Her death was confirmed by Minister of Culture, Dario Franceschini:
“Milva è stata una delle interpreti più intense della canzone italiana. La sua voce ha suscitato profonde emozioni in intere generazioni. Una grande italiana, un’artista che, partita dalla sua amata terra, ha calcato i palcoscenici internazionali, rendendo globale il suo successo e portando alto il nome del suo Paese. Addio alla pantera di Goro”.
Because she was a contemporary of Mina, I know of her and her songs obviously, but I haven’t really looked at her career in any great detail. What struck me in particular was the outpouring on fan sites, which acknowledged her as one of the great voices of the Italian soundscape and as an icon of Italian pop. I suppose her death was also a very real reminder that this ‘golden age’ of Italian pop voices (which the singers of the 1960s get referred to now with increasing frequency) is aging, and soon won’t be with us anymore. The nostalgia for the good old days and the sense of a past irrevocably lost now, were both clear to see in the fan postings.
The timing of her death around the weekend of the Festa della liberazione, celebrating the fall of Fascism in Italy at the end of WWII, means it feels only fitting to share Milva’s version of ‘Bella ciao’ in her memory:
I’ve had a busy past few days what with one thing and another, beginning with the ‘Mina. La voce del silenzio: presenza e assenza di un’icona pop’ conference at the University of Turin. The conference was originally planned for 2020, to celebrate Mina’s 80th birthday, but for obvious reasons had to be postponed and then moved online. So I spent March 25th and 26th glued to the computer from 8am to 6pm, listening to some really fascinating presentations on Mina and cinema, Mina and fashion, Mina and duets, Mina as celebrity, Mina and television, and Mina as popular music practitioner.
I’m not going to try to summarise each paper, as I’m still digesting them all! What I did enjoy was finding out things I didn’t know about Mina – like she was the star of an Austrian filming, playing a version of herself as a Brazilian princess! The papers on Mina and melodrama were excellent for helping to think about Mina as a queer or camp icon, and the emphasis on metamorphosis and corporeality in her star image. Guarracino’s analysis of the monstrous body of the female star who gains weight was really persuasive – and focused on how the fat body no longer represents control, discipline, style, or fashion, which is a troubling and fascinating idea for society. Society might well want access to the star, but only to the the ideal body. When that body is overweight or pregnant, access isn’t desired in the same way. This was a really interesting paper and I want to go back and listen again if I can, as it was so rich and dense.
The ideas that kept emerging time and time again were of Mina as a chameleon, an ever changing icon, an excessive icon, and a constantly evolving icon. These were the ideas that emerged in the book (thankfully!) but what is really interesting from my perspective is how these constant evolutions and metamorphoses actually reflect what is happening in Italian culture and society from the 1950s to the present day. And they are also shaped by the changes in the popular music industry and musical taste, by the nature of musicarelli movies, by the development of television, by the changing way you represent a star on an album cover, by associations with companies in advertising… in short, by the ‘mediums’ that Mina is involved with as a star throughout her career. This intermediality was also a central thread to the conference but the focus tended to be on how individual mediums shaped Mina (and how Mina shaped individual mediums) – it would have been good to think about how the mediums intersect and interact with each other. There was some analysis of the transmediality of Mina’s early star image as an urlo star in musicarelli and album covers, which was good to see. I suppose this idea of intersections and interactions is my own approach to Mina, though, so maybe it’s good that this wasn’t explored in the conference – it does mean my book should be bringing something new to the debate after all!
There were several elements of Mina’s persona that were covered at the conference which I haven’t touched in my book, but I think that’s ok. I just may have to make sure that I explain even more clearly in the introduction why it is that I’m not looking at Mina’s songs. Or at Mina as singer and popular music practitioner. I do this in part in the first chapter but I do think that Mina as star quickly transcends her status as ‘just’ a popstar. So I have decided to look at the mediums that help her to do this and that contribute to her status as Italian icon (it was interesting that there was no debate at the conference regarding labelling her as icon – I mean, I agree but often there’s debate around using that term so interesting to see that with Mina, it’s not up for debate!). There were also interesting questions at the conference about Mina following her retirement from performing and the role of fans and the consumption of her music ‘at a distance’ in shaping her significance. This wasn’t something that was picked up on very much at the conference (my paper tried to look at how one consumes an ever-present absent star when they ‘return’ in a technologically assisted way but in 20 minutes, I couldn’t really talk about fan reception as well so that’s something for me to think about). The discussion on the Facebook fan sites about the conference also commented on this – some of the fans felt that whilst the speakers were all knowledgeable about Mina in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, they didn’t know much about her after that. And this was disappointing for them (apparently, as one of the foreigners at the conference, I could be forgiven not knowing!). But they were pleased that finally, Mina had got some of the academic and critical recognition she deserves. This fan commentary on the conference was a reminder of how complex researching fandom is, and it also points to the level of curatorship of Mina’s star status that Mina’s fans take on and expect to see in others. Certainly all this suggests more work to be done on the Mina fan community!
