Tag Archives: TV

“You are now entering the Big Brother house”: Heritage, houses and the location of cultural value

It was reported on BBC news this morning that the National Trust have temporarily taken over operation of the Big Brother house, and for 2 days only will be running public guided tours of the house that, for 13 years, has been home to rounds of contestants of the reality TV show.

Big Brother House: BBC News image

Inevitably, this has prompted many negative reactions: how could the National Trust, guardians of Britain’s most valuable heritage sites, descend to this? Is the house of a reality TV show of inherent value or meaning worthy of the National Trust stamp of approval? Isn’t it just a shallow PR stunt designed to market the National Trust as trendy and appealing to a younger audience? Well yes, there is clearly a PR exercise at work here, but it’s one that I have little objection to, either as publicity stunt – for that in itself gets people talking about heritage and value systems, which can be no bad thing – or for the grounds on which it markets the house as being of touristic value.

Of course the issue at stake here isn’t the opening up of what is, essentially, a TV set but the fact that the National Trust is behind it. The National Trust’s website states that its core aim is to “protect historic houses, gardens, mills, coastline, forests, woods, fens, beaches, farmland, moorland, islands, archaeological remains, nature reserves, villages and pubs. Then we open them up for ever, for everyone.”

Stoneleigh Abbey; image from http://www.stoneleighabbey.org/

Houses, of course, reach right to the heart of the idea of English identity. From the 18th century to the present day, the country house has been situated as a key national institution and one of the central images associated with “Englishness”: evoking the power of the landed classes through an image of leisured grandeur set within carefully sculpted landscapes, whilst carefully eliding the labour and Empire required to produce and sustain that wealth, the country house neatly symbolises much of England’s history. The country house tourism that we participate in today is no new phenomenon either: the practice of visiting houses began in the late 18th century as one of the first modes of intra-national tourism and, as it grew throughout the 19th century, formed one of the key practices that helped solidify and, literally, locate an emergent sense of national identity. The continued popularity of country house tourism attests to the strength of discourses forged through this practice, the country house remaining a resonant location of cultural value, worthy of its heritage status and the national investment to protect it.

So it’s easy to see why the inclusion of the Big Brother house into this genre might cause some debate. The TV series marked the start of a reality turn in popular culture that is, by definition, both mundane and insidious in its attention to the details of the everyday lives on display. To many, it symbolises much of what is wrong with contemporary popular culture. Such a house also begs the obvious question about the appeal of visiting a house that has been displayed in such minute detail by cameras permeating every space; what is there left to see?

If houses represent the location of national culture, then the Big Brother house is arguably the most resonant site of British culture in the last ten years. When Big Brother first appeared on our TV screens 13 years ago it seemed to signal not just a new era of reality TV, but of privacy and intrusion too: “Big Brother is watching you” hit a cultural nerve, coinciding with, and perhaps at that time pre-empting, debates around an increasing surveillance culture (indeed, “Big Brother culture”) that have become particularly resonant over the last few years. While it was the TV series’ presentation of “reality” that initiated many of these debates, it is the material house itself that stands as the manifestation of these concepts, its physical structure permeated by modes of surveillance and spaces in which self-narratives – the lifeblood of reality TV – are encouraged to emerge (the “diary room”, for example). As the phase “Big Brother is watching you” also reminds us, it’s a space that invokes British cultural tradition; while the show’s derivation from 1984 remains tangential in its final formation and the idea of “Big Brother culture” was widely resonant before the TV show, it is arguably the TV series that has served to re-invoke Orwellian concepts as widely identifiable and understandable to new audiences, reinstating the text as an active part of contemporary cultural memory.

Downton Abbey

It’s worth remembering, too, that we can’t be too precious about the perceived cultural value of country house tourism. Much of the contemporary interest in national house visiting has been invigorated by TV reinterpretations of the nineteenth century that take the country house as a central symbol: from the Austen adaptations of the 1980s and ’90s to Downton Abbey in more recent years, the house has been central in the visual evocation of nineteenth-century England, and this in turn has helped foster the continued interest in National Trust and English Heritage sites. The popularity of heritage houses is as much a collision of different cultural forms and inscriptions of cultural meaning, a meeting-point of popular and traditional, literary and TV culture. So too does the Big Brother house remind us that these sites also market themselves via the commodification of visitor experience: if the Big Brother house makes quite explicit the question of “what would one gain from being in, experiencing the house for oneself?”, this question might just as easily be put to the viewing of country houses, where the idea of being a participant in history is key to the marketable appeal.

