A Book Review by Tony Williams.
In Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) the enigmatic voice of Dr. Soberin delivers one of his voice-of-God traditional thespian pronouncements over the prone, semi-crucified body of savior/destroyer Mike Hammer, whose actor (Ralph Meeker) belongs to a very different performance acting style. “How civilized this earth used to be. But as the world becomes more primitive how fabulous its treasures will be.” Undoubtedly, our world is becoming more primitive as the rough beast President-elect (whom one hoped was destined for an alternative career to portray Mike Hammer in some awful Hollywood film) slouches his way to the White House. Yet, as we move from the supposedly “civilized” victory of the Western world following the fall of the misnamed Evil Empire, the treasures at our disposal, thanks to globalization, are certainly more “fabulous” than previous critical prejudices believed. However, the works examined in TV Socialism (Duke University Press, 2016) by Hungarian scholar Aniko Imre, who grew up in 70s and 80s Hungary before moving to the “Land of Freedom,” are neither confirmatory of the supposed “poverty of socialist television theory” (to borrow E.P. Thompson’s phrase) nor celebratory of the equally supposed brave new world of post-socialist Eastern Europe. Instead, this book reveals a treasure chest of televisual discourses neither positive nor negative but productively conflicting in many fascinating ways. Now, without any prompt from Lily Carver, I will proceed to “open the box.”
Deeply indebted to her own critical work as well as those of her peers in an area of study now developing over the past few decades (as opposed to a time when access was restricted or dominated by ideological barriers), Imre begins her introduction with a similar question echoing Robin Wood’s earlier “Why should we take Hitchcock seriously?” with Why do we need to talk about Socialism and TV? After all, did not the West win the battle against Socialism as seen in the current victory of a venture capitalist with no political experience soon to become President? Defining her methodology as wishing to write a book not about socialist television but rather “socialism and television” (1) in terms of “uncovering pieces of a globalized TV history that complement and challenge mainstream Anglo-American TV histories on the one hand and question some of our received wisdom about the Cold War on the other” (1). Television and socialism engaged in a type of echo effect and the author’s goal is to emphasize “the temporal continuity between socialism and post-socialism, as well as their joint historical roots in pre-socialist era, and explore the geographical and cultural interconnections around television within a Europe embodied in a globalized media network” (1).
Imre is fully aware of the dominant role of each socialist state whose control was not as monolithic as that depicted within George Orwell’s 1984 and recognizes the losses that global capitalism has brought to the positive aspects of both socialism and television discourse in Eastern Europe. She divides her book (obviously meant as a continuing study as she states in the conclusion) into four salient parts: Genres of Realism and Reality, Genres of History, Genres of Fiction, and Genres of Humor, each segment covering areas of education, crime shows, game shows, post-socialist ethno-racial reality TV, historical adventure, post-socialist nostalgia and European historical drama, commercials, female representations, socialist soaps (many of which continued into the post-socialist era), comedy, and post-socialist political satire.
Based on her own research and viewing of Hungarian language programs that still circulate today as well as the work of peer colleagues other areas, Imre sums up the nature of her project aimed at criticizing two inadequate hypotheses: denouncing socialism or wallowing in nostalgia for a world system that proved itself inoperable: “They oversimplified socialism and left little room for critiquing market-based democracies, something that became even more frustrating after September 11, 2001, and the global economic recession of 2008” (257-58). Recognizing that the scarcity of adaptable research material resulted from “a motivated disinterest in other histories and regarding socialism as a failed experiment,” Imre came to see a more complex set of interrelationships at work which reveal that socialist TV “is an integral part of global television history” (258) since it developed alongside European television and thus challenged “the idea of an intractable, hierarchical Cold War divide between East and West” (258). Nor did it expire after 1989 but was already engaged in a competitive structure with its Western rivals who were motivated by the Cold War and its uncharted territory. He analyses reveal socialist television’s “continuing relevance as a political and economic resource” (260).
