A conference report considering how ‘Spaces
of Television’ might reformulate traditional
understandings of women’s television history
by Ben Lamb
The Spaces of Television conference (University of Reading, 17-20 Sept 2013), concluded the AHRC-funded ‘Spaces of Television: Production, Site and Style’ season of symposia. Addressing the main research questions of the joint initiative between the Universities of Reading, South Wales and Leicester, its principal concern was ‘how the material spaces of production (in TV studios and on location) have conditioned the
aesthetic forms of programmes’. The conference was notable for a wide range of the academic papers that were interested in how such understandings of space can reformulate traditional understanding of women’s television history.
There were a number of remarkable keynote speeches including John Ellis‘s ‘Everyday Spaces of Television Production’. Ellis’ analysis of the administrative spaces of television production was notable in its consideration of the gender dynamics that operate in the informal hierarchies of the workplace. Ellis’ comparison between the gendered historical spaces of television production with contemporary spaces of the new BBC Broadcasting House identified the increasing democratisation of the television production system but also potential resistance to the new work areas and processes. It was, however, Julia Hallam’s keynote ‘Liverpool in Television Drama: Exploring Spatial Praxis’ that was predominantly interested in representations of women. Her paper drew on programmes that feature women in lead roles, including The Liver Birds (BBC 1969-78), and Play of the Week’s ‘Our Day Out’ (BBC2 28/12/1987), and how these characters negotiated their identity through Liverpool locations undergoing extensive redevelopment.
Hallam provided a mapping of Liverpool through its uses and representations in drama, and analysed the ways in which these examples constituted a form of spatial practice inextricably entwined with configurations of urban identity. This mapping touched upon how the modernisation Liverpool was then experiencing impacted upon traditional notions of gendered identity. The analyses of The Liver Birds and ‘Our Day Out’ offered an interesting comparison in charting how the distinctive humour associated with Liverpool, used amongst women, has developed in line with Liverpool’s once thriving, and then later dismantled, industrial landscape. Hallam’s work comes out of the City in Film research projects with which she has been involved, further outcomes of which can be found here and here. Hallam’s research is significant in the study of women’s television history because the depiction of women’s experiences of living in these locations is an integral component of her study.
Certain papers examined the role women have played in the production of television drama. Amanda Wrigley‘s ‘Space and Place in Joan Kemp-Welch‘s Television Productions of Theatre Plays’ examined the career of one of the first ever female television directors. Wrigley examined the extent to which Kemp-Welch’s background in the theatre inscribed itself on her work for television. Similarly, Gamze Toylan’s ‘The League of Gentlemen: 90s TV Production’ drew extensively on Toylan’s interview with producer Jemma Rodgers to examine how the choice of the studio space (YTV studios) and location (Yorkshire) conditioned the show’s production process.
Papers that dealt with gender as a prominent research concern were, for the most part, more interested in representations of women than in gender dynamics that occur behind the scenes. James Chapman’s ‘Downton Abbey and contemporary British costume drama’ mapped the changes the costume drama has experienced since c2000 in reaction to the male-oriented contemporary high-end dramas Spooks, Hustle, and Life on Mars. Sarah Cardwell provided a fascinating analysis of several adaptations of Austen’s Persuasion that representation of gender was influenced by contemporary production contexts. Laura Mayne’s ‘Televisual film, cinematic drama: space, technology and aesthetics in early Films on Four’ examined what differentiates film from television drama through analyses of Remembrance (Colin Gress 1982), Angel (Neil Jordan 1982) and Accounts (Michael Darlow 1983) whilst considering the texts’ relatively unorthodox depictions of gender. Other papers used women-centred drama to address their spatial-oriented [Ed: space-oriented, surely] research. Billy Smart’s ‘Within These Walls: the particular strengths and qualities of studio drama’ used a scene from the women’s prison drama to demonstrate, through close textual analysis, how viewers’ unfolding understanding of character and narrative were conditioned through the organisation of space. Collectively this scholarship is adding to our knowledge of women and their role in the television industry both behind and in front of the camera.
The Spaces of Television conference succeeded in demonstrating the range of developed academic research within television studies, and how representations of gender will always be a dynamic strand of research that enables scholars to read into the sociological construction and significance of production spaces.
Ben Lamb is a PhD candidate at the University of South Wales.
His work is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council
as part of the ‘Spaces of Television’ research project. His thesis
examines the developing aesthetics of British television studio
drama, particularly focusing on how certain technologies impacted
upon performance styles. Through a genre examination of key
police series his thesis charts how desires, expectations and
evaluations of fictional space changed over time for programme
makers, performers and reviewers.