Science and Performance: Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s 1960s Science Fiction

Science and Performance: Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s 1960s Science Fiction

by Jonathan Bignell

Awards season brings those who work creatively behind the camera in a variety of technical roles into the spotlight, albeit briefly. It galvanises our commitment to the work of writing a history which properly incorporates women’s contribution to the language of film and television.

Condensing fascinating and precise detail of their working methods, Jonathan Bignell’s homage to the collaboration between Sylvia and Gerry Anderson highlights just such a key contribution to technical invention and storytelling possibilities. Co-creating iconic series such as Thunderbirds and Stingray in the 1960s, Sylvia went on to work in television beyond this creative partnership – personal and professional – with Gerry. And in 2014, the voice of Lady Penelope herself tantalised with an unrealised prospect: ‘Lady Penelope has been a constant in my life, and recently my daughter Dee and I have been working on a script for an animated series that will hopefully introduce her to a new generation. She’ll be a Lady Penelope for the 21st century.’[i]


Jonathan Bignell’s contribution was first published with CST Online on 28th November 2014. Many thanks to Kim Akass, editor, and the individual contributors, for giving permission for their articles to appear here. These and other articles can be accessed in CST’s archive on their current website: here.


We welcome further contributions both on and from women working in the industry, spanning historical research to current reflections on inheritance and experience.

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson began making puppet series for British television in the 1950s, and by the end of the 1960s, their company had made Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and Joe 90. Anderson’s last puppet series of the decade was The Secret Service, blending live action with puppets in a contemporary setting. Across the decade, puppets and puppetry generated technological innovation in the production of the programmes, puppet performance was developed aesthetically, and puppet adventures expressed the techno-futurist ambitions of the time. Puppets were taken seriously as an effective way to produce profitable television for domestic and international sale. According to Anderson, the export to the USA of Supercar in 1962 saved both his own company and also the distributor, Lew Grade’s ITC, and the fact that all of the 1960s puppet series were screened in the USA by the networks or in syndication affected how they were commissioned, cast and shot. Their action-adventure formats were intended to appeal to both UK and US audiences, they were shot on film because that was how drama was made in the USA, and they used international settings and both British and North American performers.

Fig. 1. A futuristic London Airport in Thunderbirds

A futuristic London Airport in Thunderbirds

Technical Innovation

The Andersons studios were in Slough, where numerous contributors worked on puppet and set construction, and special effects. The company made filmed television using film cameras on soundstages, but the use of puppets meant production did not require backlot sets built on the studio premises or shooting in outside locations. Nevertheless the programmes were not cheap or simple to make; with the production of  Stingray  it became necessary for two crews to work simultaneously on the filming, on two parallel soundstages, and the studio had to manufacture duplicate sets of puppets at different scales. A similar system was adopted to make Thunderbirds, for which episodes were shot two at a time, using three soundstages, one for models and effects and two others for puppet performance. With around 100 effects sequences per episode, Thunderbirds demanded elaborate planning, with up to seven puppeteers at a time on a bridge structure eight feet above the set, controlling the puppets and vehicles. The company developed video assist in 1957 so that the production crew could see what was being filmed, back projection in puppetry was pioneered for Supercar’s title sequence, and proportionately sized puppets were introduced in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons when the Andersons’ technicians invented tiny solenoids that would fit inside puppets’ heads. They invented electronic lip-synch to precisely match a pre-recorded voice track to the puppets’ mouths.

These innovations were designed to enhance realism, because the cinephiles Gerry and Sylvia Anderson wanted to match live action verisimilitude. They used inserted shots of real hands for close ups, for example, and continually strove to make puppets move like live actors. The focus on futuristic settings and vehicles in the programmes was initially motivated by the Andersons’ dissatisfaction with puppets’ ability to walk convincingly, leading to vehicular movement instead.

Fig. 2. Inside Cloudbase in Captain Scarlet: no walking necessary!

Inside Cloudbase in Captain Scarlet: no walking necessary!

Performance

Settings, vehicles and special effects make up for some of the puppets’ limitations and become performative in the programmes’ telefantastic fictional worlds. So, for example, the title sequence of  Thunderbirds  gives equal prominence to the Tracy’s vehicles and the family’s members. The places represented in Anderson’s series are diverse, reflecting the reach and effectiveness of the protagonists, who usually work for international organisations with law-enforcement or humanitarian aims. Some environments express 1960s modernity and technology, but there are also atavistic or exotic spaces, and moving between spaces is a key feature of the programmes. The science fictional worlds offer opportunities for the visual revelation of machines and physical action, and vehicles feature prominently. Storylines are constructed around spectacular moments, but also longer effects sequences that showcase technologies in operation. A rolling road and a rolling sky backdrop were invented to facilitate movement and action in vehicle sequences, and a custom-made mix of gunpowder created rocket blasts and explosions. Extended long shots situate vehicles and buildings in large sets, where narrative pace is often generated by editing and music rather than puppet action. Puppet performances are enriched by, and embedded in, a fantasy space that has emotional texture and verisimilar realisation.

