One of the aims of the ‘Spaces of Television’ project is to explore the relationship between sites of production and the content and form of (British) television drama. We have already seen, in the papers at our two symposia to date, how there is much more to this relationship than the overly simplistic dichotomy between live studio-based drama on the one hand and drama shot using film and film production methods on the other. We’re all familiar with the arguments advanced by Jason Jacobs and Catherine Johnson, for example, that early studio dramas such as The Quatermass Experimentdemonstrated a certain ‘filmic’ ambition that extended far beyond a few pre-filmed inserts – the opening up of the ‘intimate screen’.
At our Leicester symposium in April 2011, Peter Hutchings’s keynote on the 1970s series Thrillerargued that drama shot on videotape, often described as being ‘as live’, nevertheless exhibited a different aesthetic than genuinely live drama. And Jonathan Bignell’s and my own research into the ITC-produced adventure series of the 1960s – including The Saint, The Baron, Man in a Suitcase, The Champions and Department S – while shot on film nevertheless were predominantly studio-bound and filmed according to a streamlined method that was not quite the same as feature film production methods.
There are relatively few examples of television drama series that have encompassed the whole variety of production methods and styles. The Avengers is one that springs to mind: the production history of the series demonstrates a transition from live episodes to tape, then to 35 mm film, and finally from black and white to colour. This was reflected visually in the transition from instense studio-based realism in the earliest episodes to a more expressionist low-key visual style in the taped episodes and finally to outright Pop Art fantasy in the filmed episodes. A series such as Special Branch began on tape and moved to film. And clearly ‘new’ Doctor Who, digitally shot and edited, exhibits a very different aesthetic than what we now call ‘classic’ Who (1963-89) – though even within the ‘classic’ period there was significant variation in the visual style of the series dependent upon the production designers and producers involved.
The range of production methods can also be traced across certain genres. For the last few years I’ve been engaged in an on-going research project to explore the history of the television ‘swashbuckler’ – i.e. the costume adventure series. This is a particularly interesting example as the swashbuckler has not only been a profilic genre of television drama (and not only in Britain but also in France, Italy and the United States) but its history in Britain, very much originating with the advent of independent commercial television in the mid-1950s, also spans the period covered by the ‘Spaces of Television’ project from 1955 until the 1990s. Swashbucklers: The costume adventure series will be published by Manchester University Press, probably in 2014, and will represent my principal research output from the ‘Spaces of Television’ project.
So what have I found?
The first is that here is a genre whose history, like so many other genres, is best understood not as a continuous process of evolution, but rather as a series of cycles – each of which arises from a set of historically specific institutional, technological and cultural circumstances. The first cycle of British-made costume adventure series were an outcome of the early years of commercial television. The decision to shoot series such as The Adventures of Robin Hood on 35mm film was economically as well as aesthetically determined in so far as it allowed the possibility of overseas sales – especially to the lucrative US market. Hence the cycle of filmed series from the British studios at Nettlefold, Twickenham and Elstree between 1955 and 1962, including The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, The Buccaneers, Ivanhoe, William Tell and Sir Francis Drake.
Hitherto academic interest in these series has focused on the input of blacklisted American writers such as Ring Lardner Jr and Waldo Salt into The Adventures of Robin Hood and other series produced by Hannah Weinstein’s Sapphire Films for Lew Grade’s ITPC (Independent Programme Television Company – it became ITC in 1960). This is now a well-known story, largely thanks to Steve Neale’s excellent archive research that has documented the involvement of certain blacklistees and their considerable influence over the production of the series. My own research has built upon Neale’s work by showing how the politics of the blacklistees fed into the ideologies of the series themselves. Episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, for example, are open to being read as commentaries on the experiences of blacklisted writers before HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) and the series as a whole are replete with references to spies, informers and comrades. This is the first instance of how the swashbuckler has often functioned as a vehicle for social and political commentary – a process where it becomes essential to consider the agency of producers and writers. The commitment to social justice and ‘welfare state’ politics in Ivanhoe, for example, can be attributed to the agencies of both writer Waldo Salt, closely involved in the origins of the series, and British producer Sydney Box, whose films, as Andrew Spicer has argued, exhibited a progressive ethos that responded to social change.
