This Life first hit our television screens on 18 March 1996. Its boldness and honesty was refreshing in its realistic use of language and direct examination of such taboo subjects as drug-taking, homosexuality and rampant sexuality among the more youthful branches of the professional classes. But it would be unjust to say that the programme was all about sensationalism, in fact it was the opposite, it was about realism.
Britain was still being led by a Conservative hand. The economy was still struggling with a recession some years earlier. There was an air of disillusionment from the young twenty-somethings that had enjoyed a cultural adolescence of materialism, consumerism and self-indulgence. Was this the best time to broadcast a drama about young lawyers living together in London?
Finding an audience can be a fickle business, and then there is the challenge of maintaining that audience. As the opening title sequence graced the screen there was no Friends-style introduction to the characters with a pleasing pop tune playing in the background. No explanation, no actors’ names – just the title of the programme, “This Life”. The full impact came after the titles vanished.
In a novel approach the main characters introduce themselves to a panel at a job interview. The members of the panel are periphery characters that turn up throughout the series but, more importantly, the real panel members are the audience at home. In a world where people want information quickly we are served the characters on a silver platter from the very start. The questions put towards Anna, Egg and Warren are for the benefit of us at home. This device is a little heavy handed but it allows us to pigeonhole the different characters in a succinct way.
From the off we know that Anna is forthright: “I am in it for the money”, Egg is not entirely focused: “To be honest I don’t have any theories, I’m not into them”, and Warren is gay: “I am gay”. Moments after the interviews we are shown that Egg and Milly are a couple and that Warren used to be at college with them, we are also introduced to the fact that Anna and Miles had shared an intimate moment on their last night of college. This is all then neatly tied up when Egg and Miles disclose they were also at college together. Within the first ten minutes the audience has been brought up to speed on the past five years of the characters’ lives. This Life introduces the characters and simultaneously instructs viewers how to look at and understand the series. The relationship between these introductory scenes consists of the "vague simultaneity" of television narration that John Ellis mentions in Visible Fictions.
If the introduction to the characters in This Life feels that it has been laid on thick it is because it has been. The writers wanted to get the characters across as quickly and painlessly as possible, allowing the viewer to feel as if they are on an equal footing with the characters. We know their history. We know how they know each other. We have, in a very brief period, ‘shared’ their lives. From this moment we have a yardstick to measure how the characters develop over the series. As cultural commentator John Fiske wrote: “We approach the fictional world of [television's] realism with the same familiarity with which we approach the world of our experience: the two worlds are equivalent in that they are open to the same ideological reading practices.”
>From these opening scenes I already find myself deciding who I am most like, who my best friend would be, who my workmates are, who my enemies are, and so on. The character of Egg intrigues me the most from the outset. He is introduced as a young man who is unsure of what he wants to do. He knows that he doesn’t really want to become a lawyer but is in the awkward position of being offered the job he didn’t try too hard to get. His main loves are football, Milly and becoming a novelist, but not necessarily in that order. He is a dreamer. Over the course of the series he adapts, developing facets of different characteristics. But what we see from the beginning is an idealistic fresh faced young man who has moved into a house with his friends and is about to start work at a new job. As a viewer I find myself already wanting to find out what happens to him. It is interesting to note that This Life was created by Amy Jenkins who, like the characters she created, studied law at college then became a trainee in a London law firm. She left after a year to pursue her dream of becoming a writer.
The importance of such an abrupt introduction is paramount in grabbing the attention of the audience and keeping hold of it until the next episode. Television, as the medium, plays a vital role in people’s lives; it allows the viewer to be transported to the furthest corners of the planet, to delve into the personal lives of celebrities, to witness news as it is being made. The modern household is now shaped around the television (the medium and the rectangular object).
John Corner wrote that “Television services and programmes have largely been designed to be transmitted to the home and both fit in with, and yet also to exert a kind of benign regulation over, household routines.” This statement reinforces the decision of the team behind This Life to make a bold opening strike in the first episode. They had to turn the programme into an event. From that very first episode they knew that the public had to be programmed into thinking that Monday night was ‘This Life night’. With the help of the conservative (or Conservative) press this was achieved:
“I did not regularly watch This Life, but I caught the final episode and was appalled at the drugs, booze and worst of all, simulated sex between homosexuals... We should complain more often and perhaps our comments would have some weight in preventing such trash being shown.”
This Life marked a radical change from the dramatic norm in its content and themes but it still had to conform to a narrative structure. This structure allows the storyline to flow in a linear way that an audience can follow, and therefore come back to. Bernadette Casey noted in 2002 that “A narrative is integral to the process of storytelling. It structures content sequentially, so that words and images do not appear arbitrarily but in an order that makes sense to audiences. This structure allows ideas, themes or characters to develop or move forward in a coherent fashion.”
