter, the ailing voice of Thatcherism, but salt of the earth when the chips are down), his former wife Karen (caring mother, but still keen to remain independent), Pete (dependable mate and advisor to Adam) and Jenny (the most interesting performance and character. Struggles with living with Pete and is the anchor for the group on occasion) – all worked their magic some 13 years on from the original series finale.
A quick recap on Series 1-5
I teach Public Service Broadcasting and one of the toughest weeks is the history of ITV and the concept of a PSB entity as a PLC. It is pretty tricky to get all the twists and turns, not to say contradictions, straight if you are a UK student. For those International students – principally from China – this needs a complete rethink. So, it’s a regional system? Well, it was, but no longer, but with opt outs and a concern for non-London settings it has regional concerns? It has to turn a profit, but it must do so within a PSB remit, albeit an ever reducing set of obligations – see 2003 Communications Act and especially 2010 Digital Economy Act.. It must be popular? Yes, see Coronation St. (Granada/ITV, 1960- ), Downton Abbey (Carnival for ITV, 2010-15) and Broadchurch(Kudos/Imaginary Friends for ITV, 2013-17)!, but it is also expected to lead on standards because historically it did so – cf. Armchair Theatre, Jewel in the Crown (Granada for CH4, 1984) and the Naked Civil Servant. (Thames, 1975)(Can you imagine the latter being produced by BBC Drama?). In so many ways Cold Feet delivered the contemporary purposes and channel identity of ITV.
The question of whether this is Comfort Telly, is clearly in the eye and the mind of the viewer. I think a cushion rating might be introduced, and I would give Cold Feet 4 cushions, but Doc. Martin 5, for example. (Out of 5) What is it doing? How is it constructed? – As one might ask in a seminar. Well, for this viewer, the construction is reassuringly standard – see the contemporaneously broadcast National Treasure (CH4, 2016) for something shot in a more troubling/non-standard/ showy way and clearly with a much more disturbing narrative theme. We still have a narrative played out mainly in domestic interiors with occasional visits to a hotel bar and workplaces. (Are they too posh for the pub, now?) We have familiar characters, not just for those following the original series, but more generally these are a range of everyday TV drama people. But, then arguably they are not. They clearly represent the aspirational TV Drama characters from the nineties and earlier. The copy, some might say, of Thirtysomething (Bedford Falls/MGM TV, 1987-91) the popular drama series screened on CH4 a few years prior to Cold Feet’s start. So, for example if Adam wants to fly to Singapore for a long weekend, that’s no problem! However, this is balanced against the less fortunate, Pete (John Thomson) & Jenny (Fay Ripley) who now lead a slightly less jolly life. But, my key observation here would be that the mise en scene and the narrative are misleading, nobody is actually living in the sort of poverty which is not unknown in contemporary Manchester. Finally, one might consider genre here. Without giving too much away, one central narrative – the Rom. Com. one, is signalled so clearly from episode 1, that viewers can afford to feel smug at their omniscient knowledge. It is clear that Adam has little idea, but we viewers think we know the rules of the game. Surely, a real pleasure and comfort in viewing.
To return to acting, I would suggest that this is at the heart of the series’ success. It is the ensemble playing and scripting which is a delight here. But, as I recently discussed in an undergraduate dissertation tutorial, what does that term mean precisely? It sounds obvious, but for a single camera shoot, the opportunities for the actors to play off each other’s performances are limited. (Present, but limited.) That they are deploying well known and developed characters, both to themselves and to the audience, helps. This could have course in comedy, especially Sit. Com., led to a lazy deployment of catch phrases and stock gestures. I’d argue Cold Feet does not offer this. Instead, within predictable characters, one could argue character tropes, it plays new variations on familiar tunes. Thus, when Pete is depressed he does not immediately head down the pub, granted the scene is included, but instead John Thomson delivers a series of withdrawn moments. Of course, this is not a serious discussion of depression in depth, it is an ITV drama what would one expect? But, it is a real attempt to act out some of the symptoms and not to simply tell a gag. James Nesbit does display a puppy like face at times to signal attempted empathy, but now this is done knowingly and not infrequently in a self –reflexive manner.
