Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Let the Sun Shine In


It's always sunny on British TV costume dramas, which gives one a rather skewed impression of this damp, sceptered isle.

The British love a good TV costume drama. Or even a bad one. They're so adept at producing them that a half-dozen seem to be on at any one time. No sooner had "Cranford" finished than "Lark Rise to Candleford" started up. The latest incarnation of "Robin Hood" has been heating up (or "hotting up," as the Brits say) the BBC air waves for the last few years. And just as the U.S. Strategic Air Command always has one nuclear bomber in the air, so does British television always have one Jane Austen adaptation in development.

Many of these shows feature the same actors: men who know how to use a plow and women who have a high tolerance for bonnets and a rib structure that allows for constant corseting. I sometimes wonder if being stuck in the 18th or 19th century is a kind of punishment, the modern workhouse. ("Madam, I find you guilty of driving under the influence and I hereby sentence you to a 12-part mini-series based on 'Jude the Obscure.'")

Still, we watch them all. The English are so very good at them. Actors are trained from a young age to keep a straight face while saying things like "That's a fine teacake you make, Mrs. Catchpole" and "But it's so dreadful, Charles; Ruby lost the antimacassar and now Tidgy shan't be able to row on St. Swivan's Day." Producers can dial in just the right amount of authentic grime, from the squeaky clean rural charm of a show like "Lark Rise" (no one has smallpox) to what I like to call "High Bubonic," or "the Full Dickens." (You don't see much of that, actually.)

What I couldn't understand, though, is why it's always so sunny in these shows. And not just mildly sunny, but incredibly sunny: the screen suffused with a warm amber glow, fruit-heavy boughs dancing in a light breeze, heroines stripped down to their pinafores, the jerkins of working-class heroes unbuttoned to reveal chiseled, hairless chests.

I mean, it never gets that way in England. I thought that perhaps CGI was involved: the entire series shot in front of a green screen and then finished off at Industrial Light & Magic. Or perhaps all the British costume dramas are filmed in a single, frenzied two-week stretch of nice weather every May or June. But now I think I know the answer. I described my confusion this morning to a woman I sometimes encounter while walking the dog and she filled me in: "No," she said. "They just cobble together all the sunny days over a summer, shooting when the weather's perfect."

Of course. It may not be "realistic," but that's TV for you.

7 comments:

mark from alexandria said...

What I find funny is how much more "fungiable" UK actors are than their American counterparts. Isn't that Saffie from AbFab and one of the guys from Coupling in Lark Rise? I just don't see the actress who played Darlene Connor on Roseanne or Matt LeBlanc from Friends stretching that far.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

Moderate or heavy rain is the bane of cricket lovers in England. A five-day Test match is sometimes subject to several meteorological interruptions, with the covers coming on and off. You sometimes see a few hopelessly optimistic souls huddled under blankets and umbrellas at Lord's or the Oval, after everyone else has given up and left. Alas, the BBC can't fix that.
Britain certainly has a very long and distinguished acting tradition, the Bard himself having acted occasionally. The Puritans closed down the theatres during their brief interregnum, regarding them as an insidious influence.

William said...

I recall being amused, during my time in Jolly Old lo these many years back, that the newspapers would keep a daily running tally of sunny days - never to exceed much more that 80, and, I suspect, they fudged a bit to get there, counting a brief 15 minute flirtation with the sun as a day of light.

CURIOUS OBSERVER said...

"the jerkins of working-class heroes unbuttoned to reveal chiseled, hairless chests". Really! Hmmm I'll have to watch the telly more closely in the ensuing week.

John Kelly said...

Curious Observer, have you ever seen "Cold Comfort Farm"? It's a great movie, and has great sport with that convention.

MFA, yes, it's amazing how versatile those actors are. The English are good at that. I saw a play at my 14-year-old daughter's school and these proper little Oxford girls could go in a heartbeat from a plummy upper class accent to a thick Northern drawl.

Today started off foggy and cold, with low, icy clouds. But by the afternoon it had burned off and was sunny. That's something like five sunny days in a row. I'm expecting a monsoon tomorrow.

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

Hey, you've got blue sky in your heading photo too. I've been accused of a similar crime in my blog. Rain just doesn't make for good shooting conditions. The lush, green scenery is the give away.

MEB said...

Yes, amazingly, British actors actually act! Sorry for the sarcasm, but I think it's largely the fault of the industry here in the U.S. that actors here get typecast. Someone's either a stage actor or a TV actor and never the twain shall meet. I love the fact that when we lived in the UK we could see someone in the West End doing Shakespeare and the next week see them in some tacky TV cop show.