My paper in particular was on Mina in the TIM advertisements in 2017 and 2018, which were broadcast during the Sanremo Festival. These are the spots in question:
I can’t share my video presentation here as the file is too big! But I was talking about Mina as the physically absent yet technologically present star (which she arguably has been throughout her career), and how the advertisements authenticate Mina’s presence and thus confirm our perceptions and expectations of the star, which are informed by our own memories of and nostalgia for Mina. The ‘Mina l’aliena’ persona from the 2018 series of ads also introduces a potentially new significance to the star who is extraordinary and ‘out of this world’. But these meanings have always been inherent to Mina. In the Mina l’aliena character, we have emphasis on the voice, the performance, the role of the television camera in bringing us close to the star, the accessibility and simultaneous inaccessibility of Mina, and the withdrawal from public life alongside the simultaneous ever-presentness through technology. In order to fully appreciate this persona, we need to draw on our previous knowledge of the star. So Mina l’aliena confirms what we already know about the star and thus reaffirms the iconicity of Mina.
Watch this space for an article on this idea of what happens when Mina returns like this to TV screens, and in the columns of magazines, and in mediated moments of intimacy via social media!
I’ve been a bit quiet the past few days in terms of research: having completed the Mina book and also the Transnational Detectives article, I have felt a bit lost! So I’ve been investing in some beautiful vintage copies of TV Sorrisi e canzoni from 1954 (when the title didn’t include TV), 1964 and 1974. My plan is to flick through these years to get a sense of how press coverage of Italian television and popular music changed in this 20 year period. 1954 saw the start of national television broadcasts in Italy, whilst the State monopoly on TV broadcasting came to an end in 1974. So far, I’ve just been looking at three issues from 1954, which are rather lovely if a bit fragile! I’m still collecting ideas but there’s lots to say already about which stars make the cover and how coverage of stars changes between 1954 and 1974. Watch this space!
I’ve given a couple of research presentations recently, where I have tried to explain how I use the framework of intermediality to explore how it is that stars come to mean what it is that they mean. The difficulty I have found is that it’s not an easy thing to explain – so I’m going to attempt an explanation here, with some visuals!
Let’s start with the star persona, which I define as that overarching significance that a star accrues throughout (and even after) their career. The persona can change and evolve throughout a star’s career, and everything that happens to a star contributes to their persona and thus to how we understand the star and what they mean. I contrast the persona to the star image, Richard Dyer’s concept to explain star significance and how it is ‘made out of media texts that can be grouped together as promotion, publicity, films and criticism and commentaries’ (Dyer 1998: 60). For me, the star image provides a snapshot of star significance at a particular moment in the star’s career. This significance becomes concretised overtime, ultimately resulting in a star persona that can be seen as a totality in terms of a star’s status and overall significance.
To understand the star image, Dyer explains that we need to focus on the blending of media texts which establishes the star image in its own right. Building on Dyer, Stephen Lowry pins down how this blending of media texts works: he suggests that ‘stardom appears not as a more or less unified entity, but as the intersection of different systems’ (Lowry: 1997, 209). As such, ‘star images cannot be grasped essentially, but only as the points of intersection of multiple processes – textual, intertextual, institutional, cultural or subcultural, psychological, and semiotic processes’ (Lowry: 1997: 317).
So the star image is what emerges from the moment when the star crosses paths and ‘blends’ with different texts, intertexts, and contexts, which in fact constitute what I call ‘mediums’. In my work, I refer to mediums specifically as I want to distinguish between a media text (a cultural artefact produced by a particular media industry) and a medium, the cultural/social/political/industry/historical ‘context’ which embodies a set of conventions that govern the types of media texts that can be produced. The star persona and overarching significance it has, is the result of the accumulation and intersections of different star images from across a star’s career. It is this idea of intersection that is helpful in establishing how stars develop specific meanings. It’s the how they come to mean what they mean.
