Television

London and the south-east regional divide in television sitcoms in Blair’s Britain

This is an extended conference paper by Lauren Pikó and myself, originally presented at the Eric Richards British and Australian History conference earlier this year. It is part of an on-going research project that we are working on looking at representations of political and socio-economic change in modern Britain through television comedies. Our previous work on The Young Ones and Men Behaving Badly can be read here.

“Go to London! I guarantee you’ll either be mugged or not appreciated. Catch the train to London, stopping at Rejection, Disappointment, Backstabbing Central and Shattered Dreams Parkway.” – Alan Partridge

 While many have discussed the North/South divide in England that has widened since the days of Margaret Thatcher, at the same time, many have overlooked the divide between London and the regional south-east, where the divide between Greater London and its surrounding counties has become increasingly blurred in a geographic sense, but a stark contrast has emerged socio-economically. Cities as far away as Norwich in East Anglia have become commuter towns to London, while conversely, much of the non-customer service work that used to be conducted for the city has been moved out to its outliers, such as Slough and Staines. In these commuter towns and outlying places in the Greater London region, the workplace (and the working class) has become irrevocably changed by the shift away from industry and manufacturing to service industries and white-collar office work. London, to those on its fringes, is not a place of opportunity, but an expensive and anonymous place to be avoided.

This post looks at how this regional divide plays out in three British sitcoms made in the Blair years, which normalised and encoded the economic transformations of Thatcher’s Prime Ministership. These are I’m Alan Partridge (set in Norwich), Da Ali G Show (set in Staines) and The Office (set in Slough). Through their liminal fringe south-eastern settings, and their tortured main male characters, these programmes negotiate the tensions and borders between ‘Middle England’ and the glamorous, but ultimately unfamiliar metropolis.

Liminal spaces in the Blairite metropolis

The explicit divide-and-rule policies of the Thatcher governments pitted the post-industrial service-based economies overwhelmingly located in the south-east of England against heavy industries, manufacturing, and those associated with communities in the North of England, by exploiting deindustrialising macroeconomic trends and weaponising them against communities and regions who were politically hostile to the new political order. While this phenomenon has been well explored by historians, it is significant to note that it was understood as an explicit and overt policy at the time; the very concept of “the enemy within” during the Miners’ Strike exemplifies Thatcherite attempts to Other and present northern working-class communities as not only outside of national norms, but as being in opposition to it.[1]

The willingness of the Thatcher governments to accelerate and weaponise wider global macroeconomic trends against communities it judged as hostile helped establish a new economic geography of Britain, which was also mapped onto a moral political rhetoric. The fullest expression of this rhetoric would be developed under the Major government, through the concept of “Middle England”. While this was far from being a historically new term, its usage during the mid-1990s came to reflect a historically specific set of economic and class allegiances associated with suburban petit-bourgeois individualism, a hostility to working-class cultures and to state “intervention”. Middle Englanders were associated with the geography of south-eastern England’s post-industrial economies that had been encouraged by Conservative deregulation of urban planning protections. From the extensive service and logistics industries populating the new geographies of out of town “industrial estates”, the transformation of motorway sidings through the expansion of “services”, “big-box” distributing centres and fringe leisure complexes, the primary and visible economic functions of British landscapes changed drastically during the 1980s and through the 1990s.[2]

At the same time as these communities and regions were being actively redefined as outside of the national norm, the Thatcher governments actively cultivated the idea of a south-eastern English aspirational middle class aesthetic, lifestyle and individualistic value set as a universal norm and as an ideal moral and economic type of its voting base. Through political rhetoric and the constant media generation of associated ideotypes such as Essex Man, Basildon Man, Mondeo Man, and White Van Man, the conceptualisation of the typical or privileged voter as white, male, lower-middle-class, and south-eastern English were codified through cycles of political and media repetition.[3] This process established a mythological norm which privileged a specific image of embattled bourgeois whiteness and presented it as intrinsically linked to the new forms of productivity generated by the south-eastern English landscape.

This would become all the more profoundly normalised as the Blair government, elected in 1997, deliberately refrained from attempting to remedy these drastic changes to maintain their idea of political legitimacy. For all its rhetoric of change, its appeals to authority relied primarily on making only superficial aesthetic changes to the existing economic order; the divisions left by the Thatcher governments could only have been addressed through the kind of interventionism and regulation which postwar Labour governments had used to shape and control market influence, and these were no longer seen to be politically palatable to a “New” Labour. While they were elected on a hopeful campaign promising change from 18 years of Conservative rule, one of the Blair governments’ primary political contributions was to reinforce the neoliberalisation of the British state. While high-profile support for Blair amongst musicians, comedians, and writers peaked during 1996 and 1997 at the time of the election, once New Labour began to be seen as business as usual, this mood mellowed.

