Since the turn of the 21st century, the television series has rivalled cinema as the paradigmatic filmic medium. Like few other genres, it lends itself to exploring society in its different layers. In the case of Great Britain and Ireland, it functions as a key medium in depicting the state of the nation. Focussing on questions of genre, narrative form, and serialisation, this volume examines the variety of ways in which popular recent British and Irish television series negotiate the concept of community as a key component of the state of the nation.
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Caroline Lusin / Ralf Haekel
Community, Seriality, and the State of the Nation: British and Irish Television Series in the 21st Century
Narr Francke Attempto Verlag Tübingen
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Publishing in general and collections of essays in particular depend on the collaboration of a whole range of people. At this stage, we would therefore like to thank everyone involved in this project most heartily. We would like to thank our contributors for sharing their fascinating insights into the rich material of contemporary British and Irish television series. Thank you for your time and patience – it was a pleasure to work with you! Besides, we are very grateful to Gunter Narr Verlag and its publishing team for providing a platform for this book series. Annika Gonnermann has done us a great service through her untiring efforts to acquire rights of image use. A huge thank you goes to Harriet Mahier, who proofread the entire volume with great care as a native speaker and made valuable suggestions that went far beyond the scope of this task. And finally, we are deeply indebted to the team of the Chair of English Literature and Culture at the University of Mannheim, especially – in alphabetical order – to Hanna Hellmuth, Sina Schuhmaier, and Lisa Schwander, who were a tremendous help in all stages of the editing process: you’re simply the best!
Caroline Lusin and Ralf Haekel
Yeah, this is England, and this is England, and this is England. And for what? For what now? Ey, what for?
(This Is England, 2006)
The title of Shane Meadows’ award-winning film This Is England (2006) leaves no doubt about its subject: the “era-defining drama” (Harvey) portrays working-class life in the Midlands in a way that strives to convey a realistic idea of England in the 1980s. The film, along with its spin-offs This Is England ’86 (2010), This Is England ’88 (2011), and This Is England ’90 (2015), exemplifies key tendencies in recent British and Irish television series. Set in 1983, This Is England flaunts a montage of iconic news snippets in the opening credits that firmly situate its plot in the political, social, and cultural climate of the time. Apart from repeated shots of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the credits include footage of Sting in concert, the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Di, BMX bikes, Rubik’s cube, political protest, violent riots, fascist parades, and gruesome scenes of the Falklands War. This socio-historical context is closely entwined with individual lives from the start, as the political climate obviously determines the youth of twelve-year-old protagonist Shaun (Thomas Turgoose): the opening shot shows a photo of his uniformed father, a victim of the Falklands War, and his radio alarm wakes him to a speech which Margaret Thatcher gave to Wembley Youth Rally (Thatcher). Held shortly before the 1983 general election, this speech encapsulates key points of Thatcher’s policies, whose repercussions still make themselves felt in the 21st century. In describing Thatcherism as “a kind of trauma or ghostly presence that the nation has yet to work through” (Su 1095), John J. Su highlights how “contemporary British literature”, and, one might add, television, “is defined in terms of responses to a set of political, economic, and cultural forces associated with Margaret Thatcher” (1083). This Is England and the ensuing drama series thus investigate the origins of many of the issues contemporary British and Irish society are struggling with today.
In centring on a group of young skinheads, This Is England addresses questions of identity, belonging, and community that figure prominently in the majority of contemporary television programmes. As a sociological concept, community goes back to Ferdinand Tönnies’ distinction between ‘Gemeinschaft’ and ‘Gesellschaft’ – ‘community’ and ‘society’. In Tönnies’ influential study, which was first published in 1887, community appears as organic and associated with ‘real’ life, whereas society represents an artificial, mechanical construct (see 3).1 For Tönnies, the term ‘community’ contrasts with society in designating a group of people whose togetherness is based on interaction and mutual esteem. This is perfectly in line with the representation of the skinheads in This Is England, who set themselves apart from the remainder of society as a group whose particular “style helped reinforce a shared, systematic subcultural identity” (Bergin). At the beginning of the film, the skinheads embody the generally positive view of community highlighted by Zygmunt Bauman:
Community, we feel, is always a good thing. […] To start with, community is a ‘warm’ place, a cosy and comfortable place. It is like a roof under which we shelter in heavy rain, like a fireplace at which we warm our hands on a frosty day. Out there, in the street, all sorts of dangers lie in ambush […]. In here, in the community, we can relax – we are safe […]. In a community, we all understand each other well, we may trust what we hear, we are safe most of the time and hardly ever puzzled or taken aback. We are never strangers to each other. We may quarrel – but these are friendly quarrels […]. (1-2)
If community in this sense provides a feeling of warmth, security, and belonging, This Is England foregrounds this notion when Shaun first meets the group of skinheads, led by genial Woody (Joseph Gilgun). The inclusivity and West Indian roots of skinhead culture come to the fore in the fact that a Black British youth nicknamed ‘Milky’ (Andrew Shim) is also part of this group. After a violent struggle which Shaun, clearly an outsider, has to face at school, Woodie invites the boy to join the ‘warm circle’ of the skinheads. However, critics like Zygmunt Bauman and Gerard Delanty emphasise that this positive sense of community has fundamentally been connected with a sense of loss since the arrival of modernity, “a sense of passing of an allegedly organic world” (Delanty 15). The concept of community basically serves the purpose of projecting a holistic notion of togetherness not touched by the characteristics of the modern age: contingency, differentiation, and specialisation. This may also be one of the reasons why, within the past twenty years, there has been an “upsurge of TV dramas that deal with periods in recent British history: the final years of the nineteenth century and the Edwardian era” (Baena 119). Series like Downton Abbey (2010-2015), Parade’s End (2012), and Poldark (2015-) either show communities which, though touched by modernisation, are still largely intact, or they investigate into the historical moments in which the ‘warm place’ of community was perceived to be lost.2
As Zygmunt Bauman pointedly illustrates, the positive view of community as a ‘warm place’ at any rate tends to conceal its origins in an uncompromising division of insiders and outsiders, which “is exhaustive as much as it is disjunctive” (12). This Is England, too, emphasises the fragility, if not illusion of community as a haven of security by focusing on how the group of skinheads disintegrates. The original film traces the historical split of skinhead culture, rather unpolitical at the onset, into the far left and the far right when the nationalist sympathies of ex-convict Combo (Stephen Graham) turn into outright racist aggression, and he brutally beats up Milky to within an inch of his life. The title of the film and the series is borrowed from Combo’s impassioned diatribe against immigration, in which he evokes the xenophobic clichés and anxieties exploited by the National Front: his assertive claim of “this is England” refers to a proud history of Empire blighted by immigration. When Combo thus adopts nationalist stereotypes, this represents not just “the hijacking of an optimistic, celebratory working-class culture – one that revels in Jamaican music and influences – by an angry, bitter reactionary movement that wants to blame ethnic minorities and immigrants for their problems” (Butler); Combo’s embracing of nationalism and xenophobia poignantly highlights more generally how “the ostensibly shared ‘communal’ identities are after-effects or by-products of forever unfinished (and all the more feverish and ferocious for that reason) boundary drawing”, as Bauman (17) argues building on the ideas of Norwegian anthropologist Frederick Barth.
