Back to the Future?: Television in the 1980s
Karen Lury / University of Glasgow

How to teach television’s history?

In my last column for Flow, I would like to offer – in the spirit of similar Flow columns in which writers have shared their experiences and frustrations of teaching and researching television – a brief descriptor and some rationale for an introductory television studies course I am about to start teaching here at Glasgow University. I have taught a version of this course for around fourteen years (both with other colleagues and sometimes on my own). However, having recently had a short break from teaching this particular course, I returned to the idea of an ‘introduction to television studies’ with some concern, having become increasingly aware that aside from the usual antipathy I previously encountered (from students who were primarily interested in film and had to be persuaded to become interested in television) there was now, additionally, a sense that as television itself was rapidly changing, and because I too had changed (particularly in my television viewing practices) that there was increasingly little common ground on which I might engage the students.

For our students, television is a comfortable and amorphous machine. Television does and will increasingly offer a range of different kinds of experience – passive viewing, interactive ‘entertainments’ – and whilst, in times of crisis or at major public events, it will still potentially address millions of people, at other times, it directs itself to an ‘audience’ of one. Now, more than ever, it becomes difficult to think about what television ‘is’ and to remember what it may once have been, or meant. We therefore decided to detach television from its own tendency to ‘chase the future’ and re-title the course making it entirely historical rather than offering our previous mix of older and more contemporary material. And it would be history – most of the students we will be teaching were born in 1990. Rewinding the course back to the 1980s (when many of the changes to television as an industry and as an audio-visual form originate) may seem like a radical decision but, in fact, it offers an opportunity to evaluate and think about ‘television as television.’ The course presents an opportunity to explore the particular pleasures and the strangeness of television in a way that can be informed but not overwhelmed by the students’ current and hugely diverse viewing practices. I’ve therefore attached a (shortened) summary of our course outline. I’m sure that some of the content and approach overlaps with the way in which many Flow readers have taught – or are teaching – their own classes. So I’m not presenting this as a model, rather as part of an ongoing dialogue with what I have found to be the central concerns in television studies: What was television? How should we study television in a way that takes politics and pleasure seriously? How do we manage the rapid changes within television as an industry and to television as a series of audio-visual texts? And how do we address the increasingly diverse viewing experiences of our students? Finally, how do we value, use and interpret ‘television as history’ and the ‘history of television?’

So, why television in the 1980s?
Could this be a horror story? An attempt to resurrect or reanimate sounds, images, performances and the kind of television that is better dead and buried?

Michael Jackson’s Thriller video

In some ways the course will be an encounter with the ‘living dead’, a spooky and uncomfortable experience. This is, in part, intentional: one of my ambitions as a lecturer and tutor is to make that very familiar medium – television – strange. We are not particularly interested in whether the students ‘like’ television, although we hope they will enjoy many of the screenings we offer. Instead I want to use the course to remind students just what a strange or uncanny medium television is. Television is an apparently parasitic form and Thriller, of course, is visually cannibalising the Hollywood musical and the zombie film. And like Michael Jackson, television has a contradictory and complex personality. The music video was one of the key audio-visual texts of the 1980s – a textual form and marketing tool that became increasingly cinematic – at least visually. In employing Thriller as our jokey point of entry, the question becomes: is television (as Jackson appears in this video), a friend, a monster or both?

The A-Team, popular show from the 80s

As an introductory course a reasonable question might be why we are apparently restricting our study to this decade. We need to be careful that it does not become a nostalgic exercise and the course does not mutate into a version of the ‘I love the 1980s’ programmes so popular on British television. In these programmes, cheesey clips and inane talking heads are cobbled together and z-list celebrities make inspired observations such as how the ‘Snickers’ chocolate bar used to be called ‘Marathon’; or how ‘Boy George’ once said that he would prefer ‘a cup of tea’ to sex. It needs to be clear that the 1980s has been chosen as a key period in which we will (as in the name of a film from that period) take students ‘back to the future’ of television. How? Uniquely and co-incidentally it was a period marked by political revolutions both in the UK under Thatcher, and in the US, under Ronald Reagan. Mrs. Thatcher came into power in 1979 and was deposed in 1990. President Reagan was elected in 1981 and ended his second term in office in 1989. In both the US and the UK their periods of government serve as convenient markers which point to the end of a particular version (and vision) of society and to the economic foundations of that society. Both leaders and the changes they wrought throughout the 1980s provide the context for the individualised, consumer-led economy and society that we live in today. Television as an industry, as a public communicator, as a producer of images and fictions, participated in and reflected these changes.

The Golden Girls – an example of a popular 80s show.

This is not an original idea: Jane Feuer, in her book, Seeing through the eighties: television and Reaganism, elegantly worked through some of the ideas and history that we will revisit throughout the course. And I think it worth establishing, as she does, that the course will not promote a ‘unidirectional’ model of television and society. From her introduction:

I will argue that just as TV images could not be said to have caused the eighties, neither could the eighties be said to have produced the images as a simple reflection of the times. Rather, I hope to complicate a base/superstructure model according to which Reaganomics produced, say, the TV series Dynasty in a unidirectional manner with a more complex and bidirectional model in which Reaganomics and Dynasty are viewed as mutually causing and mutually effecting each other. (p.2)