British television comedy in the 1990s

The history of British television comedy defies easy compartmentalization and the rise and fall of different comedy trend are difficult to categorize. On a broad level, the mid-to-late 1990s can be somewhat characterized as the start of a shift away from the ‘laddish’ comedy culture of the early-to-mid-1990s, typified by Baddiel & Skinner and Men Behaving Badly. Tim Edwards has described this as the ‘New Lad’ phenomenon, which spanned television, film, magazines and novels, pointing to the following examples:

The BBC situation comedy, Men Behaving Badly, gam shows such as They Think It’s All Over and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, as well as movies such as Reservoir Dogs, Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels… in very different ways play upon and invoke the theme of the New Lad. Loud and sexist humour often tied in with rudeness and bad behaviour, if not extreme violence, characterize all of these representations of masculinity that, for the most part, appear to have direct appeal to a young, aggressive and sel-consciously working class male audience or its admirers.[4]

The ‘laddish’ comedy trend had originally been partly in reaction to the ‘political correctness’ of the alternative comedies of the 1980s, such as The Young Ones and The Comedy Strip Presents. Many sitcoms in the 1990s took the flatmate/sharehouse premise and extended it, often with the protagonists no longer being students (like in the Young Ones), but now older, in some form of employment and in some form of relationship. Furthermore, these were comedies were dominated by men, often in their late 20s or early 30s, putting off the pressures of ‘adulthood’. This can be seen in Men Behaving Badly and Game On (and later in shows like Coupling, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and even Peep Show). The locations that these shows are set in are the traditional house or flat, as well as the pub/bar and sometimes the workplace). Most, except for Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, were set in London. In many ways, these shows reflect a transition in the way in which the British family and household were changing in the 1990s, as people were increasingly likely to buy a house and start a family later in life.

The shows that we are looking at transgress these traditional settings, moving away from the home and the communal area of the pub to the workplace and the liminal spaces on the edges of the metropolis. The programmes under examination here all formally depart from classic sitcom formulae and from the domestic setting of many popular comedies from prior to 1997. All are located in liminal south-Eastern English cities and within these, in “non-place” post-industrial settings (motorway sidings; industrial estates; suburbia/housing estates). They all share a critical and subversive relationship to television comedy genres, and all use a form of humour which deliberately provokes the edges of social norms through their main male characters. In this post, we examine the relationship between the liminal landscapes and liminal values these programmes navigate, and use them to trace the social, economic and geographic normalisation of neoliberalism during the early Blair government.

I’m Alan Partridge

The first series of I’m Alan Partridge aired from November 1997. A successor to the sketch show The Day Today and to the talk show parody Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge, the programme continued to document Steve Coogan’s character of a failed Norwich-based television and radio presenter in a new context. While using a laugh track, I’m Alan Partridge adopts a fly-on-the-wall style which at times approaches documentary style. The series opens with Alan living in one of the typical liminal spaces of the post-Thatcherite deregulated south-eastern English landscape; Linton Travel Tavern, a carefully fictionalised Travelodge located on the motorway services halfway between London and Norwich. Alan’s life is in a similar transitional space, as he fails to negotiate a new BBC contract, his optimistically titled autobiography Bouncing Back fails, and he is forced to liquidate his production company.

The gap between Alan’s aspirations and failures is mirrored in part through his occupation of what Marc Augé termed the “non-places” of late capitalism; motorway sidings, service stations, carparks, ring roads.[5] Partridge’s comfort with these settings even as he seeks to escape them is central to the humour of the programme, with his conservative enjoyment of mass produced foods, music, and even clothing which are so mainstream as to be passé. Like Alan’s preferences for consumption, and the settings of the programme, the plots satirise ideas and aesthetics which presume the audience is both familiar with and therefore contemptuous of, with Alan’s failure to realise his own faux pas making him the target of jokes. Phillip Wickham has written that the first series of I’m Alan Partridge, ‘broadcast in the year of raised hopes as New Labour came to power in 1997, suggests a world where… the individual has become dislocated from society and where codes of personal morality, solidarity and self-belief are rendered meaningless’.[6]

The second series of I’m Alan Partridge, broadcast in 2002, shifted its setting to Alan’s caravan and under-construction Barratt-style home, further exploited Underpinning these stories of Alan’s striving for status are flashes of narratives of repression, whether of his innermost sexual desires or reflections on past breakdowns.[7] Even while he constantly seeks to escape his surroundings, his antipathy to London as the site of his professional failures, and indeed any other city, region or country, entraps him with his refusal to transcend the comforts of what he knows.

Da Ali G Show

The first series of Da Ali G Show was broadcast in 2000 on Channel 4. In some ways Ali G echoed Coogan’s earlier invocation of Alan Partridge in Knowing Me, Knowing You, in its constant attempts to subvert the format of a smoothly functioning talk show by introducing tension (interrupting music segments, simulating mistakes and technical failures). Much of the humour, however, arose from actively exploiting the guile of guests who believed the show would conform to conventional talk show formulae. While creator Sasha Baron-Cohen, like fellow character creators Ricky Gervais and Steve Coogan, subsequently took these characters into other settings (including America) in subsequent series, the setting of the first series of Da Ali G Show is frequently referred to as Staines, the staid Middlesex commuter town on subsumed into the exurbia of London’s Western fringes.

The gap between Ali G’s persona and the show’s setting exploits racialised stereotypes of “urban yoof” subcultures associated with inner cities, and the gentrified commuter landscape of the fringes of Greater London. The gap between expectations of what is “allowed” to be said and what Ali G, Borat, or Bruno would in fact say, and the ensuing discomfort of guests and audiences, relies on the perception of being “out of place”, mirroring the programme’s juxtaposition of stereotypes with their setting. Locating Ali G in an implied stronghold of Middle England works to subvert both the supposed homogeneity of the ideotype, and to point to the limits of cultural and political stereotypings of race, class, and youth subcultures. The space between expectation and reality as a source of recognition for the audience, as well as of humour, is mirrored in the programme’s landscape as well as its social relations.

