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.