The company used voice actors who were American or Canadian, as well as British, primarily to increase exportability, but also with important effects on how characters and performances were created and perceived. In Thunderbirds, for example, the Britishness of Lady Penelope and her butler Parker drew on the cultural meaning of ‘cool Britannia’ in the 1960s. Sylvia Anderson scripted Lady Penelope in Thunderbirds with ‘not only the daring and panache of a secret agent but also the poise of a cool and beautiful aristocrat’, and costume ideas for the puppet were based on Sylvia’s interest in the Carnaby Street styles of 1960s London.[ii]

Transatlantic voices included the Canadian actor Paul Maxwell who voiced Steve Zodiac of Fireball and various characters in Captain Scarlet. The Canadian-born Shane Rimmer voiced Thunderbirds’ Virgil Tracy and also appeared in Captain Scarlet and Joe 90. Key puppet characters also facially resemble American film actors, or international stars, because in defining the characters this was an effective way to indicate character to their designers and to viewers. Supercar’s antagonist Masterspy was based on the portly Sydney Greenstreet, and his henchman Zarin sounded like Peter Lorre, thus recalling these actors’ pairing in The Maltese Falcon (1941). The Lorre characterization was reprised for the enemy agent X20 in Stingray, and the series’ hero Troy Tempest was based on the film star James Garner. The character Marina seems modelled on Ursula Andress, seen in Dr No (1962), and Atlanta Shore facially resembled Lois Maxwell, the Canadian actress who voiced her and who appeared in the James Bond films as Miss Moneypenny. Captain Scarlet was intended to signal sophistication, by resemblance to Cary Grant in both the puppet’s facial features and in his voice. The appeal of Anderson’s puppet series depended on aesthetic features in performance that richly referenced popular culture, and compensated for a perceived the lack of nuance in puppet performance.

Fig. 3. Captain Scarlet, modelled on Cary Grant

Captain Scarlet, modelled on Cary Grant

Making programmes for children using the devalued mode of the puppet series, and the devalued genre of television science fiction, the Andersons could experiment and innovate. The economic success of the programmes fuelled rapid development, and the efficiency of the industrial organization necessary to quickly complete the episodes. The producers tried to find puppet equivalents to realist styles of screen acting and characterizations, matching voice to body both technically via lip-synching and by practices of puppet design and styles of movement. They aimed to take the puppets and their stories seriously. But the puppets’ limitations as performers meant that the other aspects of mise-en-scène, especially vehicles and associated bases like Tracy Island, took on performative characteristics too. In the Andersons’ fictional world, echoing Marx’s theory of the commodity, things are given life.

Fig. 4. Stingray launches from its underwater base

Stingray launches from its underwater base

Jonathan Bignell is Professor of Television and Film at the University of Reading. He has written about Gerry and Sylvia Andersons’ series in the collection British Science Fiction Film & Television, and presented versions of this topic at the International Association for Media & History and Screen Studies conferences. He led the research project Spaces of Television: production, site and style from 2010-15, and is currently collaborating on the research project Harold-Pinter-Histories-and-Legacies, documenting and analysing Pinter’s work for stage and screen.

[i] ‘Voice of Lady Penelope Sylvia Anderson: ‘We helped children escape into their imagination’’ Danny Scott, 9 March 2014, Express Online. Accessed via: http://www.express.co.uk/life-style/life/463580/Thunderbirds-Sylvia-Anderson-on-being-the-voice-of-Lady-Penelope

[ii] Cited in ‘Sylvia Anderson obituary’ Anthony Hayward, 16 March 2016, theguardian.com. Accessed via: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/mar/16/sylvia-anderson-obituary-thunderbirds-co-creator

Whose Awards Are These Anyway?

Whose Awards Are These Anyway?

Natalie Wreyford

In a very timely article, Natalie Wreyford, BAFTA voter and member of Women’s Film and Television History Network, raises some key questions regarding fairness in award ceremonies’ voting processes. She asks whether we need to consider external contexts more seriously, such as the behaviour of nominees to their co-workers or the influence of marketing techniques on the voting process? And crucially, in a year when The Oscars seemed to take a tentative step from escapism to empathy’ in choosing Moonlight as Best Picture, she considers what creative diversity has been lost through history as a result of the system as it still stands.

This article originally appeared at the f-word contemporary uk feminism online and is reprinted here, updated for Oscars 2017, with their kind permission. This article originally appeared at the f-word contemporary uk feminism online and is reprinted here, updated for Oscars 2017, with their kind permission.

I became a member of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) in 1999, when the then co-chair of the film committee, Simon Relph, recognised that the awards’ results were being skewed by the membership’s demographic . As a result, he offered to second any membership proposals for people under 30 and dramatically reduce their fees to promote access into the awarding body. My brilliant boss, Pippa Cross of Granada Film, nominated me and I found myself in the club.

I say this because that’s what BAFTA is. A club, and a private one at that. You can’t just bowl up to their offices and vote for what you think was the best film this year. There are strict criteria about joining and remaining a member. Although BAFTA has very recently abolished the need to be nominated and seconded by an existing member, you still need five years professional experience in a creative, technical or executive role in film, TV or video games. More problematically, the membership committee will consider the “quality” and number of your credits and any award nominations, so value judgments are still being applied. Indeed, even if you pass the selection process, film voting is currently capped and you will be put on a waiting list until BAFTA is able to identify those whose career has stalled and taken their voting rights away from them, as they do every year now in a process which has the potential to favour men voters. In the last few years the world has started to notice that it’s not just the age range of clubs such as BAFTA and the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the awarding body for the Oscars) which influences how they vote, but the gender and the race of its members too.

Small steps are being taken to address this. The Academy has opened its membership to welcome more women and people of colour, something that appears to have paid off, particularly for black actors in the 2017 Oscar Nominations. BAFTA has also announced its intention to apply the BFI’s diversity standards to the awards for Outstanding British Film and Outstanding Debut from 2019 (not two of the heavy-weight awards). But the question at the heart of it all is – do these initiatives sufficiently challenge the power of the few (white, men)?

