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arch Designs on Television

‘Empire Road’ wedding dress design by Janice Rider

I spoke recently at the ‘Designs on Television’ conference at University of Westminster. Few conferences focus on the work of television designers, so this was a refreshing event to attend. The majority of the conference concentrated on production design, but myself, and a couple of other researchers, examined costume design. My paper was entitled, ‘Creating Characters and Priming Performances: The Under-appreciated Roles of Costume and Make-up Workers in UK Television Production 1950-2000’.  

Design on television, and particularly within the female-dominated departments of costume and make-up are under-researched in comparison to film. There is a body of scholarship on women’s below-the-line roles in film by scholars such as Miranda Banks, Deborah Jones, Judith Pringle, Helen Warner, Erin Hill, and Melanie Williams amongst others. In television there is significantly less work, and therefore less appreciation of the complexity of the roles within costume and make-up, and the creative agency of workers.  

We can learn from the research that has been undertaken on film. Miranda Banks (2009) -talks of the invisibility of the costume designer’s work on-screen marginalising the recognition of their work. It is no coincidence that the costume profession is female dominated, leading to it being undervalued and often dismissed as ‘women’s work’. Erin Hill (2016), concludes that the occupational segregation perpetuates male domination in roles with the most power and prestige, whilst women’s roles have little visibility, and Melanie Bell (2021) notes that historically women in below-the-line roles are rarely recorded in official records.  

It is therefore important that we build our own archives and unofficial records. One way of doing this is through oral history interviews, and drawing from some of the recordings I have made with costume and make-up designers, was the basis of my presentation. I set out to explore the creative contribution of women working in TV costume and make-up. The women ranged from in their 50s to their 90s. 

Below is a comment by one of my contributors setting out what the work of a costume designer involves, and the importance of working collaboratively within a team: 

“It was very rare you designed clothes. It’s about managing your budget and staff, working out how many staff you need. Fighting, you know, if they don’t want you to do this or do that. Planning. Obviously, the result of certain amount of design but it’s more in the way of being a social worker ….. There’s a lot of negotiating with the director, not so much for the producers, but with the directors, trying to get them to commit to things and because, you need to know what your budget is.  

You’d get the scripts, and you’d work at those yourself. And obviously, you’d have to plot your days and do all that. So, where you were going get your costumes from, was it a costumier? Was it going out shopping? Was it hiring? Was it making? And then you’d have meetings. But yes, you need to get a visual idea and also chat with the design people just to see what their ideas were as well. So really very collaborative work”. Ann Doling: Costume designer. 

This gives an insight into the complexity of the role. One theme which emerged from the oral histories is that the women often felt their work was under-appreciated, both by the production team and by management. This was manifest on screen, as in the early days of television, costume and make-up often went uncredited. 

Costume Designer, Pat Godfrey mentioned that middle management were often dismissive of them, thinking of them as “silly little women in costume and make-up”.​ Another costume designer, Gill Hardie, described some members of the production team and crew thinking that costume and make-up staff, “were just a nuisance and got in the way”, because of making last minute adjustments to actors on set.  

Working with actors whilst rewarding, could be also difficult, as you were managing anxious performers just before they went on set. Gill Hardie recalled the challenges of working with an actor who could be a bully, but was also very nervous and having to tell the odd white lie to manage his ego. For example, she pretended to re-fit a jacket that he was unhappy with, when it already fitted perfectly. Pat Godfrey talked about the challenges of working with actors with drink and drug habits. She was asked by production to look after an actor with a drink problem who insisted on going to the pub and she had to try and ensure that he did not drink too much. This seems to be considerably beyond the scope of the job. 

Make-up designer, Susie Astle told me, “the work of preparing the actor for any role is vital, we are usually the last people to see them before they went in front of the camera. I worked on a documentary about the Birmingham pub bombings and one of the survivors interviewed was so nervous, I sat under the table and held her hand. Costume and make-up were good listeners!” Again, this would fall far outside the role, but illustrates the importance of the trust that can grow between costume and make-up workers and the people they prepare for camera. 

