Canon and authenticity

This is based on a collection of thoughts that came from the Academic Archers Conference (more details here), and specifically from the keynote given by Hannah Ratcliffe and Jenny Thompson on the archiving methods and process the production team of TA use.

Hannah and Jenny suggested that, if something hasn’t been heard, discussed, or referred to during an episode, then it actually hasn’t happened, from a production stance. This is a really interesting point and I wonder how many regular listeners realise this. A key example would be the ‘how many bedrooms in Brookfield’ argument which led to- dare I say it- rage- from some listeners, certainly on Facebook, with posters swearing the production team had made a mistake and lamenting the end of the rigour with which they perceived the programme had once been made.

The production team’s argument about the matter seemed to be ‘but we’ve never said how many it had’. That seemed a strange argument. People could remember the various permutations of occupants over the years, and also the people who could have lived there but didn’t (due to presumed lack of space) and drew their own inferences accordingly. But the truth is that, until such time as someone says ‘for a five-bedroomed house, this dining room is pretty small’ or ‘well we’ve only got enough rooms for the six of us if Ben and Josh share or Pip camps in the kitchen’ (which means four bedrooms) or even ‘of course you can come and stay, Heatherpet, we’ve had the study converted for Josh and so you can have THE spare’ (which fixes a quantity dependent on who else is residing there at the time), there is no set number of rooms. There could be three, or eight.

This level of knowledge is actually reinforced when consideration is given to the same ‘quantity of bedrooms’ issue at Blossom Hill Cottage, when a third room appeared from nowhere for Ursula to stay in. On that occasion, it was admitted that a mistake had been made. By extension, this means that there had been a positive mention of the cottage as having two bedrooms. The admitting of the error here actually makes it less likely, rather than more, that the Brookfield bedroom issue wasn’t a mistake. This suggests that what people hear, and what they think they do, are not the same thing.(How many people think the line is ‘Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well’, for example?)

In effect, the production team of The Archers are creating one long text with deliberate authenticity. Facts- someone’s birthday, the name of a pet, the position of a property relative to a geographical feature- should be consistent.

The first interesting question this brings up is about characterisation. People are not consistent. This week, Peggy told Lillian to stop being a ‘flibbertigibbet’ in her carrying-on with Justin. Justin is married, and marriage is sacred. Many listeners have pointed out all over Facebook and Twitter that she had no such qualms about Helen and Rob- who was separated from (but still married to) Jess at the point when Peggy was told he and Helen were together. This is certainly true. However, the circumstances are not identical. Perhaps Peggy is being ageist- suggesting Lillian’s behaviour is not acceptable in an older woman. Perhaps she is drawing a distinction between being separated and being ostensibly ‘still together’. Perhaps it is the potential for Lillian breaking up the marriage to which she objects. Perhaps her objection is actually to the fact that people were talking about Lillian and Justin, and it is the indiscretion which offends her. She made it clear that she doesn’t like Justin (or Miranda), which may make a difference. Or maybe she judged that Helen’s ‘need’ for a partner outweighed her misgivings about the circumstances, while she doesn’t perceive Lillian has that ‘need’. Maybe she’s a cantankerous old bat. One of the things we never know in drama, until told otherwise, is whether a character means what they have said. This is especially true of radio where we don’t have visual clues to assist with interpretation. So it is a matter of record that Peggy has told Lillian that marriage is sacred. I would argue that it cannot be recorded in the same way that Peggy thinks or feels that marriage is sacred, because we do not know if she was expressing her true opinion.

The second interesting point is the wider question of textual authenticity and canon. If we were to view Ambridge in the same way as other fictional worlds, for example the Whoniverse of Doctor Who, we would need to look at a whole lot of related materials and ask how they fit into the canon. Official Doctor Who books, radio dramas and short episodes add information to the Doctor Who world and efforts are made to keep consistency between these and the main tv show. Earlier this week, the BBC Archers page asked which of Ambridge’s male characters was most attractive- and posted the answers. The promotion of this bit of fun on the BBC Archers web page was pretty neutral. But on Facebook, the BBC The Archers page presented this as ‘it isn’t Brian (but it almost was)’. If wanted, a reader can look upon this as a statement being made by the programme’s producers as to the relative attractiveness of certain characters, and could then go on to argue that this is information which, due to its official source, should be considered ‘canon’ for that world. I am not saying someone should do this. But if we were discussing Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I could tell you with confidence that there would be academics incorporating such information into theses on gender representation within the Buffyverse.

How all of this relates to Shakespeare is pretty evident to anyone who knows anything about how the versions of the text that we have today have come to us. I have written in several posts about the construction of the plays initially and how they have come to be printed. There is no one text of any of the plays, and not even an authentic version. It was recently announced that the New Oxford Shakespeare will be crediting all three parts of Henry VI to both Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. No-one knows who Shakespeare really was or if he even wrote the plays, so the hope of finding an authentic text can only ever be that- a hope. Even if we found an original full-text fair or prompt copy, there is nothing to say that the play didn’t alter in performance and that this may have come to be the preferred version. Again, this is partly why the plays can be interpreted in so many ways, and contrasting opinions on the same piece can seem equally valid. 

What interests me more than anything, though, is the fact that whether we have an authentic text or not, we can still debate for hours what a character meant, why they said what they said and what they wanted to achieve through it. This means we can discuss Peggy and Lillian as much as Iago or Hamlet. If we want to.

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