The Office

This was especially the case in The Office (airing from 2001), which used mockumentary style to depict the mundanity of working life in the regional office of Wernham Hogg paper company, located in Slough. Existing on the fringes of the London commuter belt, Slough represents an anonymous ‘anywhere’ in Britain outside of London proper, but is also a representation of the ‘local, specific and particular’.[8] As Tara Brabazon has suggested, The Office represents ‘the specificity of a post-Blair, post-union, post-industrial, post-feminist, insular, open-plan office’.[9]

The setting of the comedy in Slough, and its regional tensions with Swindon branch, is inextricably interwoven with the aimlessness and escapist desires of its main characters, who are presented as socially and economically enmeshed with their unfulfilling environment. This underpins both the normative characters Tim and Dawn, whose dissatisfaction is expressed overtly, and through the escapist, compulsive approval seeking of the office manager David Brent, who barely sublimates his dreams of fame and an exceptional life into being a “cool boss”.

Like Partridge, however, Brent’s affection for the landscape of his entrapment reinforces his wider social failings: in an interview scene where Brent reads and ineptly critiques John Betjeman’s poem “Slough”, his defense of the town is represented as over-familiarity with the undesirable or distasteful, much as his racism, ableism, sexism, and general insensitivity is ostensibly mocked for its failure to conform to new social norms. Brent’s escapist desires is offset by his desperation to keep his job, which he is fired from as he stretches his “relaxed” attitude to the point of untenability. With an identity predicated on stretching the boundaries of acceptable workplace behaviour, Brent’s workplace persona relies on remaining in tension with social and economic expectations, much as his regional office is a tense and precarious link in the wider supply chain of Wernham Hogg.

We propose that the shared humour style of representation in these programmes, and the landscapes they depict, are distinctly related. Cringe humour can be seen in this way as one that plays with uneasy interpellations, and the tensions and liminal spaces of comfort and discomfort, familiarity and unfamiliarity. It relies on the audience recognising particular character types, settings, and situations, but identifying with them at least partly unwillingly, whether through recognising social faux pas, vulnerable emotions, or behaviours that are outside of the established norm. The humour in each of these programmes derives from discomfort, whether that of the audience, the main character/s, or other characters reacting with distaste due to their expectations of a social norm not being met. The gap between uplifting rhetoric and economic realities is presented as the source of displeasure, unfulfilment, and the striving for places and economic roles outside the norm; the characters either want to escape, or are ridiculed for their level of comfort with the new environment. Unlike comic forebears such as Abigail’s Party, whose satires of social mores responded to suburbia and which ended in tragedy, these comedies are workplace-focused with a heavy emphasis on individual pursuits of fame as an exit-strategy. In these comedies, the failed promises of neoliberal economics and the landscapes which it has created are inextricable subjects of ridicule.

Cringing is a form of emplaced dramatic irony, making reference to the uneasy space between familiarity and contempt, knowing and wishing not to know, while locating the audience as a moral arbiter over the characters’ failures to differentiate the behaviours that are dictated and required by this particular setting. In the programmes under discussion here, the use of post-industrial “non places” reinforces and emphasises the literal “edgy-ness” of the type of humour being used; familiar and yet distasteful, both inside and outside of the expectations of the projected audiences. On the one hand these can be contextualised within longer patterns of elite satire of mainstream working conditions, lifestyles and aesthetics which recur throughout modern British culture, however these comedies deliberately targeted settings, lifestyles and expectations in ways which were made possible by their being both relatively historically new and deeply familiar and recognisable. The constant juxtaposition of emotional repression and economic striving, and perpetual entrapment within liminal, unfulfilling spaces not only shapes the humour of these programmes but maps them onto the specific post-industrial landscape of south-eastern England, which are seen as familiar but also as morally desolate sites of discomfort, precarity and unease.

[1] Ben Jackson and Robert Saunders, Making Thatcher’s Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[2] Joe Moran, Reading the Everyday (London and New York: Routledge, 2005); “The Strange Birth of Middle England,” Political Quarterly 76, no. 2 (2005).

[3]Imogen Tyler, “”Chav Mum Chav Scum”,” Feminist Media Studies 8, no. 1 (2008); T. Jensen and I. Tyler, “‘Benefits Broods’: The Cultural and Political Crafting of Anti-Welfare Commonsense,” Critical Social Policy 35, no. 4 (2015); Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn, Class and Contemporary British Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[4] Tim Edwards, ‘Sex, Booze and Fags: Masculinity, Style and Men’s Magazines’, Sociological Review, 51/1 (2003).

[5] Marc Augé, Non-Places : Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London/New York: Verso, 1995).

[6] Phillip Wickham, ‘British Situation Comedy and “The Culture of the New Capitalism”’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Exeter (2013).

[7] Joe Moran, On Roads (London: Profile Books, 2009); “‘Subtopias of Good Intentions’: Everyday Landscapes in Postwar Britain,” Cultural and Social History 4, no. 3 (2007).

