The Missing Link in Caldwell's Canon: UK Television

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Lapointe, Julien


I appreciated John Caldwell's talk and his suggestion that we take television more seriously as an object of study, as well as research and field work as legitimate means of intellectual inquiry. I still couldn't help but notice that, not withstanding his students working on international co-productions, a lot of his interests are focused on American television, to the, if not quite exclusion, then at least the oversight of other national traditions or schools. This is in many ways understandable and not necessarily meant as a criticism. He teaches and works in California, such that, if nothing else, his geographical proximity to the U.S. television production in and around L.A., plus given his propensity towards investigation and field work, will only facilitate his privileging of American television. Let the French study French TV, I suppose, while we North Americans tune into HBO (and Lost). 
The problem of translation here might be an issue: people attending the Cinémathèque Française, or the MoMA, have access to subtitled films from around the world; the same might not operate in TV land. Nagisa Oshima has a popular talk show in Japan, which according to one critic in Artforum is on par with Oprah Winfrey in terms of popularity. Yet I know of no Oshima retrospective which programs his TV show alongside In the Realm of the Senses or Taboo. 
Still, I would like to draw attention to UK television (which Caldwell touched on briefly during the Q&A). When Caldwell cites instances of high-quality TV, the kind any TV aficionado would brandish if pressured into justifying the artistic merit of television, we get some of the usual suspects: Mad Men, The Shield, Deadwood. On a personal note, as someone who can appreciate TV as a potential art form yet has never felt a personal (or intellectual) stake in the whole Can-TV-Be-Art? debate, I've always been surprised that an earlier period of British Television gets short thrift. Think: Pennies from Heaven, The Singing Detective, Lipstick on your Collar, Brimstone and Treacle, to cite only Dennis Potter! Or consider that the careers of Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh, Alan Clarke were all, if not launched, then at least had their glorious heyday on TV. During the 70s, Britain even pulled back from public film funding to invest in TV, hence the migration of British filmmakers to the small screen (where some of them produced their best work).
None of this exactly qualifies as news. I learned about British TV by seeing it, surprise, on TV -- and also by reading about it. It hasn't exactly been under-reported or under-exposed. At the same time, my own instinct, when defending TV as a possible art form, has always been to right away cite Dennis Potter, and perhaps afterwards his UK contemporaries and luminaries, before even thinking of mentioning some of the shows Caldwell mentions. Call it a question of taste, but I just think the Brits during this period produced better television -- it's just better art, the same way you could reasonably claim that, to cite one example off the top of my head, The Great Dictator is a better movie than Inglourious Basterds. But, in some cases, it also allows one to better rhetorically counter the film scholar snobs who would never deign to watch TV. If film is always so much better than TV, then why would any of us rather watch Bob Hoskins lip-synch old-fashioned tunes over Steve Martin (referring of course to the ill-fated film adaptation of Pennies). And if that's too ancient, try State of Play or Edge of Darkness on for size instead.
If I had to boil this down to a few questions, I would enumerate them as follows:
a) What role can an appreciation of "classic" (i.e. 60/70/80s era) British TV play in the field of American TV studies, especially in "converting" potential skeptics from film and elsewhere?
b) What kind of research exists, in Britain or anywhere else, into the history of British TV production? And does this research enjoy any kind of American audience among academics here?
c) What prospects are there for a more globally inclusive TV culture which TV academics can enjoy and have access to (so that we watch Oshima's talk show alongside The Wire)?
Finally, allow me to reiterate my appreciation of Caldwell's emphasis on research methodology, something which is frequently too sadly lacking in film studies tendency to over-theorize. 

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