Most, if not all contemporary television series tend to approach community through what it is lacking. As Zygmunt Bauman points out, “[w]hat that word evokes is everything we miss and we lack to be secure, confident and trusting” (3). Community certainly comes in different shapes in these series, be it “a particular form of social organization based on small groups, such as neighbourhoods, the small town, or a spatially bounded locality” (Delanty 2), or a culturally or politically defined group. As Gerard Delanty explains,
a closer look reveals that the term community does in fact designate both an idea about belonging and a particular social phenomenon, such as expressions of longing for community, the search for meaning and solidarity, and collective identities. (3, emphasis in original)
In practically all cases, however, community appears fragile at best, which corresponds to the sociological observation that the “loss of community and family solidarity is precisely the substance of the changes theorized by many contemporary social theorists” (Charles 452). Even those series set in places that represent the ideal type of community in being distinctive, small, and self-sufficient (see Bauman 12), such as The Street (2006-2009), The Village (2013), Broadchurch (2013-2017), or Shetland (2013-), reveal cracks in their social fabric that identify community in the sense of “a source of security and belonging” (Delanty 1) as a nearly unattainable ideal.
While many series thus have a pronounced local focus – one could substantiate the list above with Top Boy (2011-), Peaky Blinders (2013-), and Happy Valley (2014-), which are set in London’s East End, in Birmingham, and in West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley respectively –, many recent productions transcend locality in a move in which “the local is made metonymic of the national” (Piper 180). Individual, local phenomena become emblematic of the state of the nation or ‘Condition of England’ as a whole. The working-class skinhead culture of This Is England in particular harks back to the Victorian genre of the ‘Condition of England’ novel with its roots in the 19th century critique of industrialisation, since “the boots, collared shirt and suspenders the skinheads chose to wear were all deliberate imitations of the kinds of clothing items worn by members of the English working class in previous decades” (Bergin 244). Originating in the ‘factory novel’ or ‘industrial novel’ of the 1830s, this type of fiction was designed to make the population aware of the atrocious conditions to which the workers, women and children among them, were exposed in the factories: hunger, disease, poverty, abuse, and the strain of unconscionably long working hours. At the time, this so-called ‘factory question’ was held to be largely synonymous with the ‘Condition of England’ question. Frances Trollope’s The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1840), for instance, managed to bring “the plight of the factory worker to mainstream Victorian audiences” (see Simmons 341). Today, however, the genre of the Victorian Condition of England novel (or alternatively, industrial novel, social novel, or social problem novel) is mainly associated with aesthetically more advanced examples like Benjamin Disraeli’s Sibyl; or, the Two Nations (1845), Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley: A Tale (1849), Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (1854), or Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848) and North and South (1855).
The problems of Victorian Britain may seem a far cry from the state of the nation today; the gap between rich and poor, however, which Victorian historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle considered the hallmark of his age has hardly diminished. In Past and Present (1843), Carlyle, who coined the term ‘Condition of England’,1 harshly condemns the underprivileged position of the working class, which he sees barred from the country’s riches. The hardship in Victorian society reached such an extent that Benjamin Disraeli famously described England in his novel Sybil as split into “two nations”, divided into a rich upper class and a destitute working class:
Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws. (33)
The divisions Disraeli depicts reach far beyond mere matters of money into the spheres of mentalities, everyday culture, and education, and they are by no means a thing of the past: in his observations on Rewriting the Nation (2011) in contemporary British drama, Alex Sierz included a chapter on the “Two Nations”, diagnosing a similar split between rich and poor, between different ethnicities, and different communities.
