Joyce, film and metaphor

On July 19, 2014, in Film, Literature, by Luke McKernan


Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise

I recently watched the Richard Linklater trilogy, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, which trace the romance over nineteen years between Céline (played by Julie Delpy) and Jesse (played by Ethan Hawke). They are much loved films and have been much discussed, and all I need to say about what I thought of them in general is that the first was very good, the second looked a bit rushed, and the third was better than the second.

But one aspect of the trilogy intrigued me, and that was the connection to the works of James Joyce. The first film, Before Sunrise (1994), takes place on June 16th (the date is specifically referenced in the film), which is the day on which Joyce’s novel Ulysses is set (‘Bloomsday’). Before Sunrise takes place on a single day and involves the traversing of a city, substituting Vienna for Dublin. Joyce chose the date 16 June 1904 as the setting for Ulysses as it was the first day that he stepped out with his future wife, Nora Barnacle, and the accidental meeting of Jesse and Céline, and the romance that then follows, consciously echoes this. And, just to add to the associations, while at university James Joyce translated a play by the German writer Gerhart Hauptmann – its title, Vor Sonnenaufgang, or Before Sunrise.


Ethan Hawke answering questions in Shakespeare and Company bookshop, in Before Sunset

Before Sunset (2004), the sequel which takes place nine years later, opens with Jesse giving a presentation on a novel he has written (based on his meeting with Céline, who comes to the reading, thus triggering the romance once again). It’s at Shakespeare & Company, a celebrated bookshop on the Left Bank in Paris. The original Shakespeare and Company, which was run by Sylvia Beach in the 1920s, was located at the 6th arrondissement; the present shop is in the 5th arrondissement, and was named in honour of Beach’s shop. James Joyce visited the original shop regularly, and it was Shakespeare and Company that published Ulysses in 1922.

So the Joycean connection is continued, but it is the third film, Before Midnight (2013), that is the most intriguingly if obscurely Joycean in theme. Jesse and Céline are now a couple with two children, and are holidaying in Greece. Greece is the home of the Homeric myths, of course, but the specific Joycean reference occurs when Céline recalls a black-and-white film from her teenage years which had a powerful impact on her, particularly a scene in which a couple visit Pompeii and see the bodies mummified by the volcanic explosion. She doesn’t name the film, but it is Viaggio in Italia (1954), or Voyage to Italy, Roberto Rossellini’s film about a couple’s sterile marriage, the couple being played by Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders.

Céline and Jesse are similarly becalmed, and that might be all there is to the subtle referencing of Rossellini’s film. But Voyage to Italy is also loosely based on James Joyce’s short story, ‘The Dead’, the tale of a seemingly happy marriage troubled by lingering thoughts about the past. It’s not a scene-for-scene remake; rather it is a loose homage, with a specific echo when Bergman’s character recalls a boy who may have died for love of her, just as Gretta Conroy does in Joyce’s story. It is a reference point for those who want to think more deeply about the film, though just in case you have missed the point there are the names of Sanders and Bergman’s characters: Mr and Mrs Joyce.


Before Midnight, at the point where Julie Delpy’s character recalls seeing Voyage to Italy

How much further can we play this game? Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (1963), aka Contempt, is partly an homage to Voyage to Italy, being as it is the story of an estranged husband and wife (Michel Piccoli and Bridget Bardot) in Italy. Much of the dramatic concerns the production of a film of Homer’s Odyssey aka Ulysses.

Literary films are too often produced, and subsequently critiqued, as facsimiles of what appears on the printed page, the plain conversion of a narrative from book to screen, with all of your favourite scenes and characters intact, or so you hope. This is a very narrow way of looking at literary adaptation. What is far more interesting is the oblique reference, the quoting of particular scenes, the echoing of themes, the suggestion of a connection to enrich appreciation. I have had a lot to do with Shakespeare on film in my time, and one thing I’ve been keen to promote is how a Shakespeare film can be just as much one with sly references to the plays as the plain transference of stage text to screen. It is just the case with other writers.

Back in 1995 I co-programmed a season of James Joyce films at the National Film Theatre with Phil Crossley. We put our programme together in Joycean spirit. We included obvious titles like Joseph Strick’s Ulysses, Mary Ellen Bute’s Passages from Finnegans Wake, John Huston’s The Dead, and television plays based on Joyce’s work, including the little-known BBC play, Bloomsday (1964), based on Ulysses. We had a special programme of films known to have been shown at the Volta cinema in Dublin, which Joyce briefly managed at the end of 1909. But we also showed Voyage to Italy and Le Mépris, and then had much fun including Groundhog Day, whose theme of a man caught in an eternal daily round might be seen to have Joycean echoes, but chiefly we chose it because Groundhog Day is February 2nd, which was Joyce’s birthday.

I wish we had been bolder. I wanted us to include The Producers (1968), simply because Gene Wilder’s character is called Leo Bloom, the same as Joyce’s hero. That didn’t seem to be connection enough, but later someone pointed out to me that Wilder’s co-star, Zero Mostel had achieved great success in 1957 playing Leopold Bloom in the play Ulysses in Nighttown. We really should have included it in the programme.

Others have played at this game. In the collection edited by John McCourt, Roll Away the Reel World: James Joyce and Cinema (2010), to which I made a contribution or two on the Volta cinema, American writer Jesse Myers argues for the Joycean-ness of The Producers, American Beauty and The Departed, as well as pointing out metaphorical references to Joyce in The Third Man, The Manchurian Candidate, Annie Hall and several more.

Metaphor matters more than adaptation. The film that tries to reproduce a novel merely creates a surface impression, and a body of critical work unpicking differences between screen and source text which is, if not futile, then certainly wildly overdone. It is the signposting of references to literary works in films (and vice versa) that delights the imagination that much more, and breaks down the barriers between one artistic form and another. It is the knowing transference of ideas, keeping them eternal.

Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy is more subtly and rewardingly Joycean than any literal transcription of his work to the screen. Whether Linklater knew of Rossellini’s referencing of ‘The Dead’ in Voyage to Italy I don’t know, but I suspect so. There had to be a place for Joyce somewhere, to complete the odyssey.

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Brief lives

On July 13, 2014, in People, Shakespeare, by Luke McKernan


George Pearson (left, from and Albert Smith

I have begun writing the lives of two people. I have been given 1,000 words in which to encapsulate the achievements, character and significance of two filmmakers, George Pearson and Albert E. Smith. It’s a commission from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, for which I have written several such short biographies already, on Arthur Pearson (newspaper publisher), filmmakers G.B. Samuelson, Walter Haggar, Charles Urban, Percy Smith, and film archivist Ernest Lindgren. Some are hack work; some I’m quite pleased with (the piece on Lindgren probably hits the mark best).

I picked Pearson and Smith from the list of candidates awaiting authors because I know something of both, know where the main sources are, and admire them both. George Pearson was a British film director at his height in the 1920s, whose work has a distinctive and special charm, an expression of the character that comes through in his delightful autobiography Flashback. Smith was born not far from me (his family came from Faversham), and went from being a magician to an early film mogul with the Vitagraph Company of America. He was a savvy operator who produced a singularly misleading memoir, Two Reels and a Crank, which I shall be using only with the greatest caution. I’ve also written a short account of his life before now.

So I start out by exploring the basics: the published memoirs; the surviving papers; the family history sources with census records, birth, marriage and death certificates; the wills and probate records; the online newspaper archives; and, yes, even checking their names on web searches to see what clues might emerge. Then will follows visits to archives and libraries to check film trade papers, personal papers, histories, biographies, and maybe some film viewing too. I will build up chronologies, filmographies and family trees. As required by the ODNB, I will identify film, sound and pictorial records of the two men, where these can be found.