[8] Tara Brabazon, ‘“What Have You Ever Done on the Telly?”: The Office, (Post) Reality Television and (Post) Work’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 8/1 (2005).

[9] Brabazon, ‘“What Have You Ever Done on the Telly?”’.

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“YOU DON’T WANNA MISS THIS WEEK’S FEATURE CREATURE”: BUFFY’S TOP TEN STAND ALONE EPISODES

It is 20 years since the debut of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As a show that has generated much academic and fan-generated writing, I thought I would post this piece that I wrote for All Slay zine back in 2003. So Scooby Gang fans, enjoy!

Buffy-Vampire-Slayer-Best-Show

There has been much analysis and debate over the story arcs of Buffy. As the show developed, the series arcs became longer and longer, so much so that pretty much all of season 6 and 7 progressed the story arcs. On the other hand, some of my favourite episodes are the stand alone episodes. These episodes don’t further the story arc much, or even at all, but still provide come of the best Buffy moments. So I digress into the world of the Top Ten Stand Alone Episodes…

BEWITCHED, BOTHERED AND BEWILDERED (Season 2, Episode 16)

Synopsis: After being dumped by Cordelia on Valentine’s Day, Xander blackmails Amy into performing a love spell. The spell backfires when Xander becomes every woman in Sunnydale’s ‘cuddle monkey’, except for Cordelia. This results in an obsessive mob chasing Xander and Cordelia into Buffy’s basement. The episode resolves with Cordelia rejecting the sheep mentality of the ‘Cordettes’ and choosing to date Xander, ‘no matter how lame he is’.

Why It Works: Like many of the humorous stand alone episodes, Xander stands as the main character of the episode and it is the second time he’s been rejected by a girl in two seasons. The episode starts off slowly and there is suspicion that it might revolve around Angel’s dangerous new obsession with Buffy, but when Buffy and Amy both start flirting with Xander, the fun begins. The soundtrack of ‘Dr. Love’ works a treat and the interaction of the infuriated Giles, the love-stricken Jenny and poor, hopeless Xander is hilarious. Around the ‘Cordettes’, Cordelia’s acid tongue is at its sharpest, but the episode’s conclusion keeps the show’s continuity and provides the basis for almost a season’s worth of laughs.

Quotablest Quote:
Xander: “Do you know what’s a good day to break up with somebody? Any day besides Valentine’s Day! I mean, what, were you running low on dramatic irony?”

GO FISH (Season 2, Episode 20)

Synopsis: The Sunnydale High swim team is winning competitions, but also seem to be losing their skin. The Scooby Gang investigate and find the swim team are taking steroids that have the unfortunate side effect of turning them into sea monsters. Xander’s undercover work lands him in danger, resulting in blood transfusion and the excitement of Willow and Cordelia.

Why It Works: An episode full of red herrings, but also full of one-liners. This was David Fury’s first episode for Buffy and is an indication of the humour present in his later episodes. Xander and Cordelia comes through with the funnies again, both taking a side on the issue of the swim team and its various privileges. Of course, Cordelia’s pro and Xander’s con – until he joins the team. A very light episode in between ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ and the season end ‘Becoming’, but very enjoyable.

Quotablest Quote:
Xander: And what about that nutty ‘all men are created equal’ thing?
Cordelia: Propaganda spouted out by the ugly and less deserving.
Xander: I think that was Lincoln.
Cordelia: Disgusting mole and stupid hat.
Willow: Actually, it was Jefferson.
Cordelia: Kept slaves. Remember?

BAND CANDY (Season 3, Episode 6)

Synopsis: The Mayor and Mr Trick hire bad guy Ethan Rayne to distract the population of Sunnydale while they prepare a sacrifice for a demon named Lagos. Rayne uses cursed candy bars, sold by the Sunnydale High students to raise money for the band, which turn the adults into teenagers. Giles and Joyce are both affected and although this pleases Buffy at first, it ultimately results in her disapproval.

Why It Works: This episode works principally because the characters’ nuances, well known by this time, change drastically. Although Joyce comes off partially as annoying and whiny, Giles’ reversion to a rebellious cockney and Principal Snyder’s nerdish tendencies make this episode very entertaining. The Scooby Gang play most of this episode straight, even Xander, but the comical performances by the adults are fantastic, especially where Giles and Joyce argue with the ‘mature’ Buffy.

Quotablest Quote:
Willow: ‘Kiss rocks’? Why would anyone want to kiss… Oh, wait. I get it.

THE ZEPPO (Season 3, Episode 13)

Synopsis: It’s the end of the world again and the Scooby Gang must assemble for the fight – except Xander. Sidelined for the showdown, Xander borrows his uncle’s car and after a riling from Cordelia, befriends a group of zombie teenagers. While they plan to ‘bake a cake’, Xander is seduced by Faith, before saving the school from exploding.

Why It Works: Like ‘Band Candy’, the humour from this episode lies in its self-referential parodies. Instead of the overly dramatic apocalypse scenario, Xander’s adventure for acceptance and identity is the main storyline. He goes from scene to scene, trying to fit in, but ultimately finds that instead of trying to be someone else, such as ‘Car Guy’, he’s better off being himself. His seduction by Faith is classic comedy and satire of the usual Buffy structure is a great reprieve from the show’s moments of heavy drama, while allowing Xander to find his own place within the Scooby Gang.