Indeed, contemporary approaches to the Condition of England strikingly resemble those voiced in the essays of Thomas Carlyle. In “Signs of the Times” (1829), Carlyle sees his era defined by an all-embracing process of mechanisation. Not only has machinery substituted the human workforce; apart from physical instruments, Carlyle also detects the dehumanising spirit of machinery in the bureaucratic spirit of regulation, institutionalisation, and economisation. In his vision of the “Age of Machinery”, political, spiritual, and social values have fallen apart: “The King has virtually abdicated; the Church is a widow, without jointure; public principle is gone; private honesty is going; society, in short, is fast falling in pieces; and a time of unmixed evil is come on us.” (“Signs”, 33) It is certainly tempting to compare Carlyle’s view of his time to contemporary indictments of Thatcherism and the politics of austerity. As director Ken Loach maintains, “[t]he consequences of Thatcher and Blair have eroded the sense that we are responsible for each other, that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper” (qtd. in Hattenstone). Contemporary screen writers have found many ways of juxtaposing individual responsibility with the corrupted, corrupting, and sometimes even dehumanising power of institutions. Perhaps most strikingly, Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake (2016) attacks the devastating failure of social institutions, and the jobcentre in particular, to take account of and remedy individual ill fortunes. In a similar manner, Broken (2017) reveals the hypocrisy of the church, Silk (2011-2014) pinpoints the absurdities of the legal system, and Line of Duty (2012-) explores corruption up to the highest levels of the police service. As productions like these go to prove, the extensive framework of serial narration – a device which itself originated in the Victorian vogue for serialised fiction – offers an especially suited medium for depicting the state of the nation today in much detail and from different angles.
Since the turn of the 21st century, the television series has replaced cinema as the paradigmatic filmic medium by developing a new and different form of narrative. Like few other genres, serial narration lends itself to exploring society in its different layers. The topic of community described thus far underscores how contemporary television not only focuses on contemporary society at large, but also, via the connection to the state of the nation, emphasises British and Irish culture and society. Although this seems to be quite obvious in a volume that exclusively investigates British and Irish television series, it is nevertheless a point worth mentioning, because the most important innovations within the genre in the past decades originated in the United States. The principal developments in the theory of television series as well as seriality likewise concentrate on US American artefacts (see e.g. Mittell, Complex TV). This emphasis on the cultural industry of the US is slightly misleading because, especially in recent years, British television has been a driving force regarding originality and scope, a development that also has been mirrored in academic studies (see Kamm/Neumann).
Despite a number of similarities between the American and the British and Irish market, there are also striking differences which need to be addressed, especially regarding the genre and the format of the television series. Whilst an American ‘season’ consists of sometimes 22 or more episodes, a British ‘series’ only has six or eight episodes, or even, as in the case of Sherlock (2010-), only three. One merely needs to compare the 22 to 26 episodes of each season of The Office (2005-2013) to the six episodes of each of the two British original series (2001-2003) to see that. Furthermore, there are divergences regarding the duration of each episode: “Episodes of American series are particularly inflexible in terms of their length; they are generally broadcast in half-hour or one-hour instalments, five to fifteen minutes of which are taken up by commercials.” (Allrath/Gymnich/Surkamp 11) An episode of a British television series, however, may vary in length and is hardly ever interrupted by commercial breaks because the majority is produced by and first broadcast on BBC. The reasons for these differences are not arbitrary, but rooted in the history of British and American television. What is more, this historical difference has also shaped the development of television theory, as one of the landmarks in the field, Raymond Williams’ Television of 1974, as John Caughie remarks,
is informed by Williams’s first encounter with American television. At a time when British television was still shaped by the principles of public service, American television in 1974, increasingly shaped by commercial principles, represented a possible future. (50-1)
Although this strict opposition is no longer absolutely valid today, i.e. in the age of Netflix, Hulu, and other online streaming services, it is worth looking at this history as regards the development of the television series, before we will focus on most recent developments in the field of seriality studies.
Currently, it is the genre of the television series which is held in the highest esteem by critics and viewers alike; a few decades ago, however, critical focus concentrated almost exclusively on the single play (see Williams, Television, 51-58). During the so-called ‘golden age’ of British television, i.e. the 1960s and 1970s, television was arguably more shaped by the theatre than the film industry. Some of the best dramatic works were produced not for the playhouses but for television within formats such as the BBC’s Wednesday Play. Aesthetically, this implied that the single play was much closer to theatrical performances than to movies produced for the cinema, a fact also determined by technical and production circumstances: “[T]he shot length of British television drama in the 1960s and 1970s was considerably longer than that of cinema”, and “pace and dynamism were created by camera movement rather than by cutting” (Bignell/Lacey 5). This led to a form of realism situated between techniques used in the cinema and the experience of witnessing a performance in the theatre. As a result, film teams shooting for television and those shooting for the cinema were not identical, and neither were their techniques, skills, and methods. This strict binary opposition began to disappear with the digital revolution at the turn of the Millennium, as it allowed for cheaper forms of production and much lighter filming equipment. Even today, though, there is still a line drawn between the means of production, even if the tendency to produce high-quality and more expensive television series increasingly blurs the boundaries between crew and equipment used for feature films or for television production (see Murphy/Carolan/Flynn 64). This change set in around the turn of the Millennium with shows like The Sopranos (1999-2007), The Wire (2002-2008), or Breaking Bad (2008-2013) in the US, but soon the UK followed with programmes like Wire in the Blood (2002-2008), Spooks (2002-2011), or Downton Abbey (2010-2015).
This goes hand in hand with an aesthetic change of television drama. As already mentioned, the television series has risen in esteem in recent years, and the aesthetically and narratologically most complex and achieved television shows today are arguably produced as series rather than as TV films or single plays. There are multiple reasons for this development, which set in roughly around 1990 with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-1991; 2017) as one of the earliest and most significant examples. Recent research has tried to describe and analyse this phenomenon, highlighting a distinct aesthetics of seriality (see Kelleter) and analysing the series as an open form as opposed to the closure characteristic of the single work. This process has been supported by the digitisation of television and especially the changes in viewer habits. Whilst viewers a few decades ago watched a programme at a given time during the week, digitisation, first with DVDs and more recently with media streaming services, has individualised viewing habits extremely. Furthermore, a large scene of organised followers emerged on the Internet, ranging from fan sites to fan fiction. As a result, a television series in the digital world today can no longer be regarded as a passive artwork, but must rather be seen as one element of a network.