Having amassed all this information, I must boil it down into 1,000 words. There is a scale of word-length according to the perceived importance of these figures, and neither merits the extended entries of a major artist, politician or other public notable. I deal in minor figures.

But how can a life be encapsulated in so short a space? What is one capturing? The art of the dictionary of biography, the encyclopedia entry or obituary is to mix the essential with the memorable. One must record the expected highlights, suggest something of the character, thrown in an anecdote or two, and create a summary judgement. That summary judgement, which is so important, is generally your final paragraph (though it may be followed by standard stuff such as death and family details, depending on the conventions of the publication for which you are writing). It is the estimation of a life in three or four lines. It says that we leave behind our works and other achievements, but who we really were can be – and may be should be – rounded up in a few, hopefully well-chosen words from a stranger.

That ‘stranger’ element is key. The biography long or small written by someone who knew their subject has a different quality, one which almost says I know better of this person than you the reader ever will. The professional biographer who does not know their subject personally, most often because the subject is an historical one, has a different quality too. They have spent enough time with the subject to become a close acquaintance of sorts, exuding an authority bred of supposed intimacy and professional know-how. We who write brief lives are of a different kind.

John_AubreyBrief Lives is the name given to a collection of short biographies collected by the British antiquarian John Aubrey (left) at the end of the seventeenth century. Some finished, some a collection of notes awaiting completion, they were never published in his lifetime, and only edited and made public in the nineteenth century in various expurgated forms. He started out on his task at the behest of Oxford scholar Anthony Wood, who was producing a volumes of lives of those who had studied at the university. Aubrey therefore gathered evidence that the ill-tempered and ungrateful Wood could then turn into a finished product, but having handed over his rough texts to Wood, he then carried on with collacting lives on his own account.

Aubrey loved truth and he loved anecdote. He applied his antiquarian passion to the collecting of evidence, in the spirit of the scientific empiricism of the seventeenth century that that gradually overturning the myth, magic and received wisdom of past ages. He sought out eye-witness testimony, and applied his own knowledge of a subject wherever possible. He did not greatly discriminate between the observed and the reported, and that has meant that his Lives have been criticised for their occasional credulousness, but it is what they tell us of a life that is so important. Aubrey captured people as they had been remembered, or as they might be remembered.

This is some of his life of the lawyer Walter Rumsey (1584-1660):

He was an ingeniose man, and had a philosophicall head; he was most curious for graffing, inoculating, and planting, and ponds. If he had any old dead plumbe-tree, or apple-tree, he lett them stand, and planted vines at the bottome, and lett them climbe up, and they would beare very well.

He was one of my councell in my law-suites in Breconshire about the entaile. He had a kindnesse for me and invited me to his house, and told me a great many fine things, both naturall and antiquarian.

He was very facetious, and a good musitian, playd on the organ and lute. He could compose.

He was much troubled with flegme, and being so one winter at the court at Ludlowe (where he was one of the councesellours), sitting by the fire, spitting and spawling, he tooke a fine tender sprig, and tied a ragge at the end, and conceited he might putt it downe his throate, and fetch-up the flegme, and he did so. Afterwards he made this instrument of whale-bone. I have oftentimes seen him use it. I could never make it goe downe my throat but for those that can ’tis a most incomparable engine. If troubled with the wind it cures you immediately.

Here is a life – or part of a life – revealed through those small details which made the person memorable. The entry on Rumsey notes his legal achievements, but is drawn chiefly to the curiosities of his character. We are told enough of Rumsey’s career to understand why he merits appearing in this collection, but then he is drawn to the life as lived. We can see Rumsey fussing about in his garden, receiving guests cheerfully, and worrying continually about his health. In Aubrey’s pages, he is fussing, conversing and worrying still, into eternity.

Aubrey’s notes on William Shakespeare are valuable because they record impressions people had of him, or had heard reported of him, that would otherwise have been lost and which contribute significantly to the portrait we have of the man. It is thanks to Aubrey that he know that Shakespeare was believed to understand Latin “pretty well”, that he had been “in his younger yeares a schoolmaster in the countrey”, and that “he was want to goe to his native countrey [i.e. Stratford] once a yeare”. Maybe true, maybe not. He records what we know to be certain false reports, such as the intelligence that Shakespeare was the son of a butcher, but what is important is that he noted what he found, not what he expected to find. Earlier biographers moralised, fitting their subjects into a framework from which lessons should be drawn. Aubrey discovers.

What I like most about Aubrey, however, is his title: Brief Lives (his actual title for the collection was Schediasmata: Brief Lives – ‘schediasmata’ means ‘rough notes’). These are not lives which can only be championed in weighty volumes. These are not only the lives of the great. They champion brevity. They understand what is memorable, and through that make those people live again. It is a poetic process: the concentrated understanding of what is true.

I have contributed to brief lives beyond writing for the ODNB. Apart from encyclopedia entries and the like, in 1996 I co-edited, with Stephen Herbert, a volume called Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema, which lives on as an website. The book contained “300 biographies of those who, behind and in front of the camera, played a significant part in creating the phenomenon of moving pictures”. The website has allowed us to add more names, and we continue to do so. The aim of the the book was to be a reference work of value to those studying the first years of cinema, but it also sought to expand the understanding of what cinema was by looking beyond inventors and filmmakers to the subjects of those films (dramatic and actuality), to those who commented on them, exploited them or who were significantly affected by them. It also placed character on a par with technology, and my view of the book was that it was more of a novel than a reference work as such, with a worldwide cast of interconnected characters each of whom had been affected by the phenomenon of motion pictures and found their different lives irrevocably changed by the process.

I knew none of those about whom we wrote personally, and only one or two had been known at the end of the lives to other contributors. We wrote what we could find from the surviving documentary evidence, and leavened this with such traces of character was we could find reported. We composed brief lives.

‘Brief lives’ means not simply lives in brief, but lives of less consequence or scant evidence for which we may only have scraps to suggest to us what someone once was. Aubrey writes of John Spiedell only that “he taught mathematiques in London, and published a booke in quarto named Spiedel’s Geometrical Extractions (London, j 63-), which made young men have a love to geometrie”, and of William Sutton, “came to Ch. Ch. Oxon at eleaven. He wrote much, but printed nothing but a little 8vo against the Papists.” Such things are all that we may leave behind us. Yet it is good to have left something.

Now I must sum up the words to unpick how a schoolmaster made the bold leap to become a film director with a distinctive vision, and how a two-bit magician touring America saw in the invention of motion picture something that would make his fortune. I must get the facts right, but also find the poetry, and the poetry will be in the brevity.

Football considered as one of the arts

On June 15, 2014, in Art, Audiences, Sport, by Luke McKernan


Watching football on an inflatable screen in Kenya, via BBC

I have watched a lot of football in my time. I’ve not been to that many live professional games – four in total. But despite such apparent apathy I have seen hundreds if not thousands of football matches. I have seen them on television screens (from black-and-white era to Smart TVs), I have seen them on computers, tablets, mobile phones, public screens, cinema screens, videotapes, DVDs and on Steenbecks. I have seen full games, fragments of games, highlights, summaries. I have seen football matches as actuality, drama, animation and computer game. I have listened to games. I have read descriptions of games.