Finally, one of the reasons that we were able to go ahead with the course is due to the increasing accessibility and relative ease of video recording during the 1980s. Specifically, the domestic use of video tape and the VCR allows us now to access the everyday ‘noise’ of television then – its idents, the adverts and the ‘run of the mill’ programmes that made up the day to day of television. Previous to this period we are almost exclusively reliant on companies’ and broadcasters’ archives or on specially produced and packaged DVDs. Ironically, an example of this phenomenon and its inherent limitations is represented by the first screening of the course – Live Aid. In the booklet for the DVD box set (conveniently produced to commemorate the programme twenty years later) the producer explains how difficult it was to reassemble even this ‘landmark’ programme. We know that television history is a particular kind of archaeology. Although YouTube presents us with an abundance of clips, fragments and montages it can’t ‘recreate’ television as it was experienced. On the one hand, the ambition is to examine a period of television and an experience of television that is reflective of the past and to establish (or reconvene) a common ground for students (and their tutors) to explore and discuss issues central to television studies. On the other hand, although we will explore only television both from and of the past we believe that it will set the stage for an understanding of television now and in the future.

Image Credits
1) Teaching television’s history
2) Michael Jackson’s Thriller video
3) The A-Team
4) The Golden Girls
5) Front Page image

Please feel free to comment.

Monkey Magic
Karen Lury / University of Glasgow


BBC’s Olympic ‘Monkey’

This year the BBC hired the animator/illustrator Jamie Hewlett and the musician (ex-Blur front man) Damon Albarn to produce a 2 minute 10 second Olympics trailer that could be cut up into a variety of different stings. The result – the ‘Monkey’ Olympics trailer – has been the focus of extensive British press and web interest since the BBC’s coverage of the Olympics began. The 2-D animated film is in a sense a spin-off (a progeny?) of existing work by Albarn/Hewlett. Their collaboration began in 1998 with the emergence of the ‘virtual’ animated pop group Gorillaz and more recently with a fully fledged ‘Electro-Mandarin’ Opera – ‘Monkey: Journey to the West’ – which has played to rave reviews in Manchester, Charleston and most recently, the Royal Opera House in London. ((Commissioned by the director of the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris the opera is directed by Chen Shi-Zheng and employs a cast of thirty Chinese acrobats. )) This week also sees the release of what one journalist called the ‘melancholy electro-ghost’ of the opera: the album ‘Journey to the West’ by the ‘band’ Monkey. Yet, all three monkeys are different, not just in terms of form but in tone, mood and appeal. As an Olympics ‘special’, I’m hoping to show readers something straightforwardly beautiful that you may not have seen, but I also want to suggest that the trailer might offer a particular and revelatory twist on those familiar concepts of hybridity, adaptation and convergence. In fact, I’ll stick my neck out over the finishing line to suggest that ‘Monkey’ offers a cross-platform, cross-culture concept that is satisfyingly dangerous, playful and open-ended.


The BBC Olympic ‘Monkey’ trailer

The narrative of the film follows very closely the opening title sequence of the Nippon (NTV) live action television series Monkey co-produced by the BBC and shown first in the UK in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The television series was itself a reflection of the folding hybridity of the ‘Monkey’ concept. Loosely based on an original seventh century Chinese novel Journey to the West (later attributed to Wu Cheng’en), the series was shot with Japanese actors in China and Mongolia. When it was transmitted on the BBC the actors’ voices were famously and – perhaps deliberately – very clumsily dubbed over with English dialogue using cod ‘Oriental’ accents. The four main characters are: Monkey, a brash, ‘punk’ immortal Monkey King who has been given a ‘wishing staff’ by a Dragon princess; Pigsy, a charming, but gluttonous pig monster banished, like Monkey, from heaven; Sandy, a cannibalistic water demon/monster; and Tripitaka, a gentle Buddhist priest who is a man but played by a woman (the characters themselves seem to recognise that he is both actually a man – since he is ‘their master’ – but also somehow and consistently actually that ‘she’ is also/and a woman).

A playful, irreverent choice then: a trailer that reverses a mythic journey (from West to East) and which pays overt homage to a cult TV series that was never – in any coherent sense – an ‘authentic’ reflection or interpretation of Chinese culture or mythology. The music (which less enamoured critics have dubbed ‘Chin-easy listening muzak’) is a response from Albarn to his extensive immersion (three years worth) in Chinese music and culture but is clearly comprehensible to Western listeners who respond to it as both melodic and hip. The animation itself reproduces certain static poses and a colour scheme that may have been inspired by Chinese illustration and Japanese Manga; but for Hewlett fans, this is recognisably a Hewlett world – a world that is both menacing and cute (and where ‘cute’ is revealingly close to its roots in the freakish world of the side-show). It is funny and slightly unsettling as Pigsy smirks provocatively or when Monkey opens his mouth to reveal his dirty and surprisingly sharp teeth. Hewlett’s grotesque yet seductive style is reflected in his most famous creation before Monkey – the comic-strip post-punk heroine Tank Girl (whose boyfriend was a kangaroo). In interviews, Albarn and Hewlett are clear that they were happy to acquiesce to specific requests from the BBC. (( For example, in an interview with the BBC’s listing magazine the Radio Times, Hewlett comments: ‘The BBC wanted a minimum of five sports covered and we managed to get nine in, so they’re very happy. There’s hammer, hurdling, sprinting, javelin, gymnastics, swimming, diving, tae kwan do and pole vault.’ (‘Monkey Business’, Radio Times, 2-8 August 2008, p.20) )) On the other hand, they are also clear that this is their ‘Monkey’ (however playfully this ownership is claimed.) For instance, they gleefully remind interviewers that they were both born in 1968 – the Chinese year of the Monkey. Not co-incidentally, this means that they are also the right age to have once been part of the original, obsessive and loyal audience for the TV series – made up mainly, but not solely, of prepubescent boys.

