Vicky Newham

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Endings in drama and fiction

(Warning: contains spoilers)

After watching the last episode of The Fall last night I was motivated to consider endings in drama and fiction and what we expect from them. This has come up a few times recently with high profile British television dramas, including Broadchurch.

For years it’s been the norm with long-running television series to end on a cliffhanger. I find it frustrating but it does make me tune in for the next series to find out how the story progresses (although by then I’ve often forgotten the plotline and/or lost interest). However, with crime dramas, my expectations are a little different. With long series like The Killing I, with twenty four episodes, there was a self-contained story which was resolved at the end. In the next series, we were given a new story line. And I think that this is how it should be. What I found annoying about last night’s concluding episode of the Fall was that I expected the same, and it didn’t deliver. Halfway through the series it was announced that a second series had been commissioned. What I am now intrigued by – given last night’s finale – was what would have happened if it hadn’t been? Would the programme have ended as it did? Or did the producers chop it off so as to be able to keep part of the story back for series two?

The Fall also prompted me to review my understanding of fiction and ‘story’. It was a television drama rather than a novel but should it still conform to the the rules of fiction? I would argue, yes. It wasn’t a real life drama. In real life things often aren’t resolved, they’re are lots of coincidences, and people often do things for strange reasons. Fiction is very different and norms vary depending on whether a novel is genre or literary fiction. In crime fiction the convention is that the criminal is caught and justice is seen to be done. People refer to the ‘moral nature’ of crime fiction, and, although I don’t see it as such, I do want to see people punished or treated (sorry, I believe in treatment!), depending on what has motivated their crime. I don’t necessarily want to have every detail sewn up and interpreted for me. Did I expect the killer to be caught at the end of the first series? Yes, I did. Were the producers perhaps worried about not having another story and lead character for the second series which would measure up to the one with Jamie Dornan as the very attractive serial killer? If this is the case, it means that the plot was governed by commercial rather than storytelling principles. I can quite see how, having started with such a dramatic opening storyline, and if they had resolved it at the send of series one, they might worry about this. But surely this just means that they need to invest in scriptwriting to ensure that series two could be equally strong… no? To chop it off in the way they did, to eke out the existing story, is bound to lead to claims by the audience that they feel cheated.

With The Fall, I think that something else contributed to the last episode being a failure: we knew who the killer was from the start, and the story was about why he was committing the crimes. The viewer was only given a little information about this in the final episode. We discovered that he’d been in care and had disrupted attachments. Personally, I wanted a bit more than this. It felt a little cliched, and I wanted some detail to show me how his developmental experiences had led him to sexual violence. After all, not everyone who has been in care becomes a serial killer.

With the last episode of Broadchurch I remember all sorts of articles, interviews and tweets about ‘having to watch right til the end’ and this led to speculation about a killer twist. Then it turned out that there wasn’t one at all. Had I not read those comments, and been led to expect something, I would have been happy with the ending of Broadchurch. For me the ‘why’ is almost more important than the ‘who’. But I felt that I’d been manipulated slightly into watching til the credits just so that the programme makers could tell me that Broadchurch would be returning. Whose benefit was that for then? Ahem.

Do readers and viewers want a last minute twist? Do they want everything explained? If a crime has been committed, do they want to see the perpetrator apprehended? I wonder if the medium affects how we might feel about this. Surely a publisher wouldn’t publish a crime novel where the perpetrator isn’t caught at the end? And if the publisher said to readers “Oh, just buy book two to find out”, those readers wouldn’t be happy. And that’s fair enough. I’m not bothered about last minute twists in novels. Sometimes they seem gimmicky and can ruin an otherwise brilliant resolution. But I just don’t want to feel cheated.

What do you think?

Vicky Newham © 2013


Is violence being glamorised in drama?

When I watched the first episode of The Fall on BBC2, I began wondering, not for the first time, about how violence is portrayed on television. I’ve felt conflicted about this programme because I admire many aspects of it whilst others have made me feel distinctly uncomfortable. As a writer of crime fiction, I don’t want to be hypocritical about the topic of violence but I do want to reflect on how it’s portrayed, including how I do this in my own novels.