Viola Davis wins at Oscars 2017: But can these awards ever be fair?

Viola Davis wins at Oscars 2017: But can these awards ever be fair?

When the BAFTA nominations for 2017 were announced my social media timelines erupted with complaints – from women, people of colour and British film workers who were concerned about the dominance of the American independent film sector in British awards. Despite a selection of strong contenders this year, such as Madina Nalwanga, Lupita N’yongo, Trevante Rhodes and Naomie Harris for acting, and Barry Jenkins, Amma Asante, Maren Ade, Andrea Arnold and Mira Nair for directing, the nominations in these categories were still dominated by white, American men. The African-American Film Critics Association has declared 2016 the best year ever for black cinema. But how well is this reflected in this year’s BAFTAs? April White, who created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, has responded to this year’s nominations by saying that they don’t go far enough and true diversity is still a long way off. Women and gender fluid individuals are still woefully underrepresented and people of Asian and Latino origin make a very scarce appearance. Disability does not seem to exist in this world at all, and is certainly not visible. Yet already media outlets are declaring diversity has been achieved.

In my work, I spend a lot of time thinking about fairness in the film industry and several years researching gender inequality in film. The barriers that women face are often the same ones faced by anyone who doesn’t fit the dominant wealthy, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied model: you don’t fit in, you’re not one of us. Fairness is a very scarce quantity. Nepotism, unconscious bias, sexual harassment – these are all far more common. But can these awards ever be fair?

As a BAFTA voter, I have struggled with my conscience this year over Manchester By the Sea, which was nominated in several categories including Best Film, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress. I am deeply troubled by the allegations brought by two women against the film’s star, Casey Affleck, and support those who are considering a boycott of the film. Cinematographer Magdalena Gorka and producer Amanda White have both sued Affleck for sexual misconduct (on a previous film where he was the director), including groping, sending pictures of his genitals through film equipment, getting into bed with Gorka uninvited and fostering a culture of sexist abuse, e.g. instructing a crew member to show his penis. Affleck settled out of court but you can still read details of both Gorka and White’s complaints.

Casey Affleck with BAFTA: What message regarding the rights of women film workers?

Casey Affleck with BAFTA: What message regarding the rights of women film workers?

However, as a BAFTA voter, I am required to watch all the films nominated in the final round of each category. My only other option is to abstain from voting in the categories. I do not want to watch Manchester By the Sea because I do not wish to spend two hours of my life being asked to empathise with Casey Affleck. BAFTA asked me to consider if it is fair to the other people who made the film. I feel very strongly that it is more important to support the right of women film workers not to suffer sexual harassment. I am concerned at the message sent when their assailants are subsequently celebrated by the great and the good of the industry, not least that this could discourage young women thinking of a career in film.

So am I being unfair to those who choose to make a film with Casey Affleck? Would you watch The Cosby Show to enjoy it’s editing work? Or Jim’ll Fix It for the set design? All I’m asking for is the option to chose to not watch this film without losing my ability to participate in the voting, as is possible in the first round. I understand this brings complications and questions of fairness, but the system is far from fair now. In the end, I didn’t watch it, and I lost my vote in many categories.

Casey Affleck won both the BAFTA award and the Oscar for Best Actor. The film also won best screenplay at both so the system was “fair” to Kenneth Lonergan (white, American, male, winner of many other awards). He has had his talents recognised (again). However, the bigger question at play is here: what is the purpose of these award ceremonies? Whose interests do they serve? Do they really tell audiences (or film financiers) who is the best and which films we should be watching? It’s become increasingly clear that the award doesn’t always go to the most deserving. It’s even true for white men. It’s not hard to find theories about Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino or Leonardo di Caprio being given an award for a lesser film or performance because they were overlooked previously or have ‘served their time’. Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin and Stanley Kubrick somehow never won an Oscar. How many women, how many people of colour have been unrecognised over the years – even when considering those who actually were nominated are pretty exceptional and have had to overcome many barriers to even reach that stage?

The 2017 BAFTA nominations were dominated by Americans at least partly because of the cost of sending out DVD screeners around the world. I’m always amazed when a courier pulls up at my door for me to sign for a jiffy bag containing a glossy flier – not even the film itself. But we can’t ignore that awareness of a film undeniably influences voters. Knowing about a film, hearing that friends and colleagues have chosen to watch something, seeing images of it everywhere you look – these are the things that are likely to increase your sense that this film is a priority. But what if watching La La Land, Nocturnal Animals, Silence, Manchester By the Sea and Sully means you run out of time to consider The Queen of Katwe, Moonlight, When Marnie Was There or 20th Century Women? In the first round of BAFTA voting, members must only vote for films that they have seen. So what if your film isn’t considered a priority? What if you don’t have the budget to promote it or the stars to get press interviews circulating and whet appetites? Your film could well not make it into the official nominations based on marketing budgets alone.

