bleak house tv drama | Bleak House | Entertainment (General)

Bleak House, an 1852-1853 novel by Charles Dickens, as contemporary television?

Why study it? Because it’s an excellent case study of the relationship between media products, their audiences and the organisations which produce and distribute them. All media products are shaped by what media organisations think their audiences want – a pattern you will have seen in your studies of the media. Bleak House offers an excellent example of media ‘packaging’ – how something like a classic drama can be repackaged to attract a broader audience and how that affects the nature of the programme itself. It’s also a clear case of how the media’s marketing of a programme almost disguises the issues it raises. For you might be forgiven for not realising that Bleak House is in many ways a radical and challenging drama, highlighting inequalities of social class; a corrupt and exploitative legal system which favours those who can afford to use it; the injustices delivered by those with power; and a range of gender issues. All of these issues are presented as ‘popular melodrama’ – with intrigue, murder and intricate relationships bringing together all levels of society. Indeed, it’s a lot like the soap opera EastEnders – the drama Bleak House was scheduled to follow in similar 30-minute episodes, complete with cliffhangers.

New audiences
Classic dramas such as the near-iconic production of Pride and Prejudice in 1995 are traditionally associated with slightly more mature audiences – a demographic of mainly 30-somethings and over. The BBC, and Indigo Productions, the production company who made it for the BBC and WGBH Boston, went to unprecedented lengths to attract younger viewers as well as viewers who might not normally be tempted by a classic drama (i.e. audiences of soap operas). So BBC marketers stressed from the start that Bleak House was like a soap opera in its subject matter. Bleak House author, Charles Dickens, after all, used melodrama to explore issues, and published his novels in a serialised form – just like a soap opera, according to marketing and promotion material. In fact, it’s a slight exaggeration to say that Dickens’ novels reached the same broad audience as soap; but there is some similarity between Dickens’ melodrama and contemporary soap opera – a form which arguably grew out of melodrama. And the scheduling emphasised the similarity: it was broadcast in twice weekly, 30-minute episodes and was designed to ‘inherit’ EastEnders’ audience, being shown immediately after it – a ‘weird-butworkable juxtaposition’, according to television critic Rupert Smith. The programme itself sported a contemporary visual style with fast-paced editing, transitions punctuated by a series of tableaux and flashbulb-like sound effects, much hand-held camerawork, camera ramping, whip pans and expressionistic, chiaroscuro lighting as part of evocatively designed sets. Indeed, you don’t need to go much further than the title sequence to spot the contemporary accent. It may not be in the conventional EastEnders mould but it’s not in the conventional classic drama mould either (a quick comparison with the 1995 Pride and Prejudice – or indeed most classic dramas since – makes the point). Think of the shortness of the sequence – a 33-second teaser – as well as its contemporary graphic design with stylised graphics, superimposed images and motivic, sample-like music. In addition, the casting was important in attempting to extend the audience reach. There were actors associated with literary adaptations (like Charles Dance, Ian Richardson and Timothy West) but most of the actors were not closely identified with the genre and were intended to bring audiences with them (Johnny Vegas, Warren Clarke, Pauline Collins, Phil Davis, Liza Tarbuck and of course Gillian Anderson herself, most obviously known from The X-Files). The DVD blurb sums it up: ‘Bleak House features a galaxy of major stars from feature film, television and comedy’.

What’s happening to the genre?
Part of what we’ve been talking about is how producers and broadcasters vary and adapt generic conventions to attract and extend audience reach. This was particularly important for the BBC in 2005 and 2006. At that time, the BBC was arguing for a substantial increase in the licence fee through its ‘charter renewal’ – the legal framework which enshrines the BBC’s public service broadcasting brief and its authorisation to continue to be funded through a licence fee rather than through advertising. This meant demonstrating that the BBC could provide quality programming which was accessible to all. Bleak House and Doctor Who in their different ways were ‘flagship’ examples of the BBC’s case. (As we now know, the BBC failed to convince the Government of the need for a significant rise in the licence fee.) Bleak House thus demonstrates how genre works: repetition of the expected with some variation in order to provide a balance between industry and audience needs. Bleak House combines the standard classic drama conventions (well-defined characters, meticulous reconstruction of the historical past through sets and costume, highly visible production values and a clearly defined narrative involving a romance element) with the less conventional (contemporary visual style, faster pace of editing, multiple narrative). The result is that the generic expectations of ‘traditional’ audiences for classic drama will be fulfilled, whilst the less expected variations on the conventional will provide added pleasure; and newer audiences will be attracted by those unconventional elements, which were in part designed to reach out to them. Have a look at the opening of Bleak House and compare it with just about any other classic TV adaptation you