Costume and make-up staff had to be quick-thinking and solve issues as they arose. Costume designer, Joyce Hawkins, recalled an incident that happened to her in the moments before a live television drama, starring a very young Judi Dench, in Hilda Lessways (BBC, 1959). “As Judi entered the studio her elaborate cascading bustle fell to the floor in a heap of satin and lace….as the direction “standby studio” rang out, I was on my knees frantically pinning it back up. Judi remained calm and I spent the scene huddled behind a sofa on set.”​ Whilst an amusing incident, it demonstrates the lengths required to make a drama look as good as possible. 

The examples provided, show the breadth of work encompassed by costume and make-up staff. The complexity of the roles are little understood, particularly those elements which fall outside the actual ‘designing’, namely: organisation, negotiation and collaboration​. In addition, costume and make-up play a significant role in preparing performers for the camera, both physically, in dressing and making them up, but also psychologically​.  

As all of this illustrates that there is plenty of scope for academic research around the creative work of costume and make-up staff, and I look forward to undertaking a portion of it. 

Banks, M.J. (2009), ‘Gender Below-the-Line: Defining Feminist Production Studies’, in Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Media Industries, ed. Vicki Mayer, Miranda J. Banks, and John Thornton Caldwell (London: Routledge, 87-98, 91. 

Bell, M. (2021), ‘‘I owe it to those women to own it’: Women, Media Production and Intergenerational Dialogue through Oral History’, Journal of British Cinema and Television 18/4, 518–537, 521. 

Hill, E. (2016), Never Done: A History of Women’s Work in Media Production, New Brunswick, New Jersey, London: Rutgers University Press, 6. 

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arch Game Cultures cluster presents: History of Games Conference 2024

BCMCR’s Game Cultures cluster is proud to be hosting the 2024 History of Games conference, 22-24 May. Registration is now open!

In 2023, the History of Games conference celebrated its 10th anniversary. During this time, the conference has visited Montréal, Copenhagen and Zoom. In Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1958: 65-67) says that in games there is a ‘complicated network of similarities’, and that he ‘can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”[…]: “games” form a family’. This is the departure point for our conference theme, “Families of Games”. Games, like families, are central to the creation of our lifeworld. In May 2024, then, we look forward to welcoming you to Birmingham in the United Kingdom to celebrate the growing family of international researchers investigating histories of games.

We are delighted to welcome three keynote speakers to History of Games 2024. Each keynote speaker will kick off one day of the conference, offering key considerations of the current state of game studies that deal in some way with historical issues – be they industry, research, or development.

Dr Tom Apperley interrogates “Hugh Hefner’s “Homo Ludens””.

Dr Regina Seiwald presents “La Famiglia: The Mafia and Videogames”.

John Szczepaniak explores “Tracing forgotten family lineages through oral histories”.

The conference website has full details of the event, including abstracts from our three keynote speakers.

The conference will also host over 60 paper presentations from delegates attending both in person and online. Register now to join us!

 

Banner graphic designed by Reuben Mount.

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arch Seminal book on Punk, Ageing and Time published

BCMCR researcher Dr Matt Grimes and fellow punk scholar Dr Laura Way (University of Roehampton ), have a new co-authored editied collection titled Punk, Ageing and Time published today as part of the Subcultures Network  Palgrave Studies in the History of Subcultures and Popular Music (PSHSPM) series (Palgrave Macmillan

To date there has been no plotting of punk scholarship which speaks to ‘time’, yet there are some clear bodies of work pertaining to particular issues relevant to it, including ageing and/or the life course and punk, memory and/or nostalgia and punk, ‘punk history’, and archiving and punk. Punk, Ageing and Time is therefore a timely (pun intended) book.

What this edited collection does for the first time is bring together contemporary investigations and discussions specifically around punk and ageing and/or time, covering areas such as: punk and ageing; the relationship between temporality and particular concepts relevant to punk (such as authenticity, DIY, identity, resistance, spatiality, style); and punk memory, remembering and/or forgetting. Multidisciplinary in nature and international in reach, this book considers areas which have received very little to no academic attention previously.

There will be an online book launch Wednesday 17th April 15.30 UK time , featuring many of the international contributors to this seminal edited collection.

Email matt.grimes@bcu.ac.uk for a link to the online launch

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arch BFI Reuben Library Book Launch – Working Women on Screen: Paid Labour and Fourth Wave Feminism.