Albarn and Hewlett

Albarn and Hewlett

It is not cynical to point out that however distinctive it may be, the trailer is not just promoting the Olympics (and the BBC) but the Monkey ‘concept’ and therefore the Monkey ‘products’. However, it is mistaken, I think, to regard the concept and film as corrupt, inauthentic or ‘demeaning’ to the Olympic athletes and/or Chinese culture as some critics have suggested. Flow readers may have their own opinions but I want to comment on just two elements that seem to me central to its effect and potential: the representation of animals and the feeling of ‘lift’ generated by the music and style of animation.

Firstly, in its use of animals rather than people it may seem that the trailer is suggesting that the athletes are animals (Monkeys? Pigs?) Or perhaps it implies that the origins and manifestation of Chinese culture is bestial (or worse perhaps) ‘cute’?

Yes and no. Athletes are animals (they achieve at the limits of the human) and in their performance they transform from the functional inscrutability of an embodied non-human animal (all body) to the expressivity of the emotional human animal (using tears, voice and gesture) and all within a split second. Is this association degrading? Possibly. But in Hewlett’s world (as in Chinese mythology) there is a real ambiguity about how we interpret or use the ‘difference’ between humans and animals (remember; Tank Girl’s boyfriend was a kangaroo, he didn’t ‘look like’ a kangaroo he was a kangaroo.) The animals here are not anthropomorphised Disney-style, instead they balance precariously at the very boundary of animal/human (like Tripitaka they both are and are not, one thing or the other). This is what animation allows for and this represents a different world order in which ‘man’ (or the image of man) is not at the pinnacle of a ‘hierarchy of species’.

tank girl

Tank Girl and her boyfriend

Secondly, in my experience it is relatively rare that television – particularly television fiction – produces moments of ‘lift’. By this, I don’t mean moments which ‘lift the spirit’ but that actual sense of a visceral tightening, a physical response in which your diaphragm is ‘lifted’, produced – possibly – by a gasp that lifts the chest up and which contracts the throat. A feeling of lift that is a mixture of excitement and anxiety, provoked most commonly by circus acts and in particular trapeze walkers. In fact and again not co-incidentally, it is the sort of exhilaration inspired by the wire work acrobatics in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In the Olympics this sense of lift – the work of force made by the athletes which is often against gravity – is present in all sports. It is an element that links all the competitors since it refers not to the winning or losing of the game, not to the ‘fastest’ or ‘strongest’, instead it recalls the work needed and the joy inspired by self-propulsion. It is important that this force is related to actual effort: for in CGI (the form of animation used predominantly in other Olympics trailers) this propulsion is smooth, effortless; nothing is impossible and the work expressed reveals itself as the work of a machine. To make it believable an ‘organic skin’ is layered on (to flex, strain and perspire in fantastic detail) but all too often I think I can still see the machine in the monkey skin. In contrast, in 2-D animation the perceptible ‘in-betweens’, the space between frames, poses and drawings leaves room for me to gasp, to leap imaginatively. While in the trailer a variety of authentic and inauthentic cultural ghosts circulate and participate, at the same time, the touch of the animator (his work) is visible and tangible (and he in turn has responded to the weight, volume and texture of Albarn’s music). CGI, in contrast, would only present a sealed ‘perfectly imperfect’ environment for its athletes. While 2-D is entirely less realistic than CGI it is altogether more open and perhaps perversely more plausible. However smoothed by digital transference and filled in by CGI moves this particular film may be I don’t know, but in this apparently 2-D film I know I feel a lift as I glimpse the effort of the monkey in the machine.

Image Credits:
1. BBC’s Olympic Monkey
2. Albarn and Hewlett
3. Tank Girl and her boyfriend
4. Front Page Image

Please feel free to comment.

Same As It Never Was: Nostalgia and Children’s TV
Karen Lury / University of Glasgow


Family Portrait from Pogle’s Wood

In the last class for a course I taught on children’s television, I decided to use the theme of nostalgia. It seemed appropriate as the class was largely made up of final year students, some of whom I had taught for four years. I set readings from Henry Jenkins (on the various television series of Lassie), ((Henry Jenkins, “Her Suffering Aristocratic Majesty”: The sentimental value of Lassie, in Marsha Kinder (ed.) Kids’ Media Culture, (Durham and London: Duke University press, 1999) pp. 69-102)) one of Adam Philips’ essays in The Beast in the Nursery ((Adam Philips, ‘The Beast in the Nursery’, from The Beast in the Nursery, (London: Faber and Faber, 1998) pp. 37-60)) and a chapter from Stuart Jeffries’ childhood memoir, Mrs. Slocombe’s Pussy. ((Stuart Jeffries, ‘1967: Bill and Ben’s hats (children’s TV) in Mrs. Slocombe’s Pussy: Growing up in front of the telly, (London: Flamingo, 2000) pp.1-39)) For the screening, I chose one programme, Pogle’s Wood, shown on the BBC in 1966-1968 and some of the students’ choices, which included a children’s pre-school show Playdays, an animated series The Animals of Farthing Wood, as well as a 1980s BBC adaptation of Five Children and It (obviously most of the class had been children in the 1980s). The screenings had been selected via a poll of favourite children’s programmes that ran throughout the eight weeks of the course, on a shared website. At the beginning of this last class I asked them to write a few thoughts about why they had chosen the programmes and what they had felt about seeing them now – as adults and in a non-domestic context. This column is a response to their and my own thoughts about our memories of children’s television.