And every time I have experienced a football match, it has been the same game, and the same performance. It takes place on the same stage with roughly the same dimensions wherever it is played. It takes place over the same period of time (extra time notwithstanding). Eleven players from one team meet eleven players from another team, and each side attempts to propel a round ball into a net positioned behind the opposing team, and to do this more than the other side, while they mutually abide by an agreed set of rules. It is the same story every time, with just two outcomes – a win for one side, or a draw.

On the face of it, this is absurd. What entertainment value is there in seeing the same limited story played out over and over again? A team wins or loses, it goes up a league table or down it again, it gets so far in a knockout tournament before being knocked out of it. It has no inherent meaning, there is nothing to be learned from it. It simply goes on and on.

Yet billions watch the game, mostly on a screen of some kind. Why is this so? They must do so because it satisfies as drama. Of course partisanship is an important part of the appeal, because it is what drives the narrative. There must be heroes and villains for a drama to succeed. However, such partisanship is a means to understand the drama, not the end in itself. Football supplies our need for stories; for this reason it qualifies as one of the arts.

If so, then what are the arts? This usually supposes a creative work presented before a public i.e. it is something produced by an artist and then offered to an audience in a recognised form, such a book, play, song, painting or whatever (one of the reasons conceptual art is such a challenge for the public is because it increasingly rejects any form that might capture it, thereby negating its status as art). Football has no such creator. A manager may organise a team to play in a particular fashion, and there may be individual examples of artistry displayed within a team – which are important, if supplementary, part of the game’s appeal – but what we seen is not the playing out of the work of another’s imagination, as in a film or an opera. It this respect its art is purely mechanical, a following out of patterns within strict parameters.

But we can look at this differently and say that the artist is incidental to art, or simply another form of mechanics, an agent by which the artform comes to be understood by its public. What matters is not that a work has a creator – or at least, as in an individual footballer’s skill, it is of supplementary importance – but that it is understood by an audience. A book or a painting or a song can be enjoyed without the recipient being aware of who its creator is. It is not of fundamental importance to the fulfilment of the audience’s need. We, the audience, need experiences which crystallise our understanding of life, be this in the form of a story, or picture. All art ultimately boils down to being a story or a picture, expressing experience in time and space. (Music and song in this argument fit under story).


England v Italy, 14 June 2014

Football therefore qualifies as one of the arts because it fulfils the need for stories, and to a degree supplies a pictorial pleasure as well. But the problem still remains of the repetitive nature of such art. It is always the same story, with little in the way of character or detail to alleviate the spectator from the unremitting inevitability of it all. This can only be a vital part of its appeal, and not the problem it might seem to be. It is the comforting familiarity. It is the endless variation on a theme. It is the intimation of immortality, the sense that all else may live or die, but a game of football is always being watched somewhere in the world and always will be, and always the same. Football therefore qualifies further as art by the reassurance that it provides. It is the story we can always turn to.

Yet there is more to football as art than the playing out of eternal tropes. Football is a reflection of social, cultural and aesthetic understanding. Watching England play at the World Cup in Brazil tells us more about the country’s place in a post-imperial world with globalised economics than one might ever gain from, say, a David Hare play. It is all there in the harsh clash between sentimental hopes based on a narrow nostalgia and the hard realities of action played out in the present day. There are the individual players, elevated by public expectation and too often brought down by physical inevitability. Football plays out as spectacle, thriller, tragedy and farce.

Football also holds a special place in the arts, because of the relationship between the game seen live, and the game as it is most often experienced, on a screen. The latter must recreate the former. A football game is meaningless without the crowd, through which we understand the drama’s import and the narrative is propelled forward. Live cinema screenings of theatre plays rather awkwardly encompass the audience as part of the entertainment. For football, the crowd makes us realise what we are seeing. It reminds us that we are the ultimate creators of this drama.

All of this is true for other sports, of course. Football has primacy only because it is so globally popular, though it has a special status through the way it works so well on the screen. There are the opposing sides, arrayed left and right, each seeking to invade the other’s territory. There is the size of the ball, ideally proportioned (roughly the size of a human head) to gain the attention of the casual eye. There is the patterning of formations (4-3-3, 4-4-2, 5-3-2) for those who want to look more deeply into how eleven intersects with eleven in space. There is the particular combination of long, medium and close shots, with restrained camera movement and rhythmic editing, that determines how football is best displayed upon a screen. And there is the game’s duration – ninety minutes, with interval, the ideal length for the unfolding of drama, as centuries of theatre and decades of cinema have taught us.

Football must be considered as one of the arts. Why else I have put my book down and decided to watch Argentina versus Bosnia-Herzegovina?

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On Margate sands

On June 8, 2014, in Art, Colour, Exhibitions, Galleries, by Luke McKernan

turner skyscape

Turner Contemporary with Margate skyscape

Few railway stations can offer a grander view of the town that they serve than Margate. As you step out of the station, the full sweep of the bay opens up before you: the low waves ebbing over flat sands, a great line of amusement parlours, shops and hotels following the leftward curve of the beaches to the far point with a cluster of buildings which ends with the Turner Contemporary gallery looking out to sea and to the epic, ever-changing display of clouds and sky that drew J.M.W. Turner to paint here so often. It may only be a humble seaside town, but human and natural design combine as art. And so you are drawn down the hill and along the curving sands to that far gallery which now completes the picture.

I have many happy memories of Margate. Living as we did on the north Kent coast, it was a short car drive away and a place full of excitement for children in the summer holidays. There were the endless sands, the beach entertainments, the long parade clinging to the beach with its seemingly endless line of slot machines, candy floss machines and ice cream parlours, and of course Dreamland, the gaudy amusement park with its slides, rides, hall of mirrors and crowds of screaming children. Margate was a special place.

Margate then became a sorry sight. The crowds flew off to Alicante instead, the sands became deserted, Dreamland fell into disrepair and then disuse, and the recession turned the town into a DSS Mecca, the epitome of decline. Shops were boarded up, rows upon rows of seaside hotels stood empty, poverty bred more poverty. The place became a metaphor for commercial and social failure, all the more potent for being in the supposedly prosperous south-east. The grim social history behind those gaudy amusements was laid bare by the personal story told by its most famous (and loyal) former resident, Tracey Emin. Films and programmes set in the town, such as Last Orders (based on a Graham Swift novel), Exodus and The Last Resort, suggested a place at the end of its, and the nation’s, tether.

A regeneration programme began in the late 1990s, and at the centre of the plans was the building of an art gallery, the Turner Contemporary. This opened in 2011, and is generally recognised to have an unqualified success. Despite some local scepticism while it was being built, the gallery has drawn the crowds, has succeeded with some imaginative programming that marked it out as a venue of national significance, and has started to draw in new business into the town. Margate once again has some reasons for optimism.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue, 1921.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue (1921)

I came to the town to see the Mondrian & Colour exhibition. This is a fine exhibition showing the development of Mondrian’s art, from realism through to symbolism and finally abstraction, with emphasis on the place of colour in his art. It serves as a useful primer for the development of modern art in general, as one can readily see that even in his early works of rural and villages scenes, supposedly in the realistic manner, that he is drawn to significant shapes and colour, drawing out the abstract from the ordinary. One sees the grids emerging before ever the grids were there. The legends that introduce each stage of the exhibition make much of Mondrian’s theories of art and the significance of colours that he learned from Goethe. None of this really matters. Mondrian may have believed in such theories, but I think they were simply attempts at rationalisation after the fact. Mondrian responded to a world that was changing from within, a world in which – over the period from the late 19th to early 20th century – things were seen differently, as the literal was supplanted by the symbolic, the view for its abstraction.


