A Book Review by Tony Williams.
This recent monograph (Bloomsbury/BFI, 2019) aims to debate the importance of everyday TV memories involving academics, audiences, and fans, in terms of recent theoretical developments in the field of British television studies. It is an academic study in the full-sense of the term, one resembling Robin Wood’s comments on several of my papers as a graduate student in Warwick University. He sometimes used the comment, “very academic” in a low-key manner, very much resembling William Wellman’s usage of a line from a film he felt ashamed of, “God Bless you, Buffalo Bill” (1). Wellman’s unwary recipient often felt perplexed by the ambiguity, not knowing whether it was positive or negative. Remembering British Television, in turn, is such a study fully deserving the term “academic.” Scrupulously researched by two experts in this area, it is well-documented and, as such, a credit to the institutional mode representation common to those “strained seriousness” (2) branches of academia that have now achieved respectability for a discipline once viewed with suspicion. However, despite the diligence and seriousness exhibited by the two authors, the study exhibits elements of the disappointment felt by those who championed the inclusion of Media Studies into the Academy I once heard articulated by two well-known film scholars I sat with at a distant Society for Cinema Studies Conference in Washington D.C. Though neither articulated the following sentence, it was clearly on their minds: “What have we done?”
Earlier, in his essay, “What Life Means to Me,” Jack London (1876-1916) used terms anticipating George A. Romero’s future zombies when referring to members of the privileged classes he encountered as “the unburied dead – clean and noble, like well-preserved mummies, but not alive. In this connection, I may especially mention the professors I met, the men who live up to that decadent university ideal, “the passionless pursuit of passionless intelligence” (3). Like his successors James Jones and Michael Moorcock, London was self-educated and disseminated creative and vital patterns of thought that transcended the type of restrictive formulaic thought Robin Wood would later refer to as “the procrustean bed of film theory.” Naturally, there are exceptions, as this journal and some others show, but good scholarship has the potential of being alive and creative, something not encouraged by the Academy, as those who transgress its ivory tower and medieval fiefdom “rules of the game” often discover. Such heretical remarks may eliminate me from being an objective reviewer, but I write in the warning manner of “reader beware” – unless they subscribe to the dehumanizing methodology exhibited by this establishment text, in which case they will welcome its appearance.
With introduction, conclusion, references, and index, this 204-page monograph contains seven chapters. They are, in order – Remembering Television’s Past; Remembering Television Production: Producer-ly Memory; Television’s Treasures and Archival Values; The End of `Experience TV’ at the National Media Museum; Caring for Past Television: The Case of Children’s Television; Nostalgia and Paratexual Memory: Cold Feet (ITV, 1997-2016); Reminiscence Clip Shows and `Vintage’ Television Websites; and Regenerative Television Memory: Crafting Doctor Who. Such chapters display themselves soberly in a manner that prohibits any form of creative intoxication following the guidelines of Academia’s own form of Prohibition, as well as higher education’s type of twelve-step program. For the most part, it is a top-down analysis, sometimes referring to quotes from interviews made with either former television producers (now working in academia) or viewers who remember past programs. But they do not reproduce the type of in-depth excitement one often encounters on Facebook sites such as Talking Pictures TV Discussion Group, British 1940s Cinema, and Lost Classic British Television, where lively debates often occur between those who remember the original presentations and others who discover the past for the first time. These sites often merge between references to film and television, forming potential sites of productive research.
Certainly, although social frameworks of television memory may shift and change, the “national scale and the intimate connection of the family on a personal scale are proving remarkably resilient to understanding how we remember television, its texts, and our experience of watching them” (7) is definitely a laudable aim. Nevertheless, how it is achieved is equally important, and historically based concepts of reader-reception, based on detailed empirical evidence rather than top-down observation, is in most cases a much better method of achieving this. Perhaps a more focused methodology of enquiry may be necessary rather than compiling “interpretations of research material from television production and heritage management (directors, actors, screenwriters, below-the line production workers, archivists, museum staff, heritage managers and funders) and consumers (fans. Museum visitors, heritage volunteers, audiences, and online viewers) within the context of historical and theoretical work in cultural studies of television” (21)? Yet such an overview is amorphous, since any of these groups may provide the focus of research. Does the power of nostalgia completely imbue certain regional programs with interest involving the original viewing process of watching them “after a Sunday roast, watching with siblings or cousins that added something to the text in the process of recollection” (40)? Is that all there is? One notes with dismay the lack of any empirical evidence on the part of an American co-author researching such unfamiliar texts in the above context.
Certainly, memories of working in British television are important (62). However, an equal concentration on audiences rather than producers is in need here. Interesting as the role of archive producer Mhairi Brennan may be, surely other constituencies should be involved in addition to “old and new kinds of skills and cultural workers who can make that bridge between television archives and contemporary television production” (66).
The Doctor Who portion is the most disappointing feature of the entire work, since the chapter appears to focus upon museum exhibition and the first regeneration rather than other significant aspects of the series and the historical relationship of different audience constituencies throughout its long-running, temporarily disrupted process of continuation.
This monograph appeals to those who attend the annual UK Screen Conventions in England. Other readers may prefer a different approach.
- William Wellman Jr. (2015), Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel. New York: Pantheon Books, 394-395.
- My reference to this Andrew Sarris Category VII is by no means accidental. See Sarris (1968), The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, Inc.: 189-203.
- Jack London (1910), “What Life Means to Me”, Revolution and Other Essays. London: Mills & Boon, Limited, 248.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor to Film International.