Nudging the truth into view

TV Drama in Transition
April 10, 1998

For a couple of decades, students of popular culture have wilfully cut themselves off from those people who simply enjoy the stuff by going all sanctimonious about the whole question of value. The only value judgement they have plainly stood up for has been the necessity of inclusiveness. All exclusions are bad, whether on grounds of class, race or sex. After that, value reposes in subjectivity, itself at once sacred and centreless, so nothing can be said about it anyway.

Meanwhile, everybody else went unrepentantly on making those "distinctions of worth". In the everyday passages of life, each person tries to sort a more than merely personal way of distinguishing between right and wrong conduct. This is never more apparent than in the ordinary discriminations made within the unprecedentedly heavy traffic of television narratives.

Robin Nelson's is a very important book not only as to its immediate subject matter but, more largely, to the leftist tradition in which he surely counts himself, and which takes as its topic "the condition of England".

This being so, it is a mystery that Macmillan landed him with such a dreary and unindicative title. For Nelson's enterprise is no less than to formulate the structure of the new "affective order", which is the consequence of the post-Fordist mode of capitalist production, and to seek out among the narrative forms of television those tales that may help that order conduce to truth and goodness, and those that do not.

Such a venture, as Nelson well knows, will call down on his head the collective abuse of all those for whom judgement and value are instruments of oppression. In his efforts to exorcise this enemy, he is led at times to a stilted prose and a cumbersome method, trying to make every distinction of worth acknowledge at once its subjective essence and the absolute necessity of value.

But he brings it off. The new affective order is itself provisional, fluid, unhistorical, flexible, fantastic, hedonistic. The extremes of inanity to which its narratives lead are the golden girls, beaches and bottoms of Baywatch. But in the hands of a great original such as Dennis Potter, The Singing Detective dramatises that disrupted chronology, that inversion of cause and effect, of fantasy and action, by which all of us make a mess of our lives.

Potter trumping Pamela Anderson looks like a fixed fight. But Nelson not only brings sharply home to us how the academics have failed to do their duty by such discrimination. He builds a moral method, finding in the new aesthetics of television narratology a latter-day progressive's openness of judgement and multivalence of interpretation that sort well with what he sees as the best emerging values of a generation.

So his close reading of Andrew Davies's Middlemarch brings out the finesse and force of Davies's magnificent translation of Reform Bill England into post-Fordist Britain. Finally, in his strong and heartening analysis of Twin Peaks and Our Friends in the North, he moves confidently beyond his earlier jargon and gives his key concept, "critical realism", body and soul in the only way good moral philosophy can: by finding it in the facts of experience.

The courage and straightness of this admirable book are caught in a quotation from Tom Stoppard that Nelson uses in passing. Guildenstern says, "All your life you live so close to the truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque".

Nelson's book nudges the comic old monster out of the blur.

Fred Inglis is professor of cultural studies, University of Sheffield.

TV Drama in Transition: Forms, Values and Cultural Change

Author - Robin Nelson
ISBN - 0 333 67754 4
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £14.99
Pages - 7

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