Television Cities: Paris, London, Baltimore

Television Cities: Paris, London, Baltimore

by Charlotte Brunsdon


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In Television Cities Charlotte Brunsdon traces television's representations of metropolitan spaces to show how they reflect the medium's history and evolution, thereby challenging the prevalent assumptions about television as quintessentially suburban. Brunsdon shows how the BBC's presentation of 1960s Paris in the detective series Maigret signals British culture's engagement with twentieth-century modernity and continental Europe, while various portrayals of London—ranging from Dickens adaptations to the 1950s nostalgia of Call the Midwife—demonstrate Britain's complicated transition from Victorian metropole to postcolonial social democracy. Finally, an analysis of The Wire’s acclaimed examination of Baltimore, marks the profound shifts in the ways television is now made and consumed. Illuminating the myriad factors that make television cities, Brunsdon complicates our understanding of how television shapes perceptions of urban spaces, both familiar and unknown.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822369202
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 02/07/2018
Series: Spin Offs Series
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.87(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Charlotte Brunsdon is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick and the author of several books, including London in Cinema: The Cinematic City Since 1945 and The Feminist, the Housewife, and the Soap Opera.

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The Modernity of Maigret's Paris

Viewers liked the outdoor shots of Paris immensely. These sequences were expertly blended with the studio scenes, it was thought, and were also very pleasant in themselves.

— BBC Audience Research Report on "Murder in Montmartre," 21 November 1960

So Maigret is perhaps a bad social historian in so far as social history is the awareness of change as well as of continuity. But he is a very good popular historian in so far as popular history is the observation of habit, routine, assumption, banality, everydayness, seasonability, popular conservatism.

— Richard Cobb, "Maigret's Paris"

Paris is the great European city of modernity: the city of light. The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the Seine, the Arc de Triomphe — these are instantly recognizable landmarks. The very names of Parisian districts (Pigalle, Montmartre, the Left Bank) and institutions (the Moulin Rouge, the Louvre) resonate within international imaginations of the French capital. Paris is central to histories and debates about the city and modern life, and the canonical writers on this topic, such as Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, and Walter Benjamin, have taken Paris as their topic. The painting and photographing of modern life has, through the treatment of Paris, shaped much broader understandings of the transformations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And in the 1895 exhibition by the Lumière brothers, Paris is assumed to be the birthplace of cinema. The coupling of Paris and cinema has formed our understanding of each, and the Paris that is familiar the world over is a Paris known through Le quai des brumes (1938), Hôtel du Nord (1938), Gigi (1958), Àbout de souffle (1959), Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991), La Haine (1995), and Amélie (2001). Key terms used in scholarship on the cinematic city, most notably flâneur, but also dérive and psychogeography, have their origins in the contemplation of Paris. However, televisual Paris has not been much discussed and is often assumed to be an inferior version of cinematic or literary Paris when it is considered at all. While twenty-first-century French television series such as Engrenages (Spiral, Son et Lumière, 2005–14) offer dynamic images of contemporary Paris that would reward further analysis, I want to return to the twentieth century to consider the Paris of Jules Maigret. In particular, I will discuss the very successful 1960s BBC dramatization of Georges Simenon's Maigret novels, which were partly filmed in Paris.

My concerns are threefold. I want to analyze how the BBC imagined and staged Paris and its most famous detective in the early 1960s. What was BBC Paris like? How did the production demonstrate and manage the Frenchness of its setting? In seeking to answer this question, watching surviving archive copies of the programs and scrutinizing the extensive production files, I have encountered material which challenges certain assumptions that are commonly made about the BBC as a public service broadcaster, and so I want to use this production to reconsider certain emphases in BBC history and demonstrate the way in which each television city must be considered both as a representation (of a particular city) and as an institutional production (of a broadcaster or production company). Finally, I want to return to questions of modernity and the city. In the literature of modernity, Paris is celebrated not just for the birth of cinema, but also, in Edgar Allan Poe's M. Dupin, for one of the first detectives. The detective must, by profession, pay attention to his surroundings. Through his observation, details of banal everyday life are recorded. How is the detail of Paris preserved through these generic conventions? As the epigraph from Richard Cobb suggests, Maigret's manner of detection is characterized by a prodigious, but unaccented, analytic familiarity with the rhythms of Parisian life. His modes of attention to the everyday provide the understanding through which crime can be solved. The 1960s BBC series was set in the present, although it drew on novels that had been written over the previous thirty years. To what extent is this televisual Jules Maigret a figure of modernity, and what kind of Paris does he inhabit, and bring into the homes of viewers in the 1960s?

