The following example may help to explain the point about absence more clearly. Imagine watching a TV police drama with a detective as a central character. At the end of a busy working day he goes home for his evening meal and instead of a long suffering wife taking his dinner out of the oven he is met by his gay partner. The situation is incidental though, because the drama is not about ‘gay issues’.
Does this happen very often? We can say that there is a great deal of representation of gay people in television these days, but hardly ever as incidental: it is usually central to the plot. So, gay people in a ‘normalised’, background sense are largely absent from TV drama.
Context : Every episode of this two series Drama begins with the voice of a main character reminding us: ‘My name is Sam Tyler. I has an accident and woke up in 1973. Am I mad? In a coma? Or back in time?’ The essential ingredient for the shows success is the audience knowing what Sam knows while the rest of the cast do not – what happens in the future.
The episode being discussed here is Series 2, Episode 3: ‘Car Bomb’. During the episode, an Irishman has been wrongly accused by DCI Gene Hunt of planting the bomb. The extract, which begins after 51 minutes and runs for three minutes, begins with the police officers giving the Irish character, a lift home.
Heavy rock music from the 1970’s plays as the camera zooms slowly through a line of washing hanging out in the grey Manchester weather, while Gene Hunt’s brown Ford Cortina (a key piece of iconography as this car has come to signify the 1970’s) crashes carelessly into a bin on the pavement in a street of terraced houses – a stereotypically Northern scene.
The two policemen disembark from the front seats and Tyler releases O’Brien from the back. We view this from a medium long shot with passers by watching the action. Through a combination of two shots, three shots and tableaux shots, we next witness a grudging apology from Hunt clearly elicited by Tyler. Then to a head and shoulder shot of O’Brien’s badly beaten face as he makes a defiant speech in response about the plight of Irishmen living in England who are denied the means to an honest employment and constantly suspected of terrorism. ‘You know what, big man I'm sick of shovelling s***’ As we return to a two shot it is clear that Tyler is sympathetic and guilty. Hunt wears a cynical frown. These two contrasting facial expressions are important aspects of performance non verbal communication that serves as a motif through the series in order to continually map out the differences between the two men.
Hunt then snorts – ‘He hasn’t just goy a chip on his shoulder, more like a whole chippy.’ For this shot, Tyler is in the foreground, back to hunt. Tyler’s long stare is then anchored by a weary ‘Yeah, well, I wonder why?’ This tired exasperated expression is worn by Tyler for most of the series, again serving to reinforce the frustration he experiences trying to live in a world which is literally years behind his thinking. To reinforce this even further, this still camera portrait of the two men is punctuated by an Asian man walking through the shot carrying a television. When challenged by Hunt, he proudly explains that he is moving into his new house. The camera pans to the exterior of the two shot, with Hunt announcing ‘Bit parky to be out in just a nightie.’ Again, Tyler’s expression of dismay returns to the foreground/background. Throughout this part of the extract mise en scene is natural, dreary but quintessentially 1970’s and Northern – terraced houses, grey skies, brown clothes and long hair. Rock music from the decade acts as a sound bridge from the previous scene and into the next one which takes place in a smoky pub.
Tyler is framed in the doorway of the pub, ghost like surrounded by smoke. This ghostly appearance is another visual motif that recurs, as whether or not Tyler is actually alive is an enigma, a back story to the drama. A round of applause breaks out and the camera moves to a tableaux shot and then a series of two shots as we see who is clapping – the rest of the team. Drinks are bought and we move to a mid shot of the characters drinking at a table, 1970’s pint pots are everywhere. The female officer Cartwright speculates that a female prime minister might be a good idea. Tyler, of course knows the future and says ‘I've a feeling you will regret saying that one day’, which is met by perplexed expressions. As this is the 1970’s, and sexism is rife in the police force, a comment about her underwear quickly follows. Throughout this scene, the mise en scene is constructed through smoke, pub noise, the iconography of the types of glasses being used and the visual elements of the setting – a red telephone and a jukebox on the wall.