Quotablest Quote:
Xander: Yeah, great knife. Although I think it may technically be a sword.
Jack O’Toole: She’s called Katie.
Xander: You gave it a girl’s name. How very serial killer of you.

FEAR ITSELF (Season 4, Episode 4)

Synopsis: Halloween once again provides the Scooby Gang with a predicament. The Frat Party’s haunted house has turned into a real house of horrors, due to Oz’s blood being spilt on an ancient rune. A fear demon is trying to emerge, leading to Buffy being dragged into a basement of zombies, Xander turning invisible, Willow’s magic going awry and Oz changing into his werewolf state. Eventually Anya and Giles rescue the gang, before Buffy stomps the miniscule fear demon.

Why It Works: Although the episode is surprisingly similar to Season One’s ‘Nightmares’ with hints of Season Two’s ‘Halloween’, ‘Fear Itself’ is very good episode. Much of the laughs come from the incidents outside of the haunted house, such as Giles’ ridiculous sombrero and dancing skeleton or Xander and Anya’s interaction. Finally, the appearance of the miniature fear demon and Xander’s taunting conclude an enjoyable Halloween romp. Also notable for the first mention of Anya’s fear of bunnies.

Quotablest Quote:
Anya: What?
Xander: That’s your scary costume?
Anya: Bunnies frighten me.

SUPERSTAR (Season 4, Episode 17)

Synopsis: Jonathan is a world-class superhero, worshipped by all, with Buffy as his sidekick. When a demon arrives that Jonathan is reluctant to fight, Buffy realises something is amiss. With the help of Anya, Buffy discovers that Jonathan has created an alternate reality, which spawned the monster. By Buffy eventually killing the monster, the alternate world Jonathan created disappears, but the advice he gives Buffy and Riley about the Faith incident remains.

Why It Works: ‘Superstar’ removes Buffy as the central character of the show and gives her a secondary role alongside the diminutive Jonathan. As well as Buffy’s venture from the ‘normal’ to resuming her role as the Gang’s leader, the episode’s humour comes from the over-the-top hero worship of Jonathan. Giles’ Jonathan swimsuit calendar and his apprehension in admitting to owning it is perhaps one of the best Giles’ moments ever. Also very enjoyable is the altered opening sequence with Jonathan being very James Bond.

Quotablest Quote:
Buffy: Anya, tell them about the alternate universes.
Anya: Oh, okay. Um… say you really like shrimp a lot. Or we could say you don’t like shrimp at all. “Blah, I wish there weren’t any shrimp,” you’d say to yourself…
Buffy: Stop! You’re saying it wrong.

THE REPLACEMENT (Season 5, Episode 3)

Synopsis: A sophisticated demon named Toth aims to separate Buffy into two different bodies, but happens to separate Xander instead. One Xander is smooth and confident, the other is clumsy and self-loathing, but both believe the other is a demon, or an evil robot. Giles ascertains that both are the ‘real’ Xander and they need each other to survive. Before the two Xanders kill each other, the Gang intervenes and Willow reunites them, despite Anya’s interest in kinky sex games.

Why It Works: By the end of Season Five, all three members of the Scooby Gang have had a doppelganger, but the fact that there’s two Xanders makes this episode exceptionally funny. Xander at his most downtrodden and self-loathing is always going to be hilarious and he is. Smooth Xander is also quite funny, especially when he confronts the Lame Xander. Riley has a rare comedic line, as well ass some classic lines from Buffy and Giles. The scene where Lame Xander tries to convince Willow that he’s the ‘real’ Xander is damn well amusing, and you have to love the Snoopy dance. Additionally, some think that Anya’s nightgown is overtly comical.

Quotablest Quote:
Lame Xander: It’s a robot. It’s an evil robot constructed from evil parts that look like me designed to do evil.

TRIANGLE (Season 5, Episode 11)

Synopsis: While Giles flies to England to gather more information on Glory, Anya (and Willow) is left in charge of the Magic Box. When Anya disapproves of Willow and Tara’s experimentation with spells, they both turn to Xander, who decides to escape their bickering. Left alone to sort things out, Willow and Anya release Olaf the Troll from a bottle that had imprisoned him. Olaf then goes on a destruction spree, ending up at the Bronze where the gang find out that Olaf is indeed Anya’s ex-boyfriend and she had turned him into the troll. Xander fights Olaf and is rewarded with the ‘insane troll logic’ of having to decide between Anya or Willow’s life being spared. However, a distraught Buffy beats Olaf before Willow sends him to another dimension.

Why It Works: Olaf as a mediaeval troll is one of the best characters that the show has created and his altercation with Xander and Spike over ‘plump succulent babies’ and ‘much hearty grog’ is such cheesy dialogue that is also hilarious. However, ‘Triangle’ is all about Anya and her humorous speech. In the previous episode ‘Into The Woods’, Willow took Anya to task about her speech and now the two are at each other throats, but the results are damn funny. Despite the hilarity of Willow and Anya, it is also pleasing to see the two resolve their differences by the episode’s conclusion. Also, this is the first episode for over a season without Riley. Much rejoicing was had.

Quotablest Quote:
Willow (imitating Anya): I like money better than people. People can so rarely be exchanged for goods and/or services!
Anya: Xander, she’s pretending to be me!