This is because, when we look at specific star images, they are produced when the star intersects with particular types of mediums (this intersection is documented in the media texts of promotion, publicity, film, and criticism and commentary that are generated precisely as a result of this intersection). And it is at the point of interstice between star and medium, the ‘inter’ point, that new meanings of the star are produced (and also for the medium, but that’s not my focus at the moment!).
What’s more, each star image or significance that is produced by these intersections and interactions of the star with the medium, interacts with previous star images that were created by previous intersections and interactions with other mediums. The star, the mediums, and the star images/significances intersect and interact with each other – resulting in a set of meanings that become concretised as that star persona. It is that star persona that can be seen as an intermedium, I think: a construct that comes about as a result of what happens when the star intersects with different mediums throughout their career.
The star is what is crucial to all these processes of meaning making (or image making), which are the result of her intersections and interactions with mediums. She is the stage upon which the intersections and interactions play out: the star body is the site for the intersection and interaction of previous star significance with new mediums, and for the blending of media texts that produce the snapshot ‘star image’.
I’m still working through how to talk about this framework and explain it in abstract terms (that is, without any specific references to my star of choice at the moment, Mina – an intermedium par excellence as I’m sure you’ve realised, particularly given how her star significance and persona is the result of her intersections and interactions with a host of mediums). Here’s hoping the diagrams and the writing it out by hand are of some help!
I think everyone knows I’ve been working on the Italian popstar Mina and that I’ve been focusing on what she means in Italian culture and society today. As an Italian popular music icon, Mina has come to represent a range of diverse meanings throughout her sixty-year-long career. She is one of the best-loved popular music stars in Italy and abroad, with a large fan base across Europe, Asia, and South America. Her career began in the late 1950s and reached its peak in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite having retired from public appearances at the end of the 1970s, Mina remains popular and successful today, and continues to release new albums that consistently debut in the number one spot of the Italian charts. But she is exemplary of the way in which stardom is constructed by and through different media. This is because whilst Mina is first and foremost a popular music star, she has also been a film star and a television personality during different phases of her career. She has advertised successful Italian brands on television, and she has been a magazine writer and agony aunt. Her star persona, then, is the product of the intersections and interactions of the different ‘mediums’ with which she has been involved. This suggests that we can read stars like Mina as intermediums, with the idea of intermediality suggesting a creative space in which new meanings of the star are generated precisely at the intersection of media forms.
Why should it matter what popstars mean? This is indicative of the broader discussion around why music matters. David Hesmondhalgh helps us here, when he explains that the importance of music and its value in society is bound up with its ability to provide a means for constructing and expressing self and collective identities. And whilst all cultural products have this potential, he suggests that music is particularly powerful because of its link to emotions and feelings: music ‘represents a remarkable meeting point of intimate and social realms. It provides a basis of self-identity (this is who I am, this is who I’m not) and collective identity (this is who we are, this is who we’re not), often in the same moment. All cultural products have this potential – films, television programs, even shoes and cars. Yet music’s seemingly special link to emotions and feelings makes it an especially powerful site for the bringing together of private and public experience’. (David Hesmondhalgh, Why music matters, p. 2)
This starts to tell us why popstars matter: if we accept that music informs and shapes senses of personal and collective identity, then we can see popstars as the embodiment of these identities and their associated values within their respective societies. Stars, then, can reveal much about the society and culture from which they originate. This is what Stephen Gundle argues about the Italian context, when he suggests that Italy’s stars can ‘function as a cultural symbol and conduit for ideas about gender, values and national identity’ (Stephen Gundle, ‘Stars and Stardom in the Study of Italian Cinema’, p. 263), as well as accepted ways of behaving, dominant ideologies, and the social and cultural status quo. So stars embody a specific set of meanings and connotations which reveal something about the systems of cultural value, and the wider established ideologies and ways of behaving at work in Italian society. Mina is a case in point.
But how do stars come to mean what they mean? Star meaning, or what Richard Dyer calls the star image, is ‘made out of media texts that can be grouped together as promotion, publicity, films and criticism and commentaries’ (Richard Dyer, Stars, p. 60). Promotion refers to texts which deliberately create a particular image of a particular star, whilst publicity is what the press finds out or what the star ‘lets slip’. Criticism and commentaries are then what is said or written about the star by critics and writers. Film is important to Dyer’s analysis as his focus is on film stars specifically; in the context of popstars, we need to think about music and the other various media in which the popstar performs.
