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Critical Studies in Television: scholarly studies of small screen fictions

Editorial board: Kim Akass, Stephen Lacey, David Lavery, Janet McCabe, Robin Nelson and Rhonda V. Wilcox.

Sexing Up the Past: Thoughts on the Function of Music in Russell T. Davies' Casanova

Steve Brie, Liverpool Hope University.

 

Even a casual viewer of television drama during the past five years or so will have noticed the way in which popular music is increasingly being appropriated by writers and producers in an attempt to 'sex up' their narratives; think Blackpool (BBC, 2004) and Casanova (BBC, 2005), for example. This vogue for intensively foregrounding specifically popular music can be seen to be something of a current phenomenon within the world of television drama. Although the utilisation of popular music to supplement dramatic action in various ways has played a role in the past (think of Cathy Come Home [BBC, 1966] for example), writers and producers have traditionally tended to be rather more conservative in their utilisation, tending aurally to illustrate their narratives with unobtrusive classical music or musak. Dennis Potter's musical trilogy Pennies from Heaven (BBC, 1978), The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986) and Lipstick on Your Collar (Channel 4, 1994), which dramatically fore-grounded the popular music of the thirties, forties and fifties respectively, can be seen as an exception to the standard form of musical appropriation which tended to use music as more of a subliminal or non-invasive evoker of local, historical and social atmosphere. Think for example of the way in which music successfully established period-ness within fictional narratives such as Upstairs Downstairs (ITV, 1971-5) where popular tunes and music hall songs helped to create an atmospheric Edwardian London; in No Bananas (BBC, 1996) which employed evocative songs from the Second World War; in Our Friends In The North (BBC, 1997) which utilised popular music from several decades in a narrative which spanned the period 1964 to 1995; in The Buddha of Suburbia (BBC, 1993), Big Women (Channel 4, 1998) and The Rotter's Club (BBC, 2005) which appropriated seventies progressive and glam rock, and, of course, in dramas such as Rock Follies (ITV, 1976-7), Tutti Frutti (BBC, 1987) and and the beat goes on (Channel 4, 1996), whose fictional worlds are specifically centred on the popular music industry.

 

While the producers of the aforementioned television dramas have arguably employed music appropriately and judiciously within their narratives, a number of television dramas have exhibited what might be termed signs of musical excess. The narratives of Heartbeat (Yorkshire, 1992- ) and The Hello Girls (BBC, 1996 and 1998) for example are saturated in period music; for the most part, however, the songs have little connection with the storyline, and are employed simply as period signifiers or as fillers for non-verbal sections of the narrative.

 

In terms of the utilisation of music, one of the most interesting recent television dramas is the Russell T. Davies scripted Casanova (BBC, 2005), which, ironically for a narrative set during the Age of Reason, playfully takes a post-modern approach to musical scoring.

 

Davies's three-episode serial was not the first version of the eighteenth-century philanderer's adventures to be dramatised by the BBC: in 1971, Dennis Potter scripted a marathon six-hour version stretching over six episodes. In spite of Potter's claim that 'most memoirs are self-serving and adorned with lies' (quoted in Fuller 1993: 69-70), his interpretation of Casanova's twelve-volume memoir was promoted by the BBC as an historically accurate costume drama targeted at the middle-class, middle-aged viewers who made up the audience for their flagship 'auger sagas.'

 

