‘This is a play!’ – breaking the fourth wall

US TV series like Mad Men and The Wire have been acclaimed for their studied authenticity and naturalism, but is it time for television to rediscover its experimental edge and bring the ‘fourth wall’ crashing down again?

28 November 2012

By Anna Coatman

Mad Men (2007- )

“That’s a camera, you’re an actor, that’s a band – this is a play!” Often, it’s not until someone states it that you finally see the obvious. In The Adventures of Frank – a television play by John McGrath, first broadcast by the BBC in 1984 – the hero grabs his fellow actor, points to the camera in front of them, and then at the studio band behind, and consequently smashes through something invisible, yet seemingly impermeable: the ‘fourth wall’.

It’s this imaginary ‘wall’ – where there is actually a camera – which allows us to believe that what we are watching on ‘the box’ is real, whether it’s a slick ad agency on Madison Avenue in its postwar heyday (Mad Men), the drug-riddled Baltimore ‘projects’ (The Wire), or even a dragon-stalked forest (Game of Thrones). The ‘fourth wall’ is an illusion so commonplace it’s no longer noticeable. Yet there have been television makers who have chosen to shatter it.

The season Beyond the Fourth Wall – Experiments in TV Drama, currently running at BFI Southbank, showcases the work of some of those who did – examples of a strand of British television that attempted to tear away from the conventions of naturalism. By borrowing techniques from avant-garde filmmaking, radical theatre, or just taking advantage of new developments in television technology, the featured producers and directors actively tried to remind the audience that they were watching television, rather than attempting to make them forget.

The Wire (2002-08)

The earliest anti-’Nat’ experimenters hailed from the Langham Group – a drama unit set up by the BBC in 1958, tasked with producing unconventional work. However, their dabbling in the theories of Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, Russian literature, and other such ‘high art’ brought them criticism for being out of touch. By the 70s and 80s, a new wave of producers and directors had emerged – united in their wish to create equally daring, yet more relevant, drama, but divided by their ideas on how to do it.

While directors such as Ken Loach and Alan Clarke chose to follow the path of extreme social realism in order to connect with working-class viewers, others – like Dennis Potter, John McGrath and James MacTaggart – continued to rail against realism altogether.

But who, so to speak, won the argument? Experimental drama never hit the mainstream – as is made clear by the fact that they still, to this day, challenge our received notion of the boundary between audience/actors. But nor, for that matter, did social realism (although it still exists, in a more openly stylised form; the recent Top Boy, about gang-culture in East London, broadcast on Channel 4 in 2011, being an example). 

Game of Thrones (2011- )

But probably the most popular kind of television drama today in the UK is the big, multi-season series from the US. So what role does the ‘fourth wall’ play in this?

For Mad Men, dedicated teams of costume designers spent innumerable hours trawling through fashion magazine archives to ensure that the lips of every actress – and even extra – were exactly the right shade of coral, while prop and set designers stalked auction rooms and antiques shops to source exactly the right kind of leather lounger for Don Draper to loll on.

Huge efforts have been made to convincingly recreate a bygone world – right down to the last Lucky Strike-stained detail. Period “authenticity” has been one of the keystones of this programme’s success – the way it has made people feel as though they know what it was to be there, then, even though they never were.

The Wednesday Play: Drums Along the Avon (1967)

Similarly, though the medieval fantasy realm setting of the similarly popular Game of Thrones may be a million miles away from the offices of Sterling Cooper, not a dollar has been spared in making it as easy as possible for the audience to become immersed in a different ‘world’. The same is equally true of The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, Treme, and any other HBO series you care to mention. These dramas aim to draw us into their worlds, rather than draw attention to their construction.

The diluted colours, in-house soundtrack, and shuddering graphics of The Adventures of Frank could not be more different from these flawless productions. And whereas McGrath and his peers embraced those effects and qualities unique to the medium of television – such as the Quantel system (that could create split screens) – HBO series are celebrated precisely for how unlike traditional television they appear, being barely distinguishable, in terms of production values, from cinema blockbusters. The aim of much modern drama, it seems, is to construct the most convincing ‘fourth wall’ possible.

True Blood (2008- )

We buy these series on box set, draw the curtains, and escape from reality for an hour… or several. Watching a drama like The Adventures of Frank, or Drums along the Avon (directed by James MacTaggart in 1967), however, is an entirely different experience. Instead of providing an escape from ‘reality’, they try and make us face it, by not allowing us to sink passively into the story.

The reality that faces you when you watch The Adventures of Frank is that of Britain in the 1980s. But it actually looks a lot like Britain in 2012. In fact, it’s striking just how familiar the political issues it engages with are: youth unemployment, council housing, homelessness, free-market capitalism, and even a renegade banking system. This raises an interesting thought.    

Contemporary dramas such as The Wire, Treme, and even Mad Men all have something important to say about the world we live in (or lived in). But the creators of the dramas included in the Breaking the Fourth Wall season did not only break the fourth wall, they tried to reach through it, grab the viewer by the shoulders, and shout: “This is a play! That – out there, where you are – is real! Shouldn’t you do something about it?” And as the ‘real world’ today is as troubled as theirs was, perhaps we might just need someone to shout at us through our screens once again…

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