Working women on screen book cover

Working Women on Screen cover

 

On Friday 8th March, to celebrate International Women’s Day 2024, BCMCR’s Dr Ellie Tomsett and Dr Poppy Wilde, and their co-editor Dr Nathalie Weidhase (University of Surrey) launched their edited collection Working Women on Screen: Paid Labour and Fourth Wave Feminism (Palgrave Macmillan) at the British Film Institute’s Reuben Library.

This new edited collection brings together international scholars to consider the ways women’s working lives are depicted across screen media. Chapters consider case study representations found within film, television, video games and on social media platforms, to analyse how the contemporary feminist context (often referred to as fourth wave feminism) and the changes to how women engage in paid labour is reflected on screen. The volume includes consideration of popular British and American television comedy and drama (Veep [HBO, 2012-2019], Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist [NBC 2020-2021], Getting On [BBC, 2009-2013 ], Shrill [Hulu, 2019-2021], Mythic Quest [Apple TV+ 2020 – present], Game of Thrones [HBO,2011-2019], Trust Me [BBC, 2017]) , American, German and Japanese cinema (Tully [2018], I’m Your Man [2021], 37 Seconds [2019]), reality television (Selling Sunset [Netflix, 2019-present]), influencer and streaming cultures across Instagram and Chinese platforms Inke and RED, sci-fi video game Control (Remedy Entertainment, 2019) and recorded awards acceptance speeches by influential show runner Shonda Rhimes.

Image of book launch panel - six women in seats, one standing

L-R Professor Adrienne Evans, Dr Louise Coopey, Dr Eleonora Sammartino, Dr Nathalie Weidhase, Dr Poppy Wilde, Dr Ellie Tomsett and Dr Hannah Hamad

 

The public talk celebrating the book’s launch was audio recorded and included some of the UK based contributing authors; Dr Eleonora Sammartino (University of Southampton), Professor Adrienne Evans (Coventry University), Dr Louise Coopey (University of Birmingham) and Dr Hannah Hamad (Cardiff University) who also chaired the event. You can listen back to the event via the BCMCR Vimeo channel here. 

 

 

 

 

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arch ‘This Town’ and the TV Production Landscape in Birmingham

‘This Town’, Birmingham Town Hall 19 March 2024

Cast and producers Q&A panel

On 19 March 2024 I had the pleasure of attending the red-carpet screening of Steven Knight’s new drama, ‘This Town’ in Birmingham’s Town Hall.  It was a good watch, especially for those of us who spent some of our youth in 1980s Birmingham and Coventry. The contemporary, but 80’s nostalgic soundtrack was spot on. Knight describes the six-part series as his “love letter” to the area he grew up in. The drama starts on BBC 1 on Easter Sunday 31 March. 

The series has been heralded as the beginning of a new age of television production in the West Midlands. The production company Kudos Knight, who created ‘This Town’, has a commitment to shooting more dramas in the region, which is potentially reassuring news for the many skilled production staff and crew who are currently looking for work with the closure of BBC Doctors earlier this year. 

From the discussions last night from the BBC and the producers of ‘This Town’ there is an appetite for authentic, gritty dramas that reflect life outside of London. This was said as if it was a new idea, whilst actually the BBC and others have been creating gritty, authentic dramas in Birmingham since the 1950s. There are many examples to choose from, like the 1967 series ‘Rainbow City’, featuring Errol John, which told the experiences of the West Indian community in Birmingham, or the 1976 Play for Today, ‘Gangsters’, which explored issues of extortion, drug dealing and blackmail in Birmingham’s underworld. In fact, in 1971 when the BBC moved into its broadcast centre: Pebble Mill, the English Regions Drama Department was established with the remit to represent life outside London. Something it did to great effect, producing iconic dramas like ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ and ‘Nuts in May’, but also shorter thirty-minute dramas like the 1973 ‘A Touch of Eastern Promise’, the first UK drama with an entirely Asian cast, set in Balsall Heath.  

