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June 13th, 2011


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04:28 pm - TV as theatre
HBO are to create a new version of I, Claudius. Boy, that's an ambitious aim. It will all depend on the quality of the actors. Replace Derek Jacobi? Tall order. And John Hurt, and even cuddly Brian Blessed. Tough acts to follow.

The Guardian has an article on this:
Even a lavish period BBC drama such as I, Claudius feels a bit low-rent by today's televisual standards. The acting is formidable indeed but technically, it's very static and staged. There are long, "unblinking eye" camera shots, occasionally trundling in for close-ups in moments of high drama, with very few cuts

I disagree with the Guardian that pre-1980s TV is poor, or even 'low rent'. It is just operating to different implicit standards. Something happened in the 80s so that TV stopped being a type of theatre and became a type of cinema. We don't say theatre is static and staged, with low-quality sets, because we don't expect a stage production to be like a film. It has different virtues. As they say here 'the acting is formidable indeed'. It's the acting and scripts that were (sometimes) very good in old telly.

I wish that critics and viewers could be persuaded once again to see TV (well, some TV at least) as a type of theatre. I think that would get us away from a fixation on verisimilitude, and would allow lower budgets, which might make TV executives more open to formal experimentation and moral challenge.

(27 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:altariel
Date:June 13th, 2011 03:36 pm (UTC)
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Hm, well, I wish we'd had more of Rome instead.

ETA: And, yes, of course you are absolutely right about telly as a type of theatre, I'm sure I've bored for Britain on this subject in your hearing often enough!

Edited at 2011-06-13 03:37 pm (UTC)
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From:communicator
Date:June 13th, 2011 04:03 pm (UTC)
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It is frustrating that TV reviewers don't acknowledge these issues. Why is telly a low-rent movie, not a high-rent theatre.

It is the assumption that TV requires high budget which means risk-taking TV is limited to the American studios which have enough money.
From:abigail_n
Date:June 13th, 2011 04:11 pm (UTC)
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It could be my age talking, but I'm not at all eager for TV to behave like theater again. Though I'm dubious about the need to remake I, Claudius, I can certainly sympathize with the notion that the theatrical shooting style of the show and its contemporaries is not only outdated but unsuited to the medium. The power of the theater comes from the audience and the actors sharing a space. Within that space, the audience is free to direct their gaze and attention where they like (and part of the director and actors' job is to draw attention where they want it to be). TV interposes a camera between the audience and the story, which forcefully directs the viewers' gaze and attention. Under those conditions, it's incumbent on the director to make artistic choices about how that gaze is directed, not just stick the camera on a tripod and occasionally zoom in and out.
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From:communicator
Date:June 13th, 2011 05:57 pm (UTC)
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Well, you make a good case, and I've just gone away and thought about it. I think there are two virtues to a lower level of production. One is a negative virtue - as low production is cheaper it provides a way of allowing non-American Tv stations to make creative shows with local talent. The other is a more positive one, which is that a minimalist aesthetic has some kind of charm, a bit like old black and white films. Or like Lars Van Trier and his Dogme cinema (and Dogtown).

But thinking about it, I tend to agree that static camera is a bit of an affectation if it isn't forced on you by technical limitations. The camera tool is there to be used.
From:abigail_n
Date:June 13th, 2011 06:21 pm (UTC)
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I think it's worth remembering that TV is still a writer's medium rather than a director's. Though shows with a more cinematic style of direction have become more common, they're still the minority, and the style of direction in TV is still relatively restrained compared to film. You might almost call TV direction minimalistic, in the sense that it's often long shot-middle shot-close up-repeat, not a lot of elaborate tracking shots or sweeping camera movements. As you say, for a properly minimalist style, you'd have to have a director who is conscious of what he's doing and working hard to achieve it.

It seems to me that what you're angling at is less minimalistic direction and more minimalistic design - a movement away from the realism of the filmed media. Honestly, I don't know how I'd react to that - I'm so accustomed to film and TV prioritizing verisimilitude.
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From:executrix
Date:June 13th, 2011 04:15 pm (UTC)
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I wonder if the time-honored End-of-the-Budget Bottle Show is also a return to theatrical roots?
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From:communicator
Date:June 13th, 2011 05:44 pm (UTC)
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It really is, and I love them. Fly is a fantastic example.
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From:julesjones
Date:June 13th, 2011 05:08 pm (UTC)
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I *like* tv as theatre. It has its limitations, and modern tv does some things better. But I would no more wish to give up, as a direct and immediate example of stuff watched in the last month, Robot than I would The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People.