Dyer also acknowledges the need to focus on the blending of media texts in order to understand the nature of the star image, which, thanks to this blending, is established in its own right and becomes a totality. Building on Dyer, Stephen Lowry explains how important this blending is when he argues that ‘stardom appears not as a more or less unified entity, but as the intersection of different systems’ (Stephen Lowry, ‘Star images: Questions for semiotic analysis’, p. 309). As such, ‘star images cannot be grasped essentially, but only as the points of intersection of multiple processes – textual, intertextual, institutional, cultural or subcultural, psychological, and semiotic processes’ (Stephen Lowry, ‘Star images: Questions for semiotic analysis’, p. 317). Star image and thus meaning is produced by the intersections of different texts, intertexts, and contexts – and it is this idea of intersection that is important. After all, as Homi Bhabha explains, the interstice is a crucial ‘in-between’ space that provides the opportunity for the negotiation of identity and meaning. So my aim is to examine the intersections of processes to identify and interrogate Mina’s significance as a star.
In terms of the meanings that stars embody, I want to draw on Barthes’ conceptualization of myth as a way of understanding how meaning is produced and stars come to signify whatever it is they mean: Barthes argues that ‘myth is a system of communication, […] it is a message […] a mode of signification, a form. […] Myth is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message: there are formal limits to myth, there are no “substantial” ones’ (Barthes, Mythologies, p. 107). The star as an example of myth communicates particular messages and significances to her audiences; yet these significances arguably know no limits. Every significance that each audience member identifies is potentially as important, possible, and appropriate as the next. The limits to the myth, according to Barthes, come in forms. But what might constitute the forms for our popstar Mina? Barthes suggests we look at ‘the way in which myth utters its message’. In the case of Mina, these ways are the means, or, better, ‘mediums’ through which the audience has access to her and which then shape her message (or significance). As is apparent from her career trajectory, these ‘mediums’ include the popular music industry, album covers, television, film, the press, and advertising, as well as scandal, tragedy, and absence, and the historical, cultural, and social context of 20th century Italy. These mediums all intersect to produce her star image, to which specific media texts also contribute. There is an important distinction to make between media text and mediums (hence my use of the word ‘mediums’ in this way). Each plays a different function in creating and shaping Mina’s star image and thus her significance. I’m use this idea of ‘media text’ to refer to a cultural artefact that is produced (so an advertisement, a song, a film, or a review, for example), the content of which is shaped by the medium or mediums to which it belongs. These mediums, such the popular music or television industry, dictate the types of media text that can and cannot be produced, and their content, according to the rules of the medium that govern what is or is not appropriate in that context. They also therefore influence the type of star image that can be produced, and limit its potential meanings.
Identifying and analysing the interaction of mediums at work here is fundamental to interpreting ‘the many meanings of Mina’, and it is for this reason that I want to propose the framework of intermediality as a practical model to draw upon in order to analyse intersections and interactions. Such a framework acknowledges the importance of the media (or medium in my case), but allows for an exploration of what happens when media (mediums) intersect. The creative potential of the ‘in-between’, the interstice, is picked up by Chapple and Kattenbelt in their analysis of intermediality in theatre. They define intermediality as the intersections created when ‘art forms of theatre, opera and dance meet, interact and integrate with the media of cinema, television, video and new technologies, creating profusions of texts, inter-texts, inter-media and spaces in-between’ and argue that ‘intermediality in theatre and performance is a creative and mental space that operates in-between the arts, politics, science and philosophy’ (Chapple and Kattenbelt, Intermediality in Theatre and Performance, p. 24). What they argue is that, in the context of theatre, the intersections of media provide an intermedial space that encourages ‘the exchangeability of expressive means and aesthetic conventions between different art and media forms’ (Chapple and Kattenbelt, p. 12) and the production of new meanings.
Thinking about intermediality in the context of the theatre also enhances our understanding of Mina and her star image as an intermedium, that is, the product of the intersections of mediums, where new meanings are produced through the exchange and interaction of expressive means and aesthetic conventions. Moreover, we can see the person and body of Mina as the stage upon which these mediums intersect and interact to produce new meanings and the site where media texts blend. The power of the interstice to create new significances is particularly important in the case of Mina as a star who transcends her original medium of popular music, becoming an intermedium thanks to, for example, her television and film appearances. Her resultant status of star in Italian popular culture has the power to reveal the values and ideals that shape and govern twentieth and twenty-first century Italy. It is precisely in this light that I read the many meanings of Mina.
Over the past few days, I’ve been a virtual attendee at the Returning to the Page conference, run by the NoRMMA Network of Research: Movies, Magazines and Audiences. It’s been a really great conference experience thanks to the quality and depth of the papers, as well as how the organisers have used online platforms to promote discussion and socializing (I am now a big fan of Discord!).