I began the class – as Jenkins begins his essay – with a citation from Susan Stewart’s book, On Longing:

Nostalgia is a sadness without an object, a sadness which creates a longing that of necessity is inauthentic because it does not take part in lived experience…Nostalgia, like any form of narrative, is always ideological: the past it seeks has never existed except as narrative, and hence, always absent, that past continually threatens to reproduce itself as a felt lack.((Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the miniature, the gigantic, the souvenir, the collection ((Durham and London: Duke University Press, [new ed.] 1993) p. 23))

Ironically, in the discussion during that class and elsewhere on the course, children’s television revealed itself to be not an object or at least not the kind of object that we usually associate with nostalgic longing. For while it was, in a sense, tangible – we had been able to retrieve at least some of the programmes the students remembered and nearly all were available as fragments on YouTube – in terms of the viewing experience, television remained obstinately ephemeral: we couldn’t recreate or reproduce the ‘first time’ or habitual past experience of watching children’s television. And in their written recollections it was often these aspects, rather than the programmes, plots or characters, that were the most ‘sticky’ in terms of desire and memory (often literally!) Students remembered vivid sensual and kinetic experiences – eating yoghurt and mashed bananas, running around the room, tiptoeing past a sleeping Dad on a Saturday morning, being shouted at by Gran, making pens into Ninja turtles – but they had often forgotten plot lines or the visual aesthetics of the programmes (interestingly, not the musical or vocal themes and catchphrases.) It was this quality of the memories that made me think of another observation made by Stewart:

Speech leaves no mark in space; like gesture, it exists in its immediate context and can reappear only in another’s voice, another’s body, even if that other is the same speaker transformed by history. But writing contaminates; writing leaves its trace, a trace beyond the life of the body. ((Ibid, p. 31))

It seemed to me that in our recollection, children’s television emerged as somewhere between speech and writing; and I began to see that there was something important about that intangibility. On the one hand, it was difficult to recall exactly what was felt about a programme or why. The embodied quality of that past has disappeared, yet there were elements of that experience available or trace-able within the programme text. Yet as the class and I discovered, there was never either a true, or a sufficient correspondence between what you could remember (what you thought you remembered) and what you heard and saw again (what we could locate in the programmes themselves.)

As Roger Silverstone suggested, it may be that television acts as a transitional object. ((Roger Silverstone, Television and Everyday Life, (London: Routledge, 1994).)) That is, it bridges the interior world of the self, which is, in infancy, without words but nonetheless strongly felt, to an exterior world, full of symbols which refer and conceptualise meaning and emotion and which allow us to communicate with one another. Indeed, the channels of exchange in children’s television are often concerned explicitly with the passage of sounds into words, and words into explanations. Equally, many shows conceptualise emotions but also allow space for the free range of those emotions, although tears are surprisingly far less common than you might remember.

iggle piggle

Iggle Piggle on the DVD cover for In the Night Garden

Children’s television confirms that meaningful communication is possible without words. This is evident, for example, in the nonsense language of the creatures in the BBC’s newest pre-school ‘hit’, In the Night Garden. Yet writing is only possible if there are words and as an overtly pedagogic genre, children’s television frequently encompasses both wordless nonsense and meaningful language. It produces nonsense by letting characters babble but somehow communicate (‘Iggle Piggle!’) or by emphasising expressive communication – colour, sound, emotion – in a way that makes these formal elements ‘meaningful in themselves’. Yet in other programmes, or in the same programme, pictures and feelings are often made sense of as they are put into words. I think this dynamic, which is not just one way (from sounds to words but words into sounds) creates a strong, affective framework for nostalgia that reveals it to be not a narrative, but more haphazard, more akin to a musical sensibility (a musical comprehension?) rather than a linguistic chain of events. It is not coincidental that sounds – stings, phrases, timbre and accent – were more frequently recalled than images and plot details. In my case, remembering The Pogles was about tone of voice: Mr. Pogle’s ‘yokel’ accent and my memory of my mother’s voice as she imitated him. This was related to my fragmented rememberings of a rural childhood, a tactile, sensual recollection, of damp woods and the smell of leaf mulch rather than the moral lessons that I now realise the programme wished to tell me. Of course, these are just parts of that childhood: what I’m suppressing is the boredom, rain, cold and loneliness. Jenkins’ comments in relation to his childhood and Lassie and on the distinction between the reality and fantasy of dog owning is pertinent here.


Playdays theme

If children’s television mediates the transition from one kind of self-hood (interior, expressive, wordless, and alone) to another (exterior, conceptualised, word bound, and accompanied) it does so at a cost. For, as Adam Philips suggests, we necessarily leave something behind. He argues that although growing up is a necessity, there is also something lost in this process – or maybe not lost, but irretrievable in any way that we can make sense of it, or make proper use of it. He suggests that at different times it may be about:

‘the irregular…the oddity, the unpredictability of what each person makes of what is given; the singularity borne of each person’s distinctive history.’ ((Philips, op cit, p.38))

And there is a tension between wanting to reclaim the peculiar – the singularity of our own history – with the need to share that experience with others. Although it was always good natured, the acclaim for some programmes and the dismissal of others, or complaints that I didn’t select certain programmes, was a fairly consistent factor on the website. What seemed to be happening was a negotiation of a nostalgic longing that was personal – for me it was the sound of my mother’s voice – juxtaposed with a desire to see that nostalgia legitimated by others who shared the same longing for a specific text.