The two modes of narrative that need this structure are the narrative of events and the narrative of drama. The narrative of events is linear based. It is used to show things that happen and the order in which they happen. An example of this appears in the first few minutes of episode one. Anna is being asked a question, she answers. Egg is also being asked a question, he answers. The fact that these questions and answers are edited together leads us to believe that this is happening at the same time but in a different location; the narrative of events is being shared in time but not in space. If we focus on Anna we see the events presented in a linear timescale. She is asked questions, she answers them, she leaves the office, she stands outside the office building, smokes a cigarette, stubs out the cigarette, speaks to Miles and leaves the location.
The events do not necessarily have to take place in a continuous line though. A perfect example of this is in episode three when Delilah and Truelove meet at the club after Warren has given her cash to fly to Amsterdam. Truelove hints at possibly burgling the house, Delilah shows him a set of keys. Some time elapses in the programme before Delilah and Miles leave the empty house together. We then cut to the rest of the household sitting in a bar before they walk back to the house and find it has been burgled. This happened in a specific order but over the course of an episode and shows that the narrative of events can happen over a very short time (Anna at her interview), over the course of an episode (the burglary) or even over the entire series (Anna eventually sleeping with Miles).
The narrative of drama deals more with characterisation and relationships. It also has to abide to a linear structure but is not so reliant on actual events taking place. This Life uses this mode of narrative to great effect during the series. It is the characterisation that builds the drama as much as the events. Throughout the series the character of Egg uses football as an analogy to life. In episode one he brings breakfast to Milly in bed. It is the morning of her first day in court and she is nervous. To understand and empathise with her Egg likens her first day in court to the first match for a footballer who has been signed for a million pounds. We do not see the player stepping out onto the football pitch but we can imagine it. This device has been used to tell the audience more about the character of Egg and how he sees the world than as a method to try and cheer up Milly.
By using this analogy the writers are progressing the character without relying on an important event to take place. They are implying that Egg’s footballer theory is polysemic, that it has several different meanings and can be interpreted in several ways. Fiske wrote that "The motor of polysemy is the diversity of social situations of the text's readers". The writers can only write so much into the characters, it is up to the audience to understand, empathise and sympathise with them. David McQueen also wrote on the subject of polysemic meanings saying that “The complexity and diversity of signs and codes employed on television means that it is a highly polysemic medium, or open to a variety of readings and interpretations.”
Taking this on board we can identify several examples of the writers using the programme as a polysemic medium where exposition is jettisoned in place of images and dialogue that invite the audience to make their own assumptions (which should be along the same lines as the writers intended). The codes that McQueen refers to can include the image and editing (what we see) and the dialogue and soundtrack (what we hear). These codes, or cues, give us information that we then develop into meaning using our own preconceptions and knowledge.
It sits nicely with the ideas of denotation (the most specific or direct meaning of a word) and connotation (an idea or meaning suggested by association with a word). Jonathan Bignell describes this as “The iconic and arbitrary signs in the language of television are often presented simply as denoting an object, place or person. But signs rarely simply denote something, since signs are produced and understood in a cultural context which enriches them with much more meaning than this. These cultural associations and connections which signs have are called connotations.”
An example of this is the five second shot of Anna standing outside the office after her interview having a cigarette proves that the information does not have to be on screen for an extensive duration. Anna is smoking a cigarette (about a quarter of the cigarette has been smoked); she looks around, throws the cigarette to the floor and stubs it out. There is a recently extinguished cigarette butt on the pavement next to it. She sees Miles leave the building. From this basic information on the screen I can draw my own conclusions, or connotations. In the confines of space and time Anna has been waiting at that same spot for at least five minutes (or however long it takes to smoke one cigarette and then light another). In terms of character Anna is purposeful; she would probably have waited outside all day until Miles finally turned up.
She is also someone that makes her own decisions based on what she wants; smoking is potentially lethal but she ignores the risks and continues to smoke. Without the need of exposition I mentally pieced together my own character analysis of Anna from five seconds of visual cues. This is what the writers wanted the audience to deduce for themselves and this is what Fiske refers to when he said that "meanings are determined socially: they are constructed out of the conjuncture of the text with the socially situated reader" and that the audience "recognizes that we are not a homogeneous society, but that our social system is crisscrossed by axes of class, gender, race, age, nationality, region, politics, religion, and so on...". This Life is aimed at an audience that can understand these basic narrative codes and use them to empathise with the characters.