Just as Paris is the most visited tourist destination on earth, so Jules Maigret — with the exception of Sherlock Holmes — is the most televised detective. The 1960s BBC Maigret was the first of many television adaptations of the detective, including, most notably, the long-running French-language series with Jean Richard (1967–90) and Bruno Cremer (1991–2005). There have also been television adaptations in Italy, Russia, Holland, and Japan, while French and British versions have circulated in dubbed and subtitled versions. In the person of Commissaire Maigret, Paris has been brought to homes all over the world. However, because of copyright issues, the BBC Maigrets have hardly been shown after their first broadcast, and so they are not discussed in Ginette Vincendeau's persuasive analysis of screen Maigrets, which ranges from the 1930s Jean Gabin films through to the later television versions. Her account notes a move from cinema adaptation to television in the 1960s (when U.K., Italian, Dutch, and French versions first appeared), and, in commentary on these multiple Maigrets, she cites Pierre Beylot's judgment that Simenon is an "eminently televisual" writer "because his oeuvre perfectly combines variety and repetition." While repetition with difference is characteristic of all generic fiction, I have already indicated the significance of repetition in the televisual production of place, and return to these questions at the end of this chapter, where I argue that the regular appearance of Paris in British living rooms in the 1960s had its own contextual significance. In Vincendeau's periodization, the two expensive coproductions of the 1990s, with Bruno Cremer (made in Prague), and with Michael Gambon (shot in Budapest), are heritage pieces, combining high production values with a certain thinness in their evocation of France, and demonstrating that the commissaire belongs to a fondly remembered past rather than the present. In contrast, she is attentive to the way in which the first French version with Jean Richard, with its documentary aesthetic, captures something of a France that was disappearing in the 1960s, in particular an intimacy with the everyday life of the Parisian quartiers.

Like the later Cremer and Gambon series, the 1960s BBC Davies series was mainly made outside France. However, unlike these, the BBC series shares with the Jean Richard series a contemporary setting and the use of location shooting in France, and particularly Paris. Whether this British-shot location Paris achieves the same intimacy as the Jean Richard version is one of my concerns in what follows. The BBC Maigret was enormously popular in Britain, seems to have pleased Georges Simenon, and was very widely exported. Its credit sequences establish signature tropes for the detective that recur in later versions, while its film footage of 1960s Paris, as the epigraph to this chapter suggests, was seen as one of the key attractions of the programs. Location shooting for television fiction was unusual in the period, and, relative to other television drama of the time, extremely expensive. So the BBC Maigret provides a case study of a particular rendition of Paris as a television city in the 1960s and, more abstractly, a record of what was considered the essential Paris for a British television production team, which can in turn be compared to some of the other television Maigrets, most notably the later Granada television version starring Michael Gambon.

The Business of Maigret

The BBC Maigret was planned as a prestige project with high production values, described at the time in a BBC press release as "the largest project the BBC have attempted to date." Following the success of a single play adaptation by Giles Cooper of "Maigret and the Lost Life" (transmitted [tx.] 12 April 1959; not preserved), the series was envisaged from inception as involving at least three series of thirteen "plays" (as they are called), "the thirty nine." The BBC paid handsomely for the rights, engaging in arduous negotiation with Mme. Simenon, who first emerges in correspondence with the BBC in 1956 when there is a radio adaptation of a Maigret story, Maigret and the Young Girl (Maigret et la jeune morte, 1954). Mme. Simenon, at this stage, lays out principles that will guide her negotiations in the move to television. These include insisting that adaptations are made from the original French ("so that the minimum be lost in the transposition from one medium to the other"), a tendency to negotiate each territory separately (she always insists that the United States and Canada are excluded from English-language contracts), and the granting of rights for short periods and for one performance at a time. Thus the first television adaptation, "Maigret and the Lost Life," had to be (made and) broadcast within two years of the contract signing, and rights were granted for only one performance. One of the results of Mme. Simenon's indefatigable defense of her husband, which is always couched in terms of morality, not finance ("surely you will understand that ours is a position of principle and not dictated by strict mathematics"), is that Simenon quickly enters the BBC's Special One-Sixth Category, which, in the words of the BBC's Heather Dean, who conducts many of the negotiations with Mme. Simenon, "is a small and very exclusive number of authors to whom we pay an additional one-sixth fee ... in recognition of their world fame and literary merit."

