JR: I know you are a fan of Doctor Who and The Prisoner. What are you feelings about the changing face of this sort of television? By this I mean, do you agree with Russell T. Davies’ attempt to not just modernise but intellectualise the character of Doctor Who? By this I mean he is presented as a god of sorts, a man who willingly kills in favour of others, a man who is incredibly lonely.
DK: I think in the case of Dr Who it is inevitable that the show has to change to match the expectation of a new audience, Russell T Davies has done what had to be done and I can remember when it finished in 1989 and thinking that it was tired, it needed a break to come back stronger, yet it’s loyal fan base demands it to be tied to its past and this is again crucial for me - it has a weight of history to it that can be plundered at various stages of the series.
In all honesty I wouldn’t like to see The Prisoner re-made, although I’m sure it’s happening as we speak! It’s simply perfect as it is and could only be a confusing mess of a blockbuster or so far away from McGoohan’s original idea that it only has the name in common. Every year McGoohan is sent scripts and every year he turns them down, there is a reason for that. It wasn’t a series like Dr Who, it was never conceived for longevity, and in fact McGoohan had only originally planned for 6 episodes
JR: Given the conceptual possibilities of Dr Who (time travel, multiple identities, God complex etc.) I have to ask, do you think it is possible to make an artwork out of Dr Who?
DK: I think it’s possible, but I don’t know whether I would do it. The thought had crossed my mind, and as you say, the multiple identities and the God complex are interesting as well as the whole notion of nostalgia that is attached to the show, maybe I would concentrate on hiding behind the family sofa, I don’t know, it’s not in my plans at the moment.
JR: What is nostalgia for you?
DK: When I consider nostalgia, I think about something I regard with fondness, a memory from a lost time. I have come to think that it is a double-edged sword because the very thing that we have fond memories about can often be a distortion or a half-truth.
JR: What television do you remember from your past? Is this influential?
DK: I can remember soap operas, various sit-coms that were watched regularly, I suppose it is an indication of who I am and where I come from, the time I grew up, that my reference points would be now referred to as cult TV, it was a real family event to all sit down and watch a particular favourite show.
I realized recently that I am caught up in a practice at the moment that deals with nostalgia. I suppose to answer the question about influence; it is the influence of that event, that process of what the shows meant and the act of gathering to watch something on a regular basis. We are driven to be nostalgic about certain periods in history and often read such things as popular sit-coms as a motif of the time. But if you look at a recent programme like “Life On Mars” there is a sense that the main character is struggling with what he is nostalgic about, the music of Marc Bolan, George Best are at odds with the reality of day to day life in the seventies, the actual difficulties of coping with primitive attitudes and the discomfort of life without the technology he is used to. Nostalgia for me is that, the realisation that behind the positive motifs that we all associate with a particular time there are the sinister, uncomfortable events as well.
The craft of the sit-com though is extremely easy to miss, Reggie Perrin makes me want to cry, not laugh; yet it was (and deservedly so) one of the country’s most successful comedies. Leonard Rossiter’s performance is key to this of course but at the beginning of making my work I sat down and wrote out the plot – it’s tragic, really tragic and it made me think that all comedy and tragedy are the same, why do we laugh? Probably because it hasn’t happened to us, and if it has then we can deny that by laughing at someone else.
JR: The Prisoner, in many ways, is a precursor to this approach to Phantastical television: it treated its audience as adults and presented them with complex plots and ideas. I guess this was superseded by Sapphire and Steele and has found a recent manifestation in Davies's Torchwood. What appeals to you about The Prisoner and how did it become the basis for a piece of work?
DK: I always felt that McGoohan was just eons ahead of his time and for me it isn’t the phantasm of the show that has such resonance, that’s part of it of course, the look, the complexity of the plot, but to me what works best of all is that when it boils down to it the story is one we all face, a recognition of ourselves and our place within a system, it is simply about escape, the possibility of escape. Reggie Perrin is no different. The Prisoner is about the everyday for me, it’s about the job you hate, the boss you can’t beat, it’s as complex or as simple as you want it to be and that is where great works of art work best, it structured so well that it can be read on any level you wish.
One of the reasons that it offered so much in terms of a piece of work is not just the content of the programme but the location in which it was made. Portmeirion is an oddity; it is an amalgam, a “false” location, a fabricated space. When subjected to a TV plot it then becomes further removed from the notion of the real, and by real I suppose I mean the British countryside, the British landscape, it was important for me when working to not just photograph in the space but to film and take stills, to exaggerate and celebrate the fabrication of the event.