It’s time to accept that these film awards aren’t fair in the way that we want them to be, unfortunately just like the industries that make them. By continuing to listen to their judgments about who is the ‘best’ and which films are a ‘must-see’, we are playing into the hands of the establishment of a small and exclusive minority who are take our money and continue to make films by and about white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied men: what good leaders they make, what good fathers they make, and what good heroes they make. Affleck is not the first powerful man in film and television to be accused of improper behaviour towards women or indeed children. In fact the list seems to be rapidly growing as women feel increasingly able to speak out. In the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency, there’s never been a better time to question why we continue to celebrate these men. This year, everyone who voted for many of the key BAFTA awards is someone who is prepared to watch a film starring a man who has been accused by two women of sexual harassment in the workplace. And he won. We will never know for certain if he did the things he is accused of as he settled out of court. However, if those in the entertainment industries continue to stick their fingers in their ears and chant “La la land” when told things they don’t want to hear then, as a BAFTA voter, I think audiences should question the validity of the entertainment awards and be aware that the “best man” doesn’t always win.

Natalie Wreyford is currently Research Fellow attached to the AHRC-funded project ‘Calling the Shots: Women and Contemporary UK Film Culture’ established at Southampton University to investigate the lack of women in key roles in the UK film industry. She worked for many years in the British film industry including as a senior executive at the UK Film Council.

My Mum was a Feminist in the 1970s: Radical Feminism in ‘Fresh Meat’

 

My Mum was a Feminist in the 1970s: Radical Feminism in Fresh Meat

 Susan Berridge

In her CST Online blog on the Channel 4 sitcom Fresh Meat, Susan Berridge considered the portrayal of feminism itself through its recurring characters, leading on to key questions for creatives and academics alike concerning fictional portrayals on television: “Regardless of whether the feminist scholar celebrates or condemns an individual text, the polemical question of how feminist the text is prevails.”

Susan Berridge’s contribution was first published with CST Online on 9th January 2014. Many thanks to Kim Akass, editor, and the individual contributors, for giving permission for their articles to appear here. These and other articles can be accessed in CST’s archive on their current website here.


We welcome further contributions on aspects of women’s work in television and on related questions of representation, audiences and authorship and institution.

In the introduction to their 2006 edited collection, Joanne Hollows and Rachel Moseley reflect on the decision to name their book Feminism in Popular Culture rather than Feminism and Popular Culture, arguing that ‘the idea of feminism and popular culture tends to presume that a “real” and “authentic” feminism exists outside of popular culture, and offers a position to judge and measure feminism’s success or failure in making it into the mainstream’ (p. 1). Instead, they note that their own initial encounters with feminism were through popular culture, including television. As they explain, ‘it was feminism in popular culture that formed the basis for later feminist identifications and politics’ (p. 2). With this in mind, this blog considers how feminism is negotiated in a recent episode of Channel 4’s university-based sitcom Fresh Meat (Season 3, Episode 5).

fresh-meat

The main plot of this episode focuses on a rare visit from Vod’s hedonistic mother, interwoven with several secondary narratives involving the personal problems of the other core housemates. The storyline I’m most interested in involves Candice, the only first year student in the house, becoming in her own words, ‘radicalised’ after taking a course by an inspirational feminist lecturer. With resonances to the contemporary No More Page 3 campaign, she then embarks on a mission coined ‘object to objectification’ to stop the sale of lads’ mags in the University, later joined by fellow housemate, Howard.

A clip from Freshmeat Unlocked – an online platform launched by Channel4.com, which purports to offer exclusive access to the video content of the fictional characters’ smart phones as ‘part of Channel 4’s ongoing viewer engagement strategy’ – gives a useful taster of the storyline. Candice’s video is made with the purpose of explaining feminist aims to Howard. (In previous episodes it is hinted that Candice is growing increasingly attracted to Howard and this episodic narrative pushes their relationship further).

From watching this brief clip, it seems that feminism in the show is framed as a bit of a joke and not necessarily something to be taken seriously, despite Candice’s best efforts to the contrary. Reading earnestly from a dense feminist text, throwing a stack of lads’ mags to the floor and stamping on them and staring confrontationally at the camera while wearing some plastic breasts on her head without any sense of self-awareness or humour, Candice looks somewhat ridiculous. There is a sense that she is trying (and failing) to be cool and sophisticated, reinforced by the clip’s style. It has the feel of a poorly made ‘yoof’ music video, featuring the repetition of key buzz words and cheesy background dance music.

Within the wider series Candice is often depicted as out of touch with contemporary pop culture, having been home-schooled before attending university. In the episode itself, her feminist politics are interpreted by many of her housemates as yet further evidence of her disconnection, with Josie exclaiming incredulously that Candice didn’t even know who Simon Cowell was. Her politics are framed as belonging to a different, earlier generation, reinforced by Vod’s mother’s explicit rejection of feminism as something connected to her own mother. As she explains, ‘My mum was a feminist in the 70s and that is why in the 90s, we told feminism to go fuck itself!’ Indeed, Candice’s concern with the sexual objectification of women arguably connects her more with second-wave feminist politics rather than post- or third-wave feminism and the clip draws upon common myths of the second-wave feminist as overly censorious and serious. These allusions to stereotypes of the second-wave are carried through the episode in her costuming, wearing denim dungarees and a chunky knitted cardigan.

However, while Candice’s politics might be viewed as out-of-date by the majority of her housemates, there are several points in the episode where the continued relevance of feminism is emphasised, albeit often subtly. For example, her quest to stop the University from selling lads’ mags stems from the blatant sexism of one of J.P.’s former school friends, who, in response to Candice explaining her problem with the sexual objectification of women, tells her she is just jealous due to her unattractiveness. J.P.’s ‘friend’ is quite clearly the villain here, establishing Candice in comparison as a force of order. The legitimacy of Candice’s campaign is further reinforced by Howard’s gradual, albeit reluctant, feminist enlightenment throughout the episode. Although socially inept, Howard is portrayed in the series as intelligent and Candice’s lecturer’s book has a deep impact on him, despite his initial discomfort and resistance. His studious nature, being typically well-informed about issues that take his interest, lends added weight to his later realisation in the episode that there is no such thing as ‘harmless’, ‘ethically-sourced’, ‘free-range’, non-exploitative porn.