The papers have also reminded me about the richness of magazines as a primary research material. There have been some fascinating ‘zoomed in’ and ‘zoomed out’ readings of these source materials, which enable the analysis of the magazine’s content and structure and what this can reveal about topics like implied audiences, values, status, and construction of star image. The ‘zoomed out’ approach was really fascinating: Sarah Polley from the University of Kent presented on the leafing through magazines. Her approach involved presenting the content of magazines as tiles of photographs in a PowerPoint screen. This layout allowed her to highlight where specific content appeared in the magazines and in what order. The placement of stories about stars, letters from fans, and advertisements, revealed interesting conclusions about the priorities of the magazines in question, their implied audiences, and the type of content they valued in terms of making a profit and growing their readership.
Right on cue, I took delivery today of a fantastic 1974 issue of TV Sorrisi e canzoni featuring an article about Mina (of course) and Raffaella Carra’, and their then forthcoming television series Milleluci. The issue sheds light on a host of really interesting topics and in particular reveals something about gender attitudes, the place of women in 1970s’ Italy, and the control/objectification/use of the female body. More to think about but here are some wonderful images for starters (and as an aside, it’s really quite difficult writing captions for these images!):
I’ve been working on an article that presents the findings of our ‘Watching the Transnational Detectives’ project that we ran in Hull in 2018.
During that project, we held public screenings of six episodes of French, German and Italian crime dramas and asked the viewers what struck them in terms of national specificity and language. Our aim was to interrogate the relationship of identity and culture through language in the broader context of a globalizing Europe, by examining how these television programmes specifically can foster positive attitudes towards and interest in multilingualism, multiculturalism, and language learning. Our six series were: Spiral; Mafiosa; Inspector Montalbano; Maltese: The Mafia Detective; Inspector Falke; Dark.
I have been re-listening to the discussions we had with our participants and there are lots of interesting comments to work through. Here’s just a flavour of some of the things our viewers commented on:
Location of Paris vs international nature of the plot: ‘the images are specific, the concepts are “neutral”‘
Interiors seem French (vs CSI): there’s a ‘richness of interiors, piles of files everywhere’
Deploys stereotypes/tropes of detective drama which are international: there’s the ‘dysfunctional private life of detective, jokes to deal with horror, cynicism regarding power structures and political pressures’
Doesn’t seem French; there are visual references to series like Inspector Montalbano, through landscape, flowers, island life.
‘This is another France – one step removed from the France I know. It doesn’t seem to be France as an English person sees France, because of the language which is recognisable not French, and the complete absence of food’.
‘It doesn’t feel like the French mainland – looks like the Mediterranean island it is’
Corsica ‘could be any island in the Med (old buildings juxtaposed with shiny convertibles, plush interiors, affluence of docks feels typical)’.
‘The language makes it neither French nor Italian and therefore both (ie Corsican)’
The food! Typical dishes feature in the series. ‘It’s as if to attract foreigners but Italians are interested in food’.
The location ‘doesn’t feel as realistic as Spiral as is picturesque, clean, picture-book opening.
There’s a lack of traffic. Marvellous for the tourist industry. But detective series often have this attraction, where a fictional drama is linked to a real place that people can visit. Lack of traffic means it doesn’t feel urban. No vespas, no cars – it doesn’t feel real.
Location is a pastiche/exaggeration of Italy.
‘The show couldn’t be set just anywhere, even if the plot could be set anywhere’.
Maltese: The Mafia Detective
It’s a ‘Spaghetti Western, with the new sheriff in town’.
A bit clichéd about organised crime but also deploys character tropes.
Omnipresence of the mafia. All characters know about it (it is in the background, shadows, everywhere but invisible) but is a subject that is skirted around. Feels more real.
Could have been Corsica! Island life
Felt very Italian. Except the retro feel, setting was very Italian. Cultural aspects could be Southern Europe. Elements belong to other European countries.
Very Italian: architecture, cars, motorbikes, food. Background makes it very Italian (reveals our expectations in the UK).
‘The opening chase could have been anywhere/ Rome is anywhere but Sicily is Italy’.
Architecture against ruins of different eras: ‘reveals a fragmented history that feels very Italian’.
This is a ‘gritty police procedural (might appeal to the UK as it’s a middle ground between the slick CSI US stuff and the gritty European series). Nicely directed (camerawork maps to the story of the refugees in transit, as does the use of transport in the plot). There’s serious fighting, and it concentrates on a story like racism. It’s easy to miss the cultural references’.
