British TV drama: Textual analysis of This Life

The Series “This Life” by Amy Jenkins came onto our screens in 1996, becoming an instant cult classic. The drama was based around 5 barrister friends who share a flat in London, and the ways their intermingling relationships affect one another’s lives. Given the late-night BBC2 slot, made famous by such shows as “Seinfeld”, and “The Garry Shandling Show”, it tackled problems such as gay relationships, drug abuse and adultery very candidly, as well as the more mundane problems such as family struggles and inter-office rivalry.

The extract I have chosen is the last five minutes of Episode five from series two, called ‘Small town Boyo’. It concerns Warren; arrested for cottaging and assaulting a police officer, confronting his fears, and then his boss, only to be fired. The scene goes through four stages that I think perfectly illustrate the visual style of the show; showing a desire to concentrate on the characters and their development by directing all other features back to that main theme. The four sections begin with Warren deliberating over whether or not he should resign his post with his therapist.

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The scene is constructed in a very particular way, with Warren occupying the whole screen, and beginning with big, expressive gestures which we identify as symptomatic of the struggle he’s going through. The therapist is never seen, only heard which allows us focus in fully on his words, expressions and body language. This is a very large feature of the drama, with Director Dominic Lees preferring to use close-ups as a way of letting the actors show the requisite emotions, rather than having them react off of each other.

Warren’s soliloquy is like a private interview delivered to camera, in which he outlines exactly what he’s going to do when he gets to O’ Donnell’s office. Although he’s trying to convince the therapist, it’s as if he’s trying to convince himself and us as an audience. The next section shows Warren travelling to the office on way to the showdown. Again, the construction of the shots are all-important in enforcing an implied meaning, and all the elements work together. The first sight of Warren striding out of the underground and onto the street, oblivious to the sights and sounds around him, connote his determination.

The positioning of the camera (and essentially us as an audience) to the side of the street, where we can watch him zoom past, lets us see how fast he’s going, which connotes the tension of the situation. Another pertinent point is that there’s no sound, save for a few cars going by, and no dialogue except one line from Kira that Warren ignores. Again the physical reactions by the actors are all that’s needed to convey the purpose with which Warren moves. The pause for Warren to pull at his collar before walking gun-barrel straight into O’Donnell’s office is a good narrative tool, readying the audience for the confrontation ahead.

The showdown itself uses many elements juxtaposed to try and emphasise the two sides of the argument. Like previous scenes, each character is shown in close up; with the focus switching between them at alternate points. Again this leaves the audience as mediator, gauging the two reactions. If we were to study the mise-en-scene of the two shots, we’d see O’Donnell is clearly the dominant figure. His head is in the top of the shot, looking down at Warren from a seat of authority, whereas Warren is looking up – hopeful, desperate.

Behind O’Donnell is a glistening bookcase, implying intelligence, reason; behind Warren is a blank, dark blue wall. We can see how the emotions of each character change over the course of the scene, with Warren’s optimism and determination melted down to vulnerability and anger, while O’Donnell goes from steely professionalism to pity. After the shock of Warren’s dismissal, his final departure of the firm is conducted in a dream-like state – soft focus camera, muffled sound, almost slow motion movement from Warren as he rounds up his possessions.

Again the far away expression on his face conveys more to the audience about his feelings of complete emptiness than words could. The parallels between the way he strides through allcomers, bursting through the double doors on his way to the meeting, and the funereal trudge as he collects his things, walking past the same group of people, is a very striking image. Other dramas may have tried to make more of a fanfare of this moment, allowing dialogue to get the point across, but I think this way allows Warren to keep his dignity, leaving before the tears begin, rejoining the multitude of faceless businessman walking down a London street.

This series is one I found incredibly easy to deconstruct, because the dominant meanings implied are so strong, as well as accurate for the situation that it allowed me to notice things remarkably easily. For some this could be seen as a weakness; indeed many dramas in which the audience is spoon-fed all the major plot points are irritating in the extreme. Where “This Life” differs is that these things are all designed to fit a certain target audience of young adults, which I’m a part of. They are directing this show at me in the subject matter, the dialogue, the fast pace of the action and even the run-down setting.

But while I recognise these things easily, they are still understated enough to be enjoyed on a more superficial level by anyone else. Despite the popularity of the first series, the BBC wisely decided to keep the second series on BBC2 at 11. 40pm, as perfect post-pub viewing. They were aware of the movements of their target audience, illustrated by the amount of trips to the pub made by the main protagonists. The fact that there were only two series is a shame, but it shows also the creators were aware of the limited shelf life of mot TV programmes, especially those aimed at young people.

Some would say that this is a knock on effect of the dumbing down of television, and computer games creating a 3-minute culture of short attention spans. I think to some extent that’s true, but it could be equally attributed to the speed with which trends and fashion change amongst young people. It’s hard to consistently cater for a wide audience of people who are still trying to formulate their own opinions and identity, and those producers who acknowledge this are those that will prosper.

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