The Animals of Farthing Wood Intro

It is in the interests of television producers that we feel that we might find our ‘singularities’ in texts that are shared by many others: nostalgia is a market as well as a personal experience. It is therefore not surprising that in the short time since the publication of Jeffries’ book many of the children’s programmes he mentions from the 1970s have been remade, or continue to evolve. New versions, repeats or evolutions of older programmes appeal to a generation of parents who remember the programmes and feel comfortable in letting their children watch these shows. Firstly, because they are remembered as safe; secondly it may be that they offer the promise that the unknowable interior of their children might become more comprehensible or accessible. Yet, as the students and I discussed our reasons for liking, loving and loathing particular programmes, it became evident that the ‘lost objects’ of our nostalgic exercise – childhood and television – were not and could not be the same things for everyone. Indeed, as Jenkins also concludes:

In the end, nostalgia always frustrates the desires that fuel its search for a more perfect past. We can’t trust our feelings, memories, or myths. Things are not the same. They never were. ((Jenkins, op cit. p.98))

Same as it never was.

Image Credits:
1. Family portrait from Pogle’s Wood

2. Iggle Piggle on the DVD cover for In the Night Garden

3. Front Page Pogle’s Wood Image

Please feel free to comment.

More than Meets the Ear: Dubbing and Accents on TV

Karen Lury / University of Glasgow


Dr. Who and Donna

In a recent episode from the new series of Dr. Who, the Doctor’s new companion, Donna Noble (played by Catherine Tate) assumed that since she could understand everything – from conversation to street signs – this meant that the Doctor had not taken her to ancient Rome as promised. (She thought it must be a film set – which it was, since this episode borrowed the set from the HBO/BBC television series, Rome). Regular viewers of Dr. Who will know that proximity to the TARDIS allows it to act as a universal translator for its travellers. Once Donna became aware of this TARDIS facility, a running gag then ensued so that first she, and then the Doctor deliberately used common Latin terms (‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’, ‘Status Quo’, ‘Caveat Emptor’) to find out what the Romans (actually it turns out they are in Pompeii) would hear instead. It emerges that by speaking Latin they sound Celtic, or as the Doctor pointed out, Welsh. As the most recent series of Dr. Who is shot in Cardiff and produced by BBC Wales this was yet another in-joke.

Few television markets supply their needs completely with locally-originated material. Factual programmes are frequently shot in other countries. In the absence of a TARDIS this requires broadcasters to somehow translate. The TARDIS does so perfectly and seamlessly, yet in the real world broadcasters must negotiate the compromises of dubbing or subtitles. Sometimes this means that things get lost in translation and occasionally, something is added. The choice between dubbing and subtitling often lies in convention and tradition: in the UK dubbing is used where it can apparently go unnoticed (in animation) and sub-titles are used in more specialist genres (documentary, art-house drama series and films) where audiences are believed not to be ‘put off’ by the difficulty of reading subtitles and want to be assured that the performance (of character or of self) is as ‘authentic’ as possible. In the British context there is therefore often an implied assumption – related to class and taste – about what kind of translation particular audiences will prefer.


Dr. Who and the TARDIS

But why is dubbing seen by UK audiences as easier to understand but problematic in relation to authenticity? There are two common forms of dubbing practice: one which provides a guide voice over and some dialogue translation (usually voiced by one performer), and another which uses voice-over artists to perform individual roles. In relation to the former kind of dubbing, it may be that the authenticity of the original programme is lost when there is something more akin to a transformation rather than a translation. This is not always a bad thing however: the much loved puppet animation series The Magic Roundabout was originally a French children’s programme but was famously given an eccentric, surrealist twist and a wider audience when it was screened on British television through its dubbed ‘translation’ (in effect its complete narrative transformation) by the actor Eric Thompson. Yet, more recently, anime fans have frequently lamented the way in which anime programmes translated for the Anglo-American market (sometimes involving the re-dubbing of music, voices and narration) distort the original programmes’ content and symbolism.

The more common practice is to dub voices only: recently, BBC news has taken to dubbing foreign language vox pops with voices that originate from within a particular British region or class, with the intention of giving more ‘life’ to these interviews that were traditionally dubbed in more neutral tones. (Alternatively, it may be trying to reflect the linguistic diversity of other countries aside from the UK by making regional accents – Cockney or Parisian – apparently equivalent to one another). What it demonstrates instead is how loaded with intended and unintended meaning accent remains – how accent continues to tell so clearly of our own prejudices and received assumptions about places and people. In certain instances, this vocal colouring just seems ‘funny’ (uncanny and hilarious) but it is also disruptive, even exploitative – while I know that the voice is being performed, I also find it hard to work against assumptions I have about the validity of what is being said because of how it is being said. Perhaps because I am familiar with this practice from Channel 4’s now defunct ‘youth’ magazine programme Eurotrash (which delighted in dubbing a variety of pornographic and grotesque performers and practices from continental Europe for British viewers with a range of exaggerated regional British accents) it therefore feels wrong – ludicrous and perverse – to do this in a supposedly serious news context.