Constable cloud created by Spencer Finch

An adjunct to the exhibition is a delightful one-room exhibition of work by the American artist Spencer Finch, entitled The Skies can’t keep their secret. This playful and illuminating show continues the themes of colour and observation highlighted in the Mondrian show. There is a grid of bright colours taken from The Wizard of Oz which fade as the natural light in the room fades as evening falls, reflecting the changing light patterns that make Margate’s skies so visually entrancing. A row of photographs taking one second apart of a passing fog fills the length on one wall. Seemingly white drawings on close inspection show meticulous capture in greys and yellows of waves patterns and the effect of sunlight on a white surface. Above hangs a plastic sheet bunched up in flounces held together by clothes pegs to create a cloud inspired by the art of Constable. In the corridor, Finch has selected some favourite Turner watercolours, several showing Margate, but including the entracingly mysterious ‘A Wreck, Possibly Related to ‘Longships Lighthouse, Land’s End’ (c.1834) which for Finch seems exemplify the tension between abstraction and representation which binds these two shows together.


Margate sands

And then it is out through the gift shop and to Margate once more. The effect of the Turner Contemporary on the old town area clustered by the gallery is obvious to see. There are bijou art and antique shops, eating places and drinking places, which make best use of the charming brickwork buildings and warren of short streets. There are clear similarities with Whitstable, another town on the north Kent coast which has successfully promoted itself as a combination of arts haven, culinary attraction and quaint working seaside town, attracting regular London visitors.

Margate has some way to go before it matches the success of Whitstable, however. It is that much further away from London, albeit that it is now connected to the metropolis by the High Speed railway line. Away from the excitement surrounded the Turner Contemporary, the rest of Margate in a work in progress. On a sunny day in June the long beaches were almost empty, a few figures dotted among the stretches of sand and the low, gently incoming sea. Two bored attendants sat by a crazy golf and trampoline venue on the beach that had no takers. The amusement parlours had a only few hardened visitors seated at the one-armed bandits, their signage faded and broken, the paintwork peeling. The high street that leads up from the seafront looks desperate, with boarded-up shops, money-lenders, and the forlorn look that comes of having little to sell to people with little money to spend.

The next stage in the regeneration plan is to rebuild Dreamland as an amusement park featuring traditional entertainments. This idea has proved controversial, with competing ideas for how best to rebuild on the space, but the local council recently served a served a Compulsory Purchase Order, and eventually a new Dreamland will presumably arise, built on memories of the old. The overall strategy seems to be to make the most of Margate’s heritage while reinventing perceptions of it at the same time. This will be tricky to achieve. The grand view is there, but the life to fill it is only partially in place. Perhaps with the growth in housing along the Thames gateway, combined with the High Speed line, then Margate will seem closer to more people.

Meanwhile the skies above remain glorious, ever-changing, nature’s own abstraction of itself.

Sunrise, perhaps at Margate

J.M.W. Turner, ‘Sunrise, perhaps at Margate’ (c.1840–5), from


On May 26, 2014, in Images, by Luke McKernan


Road sign in a Medway tributary, near Strood, Kent,

Why have I expended all this effort in writing when I could more easily communicate with images? I’ve been looking at the statistics for the photographs and other images that I have on Flickr, and collectively they have generated 233,869 views over a period of six-and-a-half years. That seems quite a substantial number to me. I have little skill as a photographer – the minutiae of lenses, f-stops, shutter speeds and such like are a closed book to me. My camera is switched to an all-purpose setting, and all I do is point and shoot, generally with indifferent results. Many of my photos are quick snaps using my Blackberry phone. I don’t travel to interesting places, nor find myself in the middle of dramatic events, indeed I make every effort not to do so.

So even an indifferent photographer with no sense of adventure can get nearly quarter of a million views on Flickr, from what are currently 1,985 images. That’s 188 views per image. I don’t know how many words I’ve written online overall, but my Bioscope blog comprised some one million words and has to date generated 1,245,375 visits, or a little over one visitor per word. Alternatively, the site has 1,380 posts, so an average of 900 visits per post. So more readers of texts than viewers of images, but it’s so much effort to write, to think about what words to say and then the sheet slog of typing them all out. Why don’t I just point and shoot, and communicate the easy way?

It’s not a case of which is the more truthful, or useful. Communicating by words and communicating by images have their different ways of getting at the truth, and are useful in their own particular ways. I guess it it boils down to how we think, and I think in words, and less easily in images. Which is ironic, given that much of my professional career has been given over to argue the case for the special value of images – moving images, that is (and if I’m a bad photographer, I’m a still worse filmmaker and very seldom film anything at all). It may be the way that I think, and because it is an effort, and may involve some skill, that the results may feel more satisfaxctory. If I felt the urgent need to communicate through images, I would work to acquire the skills to do so, or I would feel driven to acquire those skills. But I don’t. Yet it’s a shame, when the results of a simple click of a shutter can catch the eye of thousands.

Here are a few personal favourites from the photos on my Flickr account:


Window shutters, Trieste, Italy,


Boats on the shore at Derwentwater, Lake District,


Shadows on the walls of the Ulster Museum, Belfast,


Volumes at the former Newspaper Library, Colindale (a quick phone snap but my most viewed photograph on Flickr),


Torn advertisements on a pillar in Lund, Sweden,


A row of shampoo bottles in a Aldi store, Canterbury (an out-of-focus phone snap, but I still like it),


Audience in foyer of Verdi theatre, Pordenone, Italy,


London viewed from the Shard,


Rochester Cathedral gardens in the snow,


Mushroom (my least viewed photograph on Flickr, just one view in four years, as of today),

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God save the King

On May 18, 2014, in Shakespeare, Theatre, by Luke McKernan


Production photo of King Charles III by Johan Persson, from

King Charles III is one of the best modern plays I have seen. I’ve certainly not seen enough modern plays to make an authoritative judgement as to its quality, but I found play and production – running at London’s Almeida Theatre until the end of May 2014 – outstanding. The play is by Mike Bartlett, and bills itself as a ‘future history’. It tells of a time, maybe just a year or two from now, when Queen Elizabeth II has died and King Charles III ascends to the British throne. It is written in the manner of a Shakespearean drama, in its theme of the state of things seen through the lives on monarchs, and in its construction. It is a five act play and written in blank verse with iambic pentameter (five stresses to a line). A wittier or more appropriate dramatic conceit it would be hard to imagine. Very simply, it works.

The play’s theme is the nature of constitutional monarchy in the present age. Charles becomes King and is frustrated at the purely ceremonial function of his role. As when he was a prince, he wants to make his opinions known, and now he wants the opportunity to influence through the wielding of power. The opportunity arises when the Labour government seeks the royal signature on a bill legislating on press freedoms. Charles refuses to sign it, and sparks off a constitutional crisis. The nation is divided into those that support his stance and those that rebel against it. Tanks are parked on the grounds of Buckingham Palace, as Charles’s convictions reveal their ugly side, while the government puts forward a bill that will end the necessary royal approval of new legislation. The impasse is broken by William, Duke of Cambridge, initially reluctant but finally egged on by his wife, who forces his father to abdicate the throne and becomes King himself, restoring the monarchy to the ceremonial status perfected by his grandmother. A subplot concerns Prince Harry falling in love with a commoner, planning to renounce his royal status to be with her, but in the end changing his mind.