TABULA RASA (Season 6, Episode 8)

Synopsis: Xander, Anya, Willow and Tara have learnt that Buffy was in heaven and Willow proposes magic to make Buffy forget. Tara gives Willow an ultimatum to stop using magic. Meanwhile Giles tells Buffy that he is leaving for London. All of the Gang, plus Spike gather at the Magic Box, but succumb to a mind control spell by Willow that goes horribly wrong. The Gang lose their memories and try to figure out who they are and what they are doing. However they are interrupted by a literal ‘loan shark’ and his vampire hoods. The Gang eventually regain their memories and Tara breaks up with Willow.

Why It Works: Again, the humour of this episode arises from the characters’ performing in a totally different way than their usual self. The piecing together of the puzzle and their incorrect assumptions make for amusing viewing. Spike’s realisation that he is a vampire and his parody of the ‘Angel’ spiel is particularly good, but once again the prize goes to Anya and Giles for their routine as a married couple – although one does wonder why Anya remembers her fear of bunnies.

Quotablest Quote:
Buffy: I’ll name me, Joan.
Dawn: Ugh!
Buffy: Did you just ‘ugh’ my name?

HIM (Season 7, Episode 8)

Synopsis: Dawn is head over heels for RJ, the handsome quarterback of Sunnydale High. She starts to obsess about him, even trying out for the cheerleading squad. Only she isn’t the only one after RJ. Soon, every girl who comes into contact with RJ falls under his charm. Buffy, Dawn, Willow and Anya all attempt to show their love for RJ. Xander and Spike realise that the girls are under a love spell, triggered by RJ’s jacket. Before destroying the jacket, they save Buffy from firing a rocket launcher the Principal Wood, Willow from performing a spell and Dawn from being run over by a train. However, Anya’s crime spree goes unprevented, yet unnoticed.

Why It Works: As we saw in ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’, love spells make for humorous watching. Dawn’s cheerleader try out is very amusing, yet totally cringe worthy. There are loads of nerd-ish references to past episodes, which make fan boys (and girls) smile with glee. Just before the very serious story arc on Season Seven, ‘Him’ is totally light hearted and fun. The scene from Principal wood’s window where Spike and Xander take out Buffy before she fires the rocket launcher is priceless.

Quoteablest Quote:
Buffy: “Willow, you’re a gay woman! And he… isn’t.”
Willow: “This isn’t about his physical presence! It’s about his heart.”
Anya: “His physical presence has a penis!”

Crime, Masculinity and the Post-War Era in Peaky Blinders and Boardwalk Empire

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WARNING: CONTAINS POTENTIAL SPOILERS

 

I have recently finished watching the entire five series of the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire, set in the 1920s in Atlantic City, New Jersey during the era of prohibition, spanning the decade until 1932. Earlier this year, I also watched both series of the UK drama Peaky Blinders, which was set in Birmingham at the end of the First World War. Both series are about the rise of criminal gangs in the post-war era and have many overlapping themes. I think these overlapping themes are worth exploring and here are some preliminary thoughts about them.

The reintegration of ‘damaged’ men at the end of the war

Both series focus heavily on the plight of the returned soldier at the end of the First World War. In Boardwalk Empire, Jimmy Darmody is the protégé of the Treasurer and crime boss of Atlantic City, Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson and has returned from the Western front after dropping out of Princeton University. Rather than resume his studies, Darmody becomes Thompson’s driver and right-hand man, convinced by the brutality of the war that there is no social good and that crime is the only path open for him now. At the end of the first series and at the beginning of the second, Jimmy joins forces with several others to attempt to remove Thompson from power. This is partly driven by Jimmy’s disdain for those older men who encouraged him (and other young men) to fight in the war, but left those who returned with little reward. Darmody also suffers from the guilt of surviving the war, which leads him to befriend another former soldier, Richard Harrow, a sniper with a disfigured face. Both Darmody and Harrow use the skills they learnt in the war to become ruthless criminals in the post-war era.

In Peaky Blinders, brothers Tommy and Arthur Shelby had fought on the Western front and the younger brother, Tommy, had earned commendations for his actions during the war. Back in Birmingham in 1919, the Shelbies, along with many other young men, use their military experience to commit criminal acts, or in the case of Freddie Thorne, to agitate for a communist revolution. It seems that Tommy Shelby had become been the leader of many of the local men in France and they still looked to him as a leader in the peacetime. The Shelbies are able to exploit this as they seek to expand their criminal empire. Both Tommy and Arthur, as well several others, suffer from flashbacks and remain traumatised by their wartime memories. The worst of these is suffered by Danny ‘Whizz-Bang’ Owens, who has repeated hallucinations that he is back in the trenches, leading to him to stab to death a local bystander during one episode.

Both series depict the trauma experienced by soldiers during the First World War is a reason for their inability to reintegrate into society in the post-war era and serves as a partial explanation for their criminal behaviour.

