We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Some thoughts on the 1974 _Pallisers_: the aesthetics of soap operas defended · 26 December 07

Dear Harriet,

I’ll preface these thoughts by saying last night I began to watch Heidi Thomas, Sue Birtwistle, and Susie Conklin’s Cranford Chronicles, and found the first part very good & very interesting. It has some problems but these seem to me in the area of trying to have too many characters and pile so much in we don’t have enough time to get to know everyone. But, as Browning suggested, should not our reach exceed our grasp ….

I mention this mini-series because I think it is in little a kind of soap opera, partly because even though Gaskell’s Mr Harrison’s Confessions has been imported into the matter of Cranford and My Lady Ludlow, the film is still so dominated not only by women, but a feminine aesthetic, one exemplified in soap operas and longer mini-seies.

So to my letter for today:

When I began to go over my careful notes on Pallisers 3:6 in order to write another critical summary of this part of the 1974 BBC Pallisers, I realized I had encountered an important problem or obstacle before the end of the first scene. I could not give the part an epitomizing title; even compromising in the way of 19th century novel titles, and going for two (one for say the main place or characters or type of event; and after a colon, a phrase capturing a typifying theme), I still couldn’t do it. For Phineas Finn is brought up (mentioned significantly) in Episode 1, Scene 1, and then his appearance, story, and even an anticipating scene for his coming relationship with Madame Max (brought forward much earlier than in Trollope’s Phineas Finn (Chapter 40), is included; but it’s not that the episode ends on him, for it ends on the Pallisers: their baby who they want to be Duke, and his renewed ambitious hope of becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer.

This is not just an ending of one story, but also the beginning of another and quite different one—though linked thematically. Further, the first doesn’t really end, but carries on, from a different angle, and the actual central tensions of the part of the story we were intensely engaged in (the coerced match of two fundamentally unlike and in their characters incompatible people) are not resolved or got over, but only deferred into a kind of stasis. Finally, a substory was set adrift (Alice and George’s), as we shall see to be heard of no more (except as with Trollope’s Dr Thorne) in passing; though it’s important to note that were Raven to want to bring back either Alice and John or George, he could. And I think (as in Trollope’s Prime Minister), Grey is brought back as the present member for the Silverbridge seat only to happy to vacant (to do equally high-minded duties for the public good) in favor of the now grown Palliser heir, Lord Silverbridge.

As I wrote earlier today, one can identify 4 separate novels which cross the span of the 26 parts, with three inset novellas threaded into them.

In other words, this 26 part film cannot be said to “work” like other shorter mini-series (say the 4 parter or even 5 to 6 parter) because it goes on and on for so very long, has different sets of interrelated characters, and as the viewer watches for over a year (and presumably has different experiences outside viewing the movies), so time moves inside the series and the characters age, some disappearing altogether (no matter how pivotal for a particular part). This is television, and televisual art, and the typology is that of the much denigrated “soap opera” or (to give it a more neutral name) decades-long or season-long series (an increasingly familiar device in recent years on TV is to give a season-long set of episodes in a series an overarching story).

So I need some terminology in order to describe this part. I found some in Robert C. Allen’s “A Reader-Oriented Poetics of the Soap Opera” (found in Marcia Landry’s Imitation of Life, an anthology of film studies; all page references are to this essay in this large book).

I begin with the whole of the series: it is a “fictive textual system” of considerable subtlety and complexity to engage the imaginations of a vast audience (p. 496). (This point of view is one ignored when people deride soap opera watchers as seeing what they see as simply more of real life and not looking into what they are watching any further.) One wants to know the distinctive features of this type of aesthetic object so we can recognize them in a particular instance. Some of what Allen has to say is true of just about all conventional and many art movies (how an establishment shot is framed, the second or master shot of an interior, and then the people and finally zeroing in on what’s important); some just apply to daytime soap operas (limited budgets so a world sheerly of interiors).

But it shares daytime soap operas characteristics too: for example, the lack of narrative closure. At the end of the series itself we see the new Duke of Omnium sitting in the window (the picture of the Duchess not far from him) and he has just read the Duke of St Bungay’s letter inviting him to join the government. As he reads his book, we know from his contented face he will accept. We are back at the close of Part 6; the younger Pallisers outside are just starting out in life too. Basically the series ends because the curtain is pulled down, not because there’s an ultimate ending (p. 502). This is woven into the themes: life goes on and we must accept or make do with and if possible change what comes as best we can for health and fulfillment. The way the stories are structured is a repeated deferral so as not use up story too soon (p. 502).

The Pallisers shares with soap opera the large community of interrelated characters. In the individual film adaptations even where they are say 6 episodes (or in the case of Love for Lydia, 13 and Brideshead Revisited, 11), there is a limited cast of characters to whom things happen. The Pallisers resembles the Jewel in the Crown in that there is a large cast and new characters come on the scene, and old ones disappear. Its full precedent was the 1967 Forsythe Saga (also 26 episodes—it’s been recently redone as 6 parts—a kind of “digest” Forsythe Saga? The Forsythe Saga abridged anyone?) In a typical soap opera there may be 40 regularly appearing characters; none can be singled out as the motor of the narrative, and a great deal may happen to individuals but the community remains (p. 503). The community is self-perpetuating, self-preserving system; who a character is is as much a function of his or her place in this paradigmatic system as what he or she does over the course of the sequence. (I think this holds true of The Jewel in the Crown although on a smaller scale beacause it’s only 13 episodes but then there are but 4 somewhat shorter books and these tightly interwoven rather than Trollope’s vast 6 with different groups of characters and more than one subplot).

There’s also a high degree of redundancy, a reiteration of the story and ideas about the characters; the story must not be moved along too quickly lest it be used up (p. 503) and yet not go too slow. Why do we get repetition of the same happening (Plantagenet is attracted to Griselda; George is broke, Lady Glen is pregnant, Burgo is poor husband material. What’s happening is each time the information is conveyed the context is changed so another element of a subplot is affected: a different character hears, and he or she has a different but definite relationship to this information (p. 503-4).

Allen points out that an entire episode of The Guiding Light was given over to the wedding and we met many characters whose purpose in being there was their relationship past or present to the institution of marriage and this couple; so the return to the Arcadian landscape of Matching Priory functions in the same way: the scene allows us to see characters singled out whose dramatic significance is not explained until the story unfolds their involvement with the older and new characters (p. 504). Lady Laura Kennedy will have little to do with the Pallisers directly so she has to be presented with Phineas to explain what she’s doing there; Madame Max is a possible mistress to the Duke, but a “first impression” chord is effected so we can see her and Phineas’s mutual attraction (thus anticipating the very end of the Phineas material). So a close-up functions here quite differently than a narrative in a single film or even small mini-series (p. 504).

Character relationships also change over the course of time. We will see this in Madame Max and Lady Glen when Madame Max replaces Alice as Lady Glen’s confidante.

There are also three kinds of time:

1) story duration: the days, months, years, depicted in the narrative. I venture to say the time from Part 1 to Part 26 can only be connected to Lady Glen’s and Plantagenet’s life spans, and it may be said her death precipitates the ending: the allowing the young people to marry, and the Duke’s return to public life. We are given to feel she’s a teenager when we first meet her, say 19 and her husband rising 30. When the series ends, the baby she has had (and within two years it seems) is in his mid-20s. She dies. As I tell it, it becomes obvious one cannot just make her the major character (so like a soap opera) as what we learn about her life depends on what we see of others (how old Silverbridge is at the end, say around 23). So I’d say the series covers 24-5 years. (The way the time length of Trollope’s Barsetshire and Palliser novels has been worked out in general is by his references to public events in the novels.)

2) text or film duration (the amount of text or film devoted to the pieces of the story, 26 one hour parts).

3) the actual time it takes to read the text or see the film (the first time a full year and since then for most people at least a few weeks and then to study them much longer). (NB: When a group of us read Clarissa in real time online we deliberately collapsed story duration and the time it takes to read the book.) Reading time is usually not measured; in a film running time is stated and definite. (Time of a soap opera can be so long we remember earlier parts of our lives as we remember when the character’s life was changed or affected by this or that event. Soap operas tends to show people in middle to upper middle class occupations; does not mirror real US society; chooses places where socializing naturally goes on.) (p. 505)

Now this long-term series I know in the Upstairs Downstairs form. It went on for 5 years, for a total of 68 episodes (13 each for four years and 16 the last); it seems to me to differ and introduce characters in many episodes who we never see again. These single-appearance types could be brought back, but they rarely are.

Raven (by way of Trollope) does depart from never discussing money or who is to pay the bills. In most soap operas the characters are upper middle class and so free of daily economic troubles. Money does change hands in the Raven’s Pallisers thus far—and frequently. It’s a continuine concern of many (not all, for example, Lady Glen and Plantagenet once they marry) of Trollope’s characters and gives rise to story changes.

Relationships between characters in soap operas are out of kinship, romantic, and social. Add political and you have how the Palliser characters connect to one another; the occasional outsider (business associate) is on the side; the passer-by is not strongly characterized nor do they play major roles. No one is revealed as having a family relationship we didn’t know about.

We can wander about from character to character a great deal and that allows for leeway (p 508).