One of the most interesting moments in the narrative, to me, occurs between Howard and Oregon, when he asks her if she has ever been affected by sexual objectification. Oregon scoffs ‘no way!’, before then going on to list several instances where she has been, from being beeped at by men in white vans while walking home from school in her uniform, to being scared walking alone at night, to experiencing verbal sexual harassment at building sites, to feeling uneasy in certain types of clothing, to having a man grope and flash at her. ‘Other than that, it’s, like, no big deal’, she ends, as Howard sits looking crestfallen. Oregon’s response points to the relationship between different forms of male sexual harassment, connected by the discomfort and fear that women feel in response. This, in turn, resonates with Liz Kelly’s (1988) definition of sexual violence as a continuum.

At the same time, Oregon isn’t portrayed as particularly bothered about these experiences, seeming to accept them as a normal part of everyday life. This light-hearted tone can be attributed to the generic norms of the sitcom, but at the same time, it closes down the potential for gendered solidarity between Oregon and Candice. While Oregon is one of the series’ most politicised characters (in the following episode, she is centrally involved in a sit-in to stop a fellow student being deported), she is also often competitive with Candice, frustrated at Candice’s unwillingness to accept her as a mentor. In this episode, she frequently scorns Candice’s politics, arguing that ‘some women bang the drum, others…use words’. Indeed, Howard is the only housemate who helps Candice with her campaign. This lack of solidarity is particularly notable when compared to the support the housemates show Vod in the face of her mother’s abuse.

Ultimately, the storyline functions as a catalyst to advance Howard and Candice’s romantic relationship, which has been hinted at in previous episodes. Candice’s politics grow ambiguous when, in response to Howard’s anger that her enlightenment has ruined his enjoyment of porn, she shyly suggests they could have sex instead. Shortly after this, during her protest, she decides to ‘get [her] tits out’ to ‘fly in the face of body fascism’. At the end of the episode Howard takes on the unlikely role of knight-in-shining-armour, whipping off his top in support of Candice as she is dragged off by university security guards. Indeed, the episode centres more on Howard’s response to feminism than Candice’s and it is he who is pictured on the front page of the student magazine covering the protest. This is not necessarily surprising given that Howard is a more central character than Candice, who only moved into the student house at the start of season three. However, it also resonates with a key finding of feminist scholarship on televisual representations of rape, that white men are frequently portrayed as better feminists than female characters (Cuklanz, 2000; Projansky, 2001; Moorti, 2002). It is notable as well that the storyline is interwoven with other narratives revealing more sensitive sides to the male housemates. For example, in this episode, the usually arrogant J.P. ends up sobbing to Vod that he is heart-broken, while Kingsley embarks on a mission to make Josie have an orgasm (although, notably, this can be read as less about prioritising female sexual pleasure, and more to do with a bruised male ego).

There’s a danger here of me replicating the ‘ur-feminist’ article, identified by Charlotte Brunsdon (2006: 44). To summarise briefly, in this article the feminist scholar explores a text within the concerns and vocabulary of feminism, establishing a supposedly obvious feminist reading in which the text is dismissed as not being feminist enough. The author then mobilises her own engagement with the text and re-evaluates this dismissal, arguing that the text actually reveals the complexities of negotiating a feminist identity in the contemporary age. Underlying this work is an assumption that texts are either governed by a patriarchal and inherently sexist ideology or are able to transcend this to incorporate feminist discourses.

Regardless of whether the feminist scholar celebrates or condemns an individual text, the polemical question of how feminist the text is prevails. This assumes that there is a better, more ideal way of representing feminist issues. One of the main problems with this assumption is that it presumes that there is a ‘real’, fixed, common notion of feminism in the first place. Yet, an array of different feminisms exist making this argument rather circuitous. In the episode itself the multiple interweaving storylines and ensemble cast privilege polysemic understandings of feminism, from Candice’s full-scale celebration of second-wave politics, to Howard’s weary and reluctant acceptance to Vod’s mother’s complete rejection.

The rigidity of this approach also frequently means that the specificities of genre and narrative form are overlooked. As John Ellis points out in his cst blog, Fresh Meat can be defined as a sitcom. It is not surprising then that the feminist storyline is played largely for laughs. But, at the same time, there are moments in this episode that are extremely emotive and hard-hitting, particularly Vod’s mother’s abuse, suggesting that the series does have room to portray issues in a more serious light when it chooses to. As Ellis argues, “sitcom characters are only one laugh away from tragedy”. Ellis also points out that the housemates are bound by their vulnerability as they negotiate the transition the adulthood. Candice, in particular, is frequently portrayed as the most vulnerable, naïve and inexperienced housemate, easily influenced by others. In light of this, her feminism in this episode could be read as just another short-lived phase. However, notably, while the following episode makes no explicit mention of her campaign, she is depicted reading a feminist book.