In contrast, Davies's Casanova was vigorously promoted by the BBC as a serial aimed at a younger audience perhaps more familiar with MTV than with classic literature. One of the ways in which this audience was courted was via the use of music both within the dramatic narrative and as an aural accompaniment to the promotional teasers which the BBC ran both in the weeks leading up to the transmission of the first episode, and in the intervening weeks between episodes. These promotional teasers featured a selection of rapidly-cut sequences of the most provocative and exciting moments from the three-hour serial. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these montage sequences was the way in which they were cut to the Sid Vicious punk version of My Way, a song which is normally associated with Frank Sinatra and 'easy-listening', and with the conformity and conservatism that that musical genre stands for. The choice of the punk parody clearly signals a promise to 'play' with the soundtrack conventions normally associated with costume drama, conventions which would normally stipulate the utilisation of historically accurate period music, or of specially composed pseudo-period music. Deviating from these musical expectations impinges upon that staple of the period drama - verisimilitude, and calls into question the relationship between the text and established realist conventions. The teasers thus suggested that, formalistically at least, the serial would have a radical edge to it, which would distinguish it from other historical costume dramas. They also suggested that we should perhaps not measure the text against conventionally realist dramatic templates. The aural semiotics of the irreverent Vicious version of My Way also signalled potential attitudes and themes which would prove to be central to the narrative of the drama, in particular the flaunting of social convention and the challenge to traditional authority; thus the musically radical teasers seem to have been specifically designed to place the issues explored within the eighteenth-century story within the experiential parameters of a youthful twenty-first-century target audience.

 

The music employed within the narrative of Casanova, composed specifically for the serial by Murray Gold, complements the formalistically post-modern stylisation created by director, Sheree Folkson. The aesthetic look of this period drama owes much to the influence of camerawork and editing techniques employed in popular music video, and in teen-orientated films such as Baz Luhrmann's Romeo+Juliet (1996). Folkson consistently employs whip-pan and crash-zoom effects, 360-degree camera rotations and direct address to camera. These self-referential, meta-televisual devices signal to the viewer that, as suggested by the teasers, he/she should not measure the text against traditional realist conventions which would normally negate any form of device-bearing.

 

Rather than utilise existing eighteenth-century music or commission pastiche pseudo-period music as was the case with Potter's Casanova, Davies's serial employs a score which takes the musical conventions of the eighteenth-century as a starting point but, as one might expect given the post-modern aesthetic which underpins the production, playfully 'sexes them up' by introducing twentieth and twenty-first-century generic musical signatures, the resulting score being a veritable tissue of musical eclecticism with references to such diverse forms as Spanish folk music, free-jazz, Celtic jigs, ragtime and African music.

 

As one might expect when dealing with a text set in eighteenth-century Venice, Gold bases much of his basic musical template on the compositional structures associated with Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Vivaldi would almost certainly have approved of Gold's 'sampling' and of his generic elaborations. He was, himself, a great musical innovator, consistently extending the boundaries of instrumental technique, his work being characterised by dramatic contrasts of dynamics and harmony. In particular, his first movements are notable for the intense rhythmic drive of their opening themes while his finales exhibit an often frantic, temporal energy. Gold takes the basic Vivaldian concerto and symphonic structures and blends them with motifs and time signatures appropriated from rock music, from modern dance music and from what has come to be known as classical-popular 'crossover' music. The resulting score is not dissimilar to the high-octane classical-pop fusion currently being produced by Bond and by violinist Vanessa Mae, particularly in her work The Original Four Seasons (2001). Thus Gold's bricolage of musical signatures functions not only conventionally as an historical signifier, but also playfully as a link between past and present, as a means of situating the eighteenth-century narrative within parameters of twenty-first-century sensibility.

 

Due to the necessity of cutting between shots in synchronisation with the often frantic, tempo of Gold's score, the Average Shot Length (ASL) during the musical sequences in Casanova is approximately two seconds. This results in these sequences exhibiting temporally challenging visual and aural characteristics normally associated with pop videos, a formal aesthetic which may render them alien to those (older?) viewers who might expect the lush sequences of slow dissolves, aesthetically pleasing, lingering camerawork and the classical orchestration conventionally associated with BBC-produced period costume dramas.

