Today’s post considers the specific nature of performance in multi-camera studio television drama of the 1970s, through textual analysis and production context of Hunters Walk (ITV/ATV 1973-76), a now-forgotten ITV police series that was popular in its day.
Hunters Walk had a conventional production cycle for a programme of this time, closer to repertory theatre than filmmaking, with each 50-minute episode allocated a fortnight for rehearsal culminating in a day’s videotape recording at ATV’s Elstree Studios. With limited opportunity to edit videotape in postproduction, scenes were usually played in their entirety, and not (as today) in mini-segments repeatedly filmed from different angles. The multi-camera recording of entire scenes meant that actors could more easily remain ‘in the moment’ paying less attention to maintaining the continuity of actions performed for repeated takes. These specific circumstances helped Hunters Walk achieve its distinct dramatic effect through visual means of glance, gesture and inference.
Set in the fictionalised East Midlands small town of ‘Broadstone’ (with location filming shot in and around Rushden, Northamptonshire) Hunter’s Walk often plays against its provincial setting’s connotations and expectations of community spirit and cosiness, showing realities of modern policing in an often abrasive and downbeat register. Community spirit is frequently shown as lacking, with potential witnesses reluctant to come forward and police suspicious of the public. Storylines are often more about the perception of crime and lawlessness, with police unable to intervene. With police work presented as being as much of a matter of keeping the peace and managing the public as preventing and solving crimes, character portrayal in Hunters Walk often concentrates on cultivating viewers’ understanding of motivation, rather than creating sympathetic or appealing characterisation. This effect is often revealed through close-up scrutiny of facial expression.
For example, the episode ‘Say Nothing’ (6 July 1976) is structured around a nexus of small incidents in which bystanders elect to “say nothing” while a pair of delinquents wreak havoc. At each specific moment when nothing is said the decision not to act is conveyed by a look. The boys first action is to try and get served in the Railway public house:
The scene’s essential meaning is conveyed through publican Bert Brown’s silent responses to the boys’ provocations, delivered by actor Derek Benfield’s tiny facial movements. Six shots are devoted to close-ups of Benfield’s face, giving specific insights into six distinct stages of how a publican might react in an altercation with underage drinkers.
“I would if I could (…) They’re cracking down”
The first demonstrates how the publican would usually manage such situations, keeping an open, pleasant, expression with a small smile as he gives a reasonable reply.
“Come on now lads”
When the boys remain at the bar and Brown has to return to talk to them again, his expression changes into a more weary and exasperated version of the same friendly setting of his features seen in the earlier shot. Over the following four close-ups the landlord has no dialogue, encouraging viewer understanding of the process by which a man in such a situation could be coerced into serving the boys, without verbal articulation of his thought processes.
“Are you saying that you don’t believe us?”
When challenged by Jimmy (Michael Deeks), Brown has a small sideways eye movement of looking at the lads, signifying his assessment of the situation.
“He just has to be careful”
When Dennis (Nigel Greaves) follows up with an implicit threat, Brown holds a steadier version of the same look, conveying his recognition of the implication.
“That’s the last thing you want. Trouble”
Once the threat is made explicit a small downward eye movement breaks this steady gaze, in acknowledgement that the situation has escalated to a point where he will soon have to take action.
“Two pints then, alright?”
The final close-up starts with a momentary silence as Brown looks up again and opens his mouth for a second before telling the boys, “Two pints then, alright?” The precise moment of decision is illuminated, its significance prepared for by the rhythm and development of the previous five close-ups.
This sense of (sometimes disquieting) meaning being delicately and implicitly conveyed through glances and looks, was an effect that a multi-camera studio television drama was especially well placed to achieve. A momentary expression caught during a sequence of shots mixed live creates a different impression to the same look when captured on film, when it will have been edited into a sequence, making its selection appear more deliberate and less spontaneous. When watching Hunters Walk it is hard to discern to what extent small facial expressions were planned or intentional, giving performances an instinctive feeling.
To understand the extent to which these small nuances of performance were planned in advance it is instructive to read camera scripts. These differ from rehearsal scripts by adding detailed information of how many cameras were used for each scene, which camera recorded which shot, and specifying each shot’s range and movement. The camera script for the episode ‘Care and Protection’ (23 July 1973) demonstrates to what extent a screenwriter (Richard Harris) could dictate performers’ small fleeting expressions and how a director could capture and pick up such expressions through shot selection. Following descriptions of Detective Sergeant Smith through the episode reveals that much of the character’s mental and emotional journey in the story was suggested to the viewer by the screenwriter through descriptions of Smith’s thought processes, directions left for the actor (Ewan Hooper) to interpret through physical expression.