All of this is great fun, and could have been simply the subject of a mocking satire. It is the great strength of Barlett’s play (and Rupert Goold’s astute direction) that the tale works as high drama, with the emotions suitably engaged, and the action grounded in credibility. These extraordinary things could happen. Charles, as Prince of Wales, is known to write regularly to ministers of state putting forward his opinions – not always very welcome – on a wide range of issues. It is quite plausible that as king he may be less accepting than his mother of the passive role of the constitutional monarch. The abdication crisis of course echoes that if Edward VIII, who like Charles III gave up the throne before his coronation. The characters of the royals, from the conscience-stricken Harry yearning to be free, to the calculating Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, operating behind her ‘plastic doll’ facade to promote the interests of her husband and herself, all chime with a popular sense of how these royals might actually be. In reality they may be dull and stupid; in our imaginations they may be the stuff of Shakespearean drama.


Lydia Wilson as Kate and Oliver Chris as William, photo by Johan Persson

It is Shakespeare that makes this play work. There are obvious, sometimes mocking, borrowings from his plays, notably Macbeth, the Henry IV plays and King Lear. The dissolute Harry is easily connected with Prince Hall, while the ghost of Diana haunts Charles and William, telling each that they will be the greatest king of all, in the manner of Macbeth‘s witches. I wasn’t so sure about the use of Diana – more of a grotesque than a believable human being, to my mind – but it’s an amusing joke for all that. Other Shakespeare homages include comic rustics, and passages describing action that it is easier not to stage.

But the chief joy is the verse. There is a long history of writers who have tried to produce plays in a Shakespearean manner, and produced quite dreadful results, both because they lacked the stagecraft and because they became pompously intoxicated with the curlicues of iambic pentameter: among then Bulwer Lytton (Richelieu, 1839), Alfred Tennyson (Queen Mary, 1875) and Stephen Phillips (Ulysses, 1902). Mike Barlett has mastered the simplicities of such verse. He uses it to enable his characters to express their thoughts most clearly. He avoids the temptation of aping Shakespearean use of imagery, and deftly laughs at pretension by throwing in modern-day language and concerns. This passage from a set piece soliloquy from Kate is a good example of his technique:

I have ambition for my husband yes
And hope my son will grow the finest King
But if I must put up with taunts, and make
So public everything I am, then I
Demand things for myself, I ask no less
Than power to achieve my will in fair
Exchange for total service to the State.
Yes this is what,enthroned, that I will do,
Not simply help my husband in his crown
But wear one of my own.

But here’s my husband, he’s been on the phone.

Act 4, Scene 3

This passage, where Charles agonises over his role and seeks out conformation of his function from Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution shows how effectively Bartlett combines the poetic and the demotic:

I have been through the archive many times
But read as King each word seems made afresh.
I have been seeking moments which relate
Precisely to the current state of play
Our English law is based on precedent
And when I’m called to make my case I must
Have all the facts to hand, examples of
When monarchs in the past have also done
The same as I, or very near. And so.
Here’s Walter Bagehot, eighteen sixty-seven,
Explaining changes to balance of
The Crown and State. I read it as a child.
One line stands out: Bagehot explains that now
The monarch’s mostly ceremonial
And only can expect, from hereon in:
The right to be consulted (which I’ve not)
The right to encourage (which is all I do),
And most importantly the right to warn.
‘The Right to Warn’ so warning is the thing
It’s only what I do, I warn, but even that
I’m told’s too much and so must tolerate
This constant fuzz of bright white noise
The emanates from out the baying mob.

Act 5, Scene 1

Our modern stage lacks poetry. The general trend throughout the 20th and 21st centuries has been towards realistic speech, a continuum that links Galworthy to Rattigan to Osborne to Hare. This is despite the stage being a unnatural place, where the heightened ought to have precedence over the literal. Television drama fulfills the public need for pseudo-realistic language, and while modern theatre has become adept at arresting imagery, its language is too often flatly obvious. It lacks poetry. Why can’t all our plays be in blank verse? was my thought when watching King Charles III. This is how a play should be. It should speak of the concerns of our times in its own language, not always in the language of our times. Blank verse captures the moment; it echoes the deliberation of thought. It has grace and understanding, or at least it does in the right hands. It makes dull royals the stuff of good argument, and invests them with meaningful character. It makes us think we live in interesting times.

I don’t know if King Charles III will become a classic. It is so much of the moment in some of its references that any subsequent production would probably need a re-write to ensure reality had not overtaken it. A highly accomplished, largely lookalike cast such as the Almeida has assembled, might never been assembled again: Tim Pigott-Smith (Charles), Oliver Chris (William), Richard Goulding (Harry), Lydia Wilson (Kate), Margot Leicester (Camilla). In other hands, and at other times, it may not be the same play at all. It has been a privilege to see it, when its time was right.


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Quiet graves

On May 14, 2014, in Cities, People, by Luke McKernan


Weeping angel at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

I’m back from a few days in Paris, where (amongst other things) I visited two of the city’s cemeteries. I hadn’t planned to visit cemeteries on this short break, but the page on Père Lachaise in the city guide fell open in front of me and told me should go, and then Montparnasse cemetery was on the way home. That’s how things happen.

Père Lachaise is the more famous of the two, the larger and the more visually striking. It’s located to the west of Paris, near the Bastille, and is set on a hill which helps give it its distinctive character and the sense of adventure one feels in perambulating the area. It opened in 1804, and became the cemetery where the city’s celebrities chose to be interred after first the graves of Jean de La Fontaine and Molière and soon after the supposed remains of Héloïse and Abélard were moved there. Today visitors are greeted by a large plan at the entrance with a guide to the most notable names to locate, among them Honoré de Balzac, Sarah Bernhardt, Frédéric Chopin, Isadora Duncan, Georges Méliès, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein and Oscar Wilde.

It is a beautiful place in which they have chosen to rest. It is a garden cemetery, with leafy overhanging trees, and the great variety of graves and monuments, with accompanying statuary, making Père Lachaise a location where every prospect pleases. The cemetery is divided up into sections, intersected mini-streets, which feels like negotiating Paris’ arrondissements in miniature, adding to the sense of cemetery as a reflection of Paris itself, a city of the dead. The graves of the notables are then numbered within each section, and the visitors dutifully check out as many as they have the stamina to do so. Guides are available, who give their groups pocket histories of the subjects’ notable achievements – one guide that I saw appeared to be acting out a large part of one of Molière’s plays for the instruction of his captive audience. I duly went in search of the names that meant most to me, in particular names from the film world, wondering what it is that draws the resting places of the celebrated. It brings us close to them, of course, but also makes us one with them. We admire them all the more for being contained with a small spot of earth with a stone above. We all end up this way.


Of course not everyone in Paris ends up in Père Lachaise. It’s a final resting place for the select, and competition to be buried within its walls is intense. There are fresh graves there, often with photographs of the departed embedded in the stone, a curious modern taste that both shows intimacy and yet somehow belittles the subjects.

The older graves, monuments, vaults and sepulchres have the greater visual appeal, and what progressively fascinated me about the place was those who were not famous, whose graves were not well-attended, whose names did not appear on any tourist guide. Row after row of family sepulchres, shaped like stone police boxes, stand in testimony to city worthies, local politicians, financiers, landowners, lawyers, minor writers and artists long out of fashion, whose names no longer mean anything to anyone. Broken glass (many sepulchres have side windows with stained glass to let in holy light), rusted fretwork and dusty cobwebs mark the locations of the many who receive no visitors at all. Their family names stand proudly above such monuments – for often these are family vaults in which are interred generations under the same name – occasionally with weeping angels to look over them, mourning for those for whom no one mourns.


