Saturday, March 14, 2020

Unwilling Victims: notes on Christine Keeler, Deadwater Fell and Flesh and Blood

How do you stand up for women in this day and age — ordinary women — without being overlooked or ignored? I keep hearing — in this #MeToo era — how wonderful it is that we’re hearing so many female voices on television: authentic, passionate female voices. But I mostly see viewers cheering about empowerment when the heroine can punch a hole in the wall or toss a man across the room. In a recent New York Times article entitled "I Don't Want to Be the Strong Female Lead," OA creator and star Brit Marling argued that although the film and television industries — after decades of portraying women as victims and sex objects — have done a 180, the results haven’t been entirely satisfying. Instead of applauding women for the qualities that make them admirable and unique, they’re now imbuing them with traditionally male traits. Consider the new female lead, Marling wrote: “She’s an assassin, a spy, a soldier, a superhero, a C.E.O. She can make a wound compress out of a maxi pad while on the lam. She’s got MacGyver’s resourcefulness but looks better in a tank top.”

And although I see Marling’s point, I think the problem lies as much with audiences as with studios. I see a whole lot of female writers and directors fighting to bring fascinating, “ordinary” women to the screen; I even see many of them focusing on the systemic victimization of women in a way that doesn’t diminish their subjects, but elevates them instead. I just don’t see viewers paying attention. Yes, when a distaff team of writers and directors explored Jessica Jones’ recovery from sexual assault, their efforts inspired newspaper columns and water-cooler conversation. But how about the female characters who don’t have uncommon abilities, who aren’t what the media has now dubbed “kick-ass women”? The ones battling abuse or neglect — or the patriarchy itself? When female writers and producers and directors join forces to tell their stories — and imbue them with empathy, complexity and respect — can we not cheer them on as well?

These questions swirled around in my head this past winter as I watched a trio of superb dramas: BBC One’s The Trial of Christine Keeler, Channel 4’s Deadwater Fell and ITV’s Flesh and Blood. (For viewers in the US, all three are currently available on Daily Motion.) The questions began shortly after I finished episode 1 of Christine Keeler, then got on social media to bask in the afterglow — only to discover I was pretty much basking alone. Instead of audiences hailing an honest portrait of a flawed but fascinating female, they‘d taken to social media to whine. And to whine about absolutely nothing of consequence: James Norton’s character said “little baby” too many times (isn’t that the very point of a pet name that’s designed to be both reassuring and controlling?); the flashbacks — few and far between, by the way — made it hard to follow. (“Why can’t people just tell stories in chronological order?”) I’m forever amazed at the double standards viewers hold for various genres. Give them a fantasy like The Witcher, where the plot is so convoluted that most folks don’t even realize there are multiple timelines till three or four episodes in, and fans just sit there blissfully confused. (“I don’t know what’s happening, but it’s great!”) But take a historical drama or a character study, and challenge folks’ preconceptions or, heaven forbid, the notion that time on television should only unfold in a linear progression, and they completely lose their grip. And try to tell a compelling story of a woman who’s human rather than superhuman, whose voice is silenced by oppressive rather than unspeakable forces, and viewers do more than lose their grip: they lose interest.

For the record, little baby, I thought The Trial of Christine Keeler was a smashing piece of television: wonderfully intelligent and extraordinary entertaining. I confess, I was still suffering the sort of PTSD that only bad TV can inspire from the last series I watched about an English scandal — Russell Davies’ unsubtly titled (and scripted) A Very English Scandal — in which we were encouraged to revel in the antics of the politician hushing up his wrongdoing and to root against the (gay) victim. (It showed, to my mind, an astonishing lack of taste and judgment, particularly coming from a writer who has long championed gay characters.) The Trial of Christine Keeler — as scripted by Amanda Coe, produced by Rebecca Ferguson, and directed by Andrea Harkin and Leanne Welham — redressed the balance. It didn’t just right the record on Christine Keeler by portraying her as more victim than vixen. It humanized her. It broadened our understanding of her character and her role in the Profumo affair (the scandal that rocked the Conservative Party in the early '60s), while decrying the way she was portrayed in the media and convicted in the court of public opinion: as the teenage nymphet who brought down a decent and upstanding career politician.