Of course, I am also someone who actually goes to live theatre, and this colours my view of whether a theatre in my living room is better, worse, or equal to a cinema in my living room.
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From:kalypso_v
Date:June 13th, 2011 05:54 pm (UTC)
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Talking of live theatre, have you decided yet? I don't mind either way, but I'd like to book.
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From:communicator
Date:June 13th, 2011 05:58 pm (UTC)
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I agree. I really am not arguing against saturated beautiful products like Mad Men and Deadwood. Awesome and wonderful art of the modern age. I just want a wider range of acceptable aesthetic.
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From:julesjones
Date:June 13th, 2011 07:47 pm (UTC)
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Indeed. There are reasons to move on to a new aesthetic -- what the New Who team do with modern camera techniques, never mind the CGI, is a wonder and a marvel. Much of the camera work couldn't have been done forty years ago, because there wasn't the portable and/or computer-controlled kit to do it (I'm thinking here particularly of the doubled scenes with an entire cast in The Almost People). But that doesn't mean that we should overwrite the marvellous things created under an older aesthetic just because they are an older aesthetic, which it seems to me to be what this praise of a new I Claudius is about.
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From:matildabj
Date:June 13th, 2011 06:07 pm (UTC)
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I was struck, last time I watched I, Claudius, by just how theatrical it was. Not only the way it is shot, but the way the actors act. It's interesting, reading the Guardian article, how these days we expect TV to consist of short, quick scenes with a lot of cutting, shot with multiple camera angles. Even Doctor Who does this. I like the more theatrical style; I like it that in the theatre I can chose who to watch, whether it's the speaker or someone in the background.
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From:communicator
Date:June 13th, 2011 06:18 pm (UTC)
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I wonder how I would feel if my wish came true, perhaps my eyes have been trained to see modern telly, and it would be hard to adjust?
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From:ajr
Date:June 13th, 2011 08:25 pm (UTC)
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I haven't seen I, Claudius, but I have watched a lot of telly. I've seen good modern telly (with well-done visual style), and I've seen bad old telly (horribly staged, theatrical).

But I've also seen horrible modern telly (what, do they think the audience had ADD? Why so much cutting and waving the camera around? I can't tell what's going on!) and I've seen good old telly (ah, the pleasure of having the camera hold the scene while we watch people actually act).

So, to an extent, I can see both sides. There's a lot of modern TV I dislike because it goes for style over substance, waving the camera around stupidly or having the actors walk around aimless because it 'looked good' (Christopher and His Kind was terrible for this, to take a recent example). So a more considered style, like the older theatrical style, where the camera is held more, and we get to see people act, actually greatly appeals to me as an antidote to that. The Shadow Line does this to an extent. Blick will plonk the camera back and let us watch a bit, instead of frantically cutting about.

As for the acting, I think it's true to say that theatrical acting doesn't work terribly well on TV, if it's done full-out. Theatrical acting works in a theatre because the actors have to play to the back of the house as well as on the front, but on TV the camera can often be closer than even the front, so suddenly all the movements look huge and over-acted. People talk about what a cracking actor Olivier was, but often when I see him in something on TV or film, he seems an awful ham.

I'm probably digressing wildly, and I'm not sure now what point I was trying to make. Heh. Other than theatrical style TV can be bad, but it can be good too. I think not having seen the TV show under discussion here is hampering me. But, take the Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s. These were often highly theatrical affairs too, but I love them. Well, not all of them, but a lot of them. And I think the best of them merge film acting with theatrical staging in a way that works for me. It's worth noting that in those films, the directors often still found ways to move the camera, even if just panning as the actors moved across the stage, so it didn't look too boring. Whereas I've seen plenty of '80s TV where, presumably because of budget, the set clearly isn't big enough for the camera to move around so that's why it's plonked straight and un-moving, which can be deathly boring.

Still, so long as we don't go back to '80s-style TV, I'll be happy. That was back when the discovered they could make TV more film-style, so often completely over-did it with cutting between people in conversation, and cutting in close on every action they wanted to be sure we saw (look, the hand is opening the door! is picking up the letter! is holding a gun!)

I meant to work it in somewhere above, but Babylon 5 is an example of a TV show that, when I watched it again recently, I found to be very stagey and theatrical in a b-a-d way. Person A says line. Pauses. Person B says line. Pauses. While not saying their line they just stand there. Horrible to watch, really.
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From:communicator
Date:June 13th, 2011 09:07 pm (UTC)
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I have been saying to everyone that The Shadow Line is like theatre. And that slightly overwrought acting style. I like art that doesn't try to be too calm and cool.