The increasingly complex narratives of television series are closely connected to this network aesthetics. Recent theoretical investigations of the aesthetic criteria characteristic of this change have therefore not made use of traditional methods and theories stemming from the fields of film studies, semiotics, or drama studies to investigate this phenomenon, but very often turned to the academic field of narratology (see Allrath/Gymnich/Surkamp; Mittell, “Narrative Complexity”). Jason Mittell, for instance, describes a number of distinctive characteristics in his formal and narratological analysis of what he terms “Complex TV”. He claims:
In examining narrative complexity as a narrational mode I follow a paradigm of historical poetics that situates formal developments within specific historical contexts of production, circulation, and reception. (Mittell, “Narrative Complexity”, 30)
In essence, his definition of the narrative complexity of television series is based on the collapse of the barrier between ‘series’, with recurring characters but where each episode finds closure, and ‘serials’, an ongoing, open, and potentially endless story (for the distinction see Williams 56-57; Allrath/Gymnich/Surkamp 5-10). Suggesting “a new paradigm of television storytelling” (Mittell, “Narrative Complexity”, 38-39), Mittell maintains that
[a]t its most basic level, narrative complexity is a redefinition of episodic forms under the influence of serial narration – not necessarily a complete merger of episodic and serial forms but a shifting balance. Rejecting the need for plot closure within every episode that typifies conventional episodic form, narrative complexity foregrounds ongoing stories across a range of genres. (Mittell, “Narrative Complexity”, 32)1
What distinguishes the most recent successful series in general is, furthermore, a return to a more authorial mode with a mastermind or showrunner who acts as the main writer, favouring the more recent American over the established European model of serial narration. Thus, the showrunner is more important than the director, which also explains the tendency to introduce narrative twists that at times come across as unforeseen and even shocking. In effect, sophisticated television series are, according to Mittell, increasingly metafictional in that they reflect on their own form and development as the programme proceeds.
The characteristic feature of self- or meta-reflexivity – i.e. “an intensive tendency toward self-observation in serial narratives” (Kelleter 18, emphasis in original) – links Mittell’s investigation of American television series to a more general theory of seriality. Seriality is opposed to, and contests, an aesthetics which considers art in terms of finite structures – in a word: as works. Set against this traditional and still standard way of looking at culture and art as distinct and complete structures, seriality highlights their open and performative character, which also includes audience interference in the creative process: “[S]erial aesthetics does not unfold in a clear-cut, chronological succession of finished composition and responsive actualization. Rather, both activities are intertwined in a feedback loop.” (Kelleter 13) Regarded from this perspective, television series are no longer passive ‘works’, but become part of a dynamic network of cultural practices.
In a more general vein, i.e. not restricted to the genre of contemporary television series, seriality can thus be described as a key attribute of modern art’s focus on innovation and originality and even of capitalist modernity at large, as Frank Kelleter maintains:
It is not a coincidence, then, that starting in the mid-nineteenth century, seriality has become the distinguishing mark of virtually all forms of capitalist entertainment. Serial storytelling seems to be a central praxeological hub in the shaky yet traditionally potent alliance between market modernity and the idea of popular self-rule. This is so because serial media, interactive from the start, embody what may well be the structural utopia of the capitalist production of culture at large: the desire to practice reproduction as innovation, and innovation as reproduction. (Kelleter 30, emphasis in original)
According to Kelleter, then, the concept of seriality illumines key elements not only of popular culture but also of modern society and modern, i.e. post-Romantic, art. This general observation leads us back to the topic of this volume: community in British television series. Seriality can be described as an apt form of discourse that highlights the openness and ritual nature of modern society, which is characterised by a structural contingency. The genre of the television series is therefore an ideal object to investigate the subject matter of community, which, on the story level, looks at modernity from a similar angle. Community often suggests a nostalgic and conservative view of society, which, in turn, emphasises the fact that this notion of togetherness is an unreachable ideal and always already a thing of the past. Thus, the British and Irish television series investigated in this volume shed a light on contemporary society in flux – and they reflect this in their very form.
That being said, there is of course a wide variety of serial formats and genres. Whilst some series like Top Boy or Happy Valley are openly critical of society, this criticism is merely a side effect in shows like Luther (2010-) or Love/Hate (2010-2015). Despite their individual differences, all of them are characterised by narrative complexity and astonishing aesthetic quality. Many of them are revisionary; Broadchurch reinvents the traditional crime show, Peaky Blinders and The Village revise the genre of the period drama, Misfits (2009-2013) questions the fundamental traits of the superhero genre, and the anthology format of The Street (2006-2009), Accused (2010-2012), and Black Mirror (2011-) undermines the serial format by consisting of a series of television plays connected by a unifying topic.
This volume proposes to investigate serial narration as an exemplary means of cultural, social, and national self-discovery and self-assurance. Focussing on questions of genre, narrative form, and serialisation, the individual essays examine the variety of ways in which British and Irish television series broadcast after 2010 negotiate the concept of community as a key component of the state of the nation.
The first part of the volume, “Family, Morality, and Communal Cohesion”, centres on the concept of the family, which functions in many series as a micro-unit of society giving revealing insights into contemporary conceptions of community. In her essay on the Birmingham-based Peaky Blinders (2013-), Sina Schuhmaier examines the position of community within the tension between tradition and modernity that defines the 1920s setting of the series, arguing that Peaky Blinders pictures its protagonists, the Shelby family, as an open, non-normative community. The series thus answers the sense of upheaval of the interwar period with a caution against potentially totalitarian forms of community – a lesson of renewed relevance today. Moving to a more contemporary setting, Kerstin Frank then shows how the crime drama Broadchurch (2013-2017) creates a traditional small-town community in the sense of Ferdinand Tönnies’ definition of the term, and how this community is threatened: by the crimes and the revelations during the police investigations, but also by more profound social changes that challenge the very core of the community’s values. In the final essay of this part, Ralf Haekel shifts the focus to Ireland by investigating the gritty crime drama Love/Hate (2010-2014), which is set in gangland, i.e. Dublin’s criminal underworld. The massively successful programme’s five series depict Ireland as a society in which traditional forms of community, most prominently the family, are severely under threat. Focusing on the lives of petty criminals dragged down into the world of corruption and drugs, Love/Hate, which is very much influenced by US American films and crime series like The Wire (2002-2008), sheds a bleak light on society in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland.
