What is ‘televisuality’? The word has been bandied around rather loosely by media academics for a decade or so. Broadly speaking we can say that the word refers to the attempts that have been made to examine the fundamental nature of television as a form of communication. But there is little consensus between those concerned as to exactly why they are trying to do this. Certainly there has been a great lack of focus on what value the products of our most popular form of mass media have. One has to say that by and large television is still thought of as being ‘disposable’. If you venture into the average branch of Waterstones or Smiths or any other major book store, the chances are you will find reasonably well-stocked sections on Film and Popular Music. Although some of this stuff might be said to fall into the ‘facts and trivia’ and ‘picture book’ categories, there’s every possibility that you will find, say, a scholarly and well-researched volume on the films of Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles or the songs of Bob Dylan. Film Studies is a well-established academic subject with its own theorists and its canon of ‘great works’. And there’s little doubt that albums like Sgt. Pepper or Blonde On Blonde or Dark Side Of The Moon are generally thought of as being important works of art. Yet where are the books on ‘television studies’? Which television series could we call ‘the classics’? After nearly six decades of TV, why is it that the humble ‘goggle box’ (or, more likely these days, the 40-inch plasma screen) still somehow mesmerises us so that we cannot get any distance from it? Why hasn’t a way of assessing the aesthetic qualities of TV become generally recognised? OK, television is studied as part of Media Studies. And some experimental work has been carried out over the past couple of decades. For instance, you might like to have a look at the online New University’s interesting course on what it calls ‘televisuality’ HERE. The problem, however, with the Media Studies approach is that it makes little attempt to discriminate between TV programmes in terms of aesthetic quality. Students of Media Studies can quite happily spend huge chunks of their courses studying the mind-numbing trivia of ‘Reality TV’ shows, the sickeningly superficial slickness of Celebrity Dance Competitions or the absurdly hollow posturing of hopeless talentless would be Popidols. A dissertation on the National Lottery Draw show, anyone? A thesis on the Most Embarrassing TV Blooper Moments Genre, perhaps?
And yet, and yet…. Despite the seas of crap in the overflowing mutichannel oceans, we do live in a kind of Golden Age of television. The fact that shows like The Sopranos, Deadwood, Lost, Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, Torchwood or Shameless (to lick just a few off the cream of the crop) can actually get made and reach huge audiences is immensely heartening. Over the last two decades the whole form and sensibility of series television has moved forward immensely in terms of sheer aesthetic quality. A great part of the reason for this lies in the fact that the multichannel environment leaves a space for shows to be made that can target a more educated, book-reading, cinema-literate audience. No longer does every major TV series need to focus on lowest common denominators, like in the old days of Network TV dominance. Not only does this give the freedom for characters to swear or for the series to focus on more adult themes, it also allows the programme makers to treat the audience with respect, to assume their intelligence and understanding of the actual semiotic and dramatic codes of the television medium itself, to glory in them and to celebrate them. Some of the most impressive products of modern series TV are in fact recreations from rather limited source material. Witness the recreation of the Star Trek series by writers and producers who could see the great ‘televisual’ qualities implicit in the original 60s series, yet who wanted to link those qualities to a far more sophisticated and modern sensibility. In recent years Russell T. Davies’ glorious recreation of Dr. Who has achieved pretty much the same effect. Also the way in which Joss Whedon took the basic premise of a corny movie and turned it into the extended examination of contemporary mores that was Buffy The Vampire Slayer and ex- Trek writer Ronald D. Moore reinvented the equally corny 70s scifi show Battlestar Galactica and turned it into a barometer of America’s place in the post 9/11 political world… While mainstream Hollywood still churns out mainly ‘safe’ generic ‘product’, often based around mindlessly expensive SFX, the TV series has a form has largely outstripped it visually, dramatically and intellectually. It is the form which most expresses the current zeitgeist, as film did from the 20s to the 50s and popular music did in the 60s and 70s.