“I’m an ordinary sort of person,” Christine announces in the opening voice-over: “May be hard to believe, but I’ve never longed for the spotlight. But somehow the spotlight found me.” From the start, Coe captures all the compelling contradictions in Christine’s character, because as her voiceover is declaring her aversion to attention, she’s emerging from a posh pool, stretching like a feline recently roused from a catnap, then — finding herself alone — peeling off her wet one-piece. Only to be interrupted by John Profumo, leering from the far end of the pool. She darts with surprise, then regains her composure with a gesture at once coy and ingenuous. She shields her breasts with her arm, then turns to face him: preserving the appearance of modesty while satisfying his desire to look — and feeding her own desire to please. But as tantalizing as all of this is, we see clearly that Christine, a creature of instinct, hasn’t thought the moment through — and when more guests suddenly arrive, she’s mortified. Despite working as a showgirl in a seedy club, where’s she’s used to being passed from customer to customer, despite being pawned off to wealthy men for a bit of fun and pleasure, Christine is as naive about the way the world works as any young woman her age. She lives for the moment, and doesn’t consider the consequences.

But the events of the next several years change all that, and Coe makes one thing clear: none of it is Christine’s fault. If you’re taught that your sole worth is whatever your looks will fetch, then it’s not unreasonable to decide you’d better grab all you can, before those looks fade. If men have always (and only) seen you in terms of what they can get from you, it’s only logical at some point to wonder what you can get from them. To see life as a series of barters. Christine is groomed to be exactly what she becomes, and Coe is sympathetic to that. As is Christine’s portrayer Sophie Cookson, who imbues her with equal parts titillation, fascination and fear: too young to distinguish between the men who want to help her and those who want to use her, and too proud to admit it. Throughout the series, Christine makes rash moves that she mistakes for smart decision-making — or justifiable self-preservation. But she doesn’t have the life experience to plan her actions in advance — and as a result, she’s forever second-guessing and regretting the choices she makes.

Through six episodes, Christine doesn’t gain wisdom so much as knowledge — of how politicians close ranks around their own, of the biases of the criminal justice system, of how much journalists and policemen will promise, then renege on, to get what they want. And on a more personal level, she learns whom to trust. What’s impressive — and telling — about The Trial of Christine Keeler is that just as Coe works to humanize Keeler, she paints a complex portrait of her mentor Stephen Ward as well. (Coe’s humanistic touch is a generous one, for anyone who deserves it. Profumo does not, but his wife does.) Yes, he was grooming young women for affairs with wealthy men, but Coe makes him just as much a victim as Christine. Not “innocent,” no more than Christine was — but not guilty in the way he was portrayed at the time. (It’s made very clear that the court proceedings designed solely to muzzle him were a travesty.) And the way that James Norton portrays Stephen — in a career-expanding performance — emphasizes the duality of his nature: Norton gives him the oily manner of a salesman, but there’s a glint in his eye, and the airiness of his voice and the gentleness of his manner (so suited to a society osteopath) are undeniably appealing. Norton makes it clear why these girls trusted him — and why, in a very real sense, they were right to.

“They say you should make the punishment fit the crime,” Christine announces at the top of episode 5, in which Stephen goes to trial: “But that’s not true, is it? Not for Stephen — nor for me. First they decided to punish us. Then they decided on the crime.” The Trial of Christine Keeler takes a fresh look at a scandal that’s long been misconstrued and misreported — and comes out swinging. The series captures all the noisy, messy counterculture of the early Sixties: the clothing, the music, the drugs, the overt sexuality — everything that onlookers found simultaneously arousing and irresponsible. It was a lifestyle both feared and coveted — often by the same people, and it was an era when Christine Keeler could be both siren and scapegoat: a little too wise about pleasing others and a little too naive about looking after herself — and forever mistaking one for the other. It was heady entertainment.

“Heady” is not a word you’d use to describe Deadwater Fell, the four-part series that starred David Tennant, Cush Jumbo, Matthew McNulty and Anna Madeley. It was writer Daisy Coulam’s first new project since Grantchester; given what a pale imitation of itself Grantchester has become, it’s easy to forget how groundbreaking the series seemed in 2014 — balancing character-driven drama and well-clued mysteries in exquisite fashion — or how accomplished Coulam’s early scripts were. Six years later, with Coulam sadly unable to work her old magic on Grantchester, she’s returned with a new drama that reasserts her temperament and her talent. Deadwater Fell — produced by Caroline Levy and directed by Linsey Miller — was quiet and unassuming, rich and altogether absorbing. It had one message to deliver — one highly relevant message: listen to women — and it was insistent on delivering it without compromise.

