In a comic-strip cartoon, beads of water apparently radiating outward from the head of one of the characters indicate embarrassment. Lines flying horizontally from a character, all in one direction and tailing off with distance, indicate rapid movement in the opposing direction.
Every western child knows this; but were you to show the cartoon to a Tuareg nomad in the Sahara, these ciphers — which are really more a form of hieroglyph than a depiction of any recognisable object — would be meaningless. Likewise in a film, cutting between scenes would totally confuse our Tuareg, who would wonder why we had apparently left one place and gone suddenly to another.
But we, who have absorbed these artistic conventions almost with our mother’s milk, hardly think about the fact that the film or the cartoon are not life as it might happen, but a specialised and stylised way of telling a story. Almost unconscious with us are the artistic conventions by which subliminally we translate the sounds and images presented to us on screens, in books and on the radio, into coherent tales of imagined reality.
Take Dame Edna Everage: fictional, yet living in our world. Only Barry Humphries’s particular genius and persistence could pioneer this genre, accustoming audiences to inventions who took on their own life and could join us offstage: a fictional character ‘living’ an often unscripted presence among us (you could even tour her suite at the Savoy; and she had her own interview series on TV). The roots of this fiction probably lie in pantomime, where essentially familiar characters appear in innumerable new situations. But I may have been almost alone, writing in the Economist in February 1988, in spotting that Barry Humphries’s creation was close to being a new art form.
And I believe now that I’ve spotted, if not a new kind of drama, then the brilliant development of a dramatic form that has flickered in and out of mankind’s entertainment for millennia, but which we in the West have only fitfully taken to our hearts.
Think of the Greek Chorus. Think of the Chinese Property Man. Think of Bernard Shaw’s voluminous stage directions. Think of Under Milk Wood. Think of any drama in which an authorial voice becomes part of the action, set apart from the characters themselves yet appearing among them. And now listen to Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 on Monday mornings, and the third series, now playing, of Katherine Jakeways’s North by Northamptonshire.
This brilliant serial about the lives and loves of the inhabitants of the imaginary town of Wadenbrook, Northants, is billed as comedy but it’s much deeper than that. The action proceeds in a series of vignettes, often very short, flicking from household to household rather as The Archers does, so that we follow almost simultaneously a range of plots — or rather lives, for the plots are secondary. We have two of the Greek unities: unity of place (Wadenbrook) and of time (now). But is there unity of action, for the stories are hardly interwoven? In fact they are: woven together by the living, breathing presence in the drama of the dramatist herself: their creator.
The wonderful novelty in North by Northamptonshire is the authorial voice. There’s a narrator: an all-knowing, all-seeing woman of a certain age who not only signposts the scene changes, but comments on the lives she’s showing us, as she leads us through them: sometimes kindly, sometimes humorously, sometimes bitterly, but always with a sort of magisterial sympathy and the penetrating glance one might expect from God. Torn between contempt and compassion, her contribution is really one big, continually interrupted, aside about the human condition, and the webs we silly people weave. And Jakeways comes down mostly on the side of womankind. The subtext is quietly, humorously and sorrowfully feminist; but in the warmest possible way, with no hint of stridency.
Our narrator is not part of the action but she’s there in the studio, talking to us. I imagine her in black in a plain bonnet, on a hard kitchen chair in the corner of the room, seeing but unseen, shaking her head sadly yet never unlovingly at the weaknesses and folly of human beings, poor things.
The tradition was certainly alive in the 19th-century English novel, especially in the hands of Jane Austen and George Eliot. Stage, film and TV dramatisations of their work can be very watchable but, proceeding as they must only by means of the dialogue, miss the wonderful authorial comment on the lives unfolding before us.
In English theatre it’s uncommon to put your narrator on stage, though Shakespeare’s characters’ soliloquies and asides to the audience come close to commentary; and the great 20th-century American playwright Thornton Wilder has a character called the Stage Manager in his moving play Our Town, who explains and comments throughout. Ancient Greek ‘Choruses’ do provide judgment and commentary; but without the intimacy and gentle humour that Eliot (and Jakeways) offer. Shaw cheats, since his readers alone, and not his audiences, can enjoy his stage directions; and perhaps a purist literary view might be that a good writer channels his commentary into the dialogue and the people and situations he portrays; providing explanatory notes is a sign of failure in that task: the story should breathe through its dramatis personae alone. But what we would miss, for instance, in Middlemarch!
Television, always the most cowardly of our mediums, wouldn’t dare put a talking head onto the screen to explain and interpret: everything has to be action and pictures; and (with the exception of Under Milk Wood 60 years ago) radio drama has been rather timid too. So it’s been brave of Woman’s Hour to follow, albeit more prosaically, in Dylan Thomas’s tradition.
The obvious success of North by Northamptonshire presents Katherine Jakeways with a challenge: could she do this on stage, or on television? I’d love to see her try.