Television’s involvement with a contemporary media terrain shaped by COVID-19 has been increasingly sharpened as critical focus has gradually shifted towards understanding and thinking through our still-evolving relationships with the small-screen in pandemic times. A recent blog on this site by John Ellis (2020), alongside work from Diane Negra (2020) on so-called “pandemic television,” has explored the medium both in its cathartic function as “consolatory entertainment” playing the cultural role of “connection and reassurance” (Ellis 2020), and through the shifting industry and production practices that have informed television’s status as an avoidant “medium of solace” (Negra 2020). Indeed, an initial rise throughout 2020 in specialised educational programming targeted at home-schooling families on a budget (led by Joe Wicks and Jamie Oliver) was quickly followed by the BBC’s Celebrity Supply Teacher initiative featuring a diverse range of media personalities taking on the role of primary and secondary school educators, not to mention the many live musical performances and fundraisers, footage of NHS and key worker celebrations, government briefings, public-health expert interviews, news reports and information films that all came to (re)define pandemic-era television. Yet as 2021 enters its final third, Saturday night entertainment is still missing its requisite ‘live studio audience,’ while filming and programming schedules remain widely interrupted in accordance with isolation, quarantine, ‘bubble’ and shielding rules. When taken together, then, it’s clear that television’s multifaceted participation with the pandemic has continued to invite fresh viewing positions as television emerges as a “new kind of timekeeper” (Negra 2020). Even Ant and Dec took an unplanned detour to Wales.
U.S. and U.K. television drama is starting to get in on the act too, directing its narrative and thematic interest onto the trials and tribulations of lockdown, with several programmes made not just under but about pandemic survival. From the Zoom-era sitcom Staged (Simon Evans & Phin Glynn, 2020-21) and ITV’s miniseries of shorts Isolation Stories (2020) to Netflix anthology Social Distance (2020-) created by Hilary Weisman Graham and the James McAvoy/Sharon Horgan British comedy-drama Together (Stephen Daldry, 2021), the pandemic has provided ample material for writers to explore personal and collective narratives of loneliness, grief, fear and loss. The recent Channel 4 film Help (Marc Munden, 2021) starring Stephen Graham and Jodie Comer – about a care home hit by Coronavirus – reorients this emergent ‘pandemic sub-genre’ further towards the hidden stories and harrowing experiences of those on the front-line. As Joke Hermes and Annette Hill have argued, “television – a medium declared almost dead at the beginning of this millennium – has become a vital resource for solace, daydreaming, social ritual, knowledge and storytelling. In conditions of lockdown, we turn towards television, not away from it” (2020: 655).
However, a recent post on this very site from Elke Weissman (2021) teased another kind of convergence between broadcast television and COVID-19 through a consideration of style, discussing “television that was written or production designed creatively in order to tell its stories in Covid-safe ways.” Last year, the BBC, ITV and numerous other U.K. broadcasters collaborated on a five-page risk assessment document outlining how “close contact” filming for television would operate safely, especially in cases where performers would “unavoidably” require “interaction within the current social distancing boundary.” The document built on accompanying industry-wide guidelines that outlined “a high-level framework for the effective assessment and management of Coronavirus (COVID-19) risk in TV production,” leading to programmes like BBC One’s Michael McIntyre-fronted gameshow The Wheel (2020-) with its enlarged set and distanced celebrities positioned on a roulette wheel that is easy to produce under COVID-19 safety protocols. By July 2021, the BBC had published its revised COVID-19 guidance, again with a section devoted to control measures, approved work patterns and maintaining the two-metre rule when filming, while the British Film Commission (BFC) did the same a month later in updating its Working Safely precautions for the production of Film and high-end TV drama. Yet limitation breeds creativity, and despite the threat of contagion still very much in the present rather than relegated to the past, we are perhaps now beginning to see the aesthetic implications of these initial mitigations in new contexts, and the stylistic outcomes (and creative possibilities) engendered by such safe distancing measures now that the cameras have thankfully started rolling again.
All of which brings me to a dishevelled yet brilliant Northern television detective in a raincoat.
The recent series 11 premiere of ITV’s long-running detective series Vera (2011-) was the first of the successful adaptations from Ann Cleeves’ novels to be produced under pandemic conditions (filmed in Autumn 2020). Following the first episode’s climax late on Sunday 29th August 2021, actor Kenny Doughty (who has played DI Aiden Healy since 2015) immediately tweeted his thanks to the “directors & entire production team, crew & cast for making this series happen at the height of the pandemic.” However, even without Doughty’s late-night social media intervention, striking elements of this opening episode of the series, titled “Witness” (S11E1), provided evidence of its pandemic protocols while hinting at what a creative COVID televisual style might look like.