At the macro level the representational meaning of the extract as a whole is entirely dependant on the audience recognising the distinction between the viewing time (2007) and the story time (1970’s) The idea of a female PM being strange, the treatment of Irishmen, the exotic nature of Asian clothing and the collision between Hunt’s ‘no nonsense’ style of policing and Tyler's sensitivity are all reliant on the audience bringing a great deal of cultural knowledge to the drama.
Case Study Extract: Rome
Context: This is an expensive HBO/BBC production takes ‘handed down’ historical events of the Roman Empire and offers a new perspective and spin on them. Several characters and storylines are not recognisable from the historical narratives we are familiar with putting a contemporary spin on period drama.
The episode in question is season 2 episode 4: The Tortoise and the Hare. The Roman arm are in Northern Greece. The extract appears 25 minutes into the episode. The action begins in a courtyard with recognisably Roman pillars. Music with Eastern, Arabic, Egyptian and ‘old world’ connotations provide the soundtrack.
We see a seated Roman solider (Agrippa) who shortly afterwards is joined by a female character (Octavia). As she sits she asks the cynical question ‘Long Day? It must be tiring killing innocent people even defenceless ones.’ As the dialogue continues, with the two characters seated discussing the morality of the Roman military activities. Two shots and over the shoulder are used with the continuity principles (the 360 degree rule and eye line match) are observed throughout. Then the discussion moves to more romantic concerns – whether or not his feelings are genuine. As he says the line – ‘I’ve been torturing myself these past months’, we switch to a close up for emotional impact.
The dialogue is now in relation to the ‘forbidden’ nature of the relationship. There follows a pattern of two – second head and shoulder shots, cutting between the two speakers/listeners followed by a single shot the couple kissing, with the focus on the background where an empty corridor between the pillars implies that the space will shortly be filled, thus presenting the threat of imminent discovery and suggesting that the kiss is illicit.
Knowledge of the drama conventions is required for the audience read the implication of the course. The diegetic sound of footsteps breaks the embrace and as the solider leaps from the screen to the right, another solider enters the frame by arriving in the corridor from around the corner. The depth of focus remains on Octavia as he approaches. As a conversation between the three characters ensues on the surface about taxes but filled with inference, non verbal communication is highly significant – the couples nerves are awkward, the new arrival amused and curious. As the two male characters depart the scene the camera moves to a close up on Octavia who wears a smile, clearly excited by the risk.
Next we cut to a very different location – a mob is discussing a power struggle over the rule of Rome in a dark, shadowy underground cave, and we enter this scene through a zoom, into a closed gate above the setting. The diegetic sound of the mob talking over one another loudly is used as a non – diegetic bridge over the zoom, to create and striking contrast with the calm mise en scene of the courtyard scene. Octavia is of a different social class and the mise en scene reflects a contrast with the mob.
The natural low key candle lit aesthetic is accompanied by characters in grey ragged clothes and unshaven features. No women are present, meaning that the only female representation in this extract is attractive and ‘forbidden’.
As various male characters discuss taxation and who should rule Rome, we cut to an overhead shot through the gates that we entered the scene at, thus the space, dynamics and underworld context of the scene is re-established. As the characters come into conflict, always shouting, we move to series, of close ups and two shots of characters offering one sentence at a time, followed by an over the shoulder shot of each speaker as they in turn offer extended dialogue, and finally to a still head and shoulder shot of one speaker who makes a longer speech. Here, a grammar of editing is observed, with the rhythm changing as we become more familiar with the events. The speech is made by a character directly challenging the previous statement by a Rabbi, by asking ‘Why let any of them rule? This is our land! You are traitors to your own kind!’ When asked to name his group, he shouts dramatically ‘we are the wrath of Israel.’ As the characters start to fight, first the camera stays in the midst of the action and then we return to the overhead zoom out, once again re-establishing the hostility of the environment.