Sadly, the quantity of production in Birmingham reduced as the BBC disbanded its factual production base in the city in the early 2000s, with only the BBC Drama Village in Selly Oak continuing the legacy of what had been started by the early pioneers when the BBC was in Gosta Green from 1955, and then at Pebble Mill from 1971. BBC Doctors, was the mainstay of the Drama Village’s productions, creating hundreds of hours of continuing drama each year. It gave Birmingham a critical mass of skilled crew and production workers, who would move agilely between productions. The danger is that with the downturn in television production across the whole of the UK, and the closure of Doctors specifically, that some of those skilled crew won’t be able to wait for new productions from Kudos Knight and others to start staffing up in Birmingham. 

However, the future of television production in Birmingham is looking a lot more rosy than elsewhere in the UK. The much-awaited move of ‘Masterchef’ to Birmingham is happening later this year, and ‘Silent Witness’ will be moving here in due course. ‘Masterchef’ will bring a couple of hundred production jobs to the region when it is fully up and running.  

The West Midlands is also privileged to be selected as one of six BFI Skills Cluster areas, which comes with a commitment to fund training programmes to address skills shortages in the sector. We are currently seeing the delivery of the first of these, with the Create Central Skills Accelerator training programmes. These cater for both entry level and more senior roles. Birmingham City University in partnership with University of Wolverhampton are delivering the ‘Rock Up Ready’ training programme for graduate trainees, whilst Mission Accomplished have teamed with BOA Academy to deliver two programmes: ‘TV and Film Fusion’ and ‘Step Up to HoD’.  

The signs look positive that there will be screen industry jobs for these trainees, as well as more established production workers, to move into as production in the region begins to expand again. 

Dr Vanessa Jackson

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arch Game Cultures cluster presents: Video Game Cultures 2024

BCMCR’s Game Cultures cluster is proud to be hosting the 2024 Video Game Cultures conference, 12-14 September 2024. 

Drawing on threads emerging from last year’s Video Game Cultures conference in Klagenfurt, the theme for this year’s conference is other in all its permutations: other, others, othered, othering, otherness, and beyond. We seek to centre marginal practices, marginal identities, peripheral national traditions, and consider researcher positionality in/as other. Let us reflect on other spaces and sites of gaming, discuss other approaches and methods to studying games, players, and gaming cultures. What can we learn from (or about) other researcher practices, other player practices, other design and industrial practices? How do video games create or recognise difference, what does alternative embodiment look or feel like, and what worlds are possible in games?

Video Game Cultures 2024 will therefore investigate various ways in which video game cultures, technologies, practices, communities, paratexts and genres develop within the framework of five thematic tracks. As digital games encompass an expanding range of highly complex and variant phenomena, this often leads to an overlap of issues across themes, so we are inviting participants of all backgrounds (academic, developer, producer, player, fan etc.) to submit proposals to this interdisciplinary event.

Find full CFP here: https://videogamecultures.org/2024-cfp/

300-word abstracts, proposals and other forms of contribution should be submitted by Tuesday 30 April 2024

We hope to see you in September!

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arch Media Materialities: Form, Format and Ephemeral Meaning

Published December 2023, Media Materialities: Form, Format and Ephemeral Meaning is the second title in the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research’s New Directions in Media and Cultural Studies book series, published by Intellect and the University of Chicago Press. The book offers new perspectives on the increasingly complex relationships between media forms and formats, materiality, and meaning. Drawing on a range of qualitative methodologies, Media Materialities explores how  the materiality of media is structured around three overarching concepts: form – the physical qualities of objects and the meanings which extend from them; format – objects considered in relation to the protocols which govern their use, and the meanings and practices which stem from them; and ephemeral meaning – the ways in which media artefacts are captured, transformed, and redefined through changing social, cultural, and technological values.

The book considers the materialities which emerge across the broad and variegated range of the term’s use, and to create spaces for conversation and debate about the implications that this plurality of material meanings might have for the study of study of media, culture, and society.

To celebrate the book’s publication, we are holding a book launch on the 10 April in the Parkside Building’s Shell space, where the editors, Iain A. Taylor and Oliver Carter will be part of a Q&A discussion, followed by short presentations from authors who contributed chapters to the collection. We also be holding an exhibition of materials that are featured in the book.