These are presumably those who paid for their plots in perpetuity (cheaper rates apply for those prepared to be buried for for 50, 30 or 10 years only, while there is a crematorium for more compact storage of the dead). A register somewhere must note that their wishes and their money be respected ad infinitum, and so thousands upon thousands of them stand in mute recognition of the fundamental lack of importance that the majority of us have for anyone beyond our immediate family and friends in the narrow time we spend on this earth. There they are, between Molière and Morrison, symbols of the humble limits of human ambition.


Montparnasse cemetery

A few days later I visited Montparnasse cemetery. This is a plainer, flatter and smaller space, one that is split unequally in two by the Rue Émile Richard, though it has its share of the illustrious dead. Here you may greet the shades of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Charles Baudelaire, Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras, César Franck, Guy de Maupassant, May Ray, Eric Rohmer and Susan Sontag. I particularly valued finding the graves of Alfred Dreyfus, the chess player Alexander Alexhine and the documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens, but likewise the many names whose import is lost to time.

Both cemeteries are such quiet places in the midst of a busy city, performing guides notwithstanding, and I wondered what it is that makes us so quiet in cemeteries. Of course we are showing respect for the dead, but is it the dead who demand the quiet or us? The old English ballad ‘The Unquiet Grave’ sees the grave as the resting place of the dead who is disturbed by the mourning of the living. The quietness here lies in eternal rest.

The wind doth blow today, my love,
And a few small drops of rain;
I never had but one true-love,
In cold grave she was lain.

I’ll do as much for my true-love
As any young man may;
I’ll sit and mourn all at her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day.’

The twelvemonth and a day being up,
The dead began to speak:
‘Oh who sits weeping on my grave,
And will not let me sleep?’…

But we as visitors to cemeteries are now the ones who are quiet, who want there to be quietness. We recognise the respect due those who are gone. We do not mourn for them, we do not weep with the angels. Instead we recognise our bare, unaccommodated selves in those graves and sepulchres. Those neglected plots have our names upon them. We have no choice but to be quiet. We are as much the dead as they are.


Weeping for the dead – a sculpture at Montparnasse cemetery


Look! We Have Come Through!

On May 1, 2014, in News, Publications, Work, by Luke McKernan

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Video wall in the Newsroom

I didn’t know what to call this post, but whenever I’ve been through some tumultuous period and come out the other side, the exultant title of D.H. Lawrence’s 1917 book of poems Look! We Have Come Through! somehow springs to mind, so it’ll do.

April has been the busiest month, and it has meant that I have neglected things on this site. The effort expended has been mostly in the preparation for events that in themselves were soon over. Much of that effort went towards the launch of the new reading room for news at the British Library, entitled the Newsroom. The Newsroom replaces the former Newspaper Library at Colindale, whose passing I wrote about last year. While the British Library’s newspapers are now being transport lorryload-by-lorryload to a dedicated new store in Boston Spa, Yorkshire, the Newsroom has been opened at the Library’s St Pancras site, with a new vision of providing researchers not just with newspapers, but television news, radio news and web news.

The Newsroom opened on 7 April, and I wrote about the day on the British Library’s Newsroom blog, which describes its layout and features, including such innovative (and technically temperamental) features as a video wall and Twitter feed showing the news coming in as we archive it, as the BL now has the responsibility of archiving the UK web space (which I have written about here). However it is the snazzy digital microfilm readers, with their screens that can be rotated to fit the portrait shape of a newspaper, that have most excited our researchers.

TNR Communications video of the Newsroom opening, which was syndicated to several news websites. I’m in there, somewhere

As the Library’s news curator, I was heavily involved in all this, particularly managing the ‘content’ side of things, while others performed far more practical tasks such as getting the place built and wired up properly. The official launch date was 28 April, when the Newsroom was opened by the Secretary of State for Culture Sajid Javid, whom I took on a tour of the place, trying to make computer terminals and rows of tables look fascinating. The day involved several media interviews (and I truly loathe having cameras pointed at me), and I write about the whole experience in another post on the Newsroom blog. A third post, entitled A strategy for news, sets out the Library’s plans for news content in the future, whose origins partly lie in a post I wrote on this site a while back. It all connects.


Charles Urban (right) with his cameraman brother-in-law Jack Avery

And then there was the book award. Last night saw the Kraszna-Krausz Foundations Book Awards, held as part of the Sony World Photo Awards at London Hilton. The KKF Awards were set up in honour of Andor Kraszna-Krausz who founded Focal Press and give an annual award to the best books on photography and moving image. (or at least the best that have be submitted by publishers who have paid the submission fee). I was a judge for this award three years ago, and now my book Charles Urban: Pioneering the Non-Fiction Film in Britain and America, 1897-1925 was among the three titles shortlisted for the moving image prize.

Well, dear reader, not to keep you too long in suspense, Charles Urban won the award. I wasn’t there, for reasons that made no sense to those who wanted me to be there, and don’t make much sense to me now, but someone kindly collected it for me on my behalf. So now I am ‘the award-winning author’ – except that the Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema book I co-edited with Stephen Herbert way back when was given a minor gong, so maybe I shall parade myself as the ‘multi-award winning author’…

Or maybe not.

All of this, and other work projects too petty to record here, but which have eaten up large amounts of my time, have meant that I have spent little time writing or researching things of personal interest, and the Picturegoing site has been sadly neglected. So I am going to refresh myself in foreign climes for a while, then hope to return to a more balanced life, and will try and find interesting things to say.


The malcontent

On April 5, 2014, in Theatre, by Luke McKernan


John Marston’s play The Malcontent (c.1603) is currently being performed at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (part of the Globe Theatre complex) in London. As was the case in the 1600s, the play is being performed by children in an indoor theatre. Marston’s play was first acted at the Blackfriars theatre by the Children of the Chapel Royal. The boys’ company began performing plays at Blackfriars in 19602 and such performances became very popular. In Hamlet, Shakespeare has Rosencrantz complain of such productions:

Nay, their endeavour keeps in the wonted pace: but there is, sir, an aery of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapped for’t: these are now the fashion …

Marston wrote most of his plays for boys’ companies, yet his plays must have come across peculiarly through young mouths, being as they are often satirical in tone and scathing about human kind in general. Marston himself was a misanthropic, cynical character, habitually at war with society. His personality seems to have been expressed through the play’s title figure, Malevole, the malcontent. Malevole is a duke named Altofront who has been deposed by his brother. He disguises himself as a hanger-on to regain his dukedom and in the process expresses his disgust at the life of the court. A complicated plot sees Pietro turn remorseful over his behaviour and join forces with Malevole to turn the tables on upstart courtier Mendoza, the villain of the piece.

The malcontent is a staple figure of late Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. The world-weary cynic who tries to stand outside the ugliness of the world, while expressing his contempt for it, but gets sucked into it eventually (often to enact some revenge) is there in Malevole, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Jacques (As You Like It), in Vindice (The Revenger’s Tragedy, by Cyril Tourneur or Thomas Middleton, depending on who you consult), in George Chapman’s eponymous Bussy d’Ambois, and in John Webster’s Flamineo (The White Devil) and Bosola (The Duchess of Malfi). Such discontented social commentators seem to be plausible guises for the playwrights themselves: outsiders with privileged insight, disguising their disgust at the world’s ways to try and protect themselves from that world’s vengefulness, yet forced to speak, and ultimately (like Hamlet and Malevole, who bears a some resemblance to Shakespeare’s character – written a few years earlier) to act.