 

The musical content of Casanova reflects and complements the post-modern playfulness of a text, which knowingly embraces intertextuality and self-referentiality within its narrative. Drawing upon conventions associated with the theatre of the absurd, Davies's characters consistently acknowledge themselves as dramatic constructs, either by directly addressing the audience, or by verbally foregrounding the role of acting a part within the world of the narrative, thus, in Episode One, Henriette (Laura Fraser) suggests that other characters are 'all pretending', and the old Casanova (Peter O'Toole) explains to Edith (Rose Byrne) that he 'has an act to maintain.' In addition to bearing the dramatic device, Casanova is liberally infused with references to twentieth and twenty-first-century popular culture, both in terms of its discourse and its mise-en-scène. In terms of discourse for example, in episode two David Tennant as the mature Casanova makes references to the national lottery slogans 'gotta be in it to win it,' 'it could be you,' and 'release the balls.' Also in episode two, in a knowing reference to the Euro, he argues that there 'should be the same coin across Europe', while in episode three, having arrived in England, Casanova points out that 'somebody over there [is] inventing the sandwich.' In addition to the anachronistic discourse, many of the hairstyles and costumes are overtly representative of the 1970s and 1980s. In the Venetian sequences for example, there are sartorial references to the British New Romantic movement of the 1980s, and (fulfilling the promise of the punk teasers) in episode three, when Casanova visits Bellino (Nina Sosanya) in Naples, the house is filled with punks sporting Mohican hairstyles and bondage gear.

 

The text also openly embraces post-modern ideas in the musical sequences. In episode one for example, there is a scene which overtly parodies the opening sequence from the BBC antiques programme, Bargain Hunt. Against a black background, and illuminated by a spotlight, Tennant as Casanova re-enacts presenter David Dickinson's magic dressing sequence in which his clothes fly from somewhere out of frame onto his body. While the Dickinson version culminates in the acquisition of his ostentatious two-tone dress shoes, the Casanova version ends with Tennant resplendent in dandified leather thigh-length boots. In this parody sequence, director, Sheree Folkson makes use of rapid cutting and crash-zoom camerawork. Aurally the sequence is complemented by Gold's musical bricolage, which references both eighteenth-century classical composition and contemporary musical forms, the violin-led orchestration being driven throughout by drum and base motifs.

 

Musically speaking, one of the most interesting sequences comes towards the end of episode one during the Summer Ball when Casanova and Bellino effectively become Age of Reason 'punks' by customising their costumes, ripping pieces of material from each other's outfits. Their entrance into the ballroom owes more than a passing nod to the mise-en-scène and choreography featured in the 1981 Adam and the Ants video Prince Charming. Musically the sequence is one of the most playful in the serial. The sequence begins with a discordant mix of piano and percussion which is reminiscent of some of the experimental pieces produced by the free-jazz movement in the late 1950s and 1960s. The dancers clearly struggle to move in time to this 'alien' rhythm. As Casanova and Bellino and Henriette and Grimani (Rupert Penry-Jones) begin to dance, however, Gold introduces a pseudo eighteenth-century waltz score. This conventionality is soon undermined by the introduction of a rock backbeat, which gives way to brush and snare-drum percussion as Bellino contrives to swap partners in order to allow Casanova to dance with his true love, Henriette. As Casanova and Henriette dance to what sounds like a recreation of a twentieth-century ballroom dancing orchestration, we are offered frame-breaking slow-motion shots of the couple. Clearly this sequence is far removed from the conventions normally associated with dance sequences found in such BBC-produced costume dramas as Pride and Prejudice and Vanity Fair, where both musical score and mise-en-scène are specifically designed to create the illusion of period fidelity.

 

As this sequence illustrates, Davies's Casanova dares to be different. The musical content complements a dramatic narrative that is both playful and irreverent in its embracing of post-modern sensibilities. The rationale behind such a break from costume drama convention has direct links with the desire to reach an audience not normally associated with the genre. It is this desire that may perhaps account for Davies's motivation in attempting to construct what might be termed aural dissonance via the incorporation of anachronistic and anarchistic musical signifiers. The pre-transmission teasers which provocatively juxtaposed an iconic punk signifier with the literary canon, were thus the first salvos fired in a campaign specifically meant to hail and rally a previously apathetic youth audience to switch on to that most un-cool of television genres, the historical costume drama.

 

Works cited:
Fuller, Graham ed. Potter on Potter. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.

 

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