In Exploring Televisuality I’m attempting to come to grips with this phenomenon. I will be writing about the major TV series I’ve watched and been inspired by. And I will be attempting to identify the specifically televisual elements which these series employ. The series will develop the themes I’ve been exploring in my books Be Seeing You: Decoding The Prisoner (details HERE) and Star Trek: Parallel Narratives (details HERE). In my view it’s time to move beyond the cold, distanced logic of postmodern aesthetics and put a new emphasis on quality. We live in the twenty first century, the age of the internet – of the blog and Facebook and MySpace and YouTube and all these mediums by which individuals can express themselves without being mediated by ‘experts’. The postmodern perpective belongs to the latter half of the twentieth century. It is time to move beyond its stultifying emphasis on cultural relativity (and thus uniformity) which had become a mere excuse for and rationalisation of the apparent triumph of consumerist capitalist supposedly symbolised by the collapse of the Berlin Wall. We live in a new cultural world now, one in which anyone can have a voice. Now that we can all make movies on cheap mobile phones, it won’t be long before televisuality moves into entirely new realms… but for the moment, let’s revel in the triumphs of contemporary series television, the most vital and relevant art form of our day….
As Tony Soprano says “Whadda you gonna do?”
Exploring Televisuality 1: THE TUDORS (SEASON ONE)
The story of Henry VIII and his wives is pretty well known to every schoolkid in Britain. In fact it’s become a common complaint that school history these days seems to consist mainly of a diet of ‘Henry and Hitler’. Of course, there are some fairly sound historical reasons for the emphasis on our most celebrated serial bridegroom. During his reign England dropped its allegiance to the Catholic Church, setting in train a series of events that would lead to the Civil War, the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, the pre-eminence of Britain in the industrial revolution and… well, all that stuff. However, the British audience could be forgiven for feeling rather jaded about the prospect of yet another TV version of the life of Henry. It’s been done before many times, and in recent years we’ve also had the story dramatically unfolded to us by stylish star historians like Simon Schama and David Starkey, shot against backdrops of Hampton Court and the like as they pace up and down, wringing their hands and gesturing dramatically as they try to pump new life into a story everyone already knows (and quite possibly has a GCSE in). But what a story it is. It’s got oodles of sex, murder, religion and loads of delicious intrigue, compared to which the lives of Charles, Diana, Camilla, Fergie and Andy and that modern bunch seem like an afternoon tea party.
We all know about Henry, too, because we’ve seen him in a lot of movies and TV shows. We all know he’s a fat old git who slobbers over chicken legs as he tosses them over his shoulder (Thank you, Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII). We also know he’s a disgusting old pervert who shags his way around the kingdom, frequently divorces or chops the heads off his wives when he’s had enough of them and is riddled with so many STDs that his brain and body are destined to rot away in front of our eyes. But as it turns out The Tudors concentrates on Henry’s life when he was a strapping young chap. And there’s not a greasy chicken leg in sight. Though it has a largely British cast, it’s actually an international co-production aimed squarely at the more ‘specialist’ cable market in America. As such it’s a distinctly post-Sopranos enterprise, another story of the intrigues and corruption surrounding a family of power-hungry and violent go-getters led by a rather charming and personable sociopath. You don’t mess with Henry, just like you don’t mess with Tony. (Henry, however, could arguably use a loan of Tony’s shrink in order to get him to feel more OK with himself for causing all that murder and mayhem).
American TV series are pretty much all based around the notion of ‘family’. The main characters may comprise an actual family, as in classic shows like Peyton Place, The Waltons, Bonanza or The Simpsons. (Who can forget the elder George Bush’s publicly stated wish that ‘The American family be more like The Waltons than The Simpsons’?). Even shows like Star Trek (in its many incarnations), Cheers and NYPD Blue position their ensemble casts as surrogate families. TV is, after all, a ‘family medium’, largely watched in family homes, even if these days the kids are more actually likely to be upstairs watching the Extreme Sports Channel, playing Extreme Death Murder games or downloading porn. The ‘Waltons’ are probably still out there somewhere, but the ‘Simpsons’ are without doubt taking over… In the multi channel ‘televisual’ environment, the kinds of shows that tend to highlight dysfunctional families have, in the post-Sopranos era, worked extremely hard at stretching the limits of ‘taste’ that once kept all TV shows within the boundaries of what used to be called ‘family viewing’. Hob’s The Sopranos ingeniously and often brilliantly combines the Gangster genre with that of family Soap Opera, and in doing so constituted itself as both a commentary on Modern America and on contemporary mores.