This is a nuanced work, the product of someone who recognizes the value of her subject well beyond any academically defined ideological parameters and makes her case in the most sophisticated manner, necessitating further work in this area. Discerning what lay beneath “the loose umbrella of ideological commitment to Soviet principles, one finds a variety of hybrid aesthetic and economic practices” (6) within which Socialism “is a globally shared legacy” (20-21) where emotionalism complements nostalgia, to open up an “all more precious window into the surprising pleasures and contradictions of socialism”(23). The author concisely documents the hitherto mostly unknown areas of this particular television culture.
Also, despite problems of clumsiness and crude technology, Hungarian educational programs such as The Family Circle (1974-94) surpassed Western public service broadcasting models in being more loyal to the goal that inspired them: “they supported self-improvement and lifelong learning as goals always embedded in the collective interest rather than isolated as individual problems. They encouraged learning through participation and mobilized effective engagement without yielding to voyeurism and self-serving emotional display” (65). The contrast with today’s American PBS model and its Downton Abbey (2010-15) displays needs no further emphasis. Socialist television also had its game shows exhibiting a breadth of programming unknown to most in the West but Imre points out that the goals all changed in the post-socialist era when “Eurocentric high art and academic knowledge became delegitimated, and nationalism as TV’s core value became overshadowed by entertainment” (107). Yet, despite attempts to adapt the awful American sit-com Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005) for Russian television in the post-Soviet era, audiences found it “too mundane and shallow” rebutting the arrogant American attitudes that regarded the host culture as “a blank slate without any valuable aesthetic traditions or cultural institutions to draw on, ready to soak up Americans values through access to American humor” (229). This is a fitting tribute to one of the worst experiences undergone during my transatlantic flights a decade or so ago where I found the original US program not only not funny but a sad waste of Peter Boyle’s immense acting talents.
As in other recent works of post-socialist television, such as Film and Television Genres of the Late Soviet Era (2016) by Alexander Prokhorov and Elena Prokhorov, that see the presence of diverse cultural values appearing via new genre models, Imre’s work is aware of similar complexities in this area of study where she engages in a less monolithic understanding of nostalgia than most writers. For her,
postsocialist nostalgia is an interpretative framework for understanding post-Cold War Europe’s relationship with its socialist history. This interpretative framework is in synergy with cultural practices around television, a medium whose chief mode of operation is in reruns, recombinations, circulating formats, and generic adaptations that constantly interlace national, regional, and global scales. (162)
Imre makes a very plausible case and also cites the popularity of Western television in the East, such as The Saint (1962-69), 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64), The Man from Uncle (1964-68), and Dallas (1978-91) even citing a visit of Roger Moore to Hungary in 1971 at the height of his pre-James Bond popularity (271,n.8). She also is aware of British television’s influences. Yet I remain skeptical of her claim that a Hungarian post-socialist TV show Gyozike (2005-2010) featuring a gypsy Roma real-life family was less racist as its critics suggested but functioned rather as progressively representation of “an emerging middle-class cultural and economic value that is racially mixed” (127) and that critical outrage reveals that the show’s opponents display “the paternalistic and white essence of socialist educational television, which tolerated very little deviance from the high cultural ideals of nationalism” (129). However, in view of the developing right-wing tendencies in Hungary (of which Imre reveals herself fully aware of), Poland, and elsewhere, I doubt whether such an interpretation is feasible. Had she had known of early episodes of the BBC TV series Till Death Us Do Part (1965-75; the American version All in the Family, 1971-79, is very watered down as can be expected) now lost due to the BBC wiping tapes from the 1965-68 broadcasts, and Spike Milligan’s aborted brief ITV series, Curry and Chips (1969) both of which were written by Johnny Speight and intended to combat racism often ended up with many viewers affirming it, she would have found the issue much more complex. In 1975 Spike Milligan tried another anti-racist comedy The Melting Pot but it was withdrawn by the BBC after only one episode. Likewise Johnny Speight’s 1968 ITV play If There Weren’t any Blacks, You’d have to Invent Them fell flat on its face as an anti-racist invective. However, this is a minor point in terms of the thorough research and illumination of this neglected area of television studies the author has unveiled. The book is well worth reading and one hopes that she is now busily engaged in the projected sequel she mentions in her conclusion.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Contributing Editor to Film International, author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), and co-editor, with Esther Yau, of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2016).