JR: Reworking has been attempted with the Sitcom (badly, with Ant and Dec's The Likely Lads). Do you think such programs (the originals, that is) exists as cultural moments and reflectors of cultural mind sets or are they simply mindless, daily fodder for the masses?
DK: I think that sit-coms, at their best, are as culturally relevant as any form of mediation in terms of the cultural moment, they are political and social markers, “Love Thy Neighbour”, “Rising Damp”, “The Liver Birds”, “Bread” etc… Perhaps the interesting thing for me is the canned laughter track, why do we laugh? Remove that laughter and is the joke still funny? Re-makes are interesting, when “’Til Death Us Do Part” was re-made in America, the Alf Garnett character, Archie Bunker, became a middle American hero, standing up for redneck values and not ashamed to say what was being thought by a large percentage of the population. Sit-coms are more important than we sometimes think, they are social markers, social indicators.
JR: Should Sitcoms deal with reality? Do they inform or do they merely reflect? The conclusion of Blackadder goes Forth was a beautiful moment, a horrifying and definitive end to a set of much loved characters but also a poignant and reflective instance of comedy.
DK: Blackadder is close to me at the moment, I’m thinking about it a lot because of the DR Johnson work. I think all sit-coms essentially deal with real situations even the exaggerated slapstick (Some Mothers…) to the insightful, sublime (Reggie…) I think that the episode you refer to was beautifully written and every sit-com would probably love to end like that, instead of the dodgy final series where the joke has worn a little bit too thin, but I suppose it goes back to that notion of all comedy is tragedy and sometimes comedies have become too self conscious and overplayed the pathos and forgotten the basic need for laughs.
JR: Your work deals explicitly with British Comedy.
DK: I’m British and anal about sit-coms, and I undertook a massive shift in my practice that culminated in me realizing that I didn’t, and shouldn’t, need to separate my work from my interests and obsessions.
JR: Can you explain this in a little more detail – where did your practice shift from? Why do think this occurred? And, more importantly, why did you feel the need to separate work from obsession? Is work not obsession?
DK: You’re right; work is an obsession, and I suppose what I mean is that I always used to consider my practice aside from my day-to-day existence. By that I mean that my earlier landscape work involved a concentration on issues related to the practice of making landscape, the politics of the land, representational paradigms and pre-conceptions of the land, I treated my practice as an entity that, although an obsession, was almost like a job, a different set of clothes to put on so to speak. The shift occurred when I realised that the “everyday” obsessions that I have could become the basis for my practice and I became more comfortable with the idea that I could become part of the process.
JR: One recent piece of work looks back to your interest in landscape – close up images of maps. Do you think your work about Sitcoms is mapping a culture, a history or an era?
DK: I think that it is dealing with the idea that the sit-com, drama, action show can deal with a mapping of the cultural era, without maybe doing that itself. That sounds a bit pedantic I know, but the work becomes something else as a result of focusing in on that issue, and maybe becomes a broader experience that somehow stretches beyond just that singular moment or period in history.
In terms of the landscape ideas that arrived as a result of looking at national traumatic memory, the process or mechanism becomes the same. Each era or decade is punctured by motifs, often positive ones, sometimes negative, and it addresses how mediated experiences can last in the memory. I played around with the notion of the idyllic landscape at the same time, but essentially it is all part of the same progress within my working methods.
JR: Hancock. Tragedy. End of an era. Timeless.
DK: Hancock is the archetypal “depressed comic genius” and apart from being a huge fan for a long time I realized that there had been a re-appraisal of dead comedians in this country, they became, through media re-invention, the new tortured geniuses for our age. Les Dawson becomes Van Gogh, Benny Hill is no longer the sexist, one trick pony I grew up thinking he was, thanks to documentary after documentary he is now a master of comedy timing and a misunderstood and unfairly treated master of his craft in his life time – another tortured genius.
JR: I see this transformation into the heroic as a slight attempt to conceal our cultural past – those programs contained sexist and racist elements only because of the era in which they were made. I struggle with the idea that we need to erase these issues for these programs are cultural moments, moments which reflect the era in which they were made. Does any of your work touch upon this use of unacceptable language?