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arch Doing Women’s Film and Television History VI conference

Locating Women in the Archive 

The DWFTH VI conference June 2023 at the University of Sussex was both stimulating and enjoyable. It was valuable to meet up in person and be able to talk to scholars whose work I had read, but never met. I took part in two roundtable events with colleagues from the IWBHN (International Women’s Broadcast History Network); one on women’s television production histories and the other on locating women in the archive, which I’m going to explore in more detail in this blog.  

Despite there being more papers on film than television, there were themes emerging through the conference which spoke to both media. One central concern was the difficulty in locating women in the archive, especially those not in prominent positions. The ordinary histories of women’s work are difficult to find in traditional archives, which we heard in BFI archivist, Lisa Kerrigan’s paper. Somewhat surprisingly, she noted that TV is the largest collection at the BFI. However, we heard that she rarely receives offers of work for acquisition from women, which is telling, and chimes with the lack of prominence of women’s work, as well as women’s perception of the limited value of their work. We also heard of worrying issues in navigating the archive and collection database, with difficulties over cataloguing, because of production hierarchies, which favour directors, as well as human frailties and structural problems.  

Many of us will have examples of struggling to find archival sources, which we know should exist. For instance, in recent contact with the BBC Written Archives, I found there were no files on any of the women I was looking at, despite them being Heads of Department. It seems that acquisition strategies do not prioritise the keeping of records about such women.  

Morgan Wait from University College Dublin explained the challenges she’s faced in accessing archives because of economic and political issues, with archivists sometimes being unhelpful gatekeepers. This necessitates circumventing some institutional archives in Ireland, which have limited time and space and privilege broadcaster access over academics. She told us of having to become a ‘truffle hunter’, exploring the traces of women broadcasters in a whole host of archives, including the archives of men. Oral histories were highlighted as a particularly valuable source for women’s work.  

Alec Badenoch from Utrecht University advised looking for women in broadcasting, in alternative spaces, such as Women’s archives. However, there are difficulties in navigating the gaps you are likely to find. Women’s archives aren’t always ideal for storing media materials, because media is on the margins for them, and they don’t necessarily have the tools to make assets accessible. Conversely, the work of women is also at the margin of media archives, and so we encounter issues wherever we search.  

Taking the argument a stage further, Ipsita Saha from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, spoke of finding YouTube a useful alternative digital archive for her work on Indian television with the ‘Tabassum Talkies’, shared online by the presenter’s family. Informal collections on platforms like YouTube can be a rich source but are also vulnerable and of course uncatalogued.   

So, what can we do as academics to counteract the challenges of locating women in the archives?   

Events and public engagement were highlighted as one solution by Janet McCabe of Birkbeck, University of London. She spoke of the potential for activating histories through curation and display, to awaken a remembered past, particularly at moments of crisis. We can do we do this through creating ‘living archives’, such as the ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ event, a screened suffragette drama, encouraging the creative re-use of archives in new works. 

And there are other potential solutions, for instance creating our own ‘idiosyncratic archives’, to plug some of the institutional gaps. These could include recording oral and written histories of living subjects and displaying digital artefacts. My own website, which celebrates the programme making history of BBC Pebble Mill: http://pebblemill.org  is one such example: freely accessible, but with its own limitations and vulnerabilities. For instance, there are cases of similar enthusiast archives where historical materials are being lost for a second time, when citizen curators die or lose momentum.  

Another idea, which Alec Badenoch mentioned, is to pool our collective knowledge of the archives and complete a mapping exercise about which collections hold materials in which areas. This could make an attractive collaborative funding bid for the right partners. 

Additionally, encouraging archivists to make holdings about women more visible, by changing the way they catalogue items, or making ‘women’ an acquisition category, would be worthwhile. An alternative intervention could be alerting archives to the historical materials we may come across in our researches, and find homes for personal collections to avoid them ending up in a skip. 

Dr Vanessa Jackson

 

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arch Under the Counter on Soho Radio

On 11 May 2023, Oliver Carter appeared on Soho Radio’s ‘The Soho Society Hour’ to disucss his latest monograph Under the Counter: Britain’s Trade in Hardcore Pornographic 8mm Films and specifically the role Soho played in this illicit film economy. A recording of the episode can be accessed here.