Friday, October 5, 2012

Ordinary People

Some TV series and the Photographs of Bill Brandt and Robert Doisneau
Bill Brandt, London, 1939: The Lambeth Walk
Does English television produce series specially with US in mind?  Long ago Coronation Street, though available in parts of the United States, was (we thought) made for themselves and the Commonwealth.  After all, we didn't suppose that our I Remember Mama, set on one of the San Francisco streets that preserve row houses on a steep hill, was of much interest overseas.  Later, however, when I ran into episodes of Dallas all over Europe (and, speaking for Canada, of DeGrassi Junior High in Greek villages, where the local pre-teens were agog over it), I saw that high-end soap operas of our own had supplanted dark movies about Chicago gangsters and sunbathed ones of Roy Rogers in providing exportable Americana.
What is the point of more Upstairs, Downstairs or of Downton Abbey?  Neither one of them has the authenticity of Brideshead Revisited.  Evelyn Waugh could be offensive, of course, and kidded himself awfully.  I didn't say, either,  that Brideshead was inoffensive to everyone or in the whole to anyone, but it did have a consistent point of view, a strong one (Authority: is Julian Fellowes an auctor in the same sense?).  So had South Riding, though its authorial character got a bit muddled.  And, oh, the joy of Mapp and Lucia!
Since Jennifer Worth was just nine months younger than me; since my mother never tired of telling me, whenever I was troublesome, how awful my breech birth had been; since I was just a month younger than the Dionne quintuplets and from the public library had read up on rural multiple births long before my mother gave me the book, Being Born (recommended by Parents magazine), but I have never even been pregnant myself; since riding into Liverpool Street in London from Cambridge repeatedly in 1959 gave me a daily bird's-eye view of the East End just before its tenements were replaced (and I wondered at its resemblance to some of our own, whose replacements often became uninhabitable in their turn), it is quite certain that I shall watch the full six parts of Call the Midwife.  The first episode was really pretty good, but the book affords many booby traps for the BBC today.  It got the nuns right, to my great surprise, but it must be careful not to go over the top.  Anglican religious orders is something I actually know something about, and, like Jennifer Worth, I shall always be discreet: there are things you can talk about and things you just won't, if you really know them.  This is not to say that you idealize or sentimentalize.
I'll write a follow-up when I've seen all six episodes.
I always like to put an image at the top of a post.  The BBC has a nice page of Matthew's 1912 images, but Jennifer Worth spells out what happened in ruins from bombing of the docks, what with squatters in the 1950s' housing shortage and new ethnic groups introducing additional complications, and Matthew's Spitalfields zone was Jewish and, well, not quite so bad as some others.  Fortunately, one of Bill Brandt's images, from just before the Blitz, has been so widely reproduced that I have ventured to use it.  It is remarkable how long it took after the end of the War for children's clothes and games to change very much, and the popular song, "The Lambeth Walk" was a cockney-dialect ditty, besides.  It is a rare photographer who works without some Program (such as the USA's FSA project) that has an axe to grind: it was what they were paid for.  Even Brandt turned to his famously surreal distortions—not surreal in meaning but one of the greatest ventures in liberating photography from documentation.  Of course, all the greatest documentarians (think of Cartier-Bresson) have strong formal virtues, too, which make their images the most memorable, but finding such photography (more than primarily journalistic) of ordinary people in the 1950s is surprisingly difficult, even if questions of copyright were not a problem.
Great photographs of the ordinary life of ordinary people's ordinary settings, taken out of the photographer's personal attrait, before the Age of the Beatles but after the War, are remarkably rare.  Robert Doisneau, who returned repeatedly to the banlieue that he came from is my favorite.  He is one of the names that I discovered in The Family of Man, by the way, and there is a beautiful biographical retrospective volume for him by Peter Hamilton (Abbelville Press, 1995), when he had just died.  Copyright here is a problem, but you can find good images on line, and some of the best are from the 1950s.  Doisneau, like Edward Steichen, worked in every kind of photography.  For England, Bill Brandt, for me, is unsurpassable.  Thames & Hudson published a fine retrospective volume for Brandt in 1999.