The second major British swashbuckling cycle was in the 1970s, when the institutionalisation of colour television gave a boost to costume series that foregrounded visual display and spectacle. At the same time we see a divergence within the genre itself. I was particularly impressed by Arthur of the Britons, the first fully networked series from HTV. This was positioned as a children’s series (broadcast on Monday evenings in the pre-news ‘home from school’ slot and starring Oliver Tobias as a pin-up King Arthur) but was characterised by an emphasis on dirty realism and included content, including violence and some sexual references, that seem out of place for children’s drama (“Time enough later to sit on your haunches – or lie on your back more likely!”) HTV was also responsible for Kidnapped(1979), a handsomely produced adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson, that represents an early example of the heritage swashbuckler. These series were both produced on film (Arthur of the Britonswas shot on 16mm). The technological advances in video in the 1970s, including second-generation colour Ampex machines, allowed Thames Television to produce The Warrior Queen (1978) on tape – though this method militates against the more extensive action sequences seen in Arthur of the Britons.
The period since the 1970s has seen further transformation within the genre. Richard Carpenter was principal writer of four swashbucklers that demonstrated a quite radical social politics in their representation of the corruption of central government and their focus on outlaws and outsiders criminalised by society: Dick Turpin, Smuggler, its sequel Adventurer, and, especially, Robin of Sherwood. This offers a radical reinterpretation of the Robin Hood myth that introduces elements of magic (through Robin’s mentor figure Herne the Hunter) and is far removed from the broadly consensual social politics of The Adventures of Robin Hood in the 1950s. In the 1990s, Central Television’s Sharpe and Hornblower, two expensively produced series (shot on Super 16 and, in the case of Hornblower, making use of computer generated imaging in the sea battle sequences), repositioned the swashbuckler as primetime evening drama rather than juvenile fiction.
I think that one of the reasons why the swashbuckler has not hitherto attracted much critical attention has been due to its association with children’s drama – the sort of television that critics regard as not being worth taking seriously. Another, perhaps, is the apparent ideological and aesthetic conservatism of the genre. In fact one of the recurring themes that has emerged from my research – which has involved watching (literally) hiundreds of half-hour and one-hour episodes – is that the swashbuckler has often revealed a more progressive social politics and liberal ethos than one might assume. Yes, on the one hand, most swashbucklers affirm faith in the social order and swashbuckling heroes are usually royalists with an unswerving commitment to the Crown and upholding monarchical authority (William Tell and Sword of Freedom from the 1950s are exceptions in so far as they feature republican protagonists); but, on the other hand, most swashbuckling heroes are also cast as defenders of the rights of the common people and oppose the abuse of aristocratic privileges by a self-interested elite. Some series, notably Sword of Freedom and Dick Turpin, are almost Marxist in their insistence on the corruption of governing elites and the relationship between political and economic power. Not the sort of stuff one normally expects from British or US commercial television!
There are two other, more general, points I would like to make in concluding this blog. The first, as I’ve always believed, is that any fully-rounded study of popular drama ought to take into account the conditions of production as well as analysing the style and politics of the series themselves. Clearly the themes of some of the 1950s series were influenced by the political views of the blacklistees, and the Richard Carpenter series demonstrate a consistent pattern of social politics despite their different period settings. Also that researching the production ecologies involved is essential in understanding drama. To take just one example: Sword of Freedom has often been dismissed as a ‘failure’ because, unlike predecessors from the same stable (The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, The Buccaneers), it was not sold to one of the three US networks. However, as an investigation of the trade press quickly reveals, Sword of Freedom was not intended for network sale – the US distributor Official Films had decided to focus on the first-run syndication market – and when sales to all territories are taken into account it still made a profit. (Most historians of British tv drama have tended to privilege network sales as an indicator of international success. I include myself here: in my book Saints and Avengers I tended to see a network sale as evidence that the series had succeeded commercially. But the US syndication market was worth over $60 million a year by the mid-1950s and was clearly important in its own right: syndication sales should by no means be regarded as failure.)
My second general observation is: thank heavens for DVD! I have always maintained that if one is to discuss a drama series with any confidence and authority, it is necessary to watch all the episodes rather than basing one’s analysis on half a dozen selected episodes. There are 143 episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood alone, and before the advent of DVD box sets, with only half a dozen or so episodes available on commercial VHS, it would have been impossible to see the series in its entirety unless one had the time (and the money) to order them all up to the BFI’s screening rooms in London. This is no doubt one reason why, before DVD, much research into television drama focused on a relatively small handful of classic texts. I believe that one of the results of the ‘Spaces of Television’ project will be to extend the research agenda into a wider, more diverse and more eclectic range of television dramas than has figured in previous accounts of British television.
Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester