"Realism can never be a reflection of reality because reality itself is open to contestation." Discuss with reference to material from at least two seminar sessions.

As with most media terms and genres, realism comes under scrutiny when it comes to actually defining its form and its characteristics. This essay will examine the term and offer examples to illustrate how various writers and film directors have interpreted it. This will be achieved with the help of material from seminar sessions given on the MacCabe/McArthur debate, the cross-over of fiction and faction and the progressive realist work of Alan Bleasdale and Alan Clarke.

Different people interpret the term realism as having different characteristics. It stems from the literature of the nineteenth century when, with the development of industrialisation, the working class began to improve writing and reading skills, wanting to learn about their people: ordinary lives. The division between the classes at this time offers a reason for the content of most realist texts, which focus on the story of the underdog. According to Karl Marx, problems within society came down to the subordination of the working class, and their struggle for survival. Productions such as Cathy Come Home, Made in Britain and Boys from the Blackstuff have attempted to show that there are other points of view, it is just that they have been suppressed due to the position of the dominant ruling class, taking precedence over the working class. Generally speaking, they are depicted by middle class directors, which is positive in the respect that people and their problems are exposed, but they are sometimes shown in a rather negative way: by involving the characters in something deemed as immoral. Saturday night and Sunday Morning is a good example of this, with the main character, Arthur being at the centre of issues of violence, adultery and abortion.

Ian Watt claims that realism can be defined as:

"...particular events happening to individualised people in specified places and time space." (Watt 1957 cited in Fiske 1987:22)

This implies that in realist texts we are shown the problems of society in narratives that focus on personal events, actions and consequences. This is certainly true in Clarke's film Made in Britain, where we see the main character of Trevor as a rounded individual with his own unique motivations, not just the stereotypical image of a skinhead youth. In this way, we can learn about the character, and although he is an individual in his own right, he also stands for many other misunderstood but stereotyped people.

Yet this does not appear to go far enough. Raymond Williams gives other characteristics by which a text can be deemed as realism:

"...[Realism has] a contemporary setting...[and] concerns itself with...human action described in exclusively human terms...[and] deals with the lives of ordinary people." (Williams 1977 cited in Fiske 1987:22)
The last feature refers back to the Marxist idea of the subordination of the working class. Williams also says that these realist pieces are usually developed from a politically left viewpoint. Thus emphasising realist filmmakers as political activists, making films to challenge problems in society. This is certainly true of Ken Loach's docu-drama Cathy Come Home: set in the time it was made, 1966; with the exclusively human problem of homelessness and conflict with bureacracy, faced by Cathy and Reg, but could have been any ordinary couple. It was a fundamentally political piece, exposing policies and legislation.

Realism can also be said to rely upon, not just ordinary people, but also on authentic language they would use, clothing, real locations and so on:

"Realist film creates a world which is as recognisable as possible; and audiences understand it by drawing analogies between the world of the film and their own world." (Turner 1993:156)
This can be seen in Bleasdale's television drama Boys from the Blackstuff (1982). The viewer first sees the characters in the dole office, a recognisable place and situation for many of the audience. Even though there is an obviously serious underlying message, this drama also involves a degree of comedy, emphasising the Liverpudlian sense of humour, laughing in the face of tragedy. One character makes reference to the Toxteth Riots, a real event, and even real football stars appear in the programme. Realistic behaviour is portrayed by the character Yosser in a scene where he has an argument with his boss, whilst his mouth is full of chips. As in the hostels in Cathy Come Home, real people, as opposed to professional actors are seen standing outside the Department of Employment which not only creates authenticity, but also highlights the plight of the Boys:
"...the scene unfolding inside is also part of the wider social truth." (Millington cited in Brandt  1993:127)
These discussions surrounding realism concern themselves with the content of the text, though there are also those who claim realism can be shown in the text's form or composition.  Colin MacCabe (1981) describes a "hierarchy of discourse" within realist texts.[and see file] That is to say, a narrative which claims to be realistic will include a number of opposing views/discourses, which will not be deliberately hidden, but will be portrayed as subservient to the overarching "metadiscourse". This dominant discourse is regarded as the truth, meaning that the viewer has a 
"...position of all knowingness from which we can understand and evaluate the various discourses of the narrative." (Fiske 1987:25)
Because this truth has precedence over the other points of view, the viewer has a "more privilege position" than the characters in the text; known as "dominant specualarity". This is an ideological position and therefore:
"...we are not just making easy sense of the text, we are reproducing the dominant ideology in our reading practice and are thus maintaining and validating it." (Fiske 1987:26)
If this is true, ideology is not only validated, but is also promoted as unchangeable if it is not challenged. Boys from the Blackstuff maintain the dominant ideology, by showing the dominant group in patriarchal society, men, as the focus for the programmes, implying that unemployment, and in the same way, employment, is a male issue. If this is the case, and ideology is not questioned, even realist drama conforms to the actions of the dominant class, and can never be regarded as radical:
"Even realist modes which represent themselves as critical of dominant values- the TV docu-dramas like Days of Hope and Boys from the Blackstuff- have been attacked as simply using history to naturalise social divisions; that is the way it is, they are supposed to say, and there is little we can do about it." (Turner 1993:157)
The dominant specularity is created through a number of techniques, including the camera's 180 degree rule, which keeps the viewer from becoming disorientated by ensuring the same background is shown in shots, and that the characters can be seen in relation to each other and their surroundings. In shot and reverse shots, characters eyelines are matched to stabilise space, if one person is standing and another sitting. The use of continuity editing would imply that editing only occurs when the action requires it, giving a seamless appearance. However, television uses editing heavily in order to tell a story in a particular way. The pace of the camera represents the eye-movement of a spectator to the action.

It could be said that the dominant specularity is questioned, however. Even though we sympathise with the characters in Boys from the Blackstuff through the use of the screen-grilles at the dole office which make them look as if they are mere animals in cages, the viewer does sometimes have to ask themselves if, knowing the state of mind and violent tendencies of Trevor and Yosser, they would want them wandering around their neighbourhood.
The dominant discourse resolves any contradictions that might appear in reality. Colin McArthur, in response to MacCabe's thesis, states that in the production Days of Hope, the dialogue contradicts the visual. However, MacCabe says the Classic Realist Text in this scene overcomes this apparent problem:

"[Classic realist text]...privileges the image against  the word to reveal that what the mine owner says is false. In this manner our position of knowledge is guaranteed." (MacCabe 1981 cited in Fiske 1987:26)
This contradiction between what we see and what we hear is evident in the first scenes of Made in Britain. Trevor appears in Court, a place of authority and relative calm yet there is loud punk music blasting from the screen. These juxtapositions are used to deliberately make the audience view the piece actively, not just stare passively at the screen, but to ask questions about what they are seeing, and thereby ask questions about the subject matter of the text. This question-provoking feature is deliberate, highlighted by the fact that most realist productions do not offer a nicely tied-up conclusion at the end, as one might expect, this is beers the viewer is encouraged to think about the issues raised and to create in themselves the desire for societal change:
"I just try to reflect on how life is...I never give answers: I just ask a few questions along the way." (Bleasdale in Millington & Nelson cited in seminar handout 23/02/98)
Dramas, and even docu-dramas can been seen as realism by using any/all of the techniques mentioned, but the form of broadcasting which is thought to be the most real, is the documentary. These programmes are usually used to look at the facts of an individual case, as oppossed to a social problem, sometimes using actual footage from an event or reconstructions, calling upon experts to give their opinions on what really happened. An example of this technique is Death on the Rock: an analysis of the shooting of three members of the IRA by the SAS in Gibralter. The programme offered no answers, but told the story of the underdogs, those killed, not taking the side of the Government, the dominant group. Eye witness accounts were used to base a reconstruction upon, but then in the inquiry that followed, one of the eyewitnesses, withdrew their statement, which brings the validity of the whole piece in to question, but this is the style of a traditional documentary. It is hard to know the best way of how to carry out a documentary, as they happen after the event has occured, it has to be staged to a certain extent, thus losing authenticity. It can also be difficult to get people around you, who are uninvolved in the documentary, to act naturally with camaras, television crews and actors in their community. There is a third-person voice-over in most documentaries of this style, which acts almost as a voice of God, and therefore the voice of truth. Texts such as this are seen as excercises in journalism as opposed to a piece of dramatic television.

Documentaries can look very different though. Death of a Princess, for example looks more like a drama than documentary. The reporter is shown at a dinner party to begin with, and it is as much a story about how he gathers the evidence as it is an investigation of the death of a Saudi Arabian Princess. This is achieved through the use of actors, fictional names and places to protect identities. This is an informal approach compared to Death on the Rock: we see the reporter at the house of the Princess's friend, who is in a dressing gown, drinking scotch, sitting on the floor listening to music and looking through photograph albums. At this point there is a flashback sequence, mixing realism with surrealism, which is very different to the formal style of the IRA piece, with head and shoulder shots, and on-screen titles for experts. Death of a Princess uses factual anchors along the bottom of the screen which, in addition to some voice over narration, is the only clue to the its documentary genre. Ironically, some dramas today, most notably The X-Files, use the factual anchor technique to add realism to the programme and the events within it. Death of a Princess also adopts the technique of progressive realist television drama by criticising the Saudi Arabian societal code of punishment, rather than focusing on the individual adulterous act. Caughie (1981), describes this as a characteristic of the documentary:

"[Documentaries]...shift the emphasis on to the environment of the protagonists onto the social factors, and away from the individual." (Fiske 1987:30)
Documentary differs from the television drama as it does not attempt to present viewers with ideology through the structure of its narrative, though this may be open to debate, as it appears to use a certain technique to inform: 
"It is a rhetorical form which both offers the audience information, and attempts to put forward an argument,  to persuade the audience to think a certain way, to do something, to accept the argument." (Cook 1996:190)
 However, the art of the reconstruction and voice-over provide documentaries with a sense of realism and honesty:
"Both commentary and images come over as neutral, as third-person discourses which guarantee their  truth." (Cook 1996:191)
This feature of documentary gives the reason as to why texts such as Cathy Come Home were developed into docu-dramas: so that stories would be viewed as real and true, not as mere escapism. Loach used a World in Action type style for this film, showing elements of documentary such as the use of real people and sets, with the use of a third-person voice-over giving statistics and at moments when the camera appears to jump in reaction to events, so they look unplanned or spontaneous. These techniques are useful for filmmakers who want to make dramas to expose the hardships faced by society, but they have also caused problems for other people. The Foreign Secretary in 1980, had to go to Saudi Arabia, after the screening of Death of a Princess to rebuild relations between the UK and the country it had offended and with whom, as a direct result, had lost 200 million worth of business. The Foreign Secretary had to confess:
"[Death of a Princess is a]...bad film...[and] some incidents were clearly based on innuendo and  rumour. The new formula of mixing fact with fiction, dramatisation masquerading as documentary can be dangerous and misleading." (cited in Wheen 1985:122)
It appears that the mixing of these two genres can lead to trouble and so Caughie (1981) clearly defines the differences between them:
"[Dramatic realism has a]...reliance on an invisibility of form and a spectator who forgets the camera. [Documentary uses]...an objective, but recognised camera. [This gives the]...impression that the camera has happened upon a piece of unpremeditated reality which it shows to us objectively and truthfully: the dramatic conventions on the other hand, are designed to give the impression that we are watching a piece of unmediated reality directly, that the camera does not exist." (Fiske 1987:30)
In order to show society as it really is, it would be possible to position cameras and just let the film run. However, if this were done, there would be hours of nothing happening, as life is like that: in order to examine society it is necessary to condense action in to a certain time span. For example, Alan Clarke's Scum, met with criticism for showing Borstals in such a negative way. Brutal violence, gang rape and suicides may not have happened in one institution in the space of six weeks: that is unrealistic, but they did happen in some Borstals over a matter of time, which is what Clarke attempted to show. It is true that Clarke staged real violence to make it look more realistic. He set-up the mood to instigate violence between white and black youths and filmed the reactions.

If something is seen on the television screen, can it ever be regarded as real? "Real" is a one-off moment that surely can never be recaptured as it was originally intended. No matter how real or true to life a piece may look, or how impartial a director may claim to be, what is viewed has been constructed and will have been subjected to manipulation due to the constraints of television. This may be in terms of time, not just of production but the length of time the piece lasts; the fact that a screen can only give life in two dimensions, not three; the limits of vision; the size of the budget and the political and social viewpoint of the director. In this way realism, like reality itself, can said to be as constructed and therefore, persuasive as any other genre:

"The conventions of realism have developed in order to disguise the constructedness of the reality it offers." (Fiske 1987:36)
In this respect, realism is not a reflection of reality, but is merely a directors interpretation of it.

Just as various directors will have conflicting views about reality and will use different techniques to show them, audiences are not a homogenous construct. Depending on a person's social class, religion, personality and identity, the reading of a text will change. Individuals are subjects of the media and other apparatus such as friends, family and education, and as such will have different interpretations, making it impossible to pin down an isolated, unique reading or definition of realism.

Realism can be used as an attempt to show live as it really is, for the views of the working class, that have been suppressed for so long, to be heard, and to expose social problems, by using recognisable situations, locations and non-professional actors using ordinary language. This is not a foolproof formula, however, and there are variations used. There is also the problem of the dominant discourse, which leads the viewer to a desired narrative, discouraging other readings to be developed. The use of juxtapositioning image and dialogue as well as the characteristic open-ended narrative, provokes questioning from the viewer. Due to the constraints of television: both economic, and production restraints, reality is still obviously constructed, the only thing that can be done is make it look as authentic and as believable as possible, following conventional realist techniques. It could be said that even if, as a result of constraints, it is not always true to life, realism is true about life.


Brandt, G.W. (Ed) (1993) British Television Drama in the 1980s. Cambridge: University Press.
Cook, P. (Ed) (1996) The Cinema Book. London: British Flim Institute.
Turner, G. (1993) Film as Social Practice. London: Routledge.
Wheen, F. (1985) Television: A History. London: Century Publishing.


Cashmore, E. (1994) ...And There Was Television. London: Routledge.
Hacker, J. and Price, D. (1991) Take 10: Contemporary British Film Directors. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Hills, J. (1986) Sex, Class and Realism. London: British Film Institute.
McMahon, B. and Quin, R. (1986) Real Images: Film and Television. South Melbourne: The Macmillan Company of Australia.
Self, D. (1986) Television Drama: An Introduction. Hampshire: Macmillan Education Ltd.
Stead, P. (1991) Film and The Working Class. London: Routledge.
Tulloch, J. (1993) Television Drama: Agency, Audience and Myth. London: Routledge.
Walker, J.A. (1993) Arts TV. London: John Libbey and Company Ltd.

Seminar Material
Given By:
Rob Brown  02/02/98
Nicola Wraight and Natasha Earl  16/02/98
Rob, Marion and Stephanie  23/02/98

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