The second part, “Nostalgia and the Search for Community”, explores how a number of series – affirmatively or subversively – negotiate a nostalgic sense of Britain’s historical past as a repository of a more coherent sense of community. The comedy programme Detectorists (2014-2017) presents the prosaic life and conversations of a group of men as well as their mundane hobby, metal detecting, which functions in this series as a very literal means of searching the past. Focusing on the social underdog’s small-scale perspective on history, Wieland Schwanebeck illustrates how the series presents a nostalgic and quite conservative portrayal of community in England at the time of Brexit. The following essays then examine two period dramas from a revisionary point of view centred on the notion of plurality. Lisa Schwander explores the tensions that govern the narrative of community in Indian Summers (2015-2016), which is set in India in the last decades of the British Raj: while the series’ approach to colonial society demonstrates its desire to distance itself from community concepts based on essentialised notions of belonging, Schwander shows how by exoticising Indians as England’s inferior ‘other’, the series reinscribes the very notions of belonging and community it attempts to criticise. The essay contextualises this tension with fundamental shortcomings of a contemporary society that imagines itself as borderless and pluralistic. Set even further back in the past at the time of World War I, The Village (2013-2014) offers a revisionary look at heritage television and period drama. Focusing on the form and function of cultural memory in a rural setting, Lucia Krämer investigates how the series presents community from the point of view of peasants and the working class, which differs decisively from the upper-class perspective dominating many programmes that portray the same period, such as Downton Abbey. In her argument, Krämer concentrates on the role of World War I as a catalyst in the transition of a modern form of civic community centring on individual autonomy and plurality.
The third part of the volume draws attention to how a variety of series portray “Crime and Social Decline in Urban Communities” to pinpoint crucial features of contemporary society. Set against the backdrop of Britain’s industrialised North, the crime drama Happy Valley (2014-) completely subverts nostalgic notions of pastoral ‘Englishness’ by showcasing a small-town community riddled by dysfunctional families, exploitation, and patriarchal violence. In her reading of the series, Caroline Lusin elaborates on how Happy Valley uses crime to display the break-up of traditional social structures and units, such as the family and the community, but ultimately celebrates the value of individual moral agency. The next two essays then shift the attention from the provinces to the metropolis. Starting from the premise that the council estate holds a stigmatised and marginalised position in the popular British imagination, Luis Özer discusses the filmic depiction of a London tower block community in Top Boy (2011-2013). As Özer argues, this Channel 4 drama oscillates between clichéd images of council housing reminiscent of the black urban crime genre and a more nuanced, social realist portrayal of community attachment and lived realities on the estate. The concluding essay of this section opens up the question of genre by analysing the connection between dysfunctional community structures in contemporary Britain and the figure of the ‘deviant’ teenager in Misfits (2009-2013). In this essay, Annika Gonnermann maintains that by caricaturing and subverting the conventions of the well-established superhero-genre, the series casts unsocial teenagers as unlikely superheroes: in its first two series, the protagonists fight villainous representatives of the system, such as neglecting parents, abusive social workers, or fraudulent priests, allowing the audience to explore the implications of community formation.
The fourth part, finally, combines three series that address different forms of “Vice and Virtue in Capitalist Communities”. In his essay on Broken (2017), Stefan Glomb analyses this series with a view to establishing links between its criticism of contemporary British society and Frankfurt School Critical Theory. The targets of this critique are institutions and money, both of which are held responsible for the ever-widening gulf between system and life-world, as well as the increasing erosion of communal ties. In this reading, Broken performs an immanent critique of neoliberal capitalism, and, avoiding the extremes of methodological individualism and methodological holism, points the way towards a (partial) re-establishment of community. Focusing on the medieval concept of ‘psychomachia’, Monika Pietrzak-Franger then investigates the crisis of community as characteristic of contemporary society in the detective series Luther (2010-). Crime in this series serves a mirror to a largely dysfunctional society in which community in the sense of a healthy ‘warm place’ is largely missing. In this setting, the detective is a highly ambiguous figure, brilliant but flawed, struggling for some sense of community within a society characterised by neoliberal capitalism. Finally, the perspective shifts to the digital age with Laura Winter’s essay on the episodes “The National Anthem”, “White Bear”, and “Nosedive” of the media-critical anthology Black Mirror (2011-), in which omnipresent technology plays a similar role in terms of power relations as the state or the tyrannical corporation in the genre of dystopia. In revealing how a sense of community is only created through digital spectacle, and how individuals are addicted to online approval in an increasingly anonymous society, all three episodes propose that community in the digital age exists increasingly only as a media phenomenon.
All these recent productions are not just an excellent case in point for the popularity of the serial format; they also suggest that British and Irish television series are well established by now as a privileged medium for reflecting critically on issues related to community and the state of the nation. No doubt they will carry on with this task in the future. What with Brexit looming on the horizon, and nationalisms on the rise all over Europe, there will surely be no shortage of topics.
This Is England. Written by Shane Meadows. Directed by Shane Meadows. Warp Films, FilmFour Productions, 2006.
Allrath, Gaby, Marion Gymnich, and Carola Surkamp. “Introduction: Towards a Narratology of TV Series”. Narrative Strategies in Television Series. Eds. Gaby Allrath and Marion Gymnich. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 1-43.