I won’t lie, reality TV isn’t my thing and I wasn’t queuing up to get tickets to the Big Brother house. But I am pleased that the National Trust have done this, for if nothing else it serves as a useful site of cultural debate for thinking about the meaning of heritage, national identity and cultural value, and reassessing the sites that remain meaningful locations of heritage today.


“A group of true peasantry?”; Rural Realism and The Village

Peak DistrictI’ve been watching with interest the new BBC series The Village that follows the life of a rural Derbyshire community in the early 20th century. Among the most common response to this seems to be that the series is too depressing and bleak in its portrayal. Now admittedly with at least one death per episode, the background of World War I, and the on-going themes of poverty, domestic violence, criminality and injustice, set against a landscape that is not so much idyllic rolling hills but rather rugged, bleak, and by the looks of things, darned windy… it does not make for cheery Sunday night viewing. But I’m finding it enjoyably refreshing to see a series portray rural life without the twee gloss of rose-tinted nostalgia for an idyllic English past, and instead approaching something closer to the “rural realism” as described by George Eliot.

George Eliot’s early works – Scenes of Clerical Life (1857), Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), and Silas Marner (1861) – all focus around rural Midlands locales in the early part of the nineteenth century, and in doing so address a key problem that Eliot had earlier noted as dominating over typical representations of rurality. In 1856, writing in the Westminster Review on Riehl’s Natural History of German Life, Eliot argued that the true condition of the rural classes had been obscured from view:

How little the real characteristics of the working-classes are known to those who are outside them, how little their natural history has been studied, is sufficiently disclosed by our Art as well as by our political and social theories.  Where, in our picture exhibitions, shall we find a group of true peasantry?

There are, she notes, certainly many depictions of the rural peasantry, but these show “the imagination of the cultivated and town-bred”, rather than “the truth of rustic life”:

The notion that peasants are joyous, that the typical moment to represent a man in a smock-frock is when he is cracking a joke and showing a row of sound teeth, that cottage matrons are usually buxom, and village children necessarily rosy and merry, are prejudices difficult to dislodge from the artistic mind, which looks for its subjects into literature instead of life. The painter is still under the influence of idyllic literature, which has always expressed the imagination of the cultivated and town-bred, rather than the truth of rustic life. Idyllic ploughmen are jocund when they drive their team afield; idyllic shepherds make bashful love under hawthorn bushes; idyllic villagers dance in the checkered shade and refresh themselves, not immoderately, with spicy nut-brown ale.

Yet, Eliot counters, “no one who has seen much of actual ploughmen thinks them jocund; no one who is well acquainted with the English peasantry can pronounce them merry”; if we look more closely, we find that

The slow gaze, in which no sense of beauty beams, no humor twinkles, the slow utterance, and the heavy, slouching walk, remind one rather of that melancholy animal the camel than of the sturdy countryman, with striped stockings, red waistcoat, and hat aside, who represents the traditional English peasant.  

The rural scenes of Eliot’s early fiction therefore move away from the idyllic towards a closer observation of the conditions of rural life and people. There are certainly instances where we find nostalgia for the rural past creep in as rebuttal to the forces of modernity, most famously in the “old leisure” passage of Adam Bede which looks fondly back on “those old leisurely times” that have gone, “gone where the spinning-wheels are gone, and the pack-horses, and the slow waggons, and the pedlars”, and replaced by the steam-engine that “only creates a vacuum for eager thought to rush in” (AB chapter LII).

But Eliot also complicates this with the harsh realities of rural life, particularly with regards to the moral codes of the community: as she points out in the essay on Riehl, rural simplicity does not beget intrinsic morality, for “to make men moral something more is requisite than to turn them out to grass”. Accordingly, her fiction repeatedly shows up the problems of the moral codes of rural communities, from the suspicion with which “settlers from distant parts” are regarded by a community for whom “the world outside their own direct experience was a region of vagueness and mystery” (Silas Marner, chapter 1), to the stringent gendered codes that operate to exclude sexually transgressive women whilst giving slight punishment to the men who are responsible for their wrongdoing (as in Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss).