Patriarchal figures and the attempts to build a ‘family’

In both series, the patriarchal figure in the criminal ‘family’, Nucky Thompson and Tommy Shelby, are obsessed with the idea of family and go to extreme lengths to maintain their families. In Boardwalk Empire, we learn that Thompson’s wife and child had died a long time ago, so Thompson lives vicariously through the large family of his brother, Eli, who begins the series as the local sheriff. Thompson eventually marries an Irish woman (whose husband is killed by Eli and other police officers), Margaret Schroeder and adopts her two children as his own. However Thompson’s criminality means that both of these families are driven away, with Margaret separating Thompson and living on her own in New York, while Eli’s family suffers from his exile to Chicago after killing a FBI agent.

In Peaky Blinders, Tommy is obsessed with keeping the family together, but his ambition also provides tensions between family members, particularly as his siblings feel that he puts the idea of ‘family’ above their well-being. Tommy’s younger sister, Ada marries Freddie, the communist activist, and eventually runs away to London to escape Tommy’s grip. On the other hand, Tommy’s younger brother John is convinced to marry the daughter from another crime family to help Tommy’s criminal ambitions.

Both Nucky and Tommy try to argue that their actions were for the good of their family and to provide a legacy. However both series show that this idea of ‘family’ is warped by their criminality and each time they attempt to secure their family’s future, their actions negatively impact on those around them.

Crime as social mobility

At the heart of both series is that the idea that crime can bring some form of social mobility, generating extraordinary wealth, but it cannot bring legitimacy. In the first series of Peaky Blinders, Tommy Shelby’s plan is to takeover the bookmakers’ operations at racetracks across the south and west of England and then transform these into a legitimate bookmaking business. In the second series, it shows that this does not quench Tommy’s ambition and he is keen to seize the business of other bookmakers in London and across the north of England.

In Boardwalk Empire, Thompson and his brother already occupy positions of power within Atlantic City and are economic and political kingmakers, but while extremely wealthy and powerful, Thompson is plagued by feelings of illegitimacy. For Thompson, his continued involvement in the bootlegging business brings him into contact with the criminal elements of society, which he detests. In the final series, he campaigns for an end to prohibition (which had brought him enormous wealth over the previous decade) in the belief that this would bring him legitimacy and confirm his role at the high end of society. However even as he campaigns for this, he finds that many businessmen are unwilling to associate with him because of his criminal associations.

Like many other cinematic and televisual depictions of organised crime, both series become morality tales of how crime can bring people almost to the top, but their criminality (and ambition) will always make them fall in the end – although we are yet to see what happens in the third series of Peaky Blinders.

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The Irish as ‘outsiders’

In the inter-war period, the Irish in Britain and the United States were still viewed by many with suspicion and those of Irish descent were often associated with criminality and deviance. This is explicit in Peaky Blinders where the authorities bring in a Protestant Chief Inspector from Belfast to investigate the criminal and subversive behaviour of the Irish community in Birmingham, specifically looking for a weapon before it falls into the hands of the Irish Republican Army (or the communists). For the Shelbies, this suspicion of the Irish in England convinces them that the only way to move up the social ladder is to become involved criminal enterprises.

For Thompson and his brother, they cynically tap into the divisions between Anglo and Irish American society to gain favour with those in the Irish-American community in Atlantic City. This involves obtaining money and votes from the community when needed. Thompson also makes overtures to the IRA in Ireland to obtain whiskey in exchange for weapons and uses a shared Irish heritage to try to convince the IRA leadership to accept this deal.

The plight of the Irish in America is also portrayed in Boardwalk Empire through the character of Margaret Schroeder (later Thompson), a migrant from Ireland. Margaret occupies a range of professions during her life in America and lives close to the poverty line while married to her first husband in Atlantic City. She escapes this by marrying Nucky Thompson, but once she leaves him and moves to New York, she once again struggles to keep herself and her children housed until she strikes a deal with gangster, Arnold Rothstein.

The changing role of women in Western society

Following from this, we also see the changing role of women in Britain and America after the First World War. The first series of Boardwalk Empire takes place in 1920 when the debate over whether to give women the vote in the US was raging. Thompson is in favour of giving women the vote as he believes that they will vote for him, as he is running for re-election as Treasurer. To ensure this support, Thompson speaks at the local chapter of the Women’s Temperance Movement and uses this as a platform to call for the vote for women and his re-election. For the women of the Temperance Movement, 1920 was a victorious year, gaining the right to vote as well as seeing the prohibition of alcohol.

In Peaky Blinders, the changing role of women is demonstrated through the character of Aunt Polly. While the Shelby boys were away during the war, Polly looked after the family business and raised the remaining Shelby children (including John and Ada). When the war ended, Tommy (and to a lesser extent, Arthur) came back to Birmingham to take over the business from Polly. Polly resents that after running the business for the duration of the war, she is now supposed to go back to her pre-war role – a situation that was commonly experienced by working class women across Britain in the years after the First World War.

Political extremism in the post-war era

Both Peaky Blinders and Boardwalk Empire depict the great political upheaval that occurred at the end of the war and these crime dramas play out against a background of political violence and extremism. In Peaky Blinders, the ‘threat’ of communism and Irish republicanism is ever present and intermingle with each other and the criminal underworld in Birmingham. Tommy Shelby negotiates with both political movements in his plans to take over the bookmaking business of his rival Billy Kimber.