Baena, Rosalía. “Performing Englishness: Postnational Nostalgia in Lark Rise to Candleford and Parade’s End.” Emotions in Contemporary TV Series. Ed. Alberto N. García. Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 118-33.
Bauman, Zygmunt. Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World. Cambridge: Polity, 2001.
Bignell, Jonathan and Stephen Lacey. “Introduction.” British Television Drama: Past, Present and Future. 2nd edition. Eds. Jonathan Bignell and Stephen Lacey. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 1-15.
Butler, Mark. “This Is England remains a powerful indictment of racism 10 years on.” iNews: The Essential Daily Briefing. 15 August 2017. https://inews.co.uk/culture/film/this-is-england-10-years-indictment-of-racism/. Accessed on 24 September 2018.
Carlyle, Thomas. “Signs of the Times.” The Spirit of the Age: Victorian Essays. Ed. Gertrud Himmelfarb. New Haven, London: Yale UP, 2007. 1-49.
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Caughie, John. “Television and Serial Fictions.” The Cambridge Companion to Popular Fiction. Eds. David Glover and Scott McCracken. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 50-67.
Delanty, Gerard. Community. London, New York: Routledge, 2003.
Disraeli, Benjamin. “Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81), Sybil (1845).” Victorian Literature: An Anthology. Eds. John Shea and William Whitla. Malden, MA, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2015. 32-3.
Harvey, Chris. “This Is England: Shane Meadows on his era-defining drama.” The Telegraph. 13 September 2015. www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/11859462/This-Is-England-Shane-Meadows-on-his-era-defining-drama.html. Accessed on 24 September 2018.
Hattenstone, Simon. “Ken Loach: ‘If you’re not angry, what kind of person are you?’” The Guardian. 15 October 2016. www.theguardian.com/film/2016/oct/15/ken-laoch-film-i-daniel-blake-kes-cathy-come-home-interview-simon-hattenstone. Accessed on 6 October 2018.
Kamm, Jürgen and Birgit Neumann (eds.). British TV Comedies: Cultural Concepts, Contexts and Controversies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
Kelleter, Frank. “Five Ways of Looking at Popular Seriality.” Media of Serial Narrative. Ed. Frank Kelleter. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2017. 7-34.
Mittell, Jason. “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.” The Velvet Light Trap 58 (2006): 29-40.
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Murphy, Conor, Stuart Carolan, and James Flynn. “Interview with the Creators of Love/Hate.” Studies in Arts and Humanities 2.2 (2016): 62-70.
Piper, Helen. “Broadcast Drama and the Problem of Television Aesthetics: Home, Nation, Universe.” Screen 57.2 (2016): 163-83.
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Simmons, James Richard, Jr. “Industrial and ‘Condition of England’ Novels.” A Companion to the Victorian Novel. Eds. Patrick Brantlinger and William B. Thesing. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002. 336-52.
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Representations of past ages in contemporary television serve more than the historian’s interests. In fact, these re-imaginings of the past shed light on the present out of which they emerge, negotiating today’s concerns against the backdrop of a bygone period. In the course of, as yet, four series, covering the years 1919 to 1926, BBC Two’s Peaky Blinders (2013-) traces the rise of Birmingham’s fictitious Shelby family in a decade that has recently sparked renewed interest: the 1920s. Notable examples on the television screen include HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014), which invites further comparison with Peaky Blinders with regard to genre and style, and Sky 1’s Weimar Republic crime drama Babylon Berlin (2017-), whose director Tom Tykwer recounts in an interview that “whilst working on [the show], the present, so to speak, met us”, an experience he describes as “disquieting”. Tykwer draws parallels to contemporary “England, with Brexit or, more generally, the whole European sentiment, which has changed in the last five years”, and diagnoses “democracy again at stake – all of which is a topic of the series” (Metropolis: Danzig, my translation). More than any other decade, the 1920s chart a tension between traditionally entrenched and modern ways of life, with the First World War – as symbol and reality – constituting the most violent caesura between these forms of life. Its aftermath is elaborately staged in Peaky Blinders.
Created and written by Steven Knight, the show centres around the emerging criminal empire of the Shelby family, betting shop owners by trade, and the exploits of their eponymous Peaky Blinders gang, led by the brothers Thomas (Cillian Murphy), Arthur (Paul Anderson), and John (Joe Cole). The storyline sets in shortly after the brothers have returned from the traumatising and transformative experience of the war, whose challenge to the previous family dynamics is a major thematic strand in Peaky Blinders. Not only does the Great War in Peaky Blinders issue a warning against present-day belligerence, it more broadly symbolises the mechanisation and alienation definitive of the rise of industrial labour and capitalist production in the modern age. The transition from ways of life retrospectively idealised as organically rooted to the industrialised routines of modernity is epitomised by the head of the Shelby family, Thomas. We encounter him in 1919 as an unflinching, ruthless businessman, whilst before the war, “[h]e laughed, a lot” and “wanted to work with horses” (Peaky Blinders, S1/E6, 00:28).1 It is crucial that Peaky Blinders is set at this crossroads between old and new, tradition and modernity, for what allows the show to reflect contemporary concerns is a shared sense of crisis: “Then as now, people are afraid of the new”, the curator of a recent exhibition on “Splendor and Misery in the Weimar Republic” at Frankfurt’s Schirn Gallery has aptly reasoned (Pfeiffer, Metropolis: Danzig, my translation). Yielding such fear “of the new” as a result of profound disorientation, the firm grip of a dynamics of acceleration that seized the whole of modernity (see Rosa 274) has only intensified under the impact of globalisation in the late-modern 21st century.