The makers of Coronation Street (1960-) and EastEnders (1985-) have been relatively open in divulging the camera trickery (and invisible digital VFX shots) that have supported a new pandemic-era television style, including using Perspex screens (a common strategy of quiz and panel shows too) to keep actors apart for kissing scenes and even drafting in real-life partners for love scenes that required further physical intimacy. But in the premiere of Vera, viewers were given a clear set of ‘clues’ pointing to the impact of COVID-era measures on the emergent formal repertoire of broadcast television. Actors were often carefully and cleverly positioned within the frame in ways that reduced physical contact between the cast. The fact that the episode’s gruesome murder took place on the steps of the Collingwood Memorial in Tynemouth also allowed actors to be spaced at different levels without much trouble and, crucially, in ways that maintained social distancing procedures (Fig. 1).
Once the eponymous DCI Vera Stanhope (Brenda Blethyn) had deemed cause of death as murder, the action quickly moved to the offices of the fictional Northumberland & City Police. Here, the normally claustrophobic hub of investigative activity became noticeably opened out, as key characters were organised in depth far into the background, sitting at workstations and standing in doorways (Fig. 2), while later scenes in the nearby morgue (Fig. 3) provided further opportunities for creative spacing techniques.
Such considered visual organisation continued throughout the episode, and though perhaps increasingly attuned to such stylistic flourishes, I was struck by the sustained management of character movement that placed emphasis on the spaces between actors. Characters rarely passed vital evidence to each other by hand, or walked closely behind/in front of colleagues, instead having their moves choreographed so as not to jeopardise their proximity (I counted two instances where Healy and DC Jacqueline ‘Jac’ Williams [Ibinabo Jack] noticeably wait for Stanhope to walk away from the evidence board before moving into shot). Conversations also regularly took place through glass partitions or while sitting at opposite ends of tables. When interrogating suspects on location too, Vera was often unusually placed at the margins of the frame, or in the foreground/background to create multiple planes of action and accommodate – and preserve – the two-metre distance (Fig. 4) as the case gained momentum.
As Negra (2020) writes, “With social distancing protocols and the absence of normal physical interaction, we watch television differently, cringing at crowd scenes and the casual closeness of people to one another in media produced before the pandemic.” In this first Vera, episode – just as with ITV’s other flagship detective series Unforgotten (Chris Lang, 2015-) earlier this year, which also registered pandemic conditions in the arrangement of several scenes – such protocols become a clear shaper of style. The absence of character contact and the formal treatment of interaction become more pronounced through a mise-en-scène, which draws viewer attention to the practical staging of bodies. It would be interesting to speculate over the possible future for television’s distancing strategies in relation to performance and editing – especially when one is incessantly looking out for them (!) – at a time when real-world experiences of connection and guidelines over proximity still cast a long shadow over our daily routines and habits. Filmed during pandemic times but now finally ‘out in the open’ (quite literally), the premiere of Vera nonetheless offered an intriguing indication of what we might come to expect from a socially distanced style for television.
Christopher Holliday teaches Film Studies and Liberal Arts at King’s College London, specializing in Hollywood cinema, animation history and contemporary digital media. He has published several book chapters and articles on digital technology and computer animation, including work in Animation Practice, Process & Production and animation: an interdisciplinary journal (where is also Associate Editor). He is the author of The Computer-Animated Film: Industry, Style and Genre (Edinburgh University Press, 2018), and co-editor of the collections Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres (Routledge, 2018) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: New Perspectives on Production, Reception, Legacy (Bloomsbury, 2021). Christopher can also be found as the curator and creator of the website/blog/podcast www.fantasy-animation.org.
- Ellis, John. 2020. “What Do We Need In a Crisis? Broadcast TV!” CSTonline (April 24), available at: https://cstonline.net/what-do-we-need-in-a-crisis-broadcast-tv-by-john-ellis/.
- Hermes, Joke and Annette Hill. 2020. “Television’s undoing of social distancing.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 23, no. 4 (May): 655-661. https://doi.org/10.1177/1367549420927724.
- Negra, Diane. 2020. “America Unfiltered: Welcome to Pandemic Television.” EAWorldView: Your Window to the World (April 17), available at: https://eaworldview.com/2020/04/america-unfiltered-pandemic-television/.
- Weissman, Elke. 2020. Does It Taste Good? Challenging Notions of Value Through The Critical Awards in Television.” CSTonline (July 2), available at: https://cstonline.net/does-it-taste-good-challenging-notions-of-value-through-the-critical-awards-in-television-by-elke-weissmann/.