One of the reasons Candice’s storyline stood out for me is that it mirrors the same way I came to identify as a feminist, after taking a particularly inspirational course as an undergraduate. And yet, while I didn’t explicitly identify as a feminist before this point, like Hollows and Moseley my understanding of feminism and women’s capabilities were initially formed, in large part, through watching strong female characters on TV. While I certainly don’t want to over-simplify viewer engagement or suggest a cause-and-effect relationship between what people watch and their attitudes and beliefs, I do think representations matter. Television does not present ‘a window on the world’, its representations are not reflective of reality, but nevertheless, representations are generative and productive and, thus, worth closer analysis. This analysis is arguably all the more important in light of recent news coverage of widespread sexism in university campuses across the UK (see here and here for just a couple of examples). I have no conclusive answers as to what meanings of feminism are privileged by Fresh Meat. This is open to interpretation. Instead, what this episode does is highlight how ‘the popular operates as a site of struggle over the meanings of feminism’ (Hollows and Moseley 2006: 8).

Dr Susan Berridge is Lecturer in Film and Media and a member of the Centre for Gender and Feminist Studies at the University of Stirling. Her research interests include screen representations of gender, sexuality, sexual violence and age in popular culture. She has published on these themes in relation to US and UK television drama series, the teen genre, Hollywood comedies and constructions of stardom. She is also particularly interested in serial narrative forms and issues of identification, and the gendered impact of care on practitioners working in the film and television industries.

Breaking the Sound Barrier: Women Sounding Out in British and Irish Film & Television

Breaking the Sound Barrier: Women Sounding Out in British and Irish Film & Television

(Organised by the Women’s Film & Television History Network UK/Ireland, held at the BFI Southbank and supported by MeCCSA Women’s Media Studies Network)

 Fjoralba Miraka

In this week’s blog, Fjoralba Miraka gives a lively account of the WFTHN event held at the BFI Southbank in June 2016, which focused on the history of sound in cinema and women’s roles within it – past, present and future.

Breaking the Sound Barrier, a WFTHN event held at the BFI in June 2016, followed the tradition of unearthing women’s contribution to cinema by bringing together film scholars, researchers, and practitioners whose passionate engagement with film culture brought to life this key aspect of women’s film history. It continued to question how parts of film historiography do not necessarily become part of the film canon. The event was organised in celebration of the network’s 10-year anniversary and was dedicated to highlighting film research into women’s work in sound media and the work they have produced. The whole day emphasised how sound constitutes a rich, if sometimes overlooked, area of study. The event could be described as a constellation of personal and professional perspectives: including illustrated presentations, a lively round table discussion with the audience, and concluding with special film screenings from the silent and sound periods of British film and television.

The presentations opened with a historical overview of the transition from silent to sound film by Senior Lecturer in Film Studies, Laraine Porter, who offered a very concise perspective on the transition to sound in the industry, a moment in which control passed to male technicians.[i]

Film historian Melanie Bell[ii] continued this historical perspective, sharing her work in progress on women filmmakers and women sound operatives. Notable amongst these careers was that of industry-acclaimed Foley artist Beryl Mortimer – ‘Beryl the Boots.’[iii]

Emma Sandon offered an enlightening presentation on the work of idiosyncratic and independent woman music composer, Elisabeth Lutyens, demonstrating the diversity of her work including for The Boy Kumasenu (1952), set in Ghana[iv] and The Skull (1965) whose popular soundscape earned her the name of ‘Horror Queen’.

David Butler of Manchester University, where the Delia Derbyshire Archive is based[v], offered insightful notes into this radical sound designer and composer of the 1960s, who pioneered developments at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and was the creator of the iconic Doctor Who theme. A special touch was the screening of For Delia (2016), a visual response to her work by artist Mary Stark, accompanied by a collage of Derbyshire’s own music and sound effects produced between 1966-1968.[vi]

The afternoon saw a shift to more personal accounts of women engaging practically with sound from the 1970s to more recent contexts. Terry Wragg described ‘how we learnt to do sound for ourselves’ as a founder member of Leeds Animation Workshop.  Both early and late works resonated with the audience, from Pretend Youll Survive (1981) and the most recent work They Call Us Maids (2015) which narrates the real-life stories of migrant women from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who become maids in the host countries.

Sound editor Adèle Fletcher elaborated on her own more contemporary experience in the film industry, noting a gender divide whereby sound effects work tends to attract male technicians whereas dialogue attracts female sound editors. Judi Lee-Headman, who has been working as a production sound mixer for three decades, explained how it was the technology itself which attracted her and gave a fascinating insight into current challenges involved in working live and on-set.

There followed a round table discussion with experts, chaired by Bryony Dixon of the National Film and Television Archives (NFTVA), in which the audience engaged in a lively Q&A session focusing particularly on questions relating to the prioritization of the visual over sound in study and considered whether the interplay between sound and image could be a means of exploring gendered subjectivity further. The event concluded with the screening of four films by women directors – Beatrice Gilman, Jill Craigie, Joanna Davis, and Sally Potter – introduced by Angela Martin.

The network was especially pleased to host the premiere of Catherine Grant’s film essay: The Secret Thoughts of Laura Jesson (As Voiced by Celia Johnson) a haunting critical imagining of Brief Encounter’s innermost voice.

The event was staged with the support of the MeCCSA Women’s Media Studies Network, AMPS, and the University of Sunderland. We owe our special thanks to the BFI and to the organisers: Lee-Jane Benion-Nixon, Elaine Burrows, Christine Gledhill, Deborah Jermyn, Janet McCabe, Angela Martin, and Emma Sandon.