Progress of Smith’s investigation is conveyed by such directions as, “The little ray of hope disappearing” (71), “Smith reacts… Very interesting” (91) and “Something in Ken’s face makes Smith uneasy” (93). Director Ron Francis elects to show all of these moments in either close-up or medium close-up. In a depressing story about a widow who kills her terminally ill daughter and then attempts suicide, Smith’s most significant moment of character revelation is given through description: “Nothing in his face. It’s the nearest we will have seen to a cry of pain from Smith… Smith holds his smile at him” (101). Smith’s “flat smile” becomes a recurrent motif throughout Harris’ script, requested several times (70, 71, 102, 118) and shown in close-up on each occasion, a trait never explicitly referred in dialogue, but embedded into the production to encourage viewer consideration of the emotional cost of Smith’s position as detective.
Such attention to detail primes the viewer of Hunters Walk to watch out attentively for nuances of characters’ physical movements and facial expressions. This is seen particularly in Frances White’s largely silent performance as rape victim Christine, conveyed through gesture and expression in the story ‘Local Knowledge’ (11 June 1973, again written by Richard Harris). This brief scene shows Christine in the police station interior as she waits to be interviewed by Sergeant Smith:
In plot terms there is no apparent need for this scene to exist, yet it isn’t padding, achieving dramatic significance through allowing the viewer greater understanding of Christine’s character and situation by showing a sequence of looks from the various policemen and her responses to them. Each time that a policeman looks at Christine her response acknowledges their attention, before realizing that she is being looking at in a different way than would occur in ordinary social interaction, and a change in Christine’s expression registers her discomfort at this realization. Because the sequence is recorded in continuous time, creating a lifelike sense of hesitancy and awkwardness in the characters’ movements, its mood of displacement and unease is accentuated by being allowed to build, with dialogue of little importance.
Many minute variations on this theme (of looking and being looked at) occur during this simple pattern, conveyed particularly through small gestures with eyes and mouth, subtly and almost imperceptibly in the (close-up) case of Frances White, and more broadly in Davyd Harries’ desk sergeant Ridgeway (shown in mid shot). Christine Lewis travels on a journey of altered self-perception during this scene, and it is worth identifying each stage that marks it.
Her initial emotional state when she sits down is as close to a neutral position as can be expected from a woman in her situation, indicated by her smile and straight look ahead.
The posture and scrutinising expression of Ridgeway (who then has to pass time in Christine’s presence before Smith arrives), looking up from his desk in a searching fashion to acknowledge her presence, implies judgement.
Christine’s instinctive reaction to Ridgeway’s look is that of a person who senses they are being judged, raising her head and looking back towards the watcher, before then looking momentarily down again as if this response has required some emotional effort on her part.
In turn, Ridgeway’s reaction acknowledges the instinctual judgement in his previous look, offering a rather over-compensatory smile when offering her a cup of tea. Christine’s reaction, while belying awkwardness, is to offer a conciliatory gesture in looking back up and offering a small smile. The abruptness with which Ridgeway then looks down and returns to his paperwork is the action of a man who has dealt with a difficult task and wants to get away from it. The unnatural movement of the second policeman when walking across the desk, turning his head around to look at Christine while continuing to walk forwards, compounds the insulting effect of this action.
Christine’s affronted response is to widen her eyes and look straight ahead, as if to ask, “What’s that?”
When Constable Pooley (Duncan Preston) turns away from Christine before giving her the chance to reply, she remains looking at him –
– and then looks ahead conscious of being disregarded.
The wry look Ridgeway gives in return appears again to be determined by a social requirement to make contact, rather than any wish to do so.
Christine’s quick movements in this short sequence’s final shot – looking down, then up, then down again, convey an understandable fluster and confusion about the situation, with closure of her eyes demonstrating a retreat into herself, and a significant moment of self-realisation that her new status as rape victim means that she is now being looked at differently than before.
Frances White’s performance in this scene is an exemplary illustration of how the conditions of television drama production could enable actors to create good work in the 1970s. Writers such as Richard Harris gave useful instructions as to how subtexts might be reflected in characters’ gestures, postures and expressions. The rehearsal period then gave actors the opportunity to work out performances in advance, how to make them gel together, and fit them into camera rhythms. Studio recording of scenes in their entirety encouraged continuity of performance and a sense of the specific situation and the given moment. These conditions often resulted in performances of complexity and emotional depth, which continue to resonate and surprise, and reward close viewing.
Harris, Richard (1973), Hunters Walk: Care and Protection (camera script), in Hunters Walk DVD, Network, 2011
(Text of a paper given at ‘Acting on Television’ conference at University of Reading on 8 April 2016.)