And I think The Village works in this vein of “rural realism”, offering a portrayal that complicates the idyllic simplicity and the intrinsic morality of the countryside with a rather harsher vision of rural life. Particularly notable I’ve felt is this idea of the complicated moral codes that operate within the community: social relations continually shift from a sense of a closely bounded community within the village, to the familial isolation upon the farm, and there’s a similar sense of unstable social codes operating in the shifts between exclusion and inclusion of individuals based on moral judgements that are at times dubious or wrongly biased. In last week’s episode, Grace Middleton’s internal struggle at the religious salvation of her previously violent drunk husband nicely pulled out the complexity of individual emotional responses vs the wider sense of what is “right” in the community, in a way that nicely captured the moral tensions and individual difficulties faced. Throughout, the harsh realities of rural life continually intersect with these themes, coming back to the basic facts of life and death on the farm, whilst recognising the wider forces that are shaping, and shaped by, the rural landscape.

The Village isn’t without its problems – it’s taking me a while to get on board with the Big House family and the obvious move to the “all is not as grand as it seems” theme that seems to preside over most of their story-lines – and it’s not without the occasional vision of “cheery villagers on the green”. But it’s nonetheless an important shift in the representation of rurality, and a welcome turn away from the simplified idyllic vision of the rural past towards something more closely evoking Eliot’s call for a vision of rural realism.

Great African Travellers: Attenborough on Livingstone

In celebration of David Attenborough’s 60 years in broadcasting, the BBC have been showcasing some of Attenborough’s early works. This wouldn’t ordinarily have been my go-to subject for TV watching, but it caught my eye because of this 1965 documentary retracing the journey of David Livingstone along the Zambezi river. It’s an intriguing watch for thinking about the afterlives of Livingstone’s legacy into the twentieth century, and for considering the shift from travel writing to travel film documentary.

Livingstone’s African travels began with his Missionary work in the 1840s, which this film briefly details before focusing in on his expeditions of the 1850s onwards in which Livingstone set out to explore the inner regions of Africa. Travelling in the company of local guides, Livingstone travelled from Sesheke up the Zambezi river, striking out to the West, and back again towards the Indian Ocean; following a visit back to Britain in the late 50s, he travelled back heading a larger group expedition and later continued to explore central Africa for his final years.

Map of Livingstone's travels
Map of Livingstone’s travels

Although undertaken some 100 years later, Attenborough’s expedition was still quite  a feat to accomplish – as the BBC website records,

“It took us four months to trace the 2,000-mile length of the Zambezi. Sometimes, we walked along its banks; sometimes we sailed down it. Twice we flew. Most of the way we went by truck will all our stores and equipment on board. But all the time, our actions and our thoughts were governed by the great river beside us, and it is the river which dominates the three films we made about the journey.”

Yet in this documentary, it isn’t so much the river which dominates but rather the ghost of Livingstone that looms large over Attenborough’s journey, resonant both in action and in thought. As we might expect, the young Attenborough’s adoration and reverence for his “astonishingly bold” predecessor shines throughout this documentary, especially in the seriousness and sobriety with which Attenborough often reflects on Livingstone’s greatest of feats or most testing of trials. Yet as a result of this the problematic elements of Livingstone’s narrative, imbued as it is with late-nineteenth century colonial discourse, go largely unchallenged in Attenborough’s retelling. As he treads in the footsteps of his great hero we find Attenborough repeatedly attempt to construct a literal re-treading of the same space, casting the Africa of 1965 as a space unchanged and untouched in the 100-odd years since Livingstone’s journey.

This is most obvious in the landscapes which indeed seem little changed from Livingstone’s accounts: the 1965 film is set against textual descriptions and illustrations that form a coherent picture between then and now, and the Victoria Falls, the unpassable Zambezi rapids, and the Piri hills standing as impressive monuments in a vast landscape. Interesting in the narration of this landscape, though, is the unquestioning use of language familiar to nineteenth-century travel narratives to describe these sights: Attenborough talks of Livingstone “penetrating inland”, filling in “huge spaces of the map”, and later “returning to civilization”, reiterating the idea of Africa as the empty, feminised wilderness to be claimed and conquered by the explorer.

