A Book Review by Tony Williams.
This concisely written and informative monograph represents a critical examination of the role cityscapes play within certain televised fictional representations. While many books exist on the city landscape, the marginalization of television as a valid discursive territory in its own right has led to a certain amount of scholarly neglect in comparison to the fields of architecture, cinema, and literature. The purpose of Television Cities: Paris, London, Baltimore (Duke University Press, 2018) is to not only argue for the inclusion of televised representations within this area but also to contribute to the scholarship that has already appeared on certain known and less-well-known televised serials.
It contains an introduction subtitled “Does the Flaneur Watch Television?”, followed by three chapters “The Modernity of Maigret’s Paris”; “Living Room London”, and “Portable Cities: Baltimore”, the latter concentrating on The Wire (2002-2008) as well as referencing Homicide (1993-1998) and other series shot on that location. Despite the “pseud’s corner” connotations of the Baudelaire/Benjamin term frequently displayed to justify high academic credit-card credentials, the irritation experienced at another repetition of this term diminishes when one begins to explore this book in the thorough manner it deserves. Knowledgeable concerning the division between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and the amazingly now available access to past and present material, the study
seeks to intervene in developed debates and histories of cinematic and media cities by asking whether there is more to be said about the television city as a place and dramatic location, rather than simply noting the dispersal of television across multiple screens and hence the current ubiquity of television in the city. (2)
Despite the absence of the vast majority of the original 1960-63 Maigret episodes due to restrictions imposed by the Georges Simeon Estate at the time (is this also the reason why the 1947 Temptation Harbour, based on a Simenon novel, is still unavailable outside the National Film Archive?) extensive files exist in the BBC archives concerning both the location shooting and the fact that the series was “an expensive, prestige production” (20) as well as containing illuminating information about contemporary production methods, “the international market, and the understanding of Paris” (20). One memo written by the then Head of BBC TV Drama to superiors wishing to cut costs expresses opposition to American series models such as Gunsmoke (1952-61) in terms of production time and quality revealing that the Paris-set series aimed at “contesting the terrain occupied by U.S. programs such as the popular Western serial Gunsmoke, but will have contrasting, BBC aesthetics and values” (30). Gunsmoke was then shown on ITV, re-titled Gun Law. Brunsdon makes a convincing case for the modernity of Maigret as a BBC production in contrast to what was usually regarded as an average television production representing
a new postwar world, a world in which many new experiences became possible for ordinary British citizens: watching television, going to Europe on foreign holidays, drinking wine, understanding a bit of French, considering the European Economic Community, watching European art cinema – and acknowledging the pleasures of sex. (60)
In other words, quoting that famous line of pre-Thatcher species Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (popularly known as “Supermac” during Britain’s Age of Affluence) – “You never had it so good.”
The next chapter contrasts television images of London from the latter part of the twentieth century with the Thames Television logo of 1968-91 to the twenty-first-century shot of the Sherlock (2010) credits (66). Citing several relevant images, Brunsdon remarks that “Television is one of the places where Britain works out what it might mean to be modern, even as this new medium is often recruited to reimagine Britain’s historical literary and dramatic culture (69). Televisual Victorian values receive examination not only in certain Dickens adaptations that have survived but also post-imperial images in series such as East Enders (1985- ) and those recalling historic London in Ripper Street (2012- ), Whitechapel (2009-13), and Call the Midwife (2012- ). I note with regret (77) that the 1956 BBC TV version of David Copperfield (with Robert Hardy in the title role, Bernard Cribbins as Thomas Traddles, Hammer horror’s perennial inn-keeper George Woodbridge as Mr. Peggotty, Hilton Edwards as Mr. Micawber, and Sonia Dresdel as Betsy Trotwood) and the 1957 Nicholas Nickleby with post-Sir Lancelot and pre-Dr. Who Ian William Russell in the title role with Richard Wordsworth as Newman Noggs, Malcolm Keen as Ralph Nickleby, Barry Foster as Frank Cheeryble, Douglas Wilmer as the dastardly Sir Mulberry Hawk, and the great Esmond Knight as Wackford Squeers, that I saw on first broadcast, have not survived.
After commenting on other transitional cityscape series such as Desmond’s (1989-1994) and Holding On (1997-1998), Brunsdon supplies some interesting observations on Call the Midwife that makes it much more than an exercise in nostalgia as well as one of the BBC’s most successful exports.
Its post Second World War old London, with its mid-twentieth-century vision of a benign state that would care for its citizens from cradle to grave, has proved enormously attractive world-wide. It turns out that childbirth and newly socialized health care was not such a minority interest, and, the series presents an impassioned defense of the welfare state that is all too resonant as twenty-first century austerity seeks to further reduce the remaining pitiful provision. (112)
Along with Ripper Street, the series
displays a longing, not so much for the past, but for a time when there was, as part of the texture of everyday life, a better future imaginable, and when the state and its agencies would contribute to this. If this is nostalgia, it is nostalgia for the future imagined in the twentieth century. (112)
By contrast, series such as Top Boy (2013) and Run (2013), “with their location in the various illegal economies of the global city, recreate London as a Dickensian city for the twenty-first century” having “no sense of a future with hope” (113).
The final chapter concentrates on The Wire and its contrasts with Homicide and The Corner (2000- ) that all established Baltimore as a televisual city. While “The Corner provides, within the tradition of nineteenth-century naturalism, with its emphasis on the environmental and contextual determination of human agency” (144), The Wire uses different textual strategies combining techniques associated with realism and melodrama, the latter’s relevance to the series argued by Linda Williams in her 2014 Duke University Press monograph on the series. Though set in a particular place, The Wire also relates to contemporary America in several ways and it is the interplay of various places that “merits further attention” (153) for Brunsdon.
One error exist in this book that could have been eliminated either by more careful research or a copy editor familiar with film history. Jean Gabin did not play Maigret in the 1930s as mentioned on p.27, an impossible feat since then the actor was associated with Poetic Realist roles then, but in three films during the 1950s and early 60s. Despite this, the monograph is a detailed and stimulating observation of the developing scholarship on recognizing television as a very important medium, and it should also stimulate readers to look up episodes of those series discussed, wherever available.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is a Contributing Editor to Film International.