This expenditure by the BBC in the rights to the selected Maigret stories is matched by the exceptional technical resources allocated to the program and the generous rehearsal time and production work hours. It is in this context that the further expense of filming in France must be understood. The BBC was making a substantial investment in a product, for which, from the planning stage, it intended overseas sales. Ronald Waldman, the General Manager of Television Promotions, comments on these expectations in his prebroadcast discussion of the first four programs: "Because of the 'investment' money in 'Maigret,' however, it is necessary that the series should be produced ab initio for the world market while adhering to our own standards of quality and taste." Waldman's invocation here of "our own standards of quality and taste" makes a straightforward assumption about recognized standards (presumably both BBC and British) shared between the writer and reader of the memo. The juxtaposition of "our own standards" and "the world market" points to an important element in the BBC's self-image, in which the market is seen as a potential corruptor of BBC standards, a danger that is perhaps the more pronounced when the programs concerned — as with Maigret — could be seen as genre fiction. It is clear from the production files that the BBC prided itself on having secured Georges Simenon's cooperation in the project, and saw its programs as being true to Simenon's vision. The recognition of Georges Simenon as an artistic origin was an important part of the legitimation of the BBC project (Maigret was not an anonymous committee-written TV series), particularly when it came to defending the production resources allocated to the programs. This can be seen clearly in the answer Michael Barry (Head of Drama, Television) circulated very widely to his superiors in response to pressure to reduce production time: "I have no doubt, for example, that an American organisation would have turned the concentrated effort of a Gunsmoke unit upon this series, and, disregarding any question of the Simenons' wishes regarding casting and quality would have turned out a glossy article in quicker time. The fact remains that Simenon firmly resisted the relinquishment of his rights for such an operation and, apart from our own satisfaction at the result we have obtained, declares that these have justified his reasons for resisting such an offer." Barry here gives a content to the demands of the "world market": a quickly made "glossy article" that would not respect the integrity of the author. So on the one hand, the BBC is financially committed to success in the international market, and, on the other, it is determined that there will be no compromise with the lures of the glossy. This underlying attitude to, in particular, U.S. television, illuminates the Maigret project in a slightly different manner, one to which I return at the end of the chapter, which is to see the project as explicitly European. The Paris-set Maigret will, by implication, be contesting the terrain occupied by U.S. programs such as the popular Western serial Gunsmoke, but will have contrasting, BBC aesthetics and values.

The image of the BBC in this period is very much a national public service broadcaster, but the calculations which surround Maigret demonstrate that, in fact, productions such as this were inaugurated with a clear international sales agenda from the beginning. Indeed, the insistence on the very high production values of the series, which are seen to constitute "our own standards of quality and taste," actually make international sales through the auspices of BBC Enterprises more necessary. The huge U.S. market, in particular, becomes even more desirable. As Jason Jacobs has demonstrated with a radio series from the 1950s, The Third Man, the BBC was both willing and practiced in the international marketing of its products. For Maigret, an enticing press book was produced particularly for the U.S. market. This handsome, glossy ten-page publication puts its pitch on the cover alongside photographs of Georges Simenon and Rupert Davies (Maigret), pipe in hand, declaring breathlessly, "Georges Simenon the world's most successful writer of crime stories created Maigret the world's best known and best-loved detective in a series produced by the world's senior television broadcasting system." This pitch indicates something of why the BBC thought its investment was merited, and the brochure also reports that the programs were available for purchase "on videotape, 35mm kinescope (combined optical or separate magnetic tape) or 16mm kinescope (combined track only)," which further indicates the seriousness of the BBC's engagement with the market. From the beginning of the production, there was an exceptional decision — which caused enormous logistical problems for the BBC — to record the episodes in several formats as it was not known which formats international purchasers would want. In terms of television production, therefore, Maigret marks a significant moment of transition between television drama series as a completely ephemeral live media form, and television as a recorded, and therefore saleable, commodity form. There were, furthermore, aesthetic consequences of the orientation toward export. The "Notes for Directors" prepared by the series producer, Andrew Osborn, are explicit about the formal implications of this, insisting that episodes "must be capable of having six commercials and at the same time be shown on our screens without these breaks being obtrusive." The double address that Osborn identifies here, in which each fifty-minute episode would be simultaneously seamless and perforated by advertising breaks, is another version of the contrast between "world" and "our own" standards. This double structure also emerges as a concern in relation to rates of pay, demonstrating that it was accepted that publicly funded television production would pay less than market rates. Vincent Tilsley, of the Script Department, writes to the H.S.D. Tel. (Head of Script Department, Television) in November 1960 identifying the problem thus: "I don't think the BBC, as a gentlemanly organisation, can really expect Contract Staff to undertake this kind of work which is intended for sale on world markets at considerable profits without payment outside their basic salary." The "gentlemanly organisation," which had been held to hard terms by Mme. Simenon, invested heavily in advertising the availability of the series in the international market with considerable success. So when the Paris of these programs is analyzed, it should not be seen as a Paris produced for domestic consumption. It is not just a British Paris. It is a British Paris imagined within a world market. The internationally recognized attractions of Paris, in combination with a reassuring detective and a large number of stories, provided a package in which the BBC was eager to invest. What are the constituent elements of the BBC Maigret's Paris, and how is this television city best analyzed?


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction: Does the Flâneur Watch Television  1
1. The Modernity of Maigret's Paris  24
2. Living-Room London  65
3. Portable Cities: Baltimore  116
Notes  165
Bibliography  195
Index  211

What People are Saying About This

The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975 - Pamela Robertson Wojcik

"A very welcome addition to both TV and urban studies, Television Cities combines spatial analysis and attention to the changing nature of TV production and viewership to suggest how urban space is produced and experienced in particular televisual ways."

Playing to the World’s Biggest Audience: The Globalization of Chinese Film and TV - Michael Curtin

"Scholars have enumerated the many ways we are at home with television, but few have reflected on the fact that television's narrative home is most commonly metropolitan. Television Cities therefore invites us to do a critical double take on the consequential urban attributes of our most pervasive medium. It's Charlotte Brunsdon at her best."

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