If they were targeting a broader audience then they would have been forced to use exposition as a device. If so, the same five second scene could have possibly been broadcast as follows: Anna stands outside the building; she is smoking a cigarette and speaking on the mobile phone to Milly. She tells Milly that she has been waiting outside the building for nearly ten minutes and will not move until Miles appears from inside, she also explains that she is smoking cigarettes and knows the risks but she is not the sort of person to listen to ‘do-gooders’ and that she lives by her own forthright rules. This scene would then turn from five seconds to anything up to a minute, especially if Milly has to be visually introduced as the person on the other end of the phone. This Life would have been a completely different programme if these devices were used.
Fiske says that “realism does not just reproduce reality, it makes sense of it”. By this he means that if one aspect of realism is about content, the other is about form. In This Life the content can be seen as the script and the form as the way in which it has been produced. The aim of the producers was to present the show in a way that would allow the script and the characters to develop over the course of the series but make sure that the audience was hooked from the beginning. In this sense the producers had to produce a programme that not only attracted a new audience but nurtured them over a course of time to feel that they were a part of it. This was achieved by giving the show a unique aesthetic quality. They took the approach of not just filming the action but using the camera as a voyeur into the lives of the characters.
The style in which This Life was shot had very rarely been seen on British television, especially not for a homegrown drama series. Perhaps the influence of such ‘realism’ contemporary dramas as US exports ‘NYPD Blue’ (Fox, 1993) and ‘ER’ (NBC, 1994) allowed the production to use handheld cameras; creating spontaneity between the characters and the situations they were in. This fresh approach to shooting has now almost become blasé with the influx of ‘docu-dramas’ in the late Nineties, but at the time it allowed the actors and the director to bring the script into a life of its own. It also invited the audience into the house and into the workplace. There is a feeling that at times I, as the viewer, am the sixth member of the household sitting at the kitchen table as Anna is in mid flow during a house conference. However, it would be too easy to say that this use of ‘jerky camerawork’ was a new invention.
It would be equally as lazy to say that it was stolen from US network television. The fact is that this voyeuristic approach had been used before to great effect in British television. In 1966 the BBC broadcast Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home. It can be argued that this was the first of the ‘docu-dramas’ and blatantly incorporated a style of filmmaking used by Jean Rouch, Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard - cinéma-vérité. This style of filmmaking was made possible by new lightweight cameras and tape recorders that “could get into the fiercest action, or smoke-filled rooms, without being obtrusive or ponderous”. It allowed a movie that showed ordinary people in actual activities without being controlled by a director. It is also worthy of note that Godard was the man who said “Photography is truth, and cinema truth 24 times a second”. Loach in turn used this medium to great effect, and there are a great number of comparisons in This Life.
One of the most obvious aesthetic references to This Life leaning towards realism is the use of naturalistic lighting. Whereas previous dramas had been shot using expensive, and time consuming, film stock This Life utilised shooting with modern video technology. This was vital in moulding the final product into the ‘docu-drama’ style that made This Life work. The lack of a large lighting set-up allowed the cameras to film around the actors in real locations in a less obtrusive way than the old studio-based cameras could. The actors were filmed without the obvious television and stage make-up of previous dramas, unless the storyline permitted it such as Anna using the female toilets in the courthouse as her personal make-up room before going into court in the first episode. This naturalism persuades us that these are ordinary people in natural surroundings (a kitchen, an office, a taxi). It could be argued that This Life owes more to soap opera narrative techniques than to the drama series genre.
This realism affects how we relate to the programme. As an intelligent viewer I know that this is a fictional piece of work, carefully scripted and painstakingly brought to life by astute directing. However, this feeling that I am watching a contrived recorded televisual play soon disappears as the above techniques are threaded together. The verisimilitude is never broken by elaborate, over the top ‘auteur-esque’ gestures or sloppy filming habits. It is only when the end credits appear that the ‘real’ reality returns, that these people, Anna, Egg, Milly, Miles and Warren are played by actors, fed lines by scriptwriters and instructed by directors. In his book Television Soaps Richard Kilborn says (notably of soaps but I would concur that this covers docu-drama) that “they seek to create the illusion of a reality” and that they have a “sense of lived experience”. I do not see this as a literal translation when it comes to sharing an experience; I have never worked in a solicitor’s office or shared a house with five lawyers, but I can empathise having worked in an office environment and shared a house. Fiske adds that in a "realist narrative, every detail makes sense" .
From the voyeuristic camera work, to the naturalistic lighting, to the use of real locations around London every contrived ideology has been used to make This Life seem as real as it possibly could be. John Corner wrote that “Viewers typically experience episodes of their favourite soap opera as a routine engagement with an imagined world running concurrently with their own real one… Soap narratives also follow a calendar co extensive with that followed by audiences…” This is evident in the episodic structure of This Life. The first episode shows Egg kicking leaves on the grounds of Gray’s Inn Court. In the next episode we see bare branches on the same trees. The next episode there is snow in the air, underlining the transition from autumn to winter. The viewer does not need to be told that time has passed; the codes are there to be read for ourselves.
This Life is a London based series. The characters live in south London and commute to work in Holborn. It could be argued that the London backdrops are being ‘prostituted’ to appeal to the masses rather than adding anything to the story. There certainly seems to be an element of truth in this statement. A lingering shot of St Paul’s Cathedral as Milly and Egg walk across Southwark Bridge is not truly necessary – we already know that they are in the city. However, it would be nearly impossible not to include images of black cabs, red buses and underground stations. The fact that Chancery Lane station (albeit the street level entrance) commonly appears more than once per episode is a vital piece of the narrative jigsaw. It is a device that, within a matter of seconds, informs the viewer that it is a new working day (or the end of the working day if it is at night).
The geography of Chancery Lane, Grays Inn Road and Holborn is imperative to the story; this is where the legal profession is based in London. The visual references to this area add weight to the realism of the programme, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. When we see Anna following Miles from Chancery Lane station and walking down Holborn we accept the connotations that they are lawyers commuting to work, walking past other lawyers outside the courthouses. This is in reality false, a lie; they are actors walking down a busy street being filmed on a camera. But the parts of the jigsaw are fitted together by our own conceptions; we are being fed visual references and we want to believe they are true.
The most important location, however, is the house. This is where the group can always be found. If the house is not believable then the whole programme would fall apart. Would we feel as empathetic towards the characters if they lived in a luxury modern, riverside penthouse apartment? Certainly not! The fact that the location is not in a beautiful part of London but on a noisy, busy road reminds us that this is somewhere we could be living.
Another area that allows the creators of This Life the freedom to present their ideas is through the editing. If we imagine the visual image as what we see and the soundtrack as what we hear, editing is the device that controls how we see it and how we hear it. This Life uses a number of editing techniques throughout the series to create a mood and generate momentum. At its simplest, the editing allows a transition of space and/or time. The cross cutting technique in the interviews with Anna and Egg is a device that transfers the audience from one office to the other (space) but hints that they are happening simultaneously (time).
Fades are also commonly used in This Life to instruct us when one event has ended and another one is about to start, normally by lowering the soundtrack and fading to, and then out of, black. These techniques are typically associated with Hollywood where the purpose of the edit is to be as seamless and non obtrusive as possible. However, the use of jump cuts (where the cut is purposely visible, creating an effect of discontinuity or acceleration) is also evident, an example of this is when Warren loses his temper at Delilah over the yoghurt. The jump cut technique is used purely as a dramatic device to emphasis his rage.
The editing also provides a way for the character of Warren to physically and emotionally detach himself from the rest of the group by visiting his therapist. This is done by a transition of space and time. Warren’s visits to the therapist are frequent when he isn’t a member of the household and allow the writers to delve into his character without breaking the verisimilitude of the group dynamics. He is the wildcard of the group. He is the outsider. Whereas Egg has Milly, Milly has Anna, Anna has Miles and Miles has Egg; Warren has nobody. He has not got a confidant, someone to bounce ideas off or discuss his inner turmoil. The editing reflects this as it takes him away from the rest of the story and places him in this unknown, unreferenced place. Later in the series when he moves into the house his visits to the therapist, and therefore his transportation from the rest of the characters, are less frequent as he finds an emotional release within the group.
To understand how the interacting relationships between the characters work we first need to look at the bigger picture, and for that we need to understand the theory of hegemony. The concept of hegemony has its origins in Marxist theory where it can be seen as the “winning of popular consent through everyday cultural life, including media representations of the world”. In its simplest sense hegemony means ‘control over’. This control is maintained through cultural influences rather than force. The media, in this case the BBC, have a control over the ideologies which are broadcast and shown to the mass public. The writers of This Life therefore have to abide to these rules, but the hegemonic control over the media in the Nineties was changing with the seemingly endless possibilities that a ‘New’ Labour (on the horizon) could bring. This allowed the writers to develop a series that juxtaposed modern London living with the almost antiquated hierarchy of the English legal system.
The underlying assumption of those subscribing to a hegemonic view of society is that there are fundamental inequalities in power between social groups. The characters in This Life live within the confines of two such groups – the household and the workplace. Fiske argues that most television narrative is conservative and its realism is supportive of the status quo: "its effectivity is far more open to doubt [because] a textual structure is a hegemonic line that may, at any time, meet an equivalent line of resistance". This rebellion has been taken up by the writers and, almost ten years on, This Life can still be categorised as cutting edge television. At the time of broadcast there was not really another programme that could be labeled as a ‘peer’; ITV released their modern, character driven series Cold Feet a year later.
In a 1975 study on stereotyping roles based on gender, Professor Bradley Greenberg found that men “gave more orders than women and, most crucially, orders that originate with men were acted upon more frequently than those that originated with women.” He also stated that male characters “mainly needed physical support whereas female characters required support more often related to emotional problems.” This theory is supported by Fred Fejes who, seventeen years later, associates the physical and rational with men and the emotional and domestic with women. He noted that “men are disproportionately shown conducting business on the telephone, smoking and drinking whereas women are disproportionately shown preparing and serving food as well as doing household chores.” Men are shown as assertive, aggressive and independent. The women shown with these characteristics are usually presented as villains. For the most part women are shown as peaceful, warm, passive and dependent.
It is not impossible to imagine that the writers of This Life used the results of these two studies (and many others) as a mission objective of their own to break every rule. There are numerous examples of This Life rebelling against the gender roles mentioned above but it is interesting to note that these happen mostly within the core family of characters. It is as if the household is how the writers see what the world is, or at least should be like. However, outside of the family we are presented with a reality that owes more to Greenberg’s and Fejes’s findings. Both firms of solicitors are headed by older, white males. There orders are taken seriously and are to be completed as quickly and efficiently as possible. But that is not to say that the writers have accepted that this has to be the way it is. Just when you feel a wave of apathy may wash over the younger characters a scathing line rekindles the flame of revolution: “Only the old can afford to be young” spits out Anna as she sees her aging boss arrive in a ridiculously phallic sports car.
This is an interesting tool in to why I feel This Life was, and still is, engrossing to its audience – it is how the dynamics of the group work outside of the constraints of the workplace that strike a familiar chord with the viewer. Whereas every member of the household is subordinate to the senior partners of the law firms, there is an exciting and more representational democracy at the house. Where Greenberg found men giving the orders we find Milly laying down house rules and Anna demanding house conferences. Where Greenberg found that men needed physical support and women needing emotional support we find Anna prowling for physical contact: “Is it worth a fuck… Miles, the tenancy, the job?” and Egg questioning his emotional state of being. In fact it is the male characters that seem to need the most emotional support, literally in the case of Warren whose visits to the therapist allow him to speak his mind.
Where Fejes found that men were the assertive business go-getters we find Milly being groomed for senior partnership in her law firm and Anna using her frank and forthright sexuality to gain a more powerful position in her firm, yet we see Egg feeling uncomfortable and dissatisfied with his new position and Miles questioning the ethics of taking what is considered to be a most important and high profiled case. Fejes’s findings also appear to be outdated when we see Egg preparing the food and bringing Milly breakfast in bed especially as he could have been written as the stereotypical football loving, sex-starved Northern male “It would be foolhardy to try [to live on Match of the Day alone]”. I find that it is the character of Egg that best shows the talent of the writers in trying to create a gritty drama that propels itself from the characters’ everyday lives.
At the time of original broadcast This Life was groundbreaking in terms of style and content. Almost ten years later and my feeling is that the programme is just as fresh as it was in 1996. The style of the programme, with its quick, fluid camera movements; naturalistic lighting; use of London iconography and editing techniques are still being used in drama today. The content which included sex, drugs, relationships, foul language and homosexuality sits a little more comfortably with today’s dramas but at the time it was truly shocking. I believe that This Life opened the doors for writers to experiment with their characters and not only say things that were commonly frowned upon by the ‘establishment’, but to shout it out at the tops of their voices! Without This Life it is hard to imagine the successes of Russell T. Davies (Queer as Folk, The Second Coming, Doctor Who), Harry Bradbeer (The Cops, Outlaws), Alrick Riley (Babyfather, Playing the Field) and Maureen Chadwick (Bad Girls, Footballer’s Wives).
This Life had to create a new audience and maintain a solid following. It did this by creative writing and deft production techniques. There was an intelligence about the series that was the secret to its success but just when you thought it might be taking itself too seriously it would laugh at itself. As Warren said: “Unfortunately I don’t have the time to hang around for an existential discussion – I’m off to get some cock!”
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