Could be set in the UK. Landscape very similar to Hull, it’s a port hinterland, flat, like Saltend. Feels like a hinterland in Europe that could be transported anywhere (to Belgium, France, the land is a type of no man’s land, an industrial wasteland). In a backwater.
The similarities to the UK are more notable than the differences here.
The characters were German.
Germany is a lot better than that!
‘The forests seem very German (Brother’s Grimm) but that’s about it’.
Landscape looks German but could also be Scandinavian or North American
‘The Hansel and Gretel references feel German but also maybe makes the show relatable’
‘The exteriors don’t correspond to my idea of German houses and public buildings. They could be French!’
Some contrast between traditional buildings that look German and modern buildings that could be anywhere.
It ‘doesn’t feel especially German. It could be North European. There’s nothing to make you think that this is Germany except the language. The cultural specificity is the language’.
I’m still thinking through what these comments reveal about the perceived national and cultural specificity of these series, their use and challenge of stereotypes, and the importance of the foreign language in the viewing of these programmes – watch this space for the article!
Today, I submitted the ‘The Many Meanings of Mina’ manuscript to the publishers!
And then felt a combination of elated and nauseated! The book has been 11 years in the thinking (at least) and 3 years in the writing. My ideas about Mina have certainly come a long way since I did my first conference paper on her back in 2010 at the Italian Divas conference in Cambridge. I just hope those ideas have come far enough. The manuscript will now go to the peer reviewers, who will let me know if it makes sense and how it can be improved. I’m more than a little nervous about this stage because, due to job situation, a pandemic, and several lockdowns, nobody else has read the book yet. Not the way I would usually work but needs must. And I am happy to have completed the manuscript and to have sent it off for consideration. But truth be told, I also feel a bit lost without it. Even if I have plenty of other writing to do to keep me busy, there’s a bit of gap where the Mina book was! It has been a constant companion for a long time now. I just hope I’ve done the book project – and Mina – justice. Just the small matter of securing permissions for images and waiting for the peer reviews to come in now…
I’m a bit late to the Lupin party and have only this week stated to watch the Netflix series that premiered in the UK at the start of January 2021. But I’m thoroughly enjoying it, not least because of the Sherlock Holmes treatment it received from producers. I enjoyed the recent BBC adaptations with Benedict Cumberbath and Martin Freeman, even if the series did have its problems (not going into that now), but I think I’m enjoying Lupin even more. I like being able to see how the crime was planned and committed, and I’m enjoying travelling to Paris from the comfort of my sofa in the midst of a pandemic that makes getting to France practically impossible for me at the moment.
I’m also late to the Netflix party, having only finally subscribed to the service at the end of 2020, but I’ve been really struck by how much international television is actually available through the platform. In some background research for the article on the ‘Watching the Detectives’ project that I’m currently writing, I discovered just quite how much TV in general is available through Netflix, and how much of that is not in English. According to New On Netflix UK (an unofficial online Netflix catalogue), for January 2021, there are 6392 available films and television series across all genres available to viewers based in the UK . Analysis of the content of Netflix USA from August 2020 then suggested that 55% of the total Netflix library was made up of English-language titles, indicating the quantity of international material available through the platform in English-speaking countries.
Thinking about the availability of non-English-language television in the UK now, I was reminded of an article I had read in The Observer, on how Netflix could transform the way we learn languages (see https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/mar/02/netflix-languages-education). The journalist, James Tapper, was reporting on Language Learning With Netflix (LLN), ‘a tool that allows viewers to watch foreign language shows with subtitles both in the original language and English, and pauses automatically to allow the learner to absorb what they have just heard’. According to the article, the tool had been downloaded by tens of thousands of people in the first three months following its launch. There is then some reflection on whether the tool might change language-learning habits, given its potential to enhance learning a language and make it fun and accessible.
Whether this is happening in the UK is something I’d like to research further, and is something I will certainly be touching on as I write my article of ‘The Detectives’ and the UK audience’s thoughts on the six crime series we screened as part of that project. But what I’d also like to know (triggered by my personal experience of watching Lupin and having to exit the dubbed version in English that was automatically loaded, and load the original French version with subtitles), is how many viewers watch the original language version of these international shows on Netflix, and how many just stick with the dubbed version? Something to look into for the future…
Over the past couple of weeks, I have been making some progress with my article on the ‘Watching the Detectives’ project and our findings from the viewing groups