The malcontent is not quite the same as the numerous Machiavellian characters that populate Jacobean drama (of which The Malcontent‘s Mendoza is one), though the two sometimes overlap, and both are symptomatic of the disquiet and malaise prevalent in Jacobean times. Una Ellis-Fermor writes of the “sense of defeat” characteristic of the times following the death of Elizabeth and the accession of James, in The Jacobean Drama:

This mood, culminating as it did in and about the year 1605, took the form for public and private men of a sense of impending fate, of a state of affairs so unstable that great or sustained effort was suspended for a time and a sense of the futility of man’s achievement set in.

I don’t know whether the comparison has been made before, but another malcontent figure is Edmund Blackadder. One of the reasons the television series Blackadder II, set in Elizabethan England, works so well is that Blackadder is such a recognisably Elizabethan/Jacobean character. He is the cynical outsider, familiar with the court yet standing outside it, who sees human ambition and desires for what they are. That sense of impending fate hangs over him, making him a creature of his times (and ours), even if strictly speaking he is Elizabethan, not Jacobean. Blackadder is not driven by a thirst for revenge, nor does he have a residual belief in a goodness from which humankind has turned away, as Malevole does, but his outsider status seems very much the kind that Webster, Shakespeare and Marston created, maybe as alter egos. Consider these words from The Malcontent, spoken by Malevole, and imagine them being uttered by Edmund Blackadder:

Think this: this earth is the only grave and Golgotha wherein all things that live must rot: ’tis but the draught wherein the heavenly bodies discharge their corruption, the very muckhill on which the sublunary orbs cast their excrement: man is the slime of this dung-pit, and princes are the governors of these men: for, for our souls, they are as free as emperors, all of one piece: there goes but on pair of shears betwixt an emperor and the son of a bagpiper: only the dyeing, dressing, pressing, glossing, makes the difference.

Such savage indignation suits a skilled adult performer such as Rowan Atkinson. The effect when spoken by a boy actor (Joseph Marshall) is rather odd. The production at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre – the new Globe space that recreates indoors theatres of the period such as Blackfriars, down to the wooden construction, candle lighting, and hard narrow seats – is performed by children between twelve and sixteen. They are talented, they have learned their words well, and perform with such passion and conviction as they may, but one loses all sense of moral indignation and inner horror. They capture the humour in the play very well (particularly Sam Hird, in drag, as the sluttish Maquerelle), but cannot reflect anger at a world they do not as yet fully know.


It’s an odd experiment, recreating how the play would have originally been seen, when we are not the original audience. It certain persuades you that the past is a foreign country when you realise just how many of the plays in the early seventeenth century were seen like this, performed by children (all boys then, but mixed now). What was the appeal? How did audiences react? Some of the present-day audience reaction may give a guide. We laughed at times at children uttering words whose import lay outside their experience; we laughed at other times at how piquantly Marston’s bitter phrases came across when spoken by teenagers. Perhaps the contemporary audience was similarly amused, though one feels they would have been more attuned to the words and their import, and hence more stirred by the savagery within.

There was a charm about the production, but do not expect such child performances to become a vogue. We can see how things would have looked in a Jacobean theatre, but it does not brings us any nearer to the Jacobeans. One of the best-known television comedies of our times does that far better. John Marston would have recognised something of his creation, and himself, in Edmund Blackadder.

The scientific method

On March 9, 2014, in Television, by Luke McKernan


Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad

Chemistry – well, technically chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change. Now just think about this. Electrons, they change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements, they combine and change into compounds. But that’s all of life, right? It’s just the constant, it’s the cycle. Solution, dissolution, just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating. Really.

In the pilot episode of the US television series Breaking Bad, the main character, Walter White, an over-qualified high school chemistry teacher, lectures his students on what chemistry is. White’s rhapsodic explanation not only pinpoints his profession and his way of thinking, but offers a key to all that we are about to encounter, over 62 episodes and two years in the lives of White, his family, and his antagonists. Breaking Bad is a drama about change, about solution and dissolution, about both the power and the mutability of bonds, and about the growth, decay and transformation of a person.

I have spent the past month wholly engrossed in watching Breaking Bad on Netflix, watching two or three episodes in an evening. I’ve come late to the party, since the series started in 2008, ending with season five in 2013, and long before its finale it has been acclaimed as one of the finest television dramas yet made. I would agree entirely with that. It is hard to think of a more intelligently structured piece of television. This post is my attempt to unpick why it works so well, and what it says about video drama and the art of narrative.

Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who discovers he has terminal lung cancer and turns criminal (‘breaking bad’) by producing the drug methamphetamine, ostensibly to provide for his family. As the series progresses we discover, or White discovers within himself, that he is driven less by an urge to provide than by than a desire to assert himself and think only for himself. We learn that White has seen a fellow chemist with whom he worked closely turn their once shared business into a multi-million dollar concern, while he was bought out at an early stage for a pittance. He has made wrong decisions all his life. He is browbeaten by his family and gently but insistently mocked by his macho brother-in-law Hank Schrader, who works for the Drug Enforcement Agency. Decisions are always being made for him.

The lung cancer should have been the final blow, but instead it becomes the catalyst for extraordinary change, as White discovers first that he is able to produce the best methamphetamine anywhere, then that he possesses a propensity for lying and an ability to think he way out of impossible situation by the application of analytical thinking and practical chemistry. As the series progresses he reveals more and more of a heartless streak that insidiously burrows into audience expectations, as the man for whom we expect to root for disgusts, frightens and ultimately bewilders us.


Walter White and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), cooking

Walter White’s transformation has its effects on a wide cast of people – fatally so for quite a number of them. There is his wife (the supposed moral centre to the drama who gradually becomes compromised herself), his son Walter Jr. (who has cerebral palsy), brother-in-law Hank (the Javert to his Jean Valjean) and Hank’s kleptomaniac wife Marie. There is his former pupil and now collaborator in drug production Jesse Pinkman, and as the story progresses an extraordinary array of characters, notably among them the elegant fast food proprietor and drug kingpin Gus Fring, the crooked, quick-talking lawyer Saul Goodman, world-weary hitman Mike Ehrmantraut and corrupt business executive Lydia Rodarte-Quayle. Not least among the pleasures of Breaking Bad is the matching of compelling names to compelling characters.

Breaking Bad is about many things. It is very obviously and topically about the drugs trade in America, particularly the fears over crystal meth and the traffic in drugs and drug-related crime from Mexico (the action is set in Albuquerque, New Mexico). It is about the attraction and repulsion of family life, prefigured in White’s words about ‘bonds’ (the White family themselves, the violent Salamancas – for whom “family is all” – but also the camaraderie of the DEA agents and Jesse’s drug crowd). It is about gun-related violence in America and the travails of living with insufficient medical insurance. It is about father/son, teacher/pupil relationships. It is about business models. It is about class. It is about money versus morality. It is about morality versus survival. It is about cancer. It is about chemistry.


Giancarlo Esposito as the elegant but quite ruthless Gus Fring

There is a lot of chemistry in Breaking Bad. The opening credits feature a criss-crossing of chemical elements, the letters from which are also highlighted in the credit names. Walter White’s supreme knowledge of chemistry (we know that in the past his research into crystallography helped contribute towards some Nobel prize-winning work) allows him to make a fortune and repeatedly to outwit those faced against him. He applies the scientific method to every situation, calculating that for every action there is reaction and a solution. The dehumanizing aspect of this is noted early on when we see a flashback to his youth when he lists all the compounds that go to make up the human body in conversation with his then love Gretchen (who will go on to marry the man who made a fortune out of White’s knowledge). There seems so little to a human when all you do is add up the chemicals that make up one such being. “What about the soul?” asks Gretchen, when his numbers do not quite add up to 100%. Meanwhile, intercut with this scene is the ugly reality of White and Pinkman having to dispose of a drug dealer’s body that has been insufficiently dissolved with acid. We are more than flesh, more just a collection of elements, surely?