Illustration of Livingstone's adventures
Illustration of Livingstone’s adventures

More problematic, though, is Attenborough’s handling of Livingstone’s encounters with African people, for here again we find a narrative at pains to draw on the similarities between Livingstone’s visit and his own. Visiting some of the same tribes that Livingstone describes, Attenborough reflects on Livingstone’s depictions of their behaviours and customs: “their people to this day pay homage in the way just that Livingstone described” we are told; reading out Livingstone’s horrified description of the  “barbarians” and their “inconceivably vile” customs Attenborough follows with the words, “the practices that so appalled [Livingstone] are still carried on today.”

In doing so, Attenborough reiterates a nineteenth-century imperial discourse which sought to temporalise other lands as unchanging spaces off the axis of modernity, representative of older form of civilization; Attenborough’s point of comparison is 100 years or so and works specifically to reclaim the space through which he moves as specifically Livingstone’s Africa, but in doing so his narrative reiterates and intersects with an older, much more prolonged and deep-set discourse of temporalisation, within which Livingstone was writing and which is more widely found throughout nineteenth-century travel narratives.

Illustration of Livingstone's adventures
Illustration of Livingstone’s adventures

If Attenborough’s narrative reiterates this, however, visual images tell another story: in one instance, just as Attenborough is detailing the unchanged customs of the tribe, the film shows men dressed in modern-looking clothing – crisp-cut suits and shirts – quite clearly not untouched by the “civilized” world; Attenborough’s reiteration of “then as now” continues regardless without a hint of irony at the competing narrative that the film presents.

In many ways, then, this film is reminiscent of much earlier hero-narratives of great explorers – such as W.H.G. Kingston’s Great African Travellers of 1874 (from which the above illustrations are taken). Watching this today, what comes through most clearly is not, as Attenborough hopes, the unchanging nature of Livingstone’s Africa, but rather the unchanging discourse of the white British male imperial explorer as the most stagnant legacy of the late-nineteenth century. So too is it clear that many unspoken stories around the great Livingstone are deserving of further attention – the stories of his wife and children, for example, of whom we find a tantalizingly small amount of information tucked in here. For these criticisms, though, it is all the more intriguing to watch and disentangle the intersecting narratives of Livingstone and Attenborough.

Dickens Day 2012: Dickens and Popular Culture

This year’s Dickens Day, held at the Institute of English Studies on Saturday 13th October, was the last in what has been a very full year of Dickens conferences, exhibitions and other celebrations, and it made for a wonderful end to a year of Dickens celebrations. Befitting the bicentenary year, the theme of Dickens Day 2012 was “Dickens and popular culture”, a topic which invited a diverse range of responses to Dickens’s popularity both then and now.

The day opened with a plenary panel that brought together Malcolm Andrews (University of Kent), Jenny Hartley (University of Roehampton), and Paul Schlicke (University of Aberdeen), to explore the resonances of Dickens in popular culture through the lenses of laughter and vulgarity (Andrews), public speaking (Hartley), and the circus (Schlicke) – I particularly enjoyed Schlicke’s discussion of circus performances of various Dickens novels, which saw characters like Pickwick and Sam Weller set on horseback performing in the circus ring.

In the following panel, “revolting bodies” were the theme. Helen Goodman (Royal Holloway, University of London), presented on ‘Dickens, Lunacy and Asylums in Early-Victorian Popular Culture’, looking at Dickens’s conflicted relationship with popular culture in the context of shifts in understandings of mental health in the early Victorian period, particularly around the notion of lunacy as spectacle, and exploring Dickens’s handling of mental illness in characters such as Mr Dick in David Copperfield. Joanne Ella Parsons (University of the West of England) took us from mental to physical health with her paper ‘Dickensian Appetites: The Influence of Dickens’s Monstrous Meals’, exploring how Dickens uses food to convey aspects of character and examining the ways in which this interacts wtih wider Victorian discourses of food. Parsons focused particularly on Miss Havisham’s non-consumed feast in Great Expectations – with some interesting discussion of the different types of wedding cake that evolved throughout the early 19th century – and the vulgarity of food in relation to Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop. She also considered the centrality of food in one of Dickens’s most prominent afterlives, the idea of the Dickensian Christmas.