Fjoralba Miraka is a PhD candidate at Roehampton University of London in the Department of Media, Culture and Language. Her Research focuses on the Hollywood Renaissance period of the late 1960s-mid 1970s. She holds and MA degree in American Literature and Culture and a BA in English Language and Philology, both from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Since 2014 she has been presenting at international conferences, in 2016 she offered two guest lectures at the University of Connecticut in London (UCONN), and she is interested in supporting feminist projects such as the FiLia exhibition in December 2016.

Email: mirakaf@roehampton.ac.uk

 

 

 

 

 


[i] Laraine Porter is currently working on the AHRC -funded project: ‘British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound.’

[ii] See: Melanie Bell and Vicky Ball’s AHRC-funded research project on women in British Film and TV from 1933 to 1989.

[iii] See our previous article by Natasha Pring, ‘My Love Affair with Foley.’

[iv] See Emma Sandon’s journal article: ‘Cinema and Highlife in the Gold Coast: The Boy Kumasenu (1952)’ in Journal of African Studies, 2013, 39 (3)

[v] See the celebration Delia Derbyshire Day, held at HOME in Manchester.

[vi] For details of lunchtime programme, see here.

TV’S Evil Queens

TV’s Evil Queens

by Lorna Jowett

In the third of our featured blogs from CST Online on women and television history, Lorna Jowett considers television’s female villains. She returns us to the 1970s and a true ‘evil queen’ of British science-fiction drama, Servalan of Blake’s 7: ‘She’s a true power-grabbing, back-stabbing, I-want-to-rule-the-world villain. And, to me, one of the best things about her is that Blake’s 7 never offered an explanation for a woman acting like this.’

Lorna Jowett’s contribution was first published with CST Online on 4th October 2013. Many thanks to Kim Akass, editor, and the individual contributors, for giving permission for their articles to appear here. These and other articles can be accessed in CST’s archive on their current website here.

We welcome further contributions on aspects of women’s work in television and on related questions of representation, audiences and authorship and institution.

I read with interest Christine Geraghty’s blog ‘Reappraising the Television Heroine’ from 6 September. Geraghty notes the prevalence in recent TV drama of the female detective, and she discusses various contemporary television series and their handling of female protagonists. The question she poses at the start of her blog is, what is it I’m looking for in a television heroine? This got me thinking, but not so much about female heroes. Why, I wondered, are some of my favourite female TV characters villains? And what am I looking for in a female villain?

The answer to the first question may be fairly obvious. In previous decades, powerful women were often villains because ‘real’ women or ‘good’ women didn’t have power. Of course, this means that female villains are often one-dimensional stereotypes: amoral, usually overtly sexualised, generally flashing lots of evil cleavage. Even these limitations can produce memorable characters. I’m sure I’m not the only one who enjoyed the risible Helen Cutter in Primeval for her laughably predictable lines and selection of low-cut tops. Even Helen’s action figure was defined by its evil cleavage. 1

The increase in complex characterisation in all kinds of television drama, and the equally discernable vogue for moral ambivalence has given us a slew of dark heroes and dubious protagonists, from Batman to Dexter Morgan. Characters who might earlier have been simply villains have taken centre stage in their own television shows: Vic Mackey dominated The Shield, and Walter White’s moral decline has made Breaking Bad one of the most talked about TV shows as it winds up its final season. Some of the female protagonists we’ve seen in detective drama are almost the equivalent of damaged, dark or deficient male heroes: Sarah Lund (Forbrydelsen) is a typically driven police officer who neglects her personal life and relationships to the point of isolation. Well before this current rash of female crime solvers, Xena sought redemption from a dark past by using her martial skills to help people (Xena: Warrior Princess). But what about villains?

There are also some memorable TV bitches, especially in soap opera, where the domestic arena allows female characters to shine. One of the reasons I love female villains so much is the superb Alexis Carrington Colby from Dynasty, watched during my formative years. The bitch characters of TV have also evolved, now often forming part of the team or at least a key part of an ensemble cast. Lilah Morgan in Angel was never just a villain and developed many layers of complexity in the show’s five-year run, for example.

But my favourite female villains aren’t just bitches. They’re über-bitches and supervillains—they’re Evil Queens. And I know exactly who’s responsible for this: Servalan, Supreme Commander of the Terran Federation’s military forces, and then President of the Federation, in Blake’s 7 (1978-1981). Servalan was astonishing.

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She is a military commander but she wore the most extravagant, impractical outfits (there are whole webpages dedicated to them). She has one of the shortest haircuts ever seen on a female TV character, long before Ripley appeared in Alien3 with a shaved head. In true evil queen and TV bitch style, she gets all the best lines and, often, the last word. She isn’t infallible and sometimes does get into trouble—but soon regains control of the situation. She’s a true power-grabbing, back-stabbing, I-want-to-rule-the-world villain. And, to me, one of the best things about her is that Blake’s 7 never offered an explanation for a woman acting like this. Yvonne Tasker, in her study of action cinema, points out that in order to present a strong, active female hero, most stories of the 1970s had to provide an ‘excuse’ or a justification for their protagonists behaving in this way. Female villains like Queen Yllana in the admittedly tongue-in-cheek B movie Queen of Outer Space (1958) are given similar motivations to explain their ‘unfeminine’ actions. Servalan never had or gave an excuse. Like any male evil megalomaniac, she just wanted power and she took it.