Almost one hundred years after the period covered by Peaky Blinders, propagated solutions to such fundamental uncertainties remain alarmingly similar. According to this narrative, the ills of modernity have conditioned the corrosion of communal bonds, the only remedy to those ills being the recovery of communities (see Delanty 10-1; Gertenbach et al. 54-6), which then bestow meaning and orientation onto modern existence. The basic misapprehension of such an over-simplification is not that modernity drastically changed the structure and organisation of social formations. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has pointed out, the expansion of capitalist manufacturing conditions in the wake of the Industrial Revolution has indeed displaced traditional forms of community, tearing apart pre-industrial, domestic work structures into disciplinable “human units” (27). The “promise of autonomy and freedom” which Hartmut Rosa has located at the “core and centre” of the “project of modernity” (272, my translation) entails the atomisation of individuals who abandon traditionally institutionalised communities on their quest for personal fulfilment. Community, however, is not naturally inherent in traditional or pre-modern forms of life and absent in modernity (see Delanty 30). Such a demonising view of modernity, tied to a conservative insistence on the preservation of tradition, erects an unattainable ideal of community, which endows community with a highly normative status (see ibid. 18-9). In his theory of The Inoperative Community, originally published in 1986, Jean-Luc Nancy emphasises that “we should become suspicious of the retrospective consciousness of the lost community and its identity”, given that “the thought of community or the desire for it might well be nothing other than a belated invention that tried to respond to the harsh reality of modern experience” (10). Nancy’s deconstructionist approach thus reconceptualises community as follows:
Society was not built on the ruins of a community. It emerged from the disappearance or the conservation of something – tribes or empires – perhaps just as unrelated to what we call ‘community’ as to what we call ‘society.’ So that community, far from being what society has crushed or lost, is what happens to us – question, waiting, event, imperative – in the wake of society. (11, emphasis in original)
The major fallacy of a ‘loss of community’-narrative (Delanty 15; Gertenbach et al. 54), then, resides in the notion that community can be regained, since such community is an idealised projection of a totalitarian claim. “It has”, writes sociologist Gerard Delanty, “been the source of some of the greatest political dangers, giving rise to the myth of the total community that has fuelled fundamentalist, nationalist, and fascist ideologies in the twentieth century” (11). Community, according to Nancy, cannot be regenerated; it occurs.
And yet, the promise of community is most enticing in times of crisis (see Delanty 29; Gertenbach et al. 35, 54). The historical setting of Peaky Blinders does not incidentally coincide with a European-wide rise of fascism. 1919 alone was felt to be “a pivotal year for the country as a whole. […] [T]here were genuine fears of a Bolshevik-style revolution in the UK […] as well as the rise of the suffragette movement and the situation in Ireland” (Stubbs). This historical moment, as Tom Tykwer has noted, is not dissimilar to ours. The appeal of the resurging nationalisms of today lies precisely in the attraction of the nation as a community that fosters stability and belonging. A concept of community so redemptive is inevitably bound by normative rigidity, that of nationalism steering towards homogeneity and exclusion. Peaky Blinders prominently portrays two groups whose promise of salvation takes recourse to such a concept of community (see Delanty 18-20) despite their axiomatically diverging politics: the IRA and the Communist movement. The Peaky Blinders themselves, a criminal organisation, are exempt from such normativity. In particular, the Shelbys defy idealised conceptions of the family, which has undergone normative regulation more than any other form of community. Investigating the fundamentally modern experience of a growing tension between old and new, tradition and modernity, Peaky Blinders challenges the narrative of a ‘loss of community’ by dismantling the concept of a normative community. It thus unmasks ‘community’, as soon as yearned for, as a modern construct (see Gertenbach et al. 38), which only becomes what it is when it appears to be gone. Finally, when the family is read as a metaphor for the nation, the Shelby family represents a nation whose community is conceived non-normatively.
With Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ title track “Red Right Hand” setting in, Peaky Blinders’ very first episode introduces Thomas Shelby on horseback, overlooking a Molochian urban environment of smoking chimneys, bursting flames and fires, clanking metal, ant-like workers covered in sweat and dirt, disabled veteran beggars, prostitution, and gambling (00:02-3). A caption reveals: this is Birmingham in 1919, at that time “the biggest industrial city in the world” (Stubbs). Its setting and depiction of industrial working conditions locate Peaky Blinders within a primarily literary tradition of investigating the Condition of England, inviting comparison with industrial novels such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848) or Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (1854), both, notably, not set in the perennial centre of attention London,1 but in the industrial North of England. Peaky Blinders’ localism, devoted to a city that “has always been considered deeply unfashionable when it comes to settings for TV drama” (Stubbs) and has hence been “almost invisible” on television screens, as writer Steven Knight put it (qtd. in ibid.), has earned the series a loyal fan-base in Birmingham and the Midlands, “with [first series] audiences in this region almost trebling the national average” (Nagra). The show is predominantly set in Small Heath, a working class district controlled by the Peaky Blinders gang. Their criminal activities, enforced, if need be, by means of facial mutilations inflicted by razor blades sewn into their trademark peaked caps, mostly serve to facilitate the Shelbys’ business undertakings, which soon expand from the family’s race betting shop and bookmaker protection services. Series one witnesses the foundation of Shelby Brothers Ltd., later the Shelby Company Ltd., which comprises a growing division of legitimate dealings, such as a (dubiously acquired)2 legal betting licence and thereby legal racetrack pitch (S1/E4, 00:28). Peaky Blinders thus revises history with a distinctive focus on that which has long been under-represented on British television: the working class milieu, Birmingham, and the gangster.
