Conference Report – ‘Performance and Television Space’, University of Glamorgan, 20 April 2012

‘Performance and Television Space’, a one day symposium held at the University of Glamorgan on 20th April 2012, was the second in a series of three conferences organised by the research project ‘Spaces of Television: Production, Site and Style’. This AHRC funded venture, shared between the Universities of Reading, Glamorgan and Leicester, continues to investigate how material spaces of British television productions conditioned the aesthetic forms of television fiction produced in the UK from 1955-93. The programme drew on a wide resurgence of interest in television performance and how it can be influenced by a number of cultural, institutional and technological contexts and constraints. Organisers were pleased to welcome contributors with backgrounds in either academia or the television industry to help generate new understandings and readings of television history.

Christine Geraghty‘s keynote ‘Twitchy editing and careening cameras: the presentation of performance in Bleak House (2005)’ opened the event. Geraghty argued, in terms of the organisation of space, that Bleak House combines soap opera conventions with the language of the classic serial to create an interesting hybrid. Specifically Geraghty believed that the use of handheld cameras and frequent close-ups, a typical convention of the soap opera, added a new dimension to the classic serial performance that is traditionally captured through steady and observant camerawork. The close-ups for Geraghty are an integral element of the Bleak House performances as they draw out nuanced differences between Esther (Anna Maxwell Martin), whose expressions give clarity to her thoughts or responses, and Lady Dedlock (Gillian Anderson), whose enigmatic control of facial expression is designed to deny revelation of her feelings. This method of approaching performance was considered by Geraghty to be at odds with the BBC’s original 1985 adaptation of the Dickens classic, starring Diana Rigg, that placed far more emphasis on the spoken word and a respect for the lavish set designs rather than focusing on characters’ micro-gestures. This issue of hybridity inspired a thoroughly interesting debate that followed on from the keynote and a more detailed version of these discussion points can be found in Geraghty’s forthcoming BFI TV classics publication Bleak House.

In ‘Performing Studio Languages and Practices’, David Dunn’s ‘Inviting the camera in: the television frame as a space of drama and performance’ reassessed the precise function of the television frame as part of a performance. Douglas McNaughton’s ‘Performing Spaces: The Influence of British Actors’ Equity on BBC Studio Drama’ followed, arguing how the Equity union’s insistence on television performances to be recorded live inhibited aesthetic possibilities of studio-based drama. Lez Cooke concluded with ‘Spaces of Television: The Dining Room’ where a close textual analysis of dining room scenes from landmark texts demonstrated how editing is an integral part of television performance.

For ‘Community Performance’ Leah Panos’ examination of feminist performance space in ‘Rock Follies: feminism, performance and the television studio’ was followed by ‘Relationships between radical black theatre performance and television space as exemplified in Black Feet in the Snow (1974, BBC)’ where Sally Shaw explored the intersection between radical black theatre and television drama. To finish Julie E. Robinson in ‘“Views from an Iron Bridge”: A Musical World and the performance of Midlands’ regional identity’ analysed the influence a landscape has on the way regional narratives are presented.

Genre and Performance’ opened with Richard Hewett’s ‘Adventures in Space and Time: Regeneration Performance Style in Doctor Who’ that compared the different production processes behind the ‘classic’ and re-launched series. Billy Smart’s ‘Hunters Walk and Juliet Bravo: Representing rape in the studio police drama’ was followed by Ben Lamb’s ‘Going undercover: detectives, police officers and the infiltration of criminal spaces’ that examined the layering of performances within the depiction of undercover police work. Lastly Steve Blandford examined the importance of casting in his paper ‘Cracker: performance and casting issues’.

In ‘Theatrical Performance’ Amanda Wrigley’s ‘Performing Antiquity: Translating Ancient Greek Theatre Space and Practice to the BBC Television Studio’ explored how three BBC productions of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus incorporated performance styles of 5th century Athens. John Wyver’s ‘Performance from the Whitehall: the Brian Rix comedies in a “third space” of production’ analysed the largely forgotten live broadcasts made by the BBC from 1952-1969. John Izod’s examination of Brechtian satirical devices in ‘Alienating the audience: the Old Crowd (1979)’ was followed by Patrick Pilkington’s ‘Doubled Performances: engagement with Notions of the Courtroom as Stage in the Legal Drama’ where he looked into the changing role of performance in courtroom space.

The symposium concluded with an informal interview between project contributor Billy Smart and well-known veteran television actor Maurice Roëves whose long lasting career has spanned over fifty years in the British television industry. Notable performances discussed included Roëves’ portrayal of Hitler in the postmodern television play The Journal of Bridget Hitler (1981), Vincent Diver from the BBC Scottish-based comedy Tutti Frutti (1987) and his portrayal of Alexi in The Gambler (1968) alongside actress Edith Evans. Roëves discussed his influences and the techniques he employed within different production contexts, namely the transition from video to film, to provide an engaging talk that synthesised the themes of earlier papers to draw proceedings to a close in a fitting and thought-provoking manner.

Ben Lamb, University of Glamorgan

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