The existence of cable networks in the US has meant that the over-riding ‘family viewing’ dictats of the major networks have been broken, so that censorship of explicitly sexual or violent scenes has been waived in the case of specifically adult post-Sopranos shows. Such a loosening of control has contributed greatly to putting such shows at the absolute cutting edge of popular media. It is a situation analogous to the break up of the monopoly of studio system in cinema in the 1950s and 60s and the concurrent rise of independent film makers, allowing individual visions (such as those of David Chase, creator of The Sopranos) to be realised without them being watered down by generic and conventional compromise. A particularly impressive case in point was HBO’s magnificent Deadwood, a radical deconstruction and re-imagining of the Western genre in all its filthy, foul-mouthed, nakedly racist, rampantly-capitalist American ‘glory’. Like The Sopranos, Deadwood had a profoundly cinematic look and feel, combined with a freedom of expression generally denied to mainstream American film.
The Tudors is never as consistently foul-mouthed as Deadwood (and does not perhaps have the latter series’ wonderfully picaresque, sometimes even quasi-Dickensian use of language) but in many ways it applies the same principle to the ‘History’ genre as Deadwood does to the Western. Firstly it acknowledges in a similar way that its historical and cultural setting is one in which raw violence and blatant sexuality play a crucial part, and where a new openness and realism about these matters can be used to make a genre beset by clichés seem fresh and relevant. British TV critics (so many of whom are still sadly stuck in the Clive James ‘snigger, snigger; look how clever I am, treat everything like trivia’ mode which is increasingly irrelevant in the age of televisuality) have been rather sniffy about The Tudors, seeing its explicit ‘sexiness’ as a purely commercial device, complaining that Jonathan Rhys Meyers is just ‘too good looking’ to play Henry. This is a bit rich, really, for a story which centres so much about sex. Just the kind of thing, our silly critics might think, that the Americans might do with Our Henry. Perhaps we think that all kings should look like Prince Charles. One critic I was reading recently attacked the series for not giving Henry red hair. Do they want him to look like Prince Harry? (Maybe to prove where the Prince got those genes from!) If you look up the series’ entry in Wikipedia they’ll give you the lowdown on its other historical inaccuracies. It has quite a few, of course. But that hardly matters really. What does matter is that The Tudors drags the genre of the TV historical drama kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. The best historical fiction of any kind will always allow us to reflect on the contemporary resonances of the story. And the story of the Tudors has plenty of that – battling religious fanatics, fundamentalism, official corruption, shifting alliances and devious conniving politicians.
The intense, brooding energy that Jonathan Rhys Meyers brings to his presentation of Henry as a kind of hyperactive man-child is a revelation. With his premier league footballer’s haircut and his range of quite stunning, tight fitting designer padded breeches and quilted jackets he’s young, he’s sexy and he loves to roar out for a spot of hunting with his mates. He doesn’t mind a spot of arm-wrestling before dinner, is a pretty dab hand at archery and even picks out a mean tune on the lute. In short he’s very Rock and Roll, and like any big rock star he’s surrounded by sycophants and groupies. He only has to cast his eye on some gorgeous young courtier and she’ll be instantly ready to cast off her expensive gown and service the royal member, crying …Majesty!… as he grimaces through another ten minutes of lust. This is a guy with absolute power who can have your head separated from your body as soon as look at you, who wants to declare war on various countries (France this week, Spain the next) largely because he thinks it would make him look good in the history books. You wouldn’t want to get in his way when he gets into a rage. Despite all this, however, he’s a kind of innocent. – a petulant, spoiled brat, maybe but still an innocent. He seems to care little for the minutiae of government, leaving the way open for his advisors to manipulate him at their will, while simultaneously scheming most deviously against each other. For most of Season One he lets his main Spin Doctor Cardinal Wolsey (played with smooth unctuousness by Sam Neill) do the real business of running the country. Wolsey himself is hardly Father Ted. He’s a big time political operator with ambitions to be Pope who keeps a mistress, expropriates loads of government funds and, if minded to do so, can be seen grabbing other aged cardinals by the throat and ramming them up against a wall. Yet compared to the others scheming around Henry he’s really quite loveable. When he finally falls from power (Sorry if I’m giving away the plot but this is history, you know – they haven’t changed it that much!) we genuinely feel for him. Just before the end, before he slits his own throat, we see him apologising to God for being, frankly, really quite crap at being holy. Of course, he knows perfectly well that God won’t forgive him. The God that he, and everybody else in The Tudors believes in, is hardly the ‘forgiving’ type.
Scheming against Wolsey are the equally devious Duke of Norfolk and his brother Thomas Boleyn. Boleyn has the advantage of having two exceptionally ‘fit babes’ as daughters and he’s determined to use them to his own advantage, so he can gain as much power and wealth as possible. He’s had both of them brought up in the French court, which for him has the great advantage that this is where they’ll learn those ‘arts of l’amour’ which the English have always been a bit hopeless at. When visiting the French court in an early episode of the show old Thomas is mighty pleased when Henry’s roving eye settles on the older sister Mary and the old man encourages her to nip up to the king’s chamber where she immediately drops to her knees and demonstrates to the ever-horny English monarch her prowess in a particularly French technique she’s learned in her extensive period of education. Henry grunts and grimaces through this, but soon gets bored with her as she’s just too easy… After all, if you’re a king, you need a bit more of a challenge.
The challenge arrives in the lithe form of little sister Anne, who abandons her lover, the poet Thomas Wyatt, for a studied and meticulously planned pursuit of Henry. Anne is a sultry temptress par excellence and a Grand Mistress of the (presumably French) art of prick teasing. She drives Henry mad with lust, but only very gradually, as Henry gets more and more inflamed with her, does she let him have any access to her body. In reality, she’s a loyal daughter who has her family’s best interests at heart and as the king becomes more and more obsessed with her, she ensures that Daddy and Uncle get promoted to senior advisor’s posts, eventually becoming so powerful that they manage to fit up Wolsey and do away with him altogether. In one of the ‘climactic’ (though that is probably the wrong word!) scenes of Season One, Henry and Anne ride into a wood together whereupon they finally tear each others’ clothes of in a fit of lust and do the deed. But at the last moment Anne insists Henry withdraws, delaying the royal ejaculation yet again and he is left gnashing his teeth. Only when she is Queen will he finally be able to really satiate himself. In order to reach this long-delayed climax he’s quite prepared to ditch his long-suffering broody, sultry Spanish wife Catherine, abandon a thousand years of papal control over his country and quite possibly plunge the whole of Europe into bloody warfare.
The Tudors depicts a world in which politics and religion are completely entwined, just as they are today in huge swathes of the world. It clearly demonstrates the consequences of religious fanaticism in all its forms. There are the Protestants, of course, neo-fundamentalists of their day, now gaining power and placing themselves everywhere, like the proverbial ‘reds under the bed’. There’s the scarily calm and calculating Thomas Cromwell, who has risen under Wolsey’s tenure to a senior position in the religious/civil administration. Really Cromwell is a Protestant infiltrator. At the opportune moment he begins to slip Henry books about how kings should only have to answer to God, not Popes. Given that the Pope and his Cardinals are refusing to swallow his rather ludicrous bullshit about his marriage to Catherine not being valid and grant him a divorce so he can finally complete that shag with the wily Anne Boleyn, Henry is well up for such ideas. The reformation, disillusion of the monasteries and all that stuff beckons for Season Two. The Protestants are a pretty scary bunch, decidedly unsexy and more concerned with talking directly to God while kneeling on plain wooden benches. They’re so convinced that the last thousand years of Catholicism have been a big screwup that they’re quite happy to get burned alive to prove the point. But the scariest of all the characters in The Tudors is Sir Thomas More (latterly, I believe, Saint Thomas More… you know, like Sir Paul McCartney) .
If you remember that movie A Man For All Seasons, Thomas More was a Good Guy. He was Henry’s best buddy. (Henry was, as usual, a fat carrot-top in that movie). All More had to do was recant a few things he’d said and Henry would desist from chopping his head off. In the end Thomas does the saintly thing and refuses to drop his principles. Better dead than protestant. But seeing More’s head roll is something we’ll have to wait till Season Two for. Personally, I’m quite looking forward to that… As Season One ends he’s just been appointed Henry’s new Chancellor in succession to the deposed Wolsey. Highly principled, soft-spoken, without any of the worldly corruption of Wolsey, Thomas isn’t interested in making a single groat out of his new job. What he is really interested in is burning Protestants. For their own sake, of course. More is compassionate, civilised… a reasonable man. As he stands in front of one heretic he’s about to have burned he gives him until the last moments to recant. Of course he knows full well that the heretic, being one of those damned Protestants, will prefer being burnt to a crisp. As the fire is lit the saintly Thomas stands there, still quite calmly clutching his Bible. At one moment it’s all a bit much for him and he has to turn away. But then he makes himself look back as the heretic’s last screams are drowned out by the flames. It’s a seriously chilling moment, demonstrating in graphic terms exactly where religious fanaticism leads us to. At the end of the day, Thomas More makes Tony Soprano seem like a pussy. You wouldn’t catch Sir Thomas visiting a therapist to cure his panic attacks. Just like Bush and Blair after they launched their campaign of a different kind of burning of thousands and thousands of families in Iraq in 2003, his conscience, naturally, is clear. Some things have to be done. Some sins have to be purged, whatever the consequences.
The Tudors also depicts a world in which people can regularly drop dead at any moment, in which plagues are rife and the art of medicine laughably hopeless. When one of the leading characters, Sir William (who earlier has had a steamy gay affair with long-haired court musician Thomas Tallis) catches one of these plagues, the physician’s only method of ‘treatment’ is to drive a mallet into his back. To, er… let the blood out, naturally… In the mindset the characters inhabit, though, it’s God who’s brought about the plagues, to punish the sinners. You may not know what sin you’ve committed but if you catch a plague then God must be angry with you. If you’re really lucky He might just let you pull through, as Anne Boleyn somehow does. But you probably won’t of course. You could try a little bit of medical treatment but not too much, of course, or you might be changing God’s will. And if God wants to rub you out… well, you don’t really have much choice. God is very much like an all-powerful mob boss. If he makes you an offer, you just can’t refuse it…
Of course, if you know only a little bit about history, none of this is any great surprise. But what is so great about The Tudors is the way it makes all this barbarity so sexy (that’s ‘sexy’ in the modern vernacular ad-lingo sense). It pulls no punches. In an age when most rock and roll music is safe, tame and predictable a great Televisual series like this IS the rock and roll of NOW. The Tudors has also been criticised by the sniffy critics for its use of language – too modern, they say; not enough ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ – this is not history… Actually, as mentioned earlier, unlike the amazingly profane Deadwood, The Tudors keeps the vulgar language down to a minimum. But when it uses swearing it does it to great effect, with impeccable timing. My favourite moment in the entire First Season occurs when Cardinal Wolsey, appearing at one of the Papal Courts and charged with the hopeless task of trying to prove that Henry’s marriage to Catherine had never been lawful ‘in the eyes of God’, has had his pleas roundly rejected. He already knows that this is almost certainly going to bring about his own downfall. As he strides out of the courtroom he leans over one of the other cardinals who is sitting in judgement over him.
“You cunt!” he whispers in his ear.
Bless me father! Now that’s rock and roll!
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