One of the worst aspects of old theatrical Tv is the staging of fights, though, which are often absolutely ridiculous. Blakes 7 - a lot of people on my flist are B7 fans - lovely writing, forgiveable special effects: utterly pathetic action sequences. Ah well, you can't have everything.
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From:gfk88
Date:June 14th, 2011 07:51 am (UTC)
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**utterly pathetic action sequences***

Are you deliberately trying to bring my world crashing down ? It's real life action which is all wrong - it is, it is.


And: a lot of people never go to the theatre, so for them telly that looks like theatre is just going to look like weird telly.
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From:communicator
Date:June 14th, 2011 08:03 am (UTC)
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But people used to watch that kind of telly all the time, so they can accept it. War and Peace, Quatermass, Columbo, Play for Today. If this change were to happen (which I doubt it will) it would come from some people putting on minority arty shows, with low production values, and then some of that would leak through into the mainstream, because TV people watch minority arty shows.
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From:gfk88
Date:June 14th, 2011 08:41 am (UTC)
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Yes sorry - I guess I meant the next generation of viewers who never saw that stuff the first time round.
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From:julesjones
Date:June 19th, 2011 11:52 am (UTC)
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As for the acting, I think it's true to say that theatrical acting doesn't work terribly well on TV, if it's done full-out. Theatrical acting works in a theatre because the actors have to play to the back of the house as well as on the front, but on TV the camera can often be closer than even the front, so suddenly all the movements look huge and over-acted. People talk about what a cracking actor Olivier was, but often when I see him in something on TV or film, he seems an awful ham.

I used to think that John Barrowman's acting in Torchwood was just bad acting. It took me a while to realise that what was going on is that he is probably a very good actor, or he wouldn't have got so many major roles in musical theatre -- but that having been a primarily stage musical actor, he had no idea how to tone it down for tv, and was still playing to the back of the gods in the 1500 seat theatre. By comparison, most (notoriously not all) of the actors in the 70s telly shows were capable of remembering to play it as if they were in a tiny 50 seater secondary auditorium.
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From:sheenaghpugh
Date:June 13th, 2011 08:46 pm (UTC)
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Damn, I wish that instead they would do a version of that period that wasn't based on Graves' book, which would be a lot more interesting. Graves was far too trusting of folk like Suetonius and Tacitus who had axes to grind.
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From:communicator
Date:June 13th, 2011 09:09 pm (UTC)
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I don't know enough about it. I suppose it's the ready-made dramatic structure that makes it so tempting. Instead of having to develop a meaningful shape from scratch.
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From:pinkdormouse
Date:June 13th, 2011 08:59 pm (UTC)
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I mostly prefer the theatricalities of pre 1980s TV.
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From:communicator
Date:June 13th, 2011 09:08 pm (UTC)
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I think we are a biased sample, for certain reasons. I honestly don't mind the rubbish effects of old DW and B7.
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From:vilakins
Date:June 13th, 2011 10:54 pm (UTC)
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I think I, Claudius stands up very well. I like longer scenes much more than choppy ones and smooth camera-work is much less obtrusive than the shakes and lens flares. Don't show us how you're doing it, just show us the characters and action.

I can't imagine others in the roles. I'm also a bit nervous about how graphic they'll get.

I need to get the DVDs out. Greg hasn't seen it.
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From:communicator
Date:June 14th, 2011 08:03 am (UTC)
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I haven't seen it since it was first broadcast, though I got a DVD set this Christmas. Somehow life hasn't given me time to sit and watch it yet.
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From:glitterboy1
Date:June 13th, 2011 11:30 pm (UTC)
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HBO are to create a new version of I, Claudius.

Gosh. I wonder whether that sounds the same to US ears as it does to ours? Talk about setting yourself a difficult task...

"today's televisual standards"

I do wish they'd gone for 'norms' rather than 'standards', and avoided the implicit judgements. Because, yes, I'd agree that there's a difference - joyfully, even. But that's not the same as better or worse.

Well, it will be interesting to see what HBO do.
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From:communicator
Date:June 14th, 2011 08:05 am (UTC)
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Yes, 'today's standards' sounds like 'minimum acceptable quality' doesn't it? Of course, we love our old telly shows, with their - ah - 'different aesthetic'.

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