DK: Absolutely, the whole idea of this became part of an ongoing piece of work that I started last year, “A History of Britain” is a piece I am proud of and I will continue to address these ideas and develop more responses. I focussed on Alf Garnett as a starting point, I think it is because I always had a problem with him and as a child growing up in a multicultural community in Birmingham I found it uncomfortable to hear his racist “ranting” and then go to school the next day and see my black friends. I’m not sure I was sophisticated enough to identify why I felt uncomfortable or sophisticated enough to identify the subtleties of the character of Garnett and his position as the “ignorant fool”, I only heard the words and perhaps identified with his daughter Rita and the frustration she felt.
I was lucky enough to get an interview with Professor Ellis Cashmore who appeared on Channel 4’s “The Black Invasion”, he was very knowledgeable about the structure of these 70’s comedies and we had a really interesting exchange about the way in which contemporary comedy has reverted to themes of race and racism but due to a shift in the audience and the cultural changes, a different era, the content is somehow accepted now.
The sit-com is defined by its environment, socially, politically; it acts as a mirror that turns its era’s motifs back on itself, that’s why I’m enjoying using them so much.
JR: I also feel that we need to aggrandise the comedian through tragedy – it’s cynical but it makes them all the more amusing. By having a weakness within your protagonist – Arkwright’s stutter, Clarence’s poor eye sight and Hancock’s depression – they became something to be laughed at. This, I suggest, is something that would not happen in our increasingly cautious society.
DK: In many ways you could suggest it is a displacement activity, laughing at the misfortune of someone else to deflect attention from your own particular weaknesses. Maybe that’s how comedy works.
If your question relates to the content, the character weakness, and whether this would appear in the same form today, then it is a complex issue. Ricky Gervais is a prime example of someone who uses the “inappropriate” as the core of his work. Maybe what occurs in contemporary comedy such as “The Office” is that the audience has shifted from laughing at the actual content to laughing at the inappropriateness of the content, a laugh is accompanied by a cringe, and somehow that justifies it.
Hancock intrigues me because his comedy character was called “Hancock”; the monument in Birmingham City Centre depicts the character “Hancock” not the actor. He was lost in his comedy and his identity became diluted by his portrayal of the character Hancock. I’ve read that he would have an argument with his wife in real life and then write it into the script and perform it directly after in the film “The Punch & Judy Man” – one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen.
JR: Arguing with his wife seems like a kind of early reality TV or TV as explicitly Life. Does this imply a striving for realism within comedy (pathos and tragedy?) Or where these arguments just the search for material?
DK: I think with Hancock it may have been both, he stripped away anyone who had contributed to his success in order to prove to himself that he was the talent, by “The Punch & Judy Man” he had dispensed with his writers and taken on a variety of roles in order to expose and examine his “talent”. Unfortunately, and rather poetically, he failed and again the frustrated character “Hancock” blurs with the actor Hancock.
JR: What about Ronnie Barker? I am thinking of Porridge and Open all Hours in particular. To me they are magnificently written and Porridge dealt with issues that were – for their time - uncomfortable to watch. Is this why we need this sort of humour? This sort of television?
DK: It’s funny you should mention “Porridge” – I’m working on a collaboration at the moment with fellow artist Katrina Vivian. Our initial discussions have lead to ideas about nostalgia and addressing historical events like the flourish of wrongfully imprisoned people in the 70’s/80’s, although we are at the very early stage of this collaboration I have already considered the use of “Porridge”. The uncomfortable nature of some of the scripts and the issues that you refer to are perfect for addressing the boundaries between fictional and factual. I think to answer your question, yes, we need to be confronted by issues and maybe the best way to get them across is under the guise of the sit-com. It’s like wrapping a pill in something sweet to disguise the taste.
JR: Do you think you might start to make more filmic work? By that I mean move more into DV and projection as a means of making and communicating your concerns?
DK: It’s possible, a lot of my work at the moment utilises stills made from films that I have shot on location at various key “sit-com” places. I have made a short film about the Hancock monument in Birmingham, I’m open to the possibility, Katrina and I have mentioned the old 70’s BBC test card, you know with the little girl and the toy clown, there maybe a reason for film there, who knows?
Texts by James Rose include “Where the dust has settled: the Brothers Quay” (Senses of Cinema, issue 32, ISSN 1443-4059),” In Amity, one man can make a difference” (The Film Journal, issue 13. ISSN 1542-0868) and “Oil in the Veins - the films of Shinya Tsukamoto” (Terrorizer, issue 118. ISSN 1350-6978). Forthcoming publications include a critical essay concerning Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves for the March 2007 edition of The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies and an extensive analysis of Neil The Descent for the Autumn edition of Splice.