While the show shares some concerns with the Condition of England genre, in particular its attempt to come to terms with the nature of community in 1920s’ as much as today’s Britain, Peaky Blinders conspicuously lacks the social realism that is normally a hallmark of the genre. Worldwide, the show has been met with critical acclaim (see Long 166), and after it won two BAFTA Television Craft awards in 2014, it was nominated for a BAFTA award as ‘Best Drama Series’ in 2015 (see IMDb), but more remarkable is the show’s “pop culture impact […] à la shows like ‘Mad Men’” (Egner). Similar to Mad Men (2007-2015), Peaky Blinders owes this cult status to the aesthetic appeal of its mise-en-scène, as evidenced by the categories for which it was awarded a BAFTA Television Craft award: ‘Director – Fiction’ and ‘Photography and Lighting’ (see IMDb). The series’ iconic opening sequence, discussed above, establishes the stylistic tone of the show accordingly. Although displaying hard physical labour, dirt and poverty, the images evince a cinematic devotion to aesthetics that manifests itself in an eye for composition and elaborate camera work. The ashes that pollute Birmingham’s streets fall white and soft like snow, and the noises of the city blend with the extradiegetic title track which further frames the scene. “Red Right Hand” is only the most notorious track on Peaky Blinders’ generally distinctive score characterised by an exceptional stylistic consistency and fusion with the diegetic world of Peaky Blinders (see Shine 53-4). Peaky Blinders’ rather frequent, close-up depictions of violence are similarly aestheticised, often dubbed by heavily stylised music and white noise and screened in slow-motion.3 It is in this vein that Peaky Blinders has been accredited with a seal of quality (see Long 166-7) and classified as another instance of this current ‘golden age’ of television (see Shine 48). As so many other contemporary television series, it thus follows in the footsteps of Twin Peaks (1990-1991 and 2017) and The Sopranos (1999-2007), shows usually quoted as having initiated the “com[ing] of age” of television (Shuster 1-2). Martin Shuster has usefully classified these series as the distinctively novel genre or mode (see 170) of ‘new television’ (see 5-6), which comprises a wide range of television styles and genres that exemplify this qualitative turn and, moreover, “exhibit a contemporary world4 as entirely emptied of normative authority” (6).
That Shuster explicitly denominates Peaky Blinders as ‘new television’ (see 6), whilst otherwise focusing on US-American television, is no surprise given that the genre Peaky Blinders operates in is a classically American one. The gangster is an essentially American creation, argues Robert Warshow in his seminal 1948 essay on Hollywood gangster films, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero”. Steven Knight, too, has observed how “[u]nlike the US, where that thing is mythologized and becomes part of the culture, in England, it gets buried” (qtd. in Landau 3). “[T]he gangster speaks for us, expressing that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and demands of modern life, which rejects ‘Americanism’ itself”, Warshow contends (130). As such, the gangster might not so much be an American phenomenon as rather a response to a typically US-American modern capitalism. Warshow further argues that “[t]he gangster is a man of the city” that is at the same time the reality of his physical surroundings and a metaphor, “not the real city, but that dangerous and sad city of the imagination which is so much more important, which is the modern world” (131, my emphasis). The gangster movie is usually set in a working-class environment, negotiating the dashed hopes and dreams caused by a (US-American) promise of the individual success of those marginalised by society on the grounds of class and ethnicity (see Munby 3-5). The same applies to Peaky Blinders, whose ganglands are populated by ‘Gypsies’, Italians, and Jews. Ambitious Thomas similarly has to “f[i]nd out […] that no amount of money allows [him] to pass through the steel sheets that separate class from class” (S4/E5, 00:49). Knight thus explains the absence of the gangster on British screens, his being a “working-class history”. He reasons: “[T]he idea that there was a functioning, working class community of people who were arrogant, in control, amused, funny, in power, it doesn’t compute with the English view of history [...].” (qtd. in Landau 4) Paul Long accordingly finds that “[t]he urban milieu [Peaky Blinders] references is one which is largely absent from dramatic representation and rarely licensed for imaginative exploration in British television” (166).
This distinguishes the series from other British historical period dramas such as Downton Abbey (2010-2015), towards which Peaky Blinders assumes an almost antithetical stance, albeit covering a similar time period. While the bright, neat diegetic world of Downton Abbey “celebrat[es] a hierarchical social structure” (Cooke 218) in a nostalgic longing for ‘times more simple’ than that of the 21st century, Peaky Blinders tackles the absence of authoritative structures, a “normative breakdown” (Shuster 6) as a hallmark of 1919’s as much as today’s (late-) modernity. The world of Peaky Blinders is exemplary of this breakdown, as will be further illustrated below. But there is one exception to this pattern of “normative emptiness” (ibid. 7). “[T]he institution of the family consistently appears exempt from this predicament and such a portrayal”, so Shuster’s central thesis pertaining to ‘new television’ as a whole (6). Crucially, as in Weeds (2005-2012), discussed by Shuster in more detail, ‘new television’ depicts the family “without any pretense [sic!] of ideality: the family structure is not perfect […], and it does not guarantee a world, an alternative to the desert that is modernity” (169). It is thus community that ‘new television’ formulates as a reply to modernity – but not as a solution. Peaky Blinders accordingly fashions the family as a ‘last resort’, and at the same time not as a resort at all, rejecting the normativity entailed by the concept of community and, in particular, by that of the family.
The Shelby family bears considerable resemblance to Shuster’s delineation of the family “without any pretense [sic!] of ideality”. The family under attack – often by internal forces – is a major theme of numerous contemporary television series, among them shows that Peaky Blinders is much more closely related to than Downton Abbey: The Sopranos, Ray Donovan (2013-),1 or The Americans (2013-).2 Precisely because it is constantly on the brink of falling apart, however, the family proves to be the last remaining benchmark in a world void of guidance. The Shelby family appears permanently bound to disintegrate. Yet, its instability does not constitute a symptom of the culturally pessimistic diagnosis which identifies modernity as an ailment that has eradicated tradition and thereby induced a loss of community. Quite the opposite, the Shelby family’s unsteadiness testifies to the lasting significance of the community of the family, regardless of its particular constitution. Peaky Blinders thus paints a nuanced picture of the status quo of community under the impact of modernity. This becomes evident when considering what exactly engenders the Shelby family’s disintegration.
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