Syntagmatic structure: this means moving along in a sequence. There are no limits to what can happen to a character because future of soap opera is open-ended; it lacks the mechanical recurrence of a situation comedy. There is no definite delimiting closure which controls our expectations of what will happen; soap operas do regularly kill off central characters, and Lady Glen dies. I cannot think how this could be done in 6 parts. It’d be too devastating; you need to process through time to see her get old and that needs analogous playing time.

The journey forward is not only deferred, but also halting rather than continuous (p. 509). This is part of the deferred structuring of the syntagmatic or as I’d call it multiplot structure. It also resembles installment publication and what this means for a novel—making the endings of chapters exciting or suspending what’s about to happen dramatically so we come back next week to discover what will happen.

Then Allen talks about the gaps in narratives. He finds in Isher acknowledgement that readers use these gaps in instalment publication to imagine what happened, to fill in (p. 510). I add that in non-serialized novels there are gaps between chapters too and these gaps are used by film adaptors to add scenes that can be implied or were referred to but never dramatized. A problem in watching TV series (also a movie or listening to a novel) is you can’t look away or start thinking to yourself; the text continues.

Soap opera codes or conventions: an attenuation of events rather than compression [the contrast between the mini-series and single movie for a book shows this], an interior world, community- rather than character-centered, lack of overall narrative closure, complicated and slowly evolving network of character relationships (pp. 514-15).

In a soap opera each new theme, new character, new plot-line is assessed against horizons of that which came before (p. 514). So I’d add there is then an accretion of meaning as new horizon becomes older one and we move on. The question is whether the smaller or subnovels provide a new horizon, relate to the series as a whole, or just to the particular dominating story at the time. My answer comes back, yes, it does in both ways. The Alice-George-John Grey story foreshadows Phineas and in 3:6 there is even a dialogue which without mentioning him refers to George (the politicians standing a group) where they say someone could not stay the course (this is heartless partly; he had not the money; but he also did not make alliances which might enable him to rise without money, which is what Phineas is doing). Alice is the woman who marries for love but also stability, and many of her interactions and conversations with Glencora shed light on Glencora’s; she is also a norm (alas, since the desire she had to live an independent life is never given voice) and can be contrasted to what’s to come; another fate of an individual.

I will suppose charitably all this may be said of the other 2 novellas (Emily-Lopez-Wharton, Adelaide Palliser-Gerald Maule) and also of what I think is the failed third novel, the Lizzie Eustace-Lord Fawn story. I have to watch all these parts carefully and study them to find out.

This overlapping and alteration helps explains when a new theme or set of characters don’t seem to fit; the story horizon must be reconfigured to contain the new material; also if a character is made to change inconsistently (or somewhat inconsistently), this alteration of horizon can help account for the change. So George changed as the horizon turned to politics: it was necessary he have money to pay his creditors, and without that and a place in parliament, he goes to debtor’s prison, so we see the same man desperate and of course he is much less pleasant, and amoral and cutthroat or ruthless (to Alice) and spiteful (to Jane) too. Though he is given the normative lines to Plantagenet to help him make his decision, and is talked about in 3:6 in not unsympathetic ways.

According to Allen, “soap operas are full of such character transformations” (p. 515) Characters themselves may change a great deal and also have new relationships to one another: we see this to some extent in Madame Max only she doesn’t change as much in the films as in the books. To sum up, the way the experience works is each new episode is seen against the background of themes that have gone before, p 515 We understand new theme in terms of larger context of themes we’ve experienced.

How far is the Eustace Diamonds material at odds with the rest? (A new set of materials may be introduced so removed or changed, that older viewers stop watching.). I hazard the guess it’s not at odds with many male viewers and also those who take a coarse view of life; it can be connected to the Wharton-Lopez-SextyParker materials. Not an actual soap opera because what was to come would not be rewritten in accordance with audience response. Here the Pallisers departs from Soap operas; it is an analogously faithful adaptation and pre-written, not rehearsed and performed day-by-day (p. 516).

The consequences of action are more important than the action itself (p. 520)

Some small particular matters: the kind of artistry is often theatrical not dramatic, pictorial, and this is perfect for a form where we are not to identify with just one character (p. 144), but the large community of interrelated characters (which by the way is just what is set up in the first part of Cranford).

Perhaps someone should invent a different term for a long-running “mini-series” like The Pallisers and The Forsythe Saga which differentiates them from 5 and 5 part mini-series on the one hand, and years-long series like Upstairs, Downstairs and Coronation Street and The Guiding Light on the other.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. “I loved the blog on Pallisers and soap-operas – this is such brilliant and original stuff Ellen – important because people just don’t analyse ‘costume drama’ in this way. I must try and get back to watching the series again!

    Elinor    Dec 27, 6:57am    #

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