Vicky Pollard on Little Britain

What the practice and business of dubbing reveals is how class and power may apparently be ‘unspoken’ in the culture but is still heard loud and clear in the voices and language of its people. The fact that humour and, in particular, the quick fire sketch show would seem almost impossible to dub or translate makes this very clear. These shows demonstrate how parochial some aspects of national culture remain. Ironically, Catherine Tate’s previous success as a comedienne is perhaps not that well known outside the UK for this very reason. Her most famous character – a lippy, white, working class, British school girl, Lauren Cooper – had the catchphrase ‘bovverred’ (as in, ‘do you think that I am bothered about what you think of me?’) In addition, her and her friends’ language was spattered with their frequent adoptions of different kinds of street-slang more often associated with the Afro-Caribbean community (‘Al-riiiiight!’) How would this kind of linguistic play be ‘translated’? Similarly, another teenage ‘girl’, Vicky Pollard, played in drag by Matt Lucas from the sketch show Little Britain (a title that of course reflects on my main point here on the parochial nature of British television) would prove equally difficult. Vicky’s endless monologues, all of which begin ‘Yeah, but, no, but, yeah but’ are funny because of the seesaw between sound-sense and nonsense. As characters, Vicky and Lauren exploit the unspoken but understood prejudices in the UK determined by the sound of class, power and race: they may do so with ironic intent, yet they inevitably consolidate assumptions about voice and personhood and enforce stereotypical associations relating to the way in which accent and linguistic markers ‘tell’ on the speaker. How easy is it to translate these kinds of characters in a manner that emphasises irony rather than bigotry?

While skilled dub artists pride themselves on adding to a performance, to synching as much as possible with the lip movements and the on-screen performers’ gestures and inference, they must inevitably transform rather than simply translate performances such as these. Done well, this may not be a problem in relation to fictional characters. Yet, if it remains the case that our perception of authenticity and even personhood remains grounded – engrained – in the voice, dubbing real people will always be problematic. For instance, I know that I would feel differently if I couldn’t hear the sound of Barack Obama’s voice; if I could understand directly what Osama Bin Laden was saying; if I did not recognise the echo and constraint of tradition, class and exclusivity in the voice of Queen Elizabeth II. And if you could hear me now – I’m quite posh and English ‘actually’ – wouldn’t that make a difference to what I’m saying?


Catherine Tate meets Tony Blair

Without a TARDIS what is to be done? Interestingly, Flow itself with its Spanish language thread on Latin American programming indicates how a more diverse range of language cultures are increasingly being maintained and expanded via the convergence of television, computers and online communities. And subtitles, which might seem to provide one kind of answer, are perhaps now more commonly accepted on television than they once were – the television news image, for instance, is more full of text than ever before. The recent success of Heroes – which cheerfully used English subtitles dancing about the screen for its Japanese characters – probably worked so well because of the graphic sensitivity inherent to the programme’s visual aesthetic; but it also revealed that if done imaginatively subtitles might be bought in to the mainstream. And, as I am writing this column I am sitting in a café with a television that is transmitting 24 hour news but with the sound turned down; yet I can watch the running subtitles (in addition to the embedded text on screen) to find out what is going on. Unfortunately, this inadvertently reveals that subtitling has its own quirks: according to the weather forecast today it is likely to be very ‘Chile’ in South West England. Hmmm…‘Little Britain’ – not so little after all?

Image Credits:

1. Donna and the Doctor

2. Dr. Who and the TARDIS

Please feel free to comment.

Confessions of a Television Academic in a Post-TV World


The recent translation of Pierre Bayard’s book How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read (Granta, 2008) caused a little stir in the review pages of various newspapers in the UK. The book’s basic premise was to suggest that we should stop being anxious about the books we haven’t read and accept that it was of similar value to ‘know something’ about the book – its ‘place in the culture’ – and that we should feel free to discuss books we hadn’t read, and instead make informed observations from the reviews and the opinions of others.

Like many Flow readers (I suspect) as an academic I have already been doing this for years, though since I teach film and (and mostly) television studies, this is more often in relation to films and television programmes I haven’t seen. In fact as time passes I know that I talk, though I don’t write, in what I hope appears to be an informed manner about entire television series I haven’t seen. (This would include The Sopranos, Curb your Enthusiasm and Desperate Housewives.) For instance, I could tell you about Desperate Housewives’ intriguing generic mix that borrows from Twin Peaks and the suburban sitcom, or about Teri Hatcher’s life story and her use of botox, but I couldn’t tell you what her character is called.

Perhaps I should come straight out with it – and I’m not proud about this – I don’t watch television very much at all. In fact, I don’t watch TV (much) anymore. It might seem that I’m in good company here; after all, it seems that some of the coolest people don’t either. On closer examination however, what they actually mean is that:

1) They don’t watch ‘mainstream’ television – network television in the U.S, or the ‘terrestrial channels’ in the UK – but niche cable or digital channels (HBO, BBC4).

2) They don’t watch the ‘TV’ anymore but use a screen to access television programmes when they want. In the UK they might set up personalised schedules via Sky+ (or in the US via Tivo) or they ‘gorge’ on box-sets of programmes (in the UK this is often American series such as Dexter or Heroes)

3) They watch audio-visual content but on a computer screen via sites like YouTube, or ‘best bits of’ sites, or news channel sites but they no longer watch television on the television screen.