This tension between science and humanism, or maybe between science and art, is exemplified partly by Walter’s relationship with his would-be fiction writer wife, but more so by his relationship with Jesse Pinkman. Pinkman is the most uncalculating of people – not a good person, but someone who believes that there things that are good. The contrast, and indeed chemistry, between the two is at the core of Breaking Bad‘s success, and it is hard to believe that the writer Vince Gilligan originally considered killing off Pinkman at the end of series one. In Pinkman, flawed as he is, we find a little hope for ourselves; in Walter White we see none.

There are many reasons why Breaking Bad is compelling to watch, but what lies at the heart of its success is its control over narrative and time. Everyone who has sung the series’ praises says much the same thing about how brilliantly its plot developments evolve, how ingeniously it introduces not so much twists as new vistas. Just as you think that you know where you are and how everyone relates to one another, a new element is introduced which pulls the rug from under your feet. Yet these developments are never gimmicks for their own sake; in every case they simply redefine our perspective. The naturalistic, convincing way in which these plot developments are introduced is another hallmark. Breaking Bad has its contrivances, but they are so well hidden that they never jar. An inconsequential action of character in one episode is revealed to have major significance three or four episodes later, forcing us to rethink where we think the story is going.

Such control over narrative over 62 episodes and five seasons is all the more remarkable given the uncertain nature of television production. The first season of seven episodes (reduced from nine after a Writers Guild of America strike) had to lay the groundwork for plot developments that might never happen if audiences had rejected it and the networks had not commissioned further seasons. Gilligan was certain about some plot developments, but others emerged as writing progressed as an the internal logic of the dramatic situation suggested new directions down which to travel. Breaking Bad could have gone in many directions, or could have been any length, even while in its finished state it feels wholly thought through, without padding or irrelevance. It is fully orchestrated drama.

The control over narrative and time is seen at the micro as well as the macro level. Individual episodes are distinguished by the extraordinary amount of action they pack in while never seeming to rush things in any way. Time is played with through flashbacks, and by the regular use of time-lapse photography. Episodes frequently have pre-credit flash-forward sequences, teasing as to the outcome of events, so that we do not think so much what will happen next as how will be get to the point from where we started (notable examples include the effects of the plane crash that ends season two, or White’s return from disappearance under a new identity in season five). It doesn’t matter what happens next: what matters is how we will get there – what matters is the method.


Bob Odenkirk as lawyer Saul Goodman

The mastery over the experience of time – something of which Walter White has little left, of course – is there in the different ways in which audiences have been able to watch the series. Those with it from the beginning back in 2008 saw each weekly episode in turn until the end of a season, then had to wait until the next season came along. Those who have found it on DVD, or like me on Netflix, in its full state have the opportunity to watch it in any way that we choose, even in a single sitting should one have the time and the stamina. It works just as well. In effect it is a 50-hour movie.

Comparisons have been drawn between Breaking Bad and the works of Charles Dickens, and this does seem valid. Writers of Dickens’ period produced novels in multi-part form in magazines, which only later were collected into volumes, and then single volumes. They had the overarching vision of where their story was to go, yet had to work in an environment where their story was made available to the public and to the market while they were still writing it. They, the story, the characters and the audiences, all grew as a necessary part of the publication model. The process could not be endless (such as a soap opera): there was always a dramatic end in sight. So it is with Vince Gilligan and other writers of multi-season television dramas which lie at the mercy of the audiences and the networks, yet which have a magnificent canvas on which to paint if they get the model right.

There is a Dickensian quality to Gilligan’s creation. Walter White is a very different character to Pip, David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickelby, not least in how his actions lead him to the bad rather than Dickens’s model of trials-leading-to-redemption, but all show a man asserting himself in the contexts of his time, through a narrative rich in character and incident, incidents that he eventually is the generator of rather than the victim of, as he gains mastery over his domain. There is the same combination of epic sweep and domestic detail. Dickens’ understanding of money as the engineer of society is powerfully echoed. There is same use of counterbalancing comic characters (Breaking Bad is frequently very funny), from the splendid creation of lawyer Saul Goodman (Micawber-like in comic stature) to the comic chorus of Pinkman’s friends Badger and Skinny Pete. It is narrative attuned to, and determined by, the temper of the times. Breaking Bad says, as Great Expectations once said, that we are living in the most dramatic of times.


The White family: left to right – Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt), Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), Walter White Jr. (RJ Mitte) with baby Holly, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), Skyler White (Anna Gunn)

The Dickens analogy doesn’t entirely fit, of course. Dickens operates in a narrative world where good must be rewarded and evil punished. Breaking Bad observes moral decisions, but is not determined by them. The bad frequently prosper, the good invariably suffer. Those who live or die do not do so because of some sense of reward, or justice. They die simply because someone points a gun at them and pulls the trigger. Yet it is not a nihilistic drama where unhappy things just happen. Walter White goes to the bad, and we know that it is bad. He and other characters becomes obsessed by their need for money, and this desire is invariably their undoing. We know that there is good, and that there is evil – it’s just that life’s rewards are not quite allocated in the same way. Stories depend on rewards and punishments for we as readers or viewers to find them satisfying – it is why we choose to read them in the first place. It is Breaking Bad‘s notable achievement that it both satisfies our sense of a moral world while showing us the realities of the real one.

I’ve started watching Breaking Bad all over again, and there is just so much else to enjoy. There is the poetic yet naturalistic use of language. Here’s Jesse Pinkman saying reasoning with Tuco Salamanca is a bad idea:

What is that? Conjecture? Are you basing that on that he’s got a normal, healthy brain or something? Did you not see him beat a dude to death for like nothing? And that way, that way he just kept staring at us. Saying, “You’re done.” You’re done?! You wanna know what that means? I will tell you what that means! That means exactly how it sounds, yo! Alright, we are witnesses, we are loose ends! Right now, Tuco’s thinking, “Yeah, hey, they cook good meth, but can I trust them?” What happens when he decides “no”?

There is the inspired use of music (often alt-country music bands quite unknown to me, but I must explore further). There is the casting – everyone is so ordinary, and convincing because they have the peculiar stamp of ordinariness about them. It is a series without stars (I only knew vaguely of a couple of the actors when I started watching for the first time). There is the skillful use of mobile phones to drive the narrative and connect characters (watch The Killing for comparison, where the characters’ continual use of phones teeters over into absurdity). There is the way White and his wife Skyler try to have amicable conversations only for the suspicion between them to creep in. There is the playful use of significant objects. There is the exceptional cinematography, with any number of surprise camera angles that are wholly appropriate to a drama where we’re not too sure where to look or what will happen next, and a sly use of colour coding that could take up a whole blog post in itself.

The boxed set TV drama, now further invigorated by catch-up services such as LoveFilm and Netflix, is one of the creative triumphs of our time. Tremendous stories are allowed to unfold, stories of our times rather than times past, stories which take on grand themes that appeal to that which is intelligent in all of us. 24, The Wire, House of Cards, The West Wing, The Bridge, The Sopranos – they transcend the limitations of the movie or the one-off TV dramas which needs must compact what it wants to tell into a couple of hours. They transcend television itself, finding a new home on disc, tablets or smart TVs that puts the audience in control of what it reads. These multi-part dramas revive the spirit and intent of the nineteenth-century novel and should be considered as co-equal with it, in their art and in their science. We are living in a classical age.

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