Actor Jacqueline Pearce recounts how Terry Nation wrote Servalan as a man, and only changed the sex of the character halfway through the first script, explaining, ‘I think this is why Servalan is probably so interesting.’ Servalan wasn’t in every episode of Blake’s 7, but she had a massive impact. The many fan montage videos posted on YouTube highlight her appeal as the epitome of the Evil Queen. One, titled ‘Supreme Queen’, accompanies its set of clips with Queen’s track ‘Killer Queen’, another posts the ‘tribute to Servalan’ with the added note, ‘Music is “I’m a Bitch” by Meredith Brooks’.

In between Servalan and today there have been other Evil Queens on television, including the Borg Queen (Voyager), Callisto (Xena: Warrior Princess), Glory (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Morgana (Merlin). But my current top Evil Queen on TV is exactly that, the Evil Queen from Once Upon a Time (2011-), aka Regina Mills.

Regina is the kind of complex, multilayered villain we’ve seen previously mostly played as male. I find Once Upon a Time so fascinating because it does a kind of role reversal with gender. Many of its characters are boring, one-dimensional, passive, needy and only there as eye candy. They’re mostly men. The one male character who’s given depth and interest is the villain. The majority of female characters, on the other hand, are active, interesting, complex and engaging. And this includes villains as well as heroes.

Taking fairy tale characters as the main cast for a TV drama and relocating them in a stereotypical small American town (Storybrooke) as ‘regular’ people might seem a dubious premise, despite the recent trend for fairy tale films. When I started watching Once Upon a Time, I was convinced it was going to be too saccharine, overwhelmed by happy endings and all-American ideologies. It continues to surprise me with what it brings to its characters. The main protagonist, Emma Swan, has a very shady past and gave her son up for adoption years ago. Another key female hero, Snow White aka Mary Margaret Blanchard, is shunned by the townspeople in the first season for conducting an illicit affair with a married man, and narrowly avoids becoming a murderer in the second. And the town mayor is none other than Regina Mills, the Evil Queen from the Snow White story, who married a widower, hunted down her husband’s daughter when she turned rebel, and steals her enemies’ hearts from their chests—literally.

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Regina consistently has the best lines, the best scenes and the best outfits. As the mayor, she wears power suits; as the Evil Queen her riding outfits include top hats and leather trousers worn beneath a floor-length split skirt.

Like Servalan she can rule, fight, and win in memorable, begging-to-be-cosplayed attire. 5Like Servalan her outfits might be sexy and her character seductive, but she is not reduced to an over-sexed female villain. As both the mayor of Storybrooke and Queen of the Enchanted Forest, Regina’s power is worldly, political power. Coupled with magic and a strong drive, this makes her a force to be reckoned with.

We are given reasons for Regina’s action and character, but these are not excuses to explain away a female villain. They are backstory, in a show that gives each and every character backstory. And Regina’s backstory is closely paralleled with that of the show’s main male villain, Rumplestiltskin aka Mr Gold. Both have family tragedy in their past. Both are motivated to maintain a strong relationship with their child, Rumplestiltskin with his lost son Baelfire, and Regina with her adopted son, Henry (Emma’s biological son). Both seek revenge against those they think have wronged them deeply, and see the world as something to be manipulated to their own advantage. Notably, though, it is Rumplestiltskin who is most consistently defined by heterosexual romance. His desire for vengeance and his transformation into the Dark One is fuelled by the loss if his wife. His persisting remnants of humanity are associated with Belle and his ongoing need to rekindle that relationship. Regina’s backstory includes a love affair with a stablehand in one world, and a fling with the town sheriff in the other, but these romances are not used to define her.

Regina’s history acquires further depth as we discover more about her mother, Cora. We find out (in ‘The Miller’s Daughter’ 2.16) that before becoming an evil enchantress, Cora was a miller’s daughter, as in the Rumplestiltskin story, and her will to power is contextualised within a system of unequal class and gender dynamics. Cora is an über-bitch and master-manipulator, not least of her own daughter, but we can understand why a disenfranchised member of the working class might want real world power to escape oppression. This episode was followed later in the second season by another simply called ‘The Evil Queen’ (2.20), which clearly articulated something hinted at in Regina’s character all along. She should be, and believes she is, just the Queen, a woman trying to the right thing; it is others who have labelled her the Evil Queen.

As self-deluding as Vic Mackey, and as engaging, Regina is capable of eliciting our 6understanding and often our sympathy, as well as our horror. Her story and its layers deal with specifically female experience: her difficult relationship with her mother, an equally difficult relationship with her step-daughter, and with her adopted son (who soon knows, and seems often to prefer, his biological mother), form the basis of many of her plot lines. Moreover, we are convinced that she does love Henry, even as we see her prepare to sacrifice the whole town so she can be reunited with him. She is a truly complex villain. Her actions are frequently unforgivable and appalling, yet she sometimes seems to teeter on the verge of redemption.

That would be a disappointment, frankly. I’m not holding out for a hero. I’m not rooting for Emma and Snow and Charming. I’m watching Once Upon a Time for her. Long live the Evil Queen.

Lorna Jowett is a Reader in Television Studies at the University of Northampton, UK, where she teaches some of her favourite things, including science fiction, horror, and television, sometimes all at once. She is the co-author with Stacey Abbott of TV Horror, author of Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan and editor of Time on TV: Narrative Time, Time Travel and Time Travellers in Popular Television Culture. She has published many articles on television, film and popular culture and her next book examines gender in the new Doctor Who franchise.