The contrast between the two scenes in the extract is marked. There are three movements. First, the couple talk, kiss and are almost discovered. This is entirely fictional and a series drama romance conventions are observed. The mise en scene is regal, romantic and quiet dialogue dominates. Second we witness a political argument in a darker underground location with conflict, frustration and disempowerment reflected by the shadowy mise en scene and harsh candlelight (large flames moving in the wind as opposed to calming, romantic candlelight). At a macro level the representational contrast subsequently created here is social contrast, the empowerment and the dispossessed and between the fictional romance and the political conflict based on ‘known’ history.
Skins Case Study
Context: Skins is a series broadcast on channel 4 which has been subject to some controversy, due to its representation of youth culture, particularly the hedonistic aspects of it. Some critics argue that it actually influences the audience to behave in anti – social ways.
The extract analysed here revolves around the main storyline being Jal’s preparations for the young musician of the year competition. The extract begins 40 minutes into the episode, and starts with a shot of a closed red office door.
As we view the red door, we hear off screen diegetic dialogue ‘come in’ formal female voice and see the door open and Jal enter the frame looking anxious. We are seeing her from the point of view of the offices occupant, who is still not seen, but the camera looks up slightly at Jal, suggesting that the woman who summoned her in is seated. We cut to a shot of the head teacher behind her desk, who mispronounces Jal’s name and asks her to sit down.
Jal is then kept waiting in silence while the head teacher completes paperwork; we observe this through an over the shoulder shot so the front of the frame is filled by the back of the head teachers head, but the main focus is the facial expression worn by Jal – anxious, frustrated, annoyed. The mise-en-scene is highly formal and tense. The office is instantly recognisable as that of a head teacher. Another male teacher enters the room and we then hear a patronising speech from the head teacher with Jal silent. We cut between head and shoulder shots of the speaker and over the shoulder shots of the listener, the camera is always still. The lighting is simply that of an office – artificial, administrative, neutral and bland. Jal’s performance is significant throughout she grows in annoyance when hearing the line ‘we want to celebrate the amazing achievement from girl of your background’ The head teachers non verbal communication is equally crucial to the representational outcomes of the scene. A smug smile and earnest expression showing her to be completely unaware of the assumptions she is making.
Another statement that is rich in with topical cultural satire is the head teachers reference ‘working towards sustainable excellence under the “everything's getting better initiative”, its for people like you’. The smug smile of the speaker is, through simple hard cut editing juxtaposed with the horrified reaction of Jal., who is required to take part in several TV interviews to discuss her musical talents, for which she is given a checklist of things to say which will promote the school.
The entire sequence uses a still camera, no non diegetic sound, economic editing and a simple structure of head and shoulder and over the shoulder shots. The camera and editing is unobtrusive, in observer mode, allowing to focus us entirely on the dialogue and, more importantly, on the non verbal communication of the characters and the contrasts between them. The key representational theme here, at the macro level, is that of the teaching profession are cynical and an embarrassment, The audience for Skins clearly is significant here.
Next we cut to a bedroom where Jal and a friend are watching Jal’s TV performance, through which she enacts revenge by responding to every question with ‘no’. We witness this from a two shot from behind the two girls, with the backs of their heads in the foreground and the TV in the background – thus the girls watching is more important than the content of the TV programme itself. The we cut to a mid shot of the two characters on the sofa discussing what clothes Jal will wear for the competition and then to a mid shot of Jal’s friend finding clothes in the wardrobe for Jal to wear. Jal is anxious and disinterested but her friend is adamant that she should take her advice. Again this scene sets up a contrast – the black classical musician is a challenge to stereotyping but Jal is torn between her music, her friends and her age to some extent. Her friend contrasts with her in this sequence to set up a representational tension around feminity and sexuality themes which may, like the loathing of patronising teachers strike a nerve with the primary audience. Jal’s friend could be seen as a post feminist ‘playful’ construction, taking an ironic spin on sexual attraction.