Watch TV online promo

This is, for some, television viewing in a post-TV world. Unfortunately, I don’t do this either. At least I almost do, I saw four episodes of Dexter (after the recommendation by a ‘Flow’ columnist) but I couldn’t be bothered to watch the rest. Luckily my husband did, so I know who the ‘ice truck killer’ is, although I didn’t watch the episode where he’s first introduced.

So, what do I do? Read a book, fall asleep, do the washing up, you know, ‘stuff’. Why don’t I watch television anymore? – I used to, maybe four or five hours a night and in the mornings too. Of course, there are obvious social and domestic reasons why I would watch less than I used to – I work full time, I have three small kids, I’m getting older and I fall asleep earlier than I used to. And, as time passes, the novelty of watching television ‘as my job’ has dissipated and it now feels like work. Equally, perhaps, as I’ve aged, I’ve become more wary, more vulnerable and less robust – I resent it when television ‘sucks me in’ as E.R. can still do. I have a muted but increasingly stubborn resistance to being pulled in to a narrative trajectory I’ve seen before, that creates an emotional charge that seems like a waste, getting trapped into a sentimental tango with characters that will die off or leave, who will be replaced by others that might drag me back to the dance floor all over again. And, although I do hover over the television when its watched by other members of my household and I still occasionally hang around for the punch lines in Scrubs and The Simpsons and I am intrigued and pleased by the absurd aesthetics of In the Night Garden, I no longer feel like watching, I no longer regularly watch, I actively choose not to watch.

So what? I’ve been watching television since I could sit up on my own – haven’t I watched enough?

Tivo Screenshot

No, of course I haven’t. It is my job, and I recall my early irritation with more senior colleagues who used to laugh politely about how they ‘didn’t watch television’ (mostly film colleagues, but sometimes they taught television too.) I remember my amazement when sub-letting an apartment from a film studies lecturer in my department that the television didn’t have an aerial (which meant they couldn’t have watched broadcast television). I also remember cheekily pointing out that John Ellis, in the preface to Visible Fictions, ‘outs’ himself as a ‘cinephile’ and that by admitting that he watched only certain genres of television he would necessarily limit his view of television itself. And I felt wholly supportive of the way in which television studies became increasingly informed by feminist-led research that addressed how television was watched by people (women) other than male academics and thereby uncovered new genres and pleasures for analysis as a result. Now the current generation of television scholars are led by male and female ‘fans’ – academics who are frequent and heavily invested viewers – who have encyclopaedic knowledge of their favourite series, who watch and enjoy television across a variety of different genres, who are generally indifferent or gleeful about enjoying and critiquing a mix of highbrow and lowbrow programming.

I’m getting left behind; and I can’t afford to do this because I know that television is inherently about ‘keeping up’ – a pressure driven by the ‘this-is-next-ness’ of television’s narrative dynamic. And I passionately believe that understanding television is about understanding context, about mood, about the groove that television makes within and between private and public lives. I need to get back on the dance floor. That I haven’t, is partly because so many popular programmes now rely on public humiliation (I’ve always been a wimp about this) and partly because as there is more space – more channels, more scheduled time – the programmes have got longer and longer yet paradoxically shorter and shorter. I feel disoriented by the time warp of ‘Discovery’-ised documentaries with fifteen minutes of content and a sixty minutes running time and overwhelmed by the increasing dominance of the US series with twenty or more episodes (where each episode has the same narrative arc). The dominance of the format in contemporary television simply increases my feeling that, after all, I really have seen enough, or at least that I have seen it all before.

YouTube Apple Promo

Certainly, this is my problem, but my disenfranchisement from television is also related to a larger concern: television is not a book, or even a canon of ‘approved’ books. What you used to get from television was not intellectual capital (the kind Bayard describes), or a fan’s acquisition of high intensity insider knowledge. It has, or used to have, a public role that was not just about ‘knowing something’ but feeling. Television engaged the private me – us – with public life, with a ‘structure of feeling’, to use Raymond Williams’ well-worn phrase. Not just with what was happening in the news, but by gauging the emotional temperature of the mass audience who, whether they liked it or not, watched many of the same programmes at the same time and in which we sometimes recognised ourselves and, more often, recognised other people. Television used to mediate – however imperfectly – between private and public selves. As production and reception are privatised and tailored increasingly to individuals, that sense of the audience as a ‘public’, rather than a heavily invested community of fans or as a ‘demographic’, has eroded. The common culture of ‘public concern’ and ‘public sentiment’ articulated by ‘old TV’ tried to secure ‘public opinion’ and in reality this was often met by a healthy mixture of participation, resistance and scorn; nonetheless it meant that ‘we’ had something in common. In a post-TV world I no longer need to watch television that is ‘not for me’ and is no longer about ‘we’: in fact I might just as well read a book.

Image Credits:

1. As seen on TV?
2. Watch TV online promo
3. Tivo Screenshot
4. YouTube Apple Promo

Please feel free to comment.

