The Women We Loved Season: Introduction

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this season, first broadcast on BBC Four in the winter of 2009.  It might seem a strange preoccupation: why would anyone be so fascinated by a series of relatively obscure, low-budget docudramas first shown on British TV several years ago?

66ff3885fdd9d12c347da41527e67ec4ea50bc28It was the season’s title that immediately caught my attention: who is included in the pantheon of treasured female public figures?  Who are these women we loved?  Who, indeed, is ‘we’?

Enid Blyton

Enid Blyton was reportedly able to write between 6000 and 10 000 words a day. I wish I was that prolific.

The answer to the first two questions is this: Enid Blyton, Gracie Fields and Margot Fonteyn.  Women of particular influence in 20th century British popular culture, which provides an implied answer to the third question: ‘we’ are British people who recollect, or at least are somewhat familiar with the figures in question.

Gracie Fields

Gracie Fields was one of the most prominent figures of early 20th century British popular culture. During the 1930s, she was (allegedly) the highest paid film actress in the world.

These women are so different in terms of their cultural presence: one an author of simple, conservative, and increasingly controversial books for children, another a popular music hall singer and film star of the 1930s, and the other a prolific prima ballerina.  For me, this begged the question of what they have in common.

The answer, following a formula tried and successful for other BBC Four biopics, indeed, biopics more generally, is that their private lives were much more turbulent than their public image would suggest.  Each of the films in the season makes clear the difference between the women we ‘loved’, and the real people behind them.

The programmes provided BBC Four with a much needed ratings boost, and were critically successful (particularly Enid and Gracie!).  Praise was not universal, though.  My favourite review was by Paul Whitelaw, of The Scotsman, on Enid:

Despite boasting strong performances from some of Britain’s finest actors (and David Walliams), there is something unedifying about films in which dead celebrities are exposed as drink-sodden misery-guts with dysfunctional sex lives. It’s not that the truth should be ignored, it’s just that screenwriters are usually morbidly overeager to wallow in the sordid details, often at the expense of accuracy.

I like this description so much because it pithily boils down all of the common irritations around biopics : firstly that they are prurient and exploitative (or the opposite, that they constitute uncritical hagiography), secondly that they are hopelessly inaccurate.

I share Whitelaw’s concerns about the ‘character assassination’ on Blyton in Enid.  I have reservations too about Gracie, which to me verges on patronising in its portrayal of northern chirpiness, and about Margot, which sets its heroine out as an irrational fantasist.

margot fonteyn

Margot Fonteyn wrote in her autobiography  ‘Great artists are people who find the way to be themselves in their art. Any sort of pretension induces mediocrity in art and life alike.’

Why then, am I so interested in Women We Loved?  I’m interested in narrative and thematic overlaps in the films: a focus the tensions between being a woman in the public eye and being a wife and/or mother (Dennis Bingham has argued forcefully that these are present in all female-focused biopics), the determination to show how these women constructed themselves as public figures (through interviews, newsreels, performances and so on), the emphasis on the domestic life over and above the considerable career achievements of these women.

I think the pleasure and frustration I have found in unpicking these films has a lot to do with their contradictions – these are women we loved, but they are flawed women, selfish women, irrational women.  Perhaps we shouldn’t have loved them at all.

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Why Real Lives on Screen?

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

If Socrates is right about this (and far be it for me to disagree with him), he has provided the greatest possible justification for the art of biography.

Biography, of course, is all about the examination of lives.  It is the art of stitching together the facts of an individual’s life into a coherent and credible narrative.  At the same time, the biographer makes a pitch for the specialness of a person, and the extraordinariness of their existence.  A subject’s life is a micro history, a way of understanding the way things were in a certain place and time.  A tall order.

“‘Verbo caro factum est.’ said Ormerod Goode opaquely. ‘The art of biography is a despised art because it is an art of things, of facts, of arranged facts.’ (A.S Byatt, The Biographer’s Tale)

Biography is a mistrusted art.  The worst of biography is prurient, exploitative grave-robbery.  It is dull sycophancy. It is composed, if not of bald-faced lies, then of euphemisms, twisted facts and half-truths.

Because the public exposure to a dramatised life is greater, and perhaps because the impact of watching a facsimile version of a famous person can be more intense than reading about them on the page, the criticisms levelled at screen biography tend to be amplified.  The squabbles between filmmakers and families of biographical subjects are great tabloid fodder.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath in Sylvia (2003)

The family of Sylvia Plath publicly censured the filmmakers of Sylvia (2003).

But the criticisms of biography of all kind only serve to underline our fascination with the lives of important people, the private selves behind the public facades.  For the film and television industries, biopics are “pre-sold” materials for audiences not that into superheroes.  For film and television makers, biopics are an opportunity to use the film form to probe deeply into various kinds of human experience, or to use an individual life to explore a moment in time.  For performers, it is the opportunity to inhabit the spirit of subject, and try to emulate their behaviour and personality.  Or to win an Oscar.

Imitation Game poster

The Imitation Game (2014) – A recent, and pretty typical example of a British film Biopic

I’ve been interested screen biographies for some years now.  This stems from my work as a scholar of contemporary British cinema and television.  The biopic has been a key genre for UK film for decades, and has provided a large number of critical and commercial successes.  In some ways, it ticks all the cliched boxes for British film: heritage subject matter, refined acting skills on display, offering opportunities for aestheticised period detail, tasteful and middlebrow.

I’m interested in the stories within and behind these life stories on screen.  What version of this famous life is being portrayed, and why? How are their lives narrated?  How do performers attempt to capture their essence?  What devices are used to imply that this version of the life is authentic (or otherwise)?

In this blog, I’ll be analysing screen biographies, both for film and television, and writing about the issues and ideas I have come across in my efforts to understand them better.  Your comments, disagreements and own interpretations are more than welcome – I’m always on the lookout for new angles on biopics!