British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Spaces of TV: Production, Site and Style

Until the 1990s, the majority of British TV was shot on video in the studio, with film used only for exterior sequences. What impact did physical space have on both changing modes of production and television aesthetics? Professor Jonathan Bignell, University of Reading, was part of a project funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) that ran from July 2010 to March 2015 exploring these links. Here he provides an overview of its findings.

Jonathan_resizedAbout the author: Professor Jonathan Bignell is Head of the School of Arts and Communication Design at the University of Reading and Leader of the Television Drama Studies Research Group. His publications include: An Introduction to Television Studies (3rd edition, 2012); Beckett on Screen: The Television Plays (2012); Media Semiotics: An Introduction (2nd edition, 2002); Big Brother: Reality TV in the Twenty-first Century (2006); Postmodern Media Culture (2000); co-editor, with Stephen Lacey, British Television Drama: Past, Present and Future (2nd edition, 2014).

What a television drama looks like depends on where and how it was made. The Spaces of Television research project is about television fiction produced in the UK from 1955-94. It analyses how the physical spaces of production (in TV studios or on location, for instance) impacted on the aesthetic forms of programmes. Making fictional spaces on the screen meant negotiating the opportunities and constraints of studio and exterior space, film and video technologies, and liveness and recording. The genres of programme we study include the police and adventure series, soap opera, science fiction, period costume drama and sitcom. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and began in Summer 2010, running until Easter 2015.

Our research offers new insights into television history, by thinking about space in order to connect changing modes of production with television aesthetics. It is a collaboration between the universities of Reading, Leicester and South Wales, in which myself, James Chapman and Stephen Lacey have managed two post-doctoral research posts and two PhD projects. This sizeable team has published a lot of work, but for example Stephen Lacey and myself published a new edition of British Television Drama: Past, Present and Future, a collection of essays by members of our research team, fellow academics and TV producers. Among the contributions, Tony Garnett writes about his work at the BBC in the 1960s when he made Cathy Come Home largely on location, and Phil Redmond writes about how he devised Brookside to quickly shoot and edit on-site on a Liverpool estate. One of our postdoctoral researchers, Leah Panos, is editing special issues of the journals Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television (2014) and Critical Studies in Television (2015) each of which will have a focus on production spaces and style in TV drama.

We have held two one-day and one three-day international conferences about spatial approaches to television drama history, and in conjunction with the British Film Institute, project researchers Leah Panos and Billy Smart programmed a season of TV drama screenings at London’s South Bank in 2014, showcasing innovative uses of the TV studio in drama programmes. At each of these events there were not only academic papers but also presentations by people from the TV industry who have worked with different kinds of space in drama.  For instance, we invited production designers to recall the challenges of working with Colour Separation Overlay (now often called green-screen) in the 1970s to create fantastical, unreal spaces, the director Piers Haggard talked about his work on studio-shot Plays for Today in the 1980s, and Howard Schuman discussed writing the pop-music serial Rock Follies and borrowing the visual style of Top of the Pops.

« previous     1 2    next »