Perhaps, surprisingly, given the cast’s success since the original Cold Feet, there are few, perhaps no, intertextual references. In popular drama this is often felt to be one of the key pleasures and reading skills of the form. Here the very great temptation to reference those other roles (e.g. Nesbitt –The Missing and Monroe, Norris – Spooks and Wire in the Blood , Bathurst -Toast of London and Downton Abbey) is resisted. This blocks off one pleasure and comfort – ‘wasn’t he in/she is in…you know’ etc – but brings another since we are safely back in the Manchester of Cold Feet. That world where there is always friendly support, mildly suppressed passion and therapeutic discussions with friends when needed. Perhaps this is actually the aspirational goal of the series. In the reboot you can even survive a spell on remand if you’ve got friends to talk to – as happens to David.
So, is this Comfort Telly? Clearly this depends upon the effect on the viewer; like comedy this genre could be determined by intention, but surely it is definitively defined by effect. Looking back to the first incarnation, it is clear that where more difficult topics were to be discussed, they would be handled within this cocoon of mates, drinks and gossip. The quintessential examples of this are Adam’s Testicular cancer in series 2 and the death of Rachel in series 5. The former much praised for giving airtime and exposure to a difficult health issue – at least in the nineties -and the latter either being a either cynical ratings ploy or an attempt to discuss death and grief. Again pretty much a taboo for prime time, popular TV Drama. In fact having sat down to rewatch the original 5 series it is surprising how much less settled a world the characters inhabited. Perhaps this was simply because they were younger, but this does not preclude some admiration for the range of issues shoe horned into the series.
This leads very neatly, to another standard assumption about popular culture, that it might in some way be ideologically suspect, indeed manipulative. The case for the prosecution is, in simple terms, that since ITV needs to deliver audiences to advertisers it will create settling programmes and ones which promote consumerism. In this case we could start with domestic interiors, move on to fashion and end on food and entertaining. (e.g. The Aga in Pete and Jenny’s kitchen, never got that, or David and Karen’s magnificent kitchen/dining room or the endless meals and bottles of wine that accompany key discussions). With the new possibilities of product placement for ITV, this must be hard to resist. Indeed, the current sponsorship deal with Sainsburys stresses the possibilities for more interesting meals. But, beyond this lies the suspicion that popular TV Drama, especially ITV drama, exists to soften up the populous, to- re-assure them at all is well in the nation and the world, though clearly it is not. The timing of the pilot and the first series might be of interest here since they straddle the first Blair term. That moment when so many of us in the country, suddenly sensed a new age and felt hope after many years of Conservative rule. So, Cold feet arrived just at a moment when many were feeling optimistic about the future and some degree of comfort, even smugness? However, in the world of Cold Feet, politics barely gets a mention, things just are, they do not need to be interrogated beyond the personal. That the original was scheduled on a Sunday night also chimes with this view of softening up the viewer for the working week. That the return series is broadcast on a Monday, might be seen to either be irrelevant – with online access – or significant in the way that ITV scheduling has changed over the years. (Incidentally, there is still a majority viewership for Linear TV, so not irrelevant at all, I would argue see Toby Miller’s blog). Series 2 of the reboot moves to Friday evening suggesting another scheduling shift back to popular drama at the end of the week on ITV.
So, where does all this pondering lead? I think to a few further tentative conclusions. Firstly, that Comfort Telly might be more complex than it first looks in terms of the issues considered, but not in terms of formal properties, narrative structure, character types and acting styles. That it might both re-assure and question at differing points within both a series and an individual programme. That it could open up topics to debate which would not be covered elsewhere. (Much more clearly displayed in popular dramas like New Tricks (Wall to Wall for BBC, 2003 -) and Spooks (Kudos for BBC,2002-11) in the noughties which were able to suggest UK involvement in extraordinary rendition, for example, in a way in which factual programmes would never have dared to. Granted the former looks more like comfort telly than the latter.) What I can conclude, with some certainty, is that these popular dramas will continue so long as we have a fully-fledged PSB system and that they will continue to offer something no other medium does, a welcome break from our daily routines whilst also reflecting upon them. That marvellous way TV Drama has of marking a moment in time and difficulties in life whilst simultaneously offering us soothing narrative solutions. Roll on series 2 of the reboot!
ITV Trailer for Series 7
Tom Nicholls is a Senior Lecturer in Media Theory at the University of Lincoln. Initially trained as a Photographer at Birmingham School of Photography his teaching and research interests have gradually migrated to moving image critical theory over the last twenty five years, teaching Film Studies and specialising in Television Studies more recently