Missing in Time: Madeleine McCann and the Media

One of the “Missing Madeleine” Graphics

For the last six months there has been only one news story in the UK. On May 3rd 2007 at approximately 10pm, Madeleine McCann, a three-year old British girl, was found to be missing from her parents’ holiday apartment in the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luz. Most media summaries and reports of Madeleine’s disappearance agree that this is the only ‘fact’ to be known about the case. I too want to begin here, starting with the awkwardness of that phrase ‘was found to be missing’. Why not say, she ‘went missing?’ or, that (as I write) Madeleine is ‘still’ missing and is ‘missed’ (one tribute to Madeleine on YouTube suggests ungrammatically ‘She is missing by everyone’). The answer is, of course, that Madeleine was not there when her mother, Kate McCann went to check on her and her younger twin siblings. She had, apparently, been there thirty minutes before when a close friend of the family went to check the apartment. That pucker of time, the period in which she went missing or before ‘she was missed’ remains unknown. What is well known is that Madeleine’s absence has gone on to create a worm-hole of media speculation that has sucked a range of high profile figures (the Pope, J.K. Rowling, Richard Branson, Gordon Brown and David Beckham amongst many more) into a stream of frenzied speculation and emotive judgment that has gone on and on and on, on tabloid front pages, in broadsheet columns, sick jokes, blogs, in YouTube videos and on the official ‘find Madeleine’ website which offers a blog from Madeleine’s father Gerry, numbers of phone lines where sightings of Madeleine can be reported, a news archive and a link to ‘Madeleine’s fund: leaving no stone unturned’ to which you can contribute via PayPal.


Many of the stories surrounding Madeleine McCann are marked by a peculiar obsession with time and time keeping. As I write, the website informs me that Madeleine has been missing for 194 days. Last weekend it was the ‘landmark’ of six months since the day of her disappearance. In a recent Channel 4 documentary on the McCann case, shown in the Dispatches strand, the final frames of the film and voice-over present an eerie challenge, stating that, ‘It is now 168 days almost to the minute since Kate McCann reported that her daughter Madeleine was missing.’ Despite the fact that the documentary was not a live report, its scheduling, on Thursday 18th October at 9.00pm (and therefore concluding at approximately 10pm) allows the producer to assume a ‘live’ connection between ‘now’ and ‘then’, changing the nature of the story itself which was (a relatively cool and measured) speculation on ‘what might have happened’ so that it is no longer in the past tense but now in the present (‘almost to the minute’).

Press Conference

Equally, in news archives and in her Wikipedia entry we are offered the ‘timeline’ of the Madeleine story. Periodically, ‘new’ photographs are released of Madeleine; they are, of course, only old photographs. On Sunday 11th November, the British tabloid the Daily Star had a front-page splash, ‘Is this Maddie?’ with the additional heading that ‘Bosnia sighting gives new hope’ implying that the photograph which accompanied the headline was a new picture. In fact, it was a fairly crude photo-shop image (‘created by experts’) illustrating how the ‘missing four year old may now look’. Here, as elsewhere, a future is being forced, the story ‘must go on’ although there is no real authenticity about the picture, since it cannot be of Madeleine ‘now’, only of how she ‘might’ be. Equally, in describing the picture, the Star promulgates a common act of faith in terms of Madeleine’s story. Madeleine was three years old on May 3rd and her birthday is May 12th: thus, if Madeleine is still alive, she is now four, if not, she will always be three. Attributing the simple ‘fact’ of Madeleine’s age thus elicits a statement of belief on the part of the storyteller.Why this obsession with marking time, with keeping time and with time passing? There are two reasons (at least). Firstly, the parents have made it clear that they believe Madeleine may still be found, so they keep her presence ‘alive’, her story current (now and not ‘then’) and they continue to feed interest in and speculation regarding Madeleine through their attendance at religious services, interviews and on their website. Similarly, traditional news media (newspapers and television news) talk media (blogs, forums, radio discussions, magazine programmes) are now committed to, and increasingly determined by the need for the ‘now’ and the ‘and next’ of any story, participating in the snow-balling of information, where even looking back is always an excuse to look forward.


Secondly, the stories of Madeleine have carried on and on because they centre on a little girl, a child. Fascination with the story is not simply – as so many commentators have suggested – because she (and her mother) are blonde and photogenic, that the case is so extraordinary, or that it allows, as India Knight writing in The Times suggested (employing Philip Roth’s phrase regarding the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal) for an ‘ecstasy of sanctimony’ for both the press and the ‘public’. While this may be true, the fetishization of time in relation to Madeleine has to do with the way in which ‘childhood’ as a time, a place, a memory and as a fabricated ideal has been established as a myth that belongs, or should belong to ‘everyone’. Madeleine as a child, rather than as herself, an individual, acts as a timely representation, a figure, that can be passed through, a route to specific emotions (nostalgia, sentimentality, fear), judgment (about parenting, police procedures, how much doctors are paid) which we all feel free to comment on – not because we are experts in forensics, in law or child-care, but because we are parents, or at least, we were all children once. This claim may seem ridiculous, but in the most recent keynote speeches given by both leaders of the UK’s political parties – Labour and Conservative – there was an insistence on the uniqueness of childhood as a necessarily privileged time that was to be protected and supported, identifying it as an origin of all that might be good and bad in society.

Madeleine Graphic

Curiously, despite the fact that we have made childhood and children ‘other’ to the adult, it has become a territory that we can all lay claim to, and which has become the most ‘important’ period in our lives. Madeleine herself (that ‘Princess’, that ‘lovely little girl’) does not exist as a subject; her history is an incomplete, incoherent chronology of snapshots and clichés. When we look into the poster showing a close up of Madeleine’s eyes (the right eye famously marked by what appears to be a tear from her iris) we do as the poster asks (Look into my eyes!) but we no longer see her at all. Madeleine is missing.

Image Credits:

1. Missing Madeline graphic
2. Press Conference
3. Madeleine
4. Madeleine Graphic

Please feel free to comment.