Sign for The Boot, Cromer Street, London W1; Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence

Two further papers on this panel drew mobility and space into their discussion of “revolting bodies”. In Emma Curry’s (Birkbeck College, University of London) paper, the embodied mobility of the revolting body was central to a discussion which focused on ‘Legends and Leg-Ends: History, Feet and Mass Movement in A Tale of Two Cities’. The idea of the revolting, revolutionary body is central to the text’s handling of the French Revolution, but Curry identified that within this the novel repeatedly draws attention to representations of feet and shoes, taking us down to the material motivations and consequences of the mob. Curry explored the dynamics of materiality and embodiment, the mobility of the mob, and notions of history and intellectual thought, suggesting ways in which representations of feet contribute to a reading of the novel’s handling of revolution and historical events. Matthew Ingleby’s (University College London) paper also (sort of!) took feet as its theme, looking at ‘Dickens’s Boot: Popular Violence, the Public House, and the City’s Limits’. Ingleby looked at the urban-rural interactions of Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge, locating the pub “The Boot” – a real pub in London which becomes fictionalised as a rural pub in the novel – as central to the delineation of urbanization (or (pub)urbanization as Ingleby neatly coined it), marking as it does the rapid spread of London in the period between the novel’s late-18th century setting and Dickens’s time of writing. Further interesting was discussion of the afterlives of Barnaby Rudge, in which Ingleby noted that a new development in Birmingham, Alabama called “The Preserve” specifically draws on “Dickensian” tropes in its advertising material and has replicated a pub named “The Boot”, and yet in doing so somewhat confuses the urban/rural discourses that surround the pub in the novel.

Cover image of Down in the Hole: The Unwired World of H.B. Ogden, by Joy Delyria and Sean Michael Robinson

In the afternoon, I spoke on a panel which looked at Dickens’s influence and afterlives. Karen Hornick’s (New York University) paper on ‘Popular Critical Discourse and “The Dickensian Aspect”’ looked at critical discourse around The Wire as “Dickensian”. Although it’s become something of a (misused) commonplace to refer to the series as “Dickensian”, often used in ways that overlook the complex dynamics of race, class, economics etc that the series explores, Hornick suggested more critical ways in which the term applies, identifying the totalizing social vision, absence of any solution, and lack of a final “installment” as key to both. Hornick also discussed the awareness of the writers themselves at their handling of this term, particularly in the focus on journalism in the final series (and the conscious play on “The Dickensian Aspect” in one of the later episodes). I was very interested to see that Down in the Hole: The Unwired World of H.B. Ogden, a faux-Victorian serial novel of The Wire, has been released in full form (following the initial mock-up article last year). I followed this with a paper on ‘“Something in the Place”: Dickens 2012 and Literary Tourism’, themes that will be quite familiar to readers of this blog and which I’ll follow up with a few more thoughts in another post. Finally, in an impressive technological move, Tom Ue (University College London) skyped in from the USA with his paper on ‘Dickens, Gissing, and the Life of Writing’, an indicative exploration of the relationship between the two authors.

The day ended with Juliet John’s (Royal Holloway, University of London) keynote presentation on ‘Things, Words and the Meanings of Art’. John was a highly fitting keynote for the conference theme given her recent Dickens and Mass Culture (2011) which informed many of the papers throughout the day, and her keynote opened up some indicative new directions in its exploration of things in Dickens’s writing. Her paper is available as a chapter in the very recently published collection Dickens and Modernity and I therefore won’t detail too much here – suffice to say that John suggested more attentiveness to the relationship between words and things not just as semiotic systems but within representational frames, and then took us through a fascinating discussion which ranged across commodity culture in Household Words, money as “thing”, Dickens and celebrity, statues (the celebrity author as thing), and the afterlives of Dickensian things.

Once again the organisers put together an excellent day that prompted some fruitful discussion, and I’m very grateful that I had the chance to be a part of another Dickens Day. Also worth noting is that papers from last year’s Day on Dickens and Travel are to be published in the next issue of English, and should very soon be available via advance access on the website.