One of my main problems with The Fall is why The Team had to over-emphasise the glamour of Gillian Anderson’s character, DS Stella Gibson. My beef isn’t with the actress, whom I’ve adored since The X-Files. She is attractive but I don’t understand why The Team had to accentuate this aspect. Her hair seems overly-coiffured, and her lips are glossed to perfection. Why? I know it’s TV but – come on. In the opening scenes we see Stella’s backside from behind, whilst she leans over a bath. She wears low slung pyjama-type bottoms and no bra, and has a face pack on her skin. I was wondering why the directors wanted to start with this shot. As a tone setter, what do these opening scenes suggest?

Most working women with busy jobs do their hair and make-up in the morning and maybe have a glance at it in the loo during the day, or after they’ve scoffed a sandwich. It looks like The Team has re-tonged Stella’s hair in between shots. One of the reasons why this bugged me was because women are so often portrayed in dramas as helpless victims, or as femmes fatales. If it’s the latter, this reinforces the notion that women cannot be successful under their own steam, and need to use their sexuality to get on. I did get the impression that The Team wanted Stella to come across as a femme fatale. Her sexual encounters are shown as leaving men in tatters whilst she is shown as being able to compartmentalise. Yes, it’s a reversal of a certain stereotype but doesn’t it also perpetuate another one? Her senior officer, with whom she has had a backstory fling, tells her in the toilet, where they’re having a meeting, that he would have left his wife and kids for her. It’s as if they are trying to create a parallel between Stella and Paul: they’re both hunters, albeit with different prey (most of the time).

My second problem with this programme is the way that it glamourises violence and appears to sexualise murder. When the man is doing his ritualistic ‘things’ to his corpses, we see him half-naked, and the corpse naked (albeit semi-covered). I think that the actor (Jamie Dornan) plays his role as chilling serial killer Paul Spector very well. However, although I think he’s an excellent actor, I have just read that he is an ex-underwear model so The Team was clearly keen to have the character played by someone attractive and who would bring glamour and sexuality to the role. In episode one, scenes with half-naked Paul with his corpse often cut backwards and forwards between shots of Stella having sex. I am not prudish. I don’t watch TV to see people having sex, but as long as it’s not too graphic I don’t mind. But these shots bothered me: it was as if they were suggesting a link between murder and sex. Worse, as if they were suggesting that Paul was considering necrophilia. This theme comes up again in a later episode. As a crime writer, and psychologist, I am aware that a lot of crimes are sexual in either nature or motivation (and sometimes both). At the time of writing this, we still haven’t been shown what the motivation is for the murders and I’m interested to see how his behaviour is explained, particularly since a second series has been commissioned. Gillian Anderson is listed as executive producer for the next series.

I am aware that dramas are very expensive to produce and that programmes tend to try and compete with ones which are popular by emulating style, themes, atmosphere, amount and type of violence, and cinematography. What I liked about Scandinavian The Bridge, however, was that Saga Noren wasn’t made to be overly glamorous in terms of hair, make-up and clothes and the same was true for Sara Lund in The Killing. I see that The Fall has been directed by Flemish Jakob Vergruggen. I am all in favour of cross-pollination of talent and experience and perhaps British crime dramas can learn from continental Europe. By all accounts he’s a name to watch.

Another programme which I’ve liked for years is Silent Witness, on BBC1. I watched it when it first started with Amanda Burton and have continued to watch it with Emilia Fox. Episodes are written by different writers and some are considerable more violent than others. The very violent ones have resulted in me switching off. A regret about Silent Witness is similar to what I’ve said about The Fall: why did The Team have to make Dr Nikki Alexander so glamorous? The scenes with her teetering along in four inch heels (actually she walks in them very well indeed), with wedding hair and wearing designer clothes to crime scenes, strike me as ridiculous. Why can’t they have her wearing plain jeans and flat boots? It makes her look like some kind of Barbie doll. As with Gillian Anderson, I really like Emilia Fox, so my issue isn’t with the actresses at all. It’s with the production teams and, presumably, directors.

So, my questions are: do you think that drama is glamourising violence? Does it matter? What about if murder is sexualised? And what effects might these things have … on people and society? I would love to know what you think.

Vicky Newham © 2013