Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A UK perspective on "The Carmela Problem"

Inspired by a post at Dead Things on Sticks. Read it.

Done? Hello, this is the voice of Britain.

UK audiences are quite used to seeing actors turn up in all sorts of places, and stop paying it any mind after a while. Certainly, I see the same faces all over the place - some actors, such as Martin Clunes, Tamsin Outhwaite, Ray Winstone, Julie Walters, and David Jason are pretty much ubiquitous. David Jason is currently portraying detective Jack Frost, a role he developed while still regularly playing Derek Trotter. While he will probably always be best known as the Peckham entrepreneur, it’s worth bearing in mind that he also inhabited Pop Larkin during Only Fools and Horses’ run, and was still playing Granville when that started. It’s not difficult to keep them all separate in my head. Ronnie Barker starred alongside Jason in Open All Hours whilst at the same time playing a thoroughly different character to that show’s Arkwright in Porridge, proving, I think, that it's characters people take to their hearts more often than actors.

In fact, separating actor from character is something we've become very practised at in the UK, not because the available pool of talent is so small we have to reconcile ourselves to familiarity, but because we love to demystify celebrity. Personally, I blame panto - one day you’re Gandalf the White, the next, Widow Twankey, chucking sweets at screaming kids. As long as one performance is sufficiently different from the other, it doesn't matter if they come days apart. Of course, it takes a very skilled actor to create this differentiation, but that's the point isn't it, and the contradiction; the best actors, and the most recognised, are those who excel at making themselves anonymous. Their anonymity is the key to their employment, and the barrier to their marketability.

When Denis talks of the difficulty of building a show’s identity in people's minds, when all the cast can be seen regularly in other roles, he gives me the impression that he’s associating identity with long-term survival, and a static, exclusive cast with marketability. This is alien to me. Right or wrong, TV in the UK is designed to be disposable; questions of longevity, or “what would the hundredth episode be,” are never raised in a culture that doesn't expect to produce more than, say, thirty episodes of even the best shows. Still we produce one memorable drama or comedy after another, and whether or not they find root in the public consciousness has little to do with the exclusivity of their casts. Therefore, identity has to be predicated on something other than faces. Add to this my belief that we do particularly well in not typecasting people, at least not the talented actors, then it should follow that new portrayals are rarely perceived through the lens of those that came before.

Thinking of it, it seems our most tenacious shows are those that find ways to outlive their casts and develop their own personalities. Doctor Who has had ten leads now, and who knows how many companions. The door doesn't finish closing on one set of Spooks before the next lot come in. Taggart hasn't had a character called Taggart in it since 1993. And yet tune into any of these, or Eastenders or Coronation Street for that matter, and you pretty much know what you're going to get. Compare lists of regulars in Casualty, The Bill, and Monarch of the Glen over three year intervals, and you'll see few repetitions. But the shows survive, and remain identifiable.

The very fact that we don't regard actors as key to a show's national adoption, and that they have the freedom to stretch their wings is a good thing. Although it can sometimes result in unwelcome overexposure (Ross Kemp, Neil Morrisey, Amanda Holden, I am most definitely not looking at you), the ability of actors to move around, be in three shows a year, not stick at anything for long, is what has allowed some of our best loved and culturally resonant shows to develop their defining characteristics.

Category: Movies and TV

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