In Boardwalk Empire, the spectre of communism and the ‘red scare’ is conspicuously absent, but Irish republicanism does feature, as mentioned above. The threat of the Ku Klux Klan is depicted in several episodes and is shown as a nuisance to Thompson’s business, who helps Albert ‘Chalky’ White take revenge on the KKK in return to White’s loyalty in the bootlegging business. In the last two series, the Pan-Africanist organisation of Marcus Garvey, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, is featured heavily as Dr. Valentin Narcisse emerges as a rival to ‘Chalky’ White, selling heroin out of an establishment in Harlem.

In both series, the authorities (the Special Branch in Peaky Blinders and the fledgling FBI in Boardwalk Empire) are more concerned with the political threats than the criminal activities of Shelby and Thompson. However individual agents, namely CI Chester Campbell in Peaky Blinders and Agent Jim Tolliver in Boardwalk Empire, press that the focus should be on Tommy Shelby and Nucky Thompson, rather than the IRA or the UNIA. In the end , these become personal vendettas that are blown apart by the changing political situation in both Britain and the USA during the inter-war period.

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These are just some initial thoughts and hopefully I will have time to flesh these out in the near future. As usual, any comments or queries are most welcome. And if you know of any scholarly work looking at these two series, please let me know.

New article: Thatcherism and The Young Ones

TYO Agora

This is just a short post to let everybody know that my new article on depictions of Thatcherite Britain in The Young Ones has been published in Agora. A version of the paper can be found here. If you can’t access it properly, send me an email and I’ll ping one your way.

As usual, feedback, critiques and praise is welcome.

The Conversation (UK) On Rik Mayall, The Young Ones and Thatcher

I just thought I’d mention that The Conversation (UK) has published a short piece by myself on The Young Ones as Mayall’s ground-breaking achievement and what the show reveals about Britain under Thatcher in the 1980s. You can read it here.

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In tribute to Rik Mayall: The Young Ones, Thatcherism and the People’s Poet

It is very saddening news to hear of the sudden death of Rik Mayall at the age of 56. As Rick, the lefty sociology student in The Young Ones, Mayall helped create one of the greatest contemporary portrayals of life in Thatcherite Britain, while indulging in surreal and off-the-wall comedy. The longevity of The Young Ones is a topic that I have written about at length. In a paper under consideration for publication at the moment, I wrote:

The Young Ones can be viewed historically and gives us insight into how Thatcherism and the 1980s was experienced by sections of British society. The show can be read as a text that portrays popular opinions about Thatcher’s Britain and satirises contemporary issues… However this does not mean that The Young Ones is an accurate reflection of the times per se – the show is obviously an over-the-top and surreal portrayal of student life in Thatcherite Britain. We, as historians and students of history, don’t watch The Young Ones to observe an authentic depiction of life under Thatcherism as it actually was, but because we can see certain themes and concepts (important for understanding Thatcherism and 1980s Britain) depicted in the television show. The show works as an excellent demonstration of the zeitgeist of Britain under Margaret Thatcher, but at the same time, it is factually inaccurate and stakes no claim to historical authenticity… 

Janine Utell has written that The Young Ones ‘challenge[d] the hegemony of Thatcherism’, using laughter to highlight the ‘profound ruptures and transformations in society’ under Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership.. Characters that espoused left-wing positions had been in British television comedies before, but had often been the focus of ridicule. Robert Lindsay’s character of Wolfie in the late 1970s sitcom Citizen Smith was a stereotypical Marxist attempting to start a socialist revolution in suburban London via the Tooting Popular Front… On the other hand, The Young Ones were obviously critical of Thatcher and capitalism in the 1980s and sympathetic to the ideas of the left, but also willing to poke fun at the left for its sanctimonious tendencies.

The Young Ones doesn’t show us Britain in the 1980s as it really was, but it is a depiction of how the 1980s were experienced. The references to phenomena such as unemployment, police racism, popular capitalism, student activism, sexism and class stratification in the show are taken from the real life experience of living in Britain under Thatcher and depicted as icons/symbols that could be popularly recognised, but satirised to an unreal level. The Young Ones captures the zeitgeist of Britain in the early 1980s under Thatcherism by making reference to many symbols of the era, but the context in which these symbols are represented is often contorted and push to the bounds of the absurd. The juxtaposition of the political and social commentary with surrealism and cartoon slapstick makes the show enjoyable to watch, while telling us much about the recent past – this is why historians should rewatch The Young Ones.

Other alternative comedy television shows broadcast around the same time as The Young Ones, such as Not the Nine O’ Clock News, Spitting Image and OTT, were predominantly made up of topical sketches and stand-up performances and could be immediate in their satirical take on the politics of the day. However The Young Ones had to weave its satire into the broader narrative of the episode and accordingly its parody of aspects of Thatcherite Britain had to have broader resonance that were not so instantaneous. Arguably the longevity of the show’s satire and the significance of its comedic targets makes The Young Ones much more valuable for historians of Britain in the 1980s than other television shows that have not had the same durability.

This paper is based on a bunch of blog posts I wrote after the death of Margaret Thatcher in 2013. You can read the series, titled ‘What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism?’, here:

Part One: Introduction

Part Two: ‘Race’ and the police in the 1980s

Part Three: Unemployment

Part Four: Neo-liberalism, market populism and crony capitalism

Part Five: Activism and the left

Part Six: Women and sexism

Part Seven: Higher education and class

And here’s Rick with the final word: