Class and Television Drama in Contemporary Britain
Edited by David Forrest & Beth Johnson
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017
Hardcover. 292 p. ISBN 978-1137555052. £67
Reviewed by Neil Archer
British politics, as the editors of this book note in their introduction, has always been difficult to separate from questions of class. If former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s project of the late 1990s was in theory to ‘heal the wounds’ of Thatcherism and its ‘divisive class politics’, recent contexts – the Conservative-led government’s austerity policies, the media rhetoric of ‘broken Britain’, and of course Brexit – has underlined the point that the classless society envisioned by New Labour was ephemeral. Taking this as its historical framework and starting point, David Forrest and Beth Johnson’s far-ranging and highly readable collection locates British television – perennially a far more immediate and acute envisioning of the nation than its cinema – as the site where key questions of class are articulated and debated.
Perhaps inevitably, in light of this recent history, representations of the working class are a significant focus for many of the essays. Refreshingly, the authors here adopt a variety of critical approaches that, while alive to the importance in itself of class visibility in contemporary television, are also alert to the problematic discourses it sometimes generates. Johnson and Forrest engage, for example, with the distinctive ways working class identities are explored through modes of ‘authorship’: here, respectively, the actor Vicky McLure from This is England (2010-), and the prolific screenwriter Jimmy McGovern, whose The Street (2006-2009) is Forrest’s main focus here. As Forrest notes, McGovern’s narratives, informed by his often provocative statements in the surrounding media, work to establish an idea of ‘authentic’ classed space; yet one that is in many respects a form of nostalgic, sometimes simplistic ‘space-myth’ of the working-class North. Like Johnson, James Leggott, writing about the legendary Tyneside actor Jimmy Nail, still synonymous with his role as Oz in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1983-2004), identifies the importance of star actors and performance to this authorship of class on television. Leggott’s enthralling essay nevertheless shows the way Nail’s career has involved a negotiation between his highly crafted screen persona, and the often reductive efforts of the national media to pin him down as a ‘typical’ Geordie male.
These three chapters all invite us to think about the possibilities of representation, in terms of actors, writers and producers defining themselves and their class through their work. Unsurprisingly, as Leggott’s chapter highlights, the political question of representing the working class, especially within the predominantly middle-class contexts of TV production and reception, runs through many essays in the book. Phil Wickham, writing about class in the British sitcom, is one of many contributors to draw on Owen Jones’ 2012 book Chavs, which examined the vilification of working-class figures in the wider British media. Wickham’s engaging survey argues that series such as Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads (1973-1974), The Royle Family (1998-2012) and Phoenix Nights (2001-02) have both acknowledged and challenged such stereotyping. Working-class identity becomes in these texts a source of comic drama – whether, in the case of The Likely Lads, one should remain loyal to class contexts or pursue a perhaps illusory upward mobility – or a shared experience, critically directed (in Phoenix Nights) towards middle-class condescension. Or in the case of the hugely successful Mrs. Brown’s Boys (2011-), working-class address becomes a threshold beyond which the notional middle-class viewer cannot really pass. Helen Piper’s insightful chapter on Happy Valley (2014-), meanwhile, the BAFTA-winning series exploring the criminal side of its picturesque West Yorkshire setting, sees the show as challenging the removal of working-class identity from dominant cultural agenda. Providing sociological evidence that a sense of working-class identity remains strong amongst Britons, Piper in turn sees Happy Valley’s compassionate portrayal of complex and troubled lives, and the show’s efforts to involve us emotionally and morally, as an important intervention in the politics and aesthetics of screening class.
While the politics of working-class representation are a main focus, various chapters also offer important reflections both on the depictions of the middle class, and the significance of this audience for studying contemporary drama. Paul Elliott’s analysis of crime shows such as Prime Suspect (1991-2006) and Whitechapel (2009-2013), which he views alongside the recent popularity of imported ‘Nordic noir’ like Forbrydelsen / The Killing (2007-2012), shows the ways in which these series foreground more socially mobile protagonists, often distinguished from their working-class colleagues or counterparts through their cultural tastes. ‘Class antagonism’ becomes a narrative motor in these programmes, as well as a form of ‘class suspicion’ towards a demonised and feared underclass. Elliot consequently views these detective series within a more general cultural shift towards the middle class, but also in terms of the ‘black tourism’ undertaken by socially mobile audiences, viewing working-class characters from a distance.
Exactly how and why these social and cultural shifts have played out in the production and programming of British television is the subject of James Dalby’s fascinating chapter. Dalby asks what happened to the more politically committed and working-class dramas of the 1980s, characterised by series such as Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff (1980-1982); itself in the tradition of the great ‘Wednesday Play’ strand, which produced works like Up the Junction (1965) and Cathy Come Home (1966). More particularly, Dalby asks what role and responsibility television companies and corporations such as the BBC had in fostering the shift, from the 1990s onwards, to a more notionally ‘quality’ programming of period and costume drama. As Dalby shows, cost-cutting at the BBC, and the new interest in audience focus-groups, prompted the move from an ‘author-led’ environment in television drama to a ‘consumer-led’ one, with ‘ratings and audience share [the] main priorities’. In line with the ‘aspirational’ lifestyle interests of audiences, and an associated preference for images of English ‘heritage’, this new environment encouraged the BBC to prioritise Victorian novel adaptations like Middlemarch (1994), Pride and Prejudice (1995) and Persuasion (1995). At the same time, Dalby astutely notes, this consumer-led aspirational television, in the contexts of Channel 4, also brought us dramas like Russell T. Davies’ Queer as Folk (1999): a pioneering drama of the time for its representation of Manchester’s gay scene. Attracting four million viewers, Dalby praises the short-lived show as a successful ‘combination of writer-centred approach and consumer demand’.
If there is one small reservation about Social Class and Television Drama, it is that the kind of institutional and industrial analysis undertaken by Dalby is for the most part isolated in the volume. I found myself at points wanting to know more about where and how the series under discussion emerged, and why. Indeed, as much as the shows looked at here offer rich and important scope for interpretation and analysis, they are all produced in the meeting of various cultural, economic and political forces that are themselves an important subject for discussion. These are more realistically subjects for further studies, though. It is to the credit of this rewarding book that it should encourage the reader to find out more about the sometimes familiar, but often lesser-known television shows to which its various writers give their attention. This is an indispensable book for anyone wanting to know more about recent British television drama, and why it remains an important subject of study.
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