Have a look at the opening of Bleak House and compare it with just about any other classic TV adaptation you know. Following the near-teaser title sequence, you’re immediately introduced to dramatic action – thunderstorm and rain as a hooded woman enters a carriage about to set off in a hurry. There’s pace to the editing, with cuts to close-ups, but this is familiar enough as a dramatic opening. When you cut to the female figure who takes off her hood, you perhaps notice that her face is shot against a black shadowy background – there is no realistic mise-enscène of carriage upholstery. The following scene is introduced with a high angle shot of a courtroom where, again, close-ups and expressionistic lighting (the chiaroscuro lighting familiar from Film Noir) contribute to a somewhat unconventional courtroom scene. The third and fourth scenes, however, register more dramatically that this is unconventional stylistically. The presentation of Lady Dedlock (Gillian Anderson) echoes the two previous scenes: the torrential rain (a pathetic fallacy to underline her emotional depression) links the scene with scene 1, and her close-ups visually echo those of Esther in scene 1 and the judge in scene 2. We hear her opening pronouncements of her boredom and emotional emptiness, accompanied by cuts between profile shots against dark background and a ‘fish-eye’ lens, giving the effect of placing Lady Dedlock in a kind of convex mirror foreground. Scene 4 shows Esther remembering her childhood via whip pans, camera ramping and stylised chiaroscuro lighting – as with the single light source of her guardian against the window shown from a distance (a direct echo of 17th-century Dutch painting, one of the artistic origins of the chiaroscuro effect). By this stage, audiences are clear that this a contemporary visual approach to a classic drama.

Narrative structure – the conclusions audiences are led to make?
In terms of the narrative, you’re aware of the generic hybridity of Bleak House: it blends classic drama with soap opera and crime drama. It borrows multiple storylines, cliffhangers and a concentration on family and human emotion from soap opera and has touches of crime, mystery and investigation (via one of the first detectives in fiction, Alan Armstrong as Inspector Bucket, and Tulkinghorn who is engaged in more sinister investigations into Lady Dedlock’s background). But the multiple storylines rooted in different worlds also hint at a view of society which is interdependent. For all elements of that society turn out to be interlinked and the actions of the highest class of society impact on the lowest. This is similar to the aspiration of soap operas to portray all aspects of society through a single community but it also makes a political point: that society does function like a community where individual actions have consequences for the whole of society. It may be an idealistic image of society but it is one that challenges the idea of a class-bound society in which each class is totally separate from every other. In both Dickens’ novel and the television drama narrative, the social criticisms made are explored through a binary structure. The ‘emotional spine’ of the narrative (a term adaptor Andrew Davies frequently uses and which derives from Robert McKee’s and Syd Field’s scriptwriting ideas) and its main binary opposition is between Lady Dedlock and Tulkinghorn – between Lady Dedlock’s secret, and Tulkinghorn’s attempt to expose it. Audiences are introduced to that opposition at an early stage in the narrative – Episode 1 shows their first icy confrontation, which is framed by scenes of ‘Nemo’, Lady Dedlock’s former lover. Flowing from that central character opposition are the worlds of an altruistic group of people whose life is not rooted in financial gain: Esther, Woodcourt and John Jarndyce in opposition to the corrupt legal system and the aristocratic world it supports (Tulkinghorn, Vholes and Sir Leicester Dedlock). At the root of these oppositions is thus a conflict in social class – between the landed aristocracy and a rising middle class shown to be more understanding to the working classes which maintain the aristocracy. The resolution of the narrative in a happy ending where Esther and Woodcourt marry and all classes are seen to be dancing together in an idealistic image of a new society is probably just that: an idealistic image. It is a resolution, as Barthes and Levi-Strauss both argue, which is possible in fictional narratives but not in the real world.

Representations of gender and class – still making us think today?
You could analyse the opposition in social class further, and find that it rests on issues about power: the differences in the power people have as a result of their social class (Sir Leicester Dedlock, Rouncewell, Esther and Woodcourt, and Nemo and Jo) and the institutions they can call upon (law); and the differences in the power people have as a result of their gender (explored through Lady Dedlock, Esther and Tulkinghorn). You can explore that by looking at how each of those are represented in some key moments in the drama. Have a look at Episode 9. Tulkinghorn, now fully aware of Lady Dedlock’s secret, displays complete power and control over her. How are you as an audience positioned here? How far is this an image of patriarchal power – of men’s power over women, in this case of a man able to manipulate the law to control a woman? By contrast, Esther, the illegitimate child of Lady Dedlock, is shown as being able to make some choices and show a degree of independence. However, it is significant that only after John Jarndyce recognises that it would be an abuse of his ‘power’ to marry her when she is clearly in love with Woodcourt is she able to follow her desires rather than what she sees as her duty. Women are thus not represented as being completely free to choose, or as fully independent. This element of the narrative is played out in the final episode. Another key moment to explore is in Episode 6. Here the authority of Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock is challenged by Rouncewell. Although audiences are positioned in many ways to sympathise with the Dedlocks on this occasion, the confrontation symbolically questions the aristocracy, suggesting that its days are numbered and that it will destroy itself (like the spontaneous combustion which destroys Krook). For Rouncewell represents a rising middle-class, who work to achieve their material gains. He becomes a kind of forerunner of Woodcourt and Esther, who not only work, but work for the good of others.

Bleak House thus represents a challenge to the social order. How far that was achieved either in the 1850s or in the 2000s is a debatable matter. However, it is a set of ideas which does break through the way the television drama is packaged, although not all audiences will see the drama in this way. Which makes a final point: that this drama is a good example of a television drama which can relate to – and be interpreted by – different audiences in several ways. That is arguably what is required today of all television – and, perhaps, all media: ‘products’ which are accessible in different ways to diverse audiences.
Jeremy Points is the Subject Officer for WJEC Media and Film Studies and the author of Teaching TV Drama (Bfi, 2007), on which this article is based. from MediaMagazine 22, December 2008.


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