And as with Christine Keeler, I barely heard anyone talking about it. Shockingly for a David Tennant vehicle, it came and went with a remarkable lack of fanfare. So ironically, no one paid attention to Coulam’s latest endeavor: a series about our failure to listen to women; it became the saddest of self-fulfilling prophecies. Critics and audiences seemed unsure what to make of it — particularly the critics, who felt they had to make something of it. It needed to be neatly categorized, to fit into a format they understood — that way, it was ripe for comparison. In the reviews, you could hear them anxious to reduce it to something familiar: there’s a murder in a remote village — why, it’s a mystery, like Broadchurch! It got saddled with the most unlikely and inaccurate of assessments: the worst possible description for a show determinedly shy on detective work and eschewing all the well-trod conventions of the genre.

Because the very point of Deadwater Fell wasn’t about finding clues; it was about missing them. Deadwater Fell was a tragic story about Kate Kendrick — town schoolteacher, wife to the local GP and mother to three girls — and how she and her daughters perish in a fire that turns out, upon inspection, to be homicide. But it wasn’t merely about Kate, but all the people in her life who might have prevented the tragedy: who chose to look the other way, who saw what she was going through and all that she was dealing with and dismissed the signs — or ignored them. Deadwater Fell was about a sleepy town awakened by tragedy, by the loss of a mother and her three girls, and how it turned its response inward. Because when the culprit is clearly someone in your close-knit community, the question becomes not so much “who” as “why.” Why did this happen, why now, and why didn’t we see it sooner? On the surface, it was a more traditional series than Grantchester — but Coulam’s method was no less cunning. Her work gained power and traction over the course of the four episodes. It required trust at the top, and it took some getting used to her deliberately dispassionate style. Not that it was distant or unemotional — far from it: her characters were fairly begging to be heard, and many of their outbursts were explosive. But Coulam was careful not to editorialize. She allowed us to draw our own conclusions, the way we might with characters in a true-crime drama.

With one key difference. If you watch true crime dramas, you’re used to seeing the victims eulogized in breathless hyperbole — you never really get a sense of who they were; you hear only how people want them to be remembered. Kate, on the other hand, survived in memories that, as the series proceeded, brought her into clearer focus, and painted a portrait of a complex woman. We saw outbursts of anger and moments of despair, but we came to understand why. And we also saw great love and warmth and generosity. And terror. We viewed her through the memories of her husband, her mother-in-law, but mostly her best friend Jess (Cush Jumbo, in a stirring performance), a woman overwhelmed with reveries and regrets. And reasons — lots of them. Reasons she had to be suspicious of Kate’s situation and safety, and reasons she had for keeping quiet. Reasons why speaking up for her best friend didn’t seem all that important — until, of course, she died.

And the more we learned about Kate, the more we understood why she was murdered. Deadwater Fell was much more character study than mystery; oh, Coulam paid lip-service to the sort of police work we expect in dramas like this, but often the police work wasn’t leading toward a plot reveal, but a character beat. But Coulam kept the narrative tension taut because of her understanding of how we watch television. She understood that, when someone is murdered in a TV drama, we’re preconditioned to hunt for clues — and that as we do our own detective work, we have our own process of eliminating suspects. She knows that we’ll ignore the obvious solution in search of an unlikely one. And that we expect, as the penultimate episode concludes, that if all the evidence is leading us in one direction, that must be the final red herring before the big reveal. (Chris Lang used that presumption to good effect in the third series of Unforgotten.) We’re trained to see murder as mystery, and to see mysteries solved with certain, familiar route markers along the way. Coulam recognized that she could focus on the character drama because we would create our own whodunnit.

And she had one other thing going for her: David Tennant, as Kate’s husband Tom. Not merely because he gave a tremendous performance, but because his natural charm drove home the very points Coulam wished to make: about what we see and what we ignore, about the presumptions we make and the external factors that shape our responses. There’s something very eager in Tennant’s style of playing that worked especially well for the role. As an actor, Tennant demands not merely to be seen, but to be enjoyed. His craving to please his audience meant that we were predisposed to like him, to believe in his innocence once he gave us his assurances, and to root for him even (or perhaps especially) when suspicions were swirling around him. But Tennant’s focused intensity — that insistence on being seen and valued and appreciated — was the clue that was staring us in the face the whole time, as to who Tom Kendrick really was, which we — like his neighbors and family and friends — were eager to ignore.

If Deadwater Fell was somber and subdued, Flesh and Blood was animated and outrageous. But it was delightful. It practically raised family dysfunction to an art form, in its story of three grown siblings thrown for a loop when their widowed mother announces she’s met someone new. A woman deciding to date 18 months after her husband dies wouldn’t be much of a basis for a family drama, if the children weren’t such a horrendous mess of neuroses and self-involvement.

In an interview, writer Sarah Williams revealed the impetus for Flesh and Blood: “I wanted to get to the heart of that thing you have with your family, where you’re full of love and support for them, but they can also wind you up and find your weak points.” But that’s not quite what Williams wrote. She wrote a script about three siblings so self-absorbed that they can’t bear their mother’s newfound happiness. Her ability to move on with her life somehow threatens the sense of shared misery that sustains them. We hear excuses throughout for why they’re so unwilling to accept their mother’s new beau — “it’s so soon after Dad died” and “we know nothing about him” — but none of it rings true. And the happier she becomes — and indeed, Francesca Annis was radiant as the mother (the script kept reminding us she was 70, and a good thing too, or you might have suspected she was a generation younger) — the more threatened they seem.

“No one can make us laugh as hard or wound us as deeply as our family,” Williams noted, “and that seemed to me incredibly rich territory for a drama.” Except there wasn’t much laughing in this family — but there was a whole lot of wounding. And not just verbal wounding. Williams realized that “mere” family dysfunction wouldn’t give the piece the momentum and focus it needed, so she added a crucial incident: a police investigation into a crime from which the whole story unfolds in flashbacks, as family members give their statements. And that conceit flipped the tone of the series, as it allowed Williams and the cast to expand the material with a more comic edge, as they highlighted the stark differences between the stories the characters were spinning for the police and the way in which events truly unfolded.

And all the while, we were left in the dark as to what the incident was that brought this family in for questioning, and who the victim was. If Deadwater Fell refreshed a stale genre by flipping the focus of the "village murder," Flesh and Blood wove something new by introducing and defining a family through the crime they were covering up. The most remarkable thing about Flesh and Blood is how assured its tone was. With one false move, it could easily have veered into camp and self-parody, but Williams, director Louise Hooper and executive producer Kate Bartlett knew just how far they could push the material for maximum tension and impact without inviting melodramatic excesses. (It had some of giddy morbidity that distinguished BBC Scotland’s Guilt last fall.) There were mysteries within mysteries, and all along the way, unanswered questions — or more precisely, characters and actions that could be read two ways. Was the next door neighbor a busybody or a fruitcake? Was the mother’s suitor a decent man or an opportunist? And to Williams’ credit, the ambiguities didn’t keep the characters from feeling fully formed; they just made them that much more interesting, for being so devilishly hard to read.

And the two women who anchored the series — Annis as the mother, Vivien, and Imelda Staunton, as her next door neighbor Mary, who had helped care for the siblings when they were young and who, over time, had come to be seen as family — were a marvelous study in contrasts: Vivien, so effortlessly glamorous and serene, and Mary, all fussy tics and nervous energy — the sort of nosy neighbor who manages to insert herself into the family dynamic, then simultaneously basks in and resents their happiness. The music took up a piquant minor-key motif every time Mary appeared, with a walking bass line that threatened to define her as “comic relief,” but Staunton is far too formidable a presence to be reduced in that way, and her shocking actions near the end of the drama — when we learn just how far she’ll go to preserve the status quo — only worked as well as they did because Staunton had made it clear all along that beneath Mary’s comic excesses lay a reservoir of hurt, dread and disillusion.

Flesh and Blood was an original, but as with The Trial of Christine Keeler and Deadwater Fell, there was a surprising lack of "buzz." It came and went as quietly as the waves lapping the shore of the West Sussex beach house that gave the series its setting. And where it went — in the final scene — was one of the most moving tableaus in recent memory, as the entire family gathered around the dinner table passing around food and sharing anecdotes, and Vivien rose and wandered out to the deck overlooking the sea, lost and alone and alienated from her family — because they knew what transpired on the fateful “night in question” and she didn’t. At the heart of Flesh and Blood was the one character whose motives weren’t unclear, who managed to hold onto her honesty and integrity despite all the duplicity swirling around her. And now, she’s consumed with suspicions of what the others have done, and feels hurt and betrayed — yet she loves them too much to interrogate them, for fear of what she’ll learn. In an unexpected and poignant denouement, Vivien becomes a casualty of her children’s selfishness and unhappiness. I’m not even convinced that’s the show Williams was aware she was writing — and my husband, I’ll freely admit, got something very different from that final scene — but it was an image that haunted me for days: a loving mother ultimately victimized by her own children.


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Enjoy reading about TV's best? Check out The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching and Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss. Or if you enjoy detailed looks at hit shows, check out my write-ups of Judging Amy Season 6, Voyager Season 4, Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent, ill-judged Netflix miniseries), and fourteen essays devoted to all the seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries. Or if you have a preference for sitcoms, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2; serve up my 10 Best Mary Tyler Moore Show Episodes and 10 Best Designing Women Episodes; pen an appreciation of Mike & Molly; and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.

7 comments:

  1. The Trial of Christine Keeler portrayed Christine as complex, occasionally strong, sometimes weak, often flawed, but always likeable. Yet there wasn’t much buzz surrounding it in the media, despite it doing well in the ratings. So there’s an appetite for programmes like this, but seemingly less of an appetite for admitting it.

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    1. That's interesting -- you're more of an expert on UK ratings than I am: I obviously have more trouble accessing them. But I remember seeing one episode of 'Christine Keeler' scoring less than 'Doctor Who' that night, I think a 4.4 in the overnights, and honestly, given the advance publicity, I expected more. (And I can't seem to locate the 'Deadwater Fell' ratings anymore, but I did check them out after the first or second airing, and was surprised they weren't higher.) And then when 'Vera' returned, 'Vera' blew 'Christine Keeler' out of the water. And of course, 'Vera' -- in a very strange way -- is exactly the kind of series Marling was railing against: where the leading lady is so freaking assured and perfect and aggressive that there are no shadings left anymore. She's the "women doing a man's job,' and acting like it. Audiences dig that, and rave about that, and tweet about that, but the series about more complex and subtle women seem to go ignored. And if not ignored from a ratings standpoint, then certainly in terms of inspiring water-cooler conversation. All three series here were so well-reviewed, but as you say, not a lot of "buzz."

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  2. Haven't watched any of these, so have avoided post for spoilers. The Trial of Keller is definitely one I want to catch up and with school closures fairly likely in the next week, I'll have a chance during isolation! Hope you're keeping well.

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    1. Double back once you've watched 'Christine Keeler,' and let me know what you thought. It's funny: I usually write such "historical" pieces, about shows that aired decades ago; I don't have to worry about giving stuff away. It was fun to review something current, but I realized there was no way I could go "spoiler-free" and still make the points I wanted to make. So hopefully I found a good balance.

      We're in self-isolation here, so much TV watching being done and, I suspect, a few more essays on current series in the coming weeks. Be well, and stay safe!

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    2. School finished today and Boris - our Trump clone - has called for social distancing so I'll be homebound for a bit. The animated Faceless Ones arrived from Amazon yesterday, so I'll start with that!

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    3. As for Keeler, there's a famous English movie about it called Scandal which starred Val Kilmer's wife and John Hurt. Most of us have seen it.

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    4. I did know of 'Scandal,' but what I'm flabbergasted I *didn't* know is that Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a musical about the Profumo affair, called 'Stephen Ward,' which premiered a mere 7 years ago in London's West End. Given that I work in the record business, recording cast albums, you'd think at least I'd have *heard* of it!

      Enjoy your TV viewing! We've been ten days in isolation, and I fear we're already running out of current TV to binge, so I'm going to start reexamining recommendations that you and some other friends have left in earlier posts. I do seem to be enjoying mostly British series these days -- quite liking Sky One's new 'Breeders,' with Martin Freeman and Daisy Haggard. Meanwhile, fully appreciating (and agreeing with) your reviews of 'Picard.' I'm very happy the series has been made, and quite enjoy most of the actors, but my God, it's a lot of talk at the expense of action. I thought your review of episode 8 was spot-on, focusing on the telling-instead-of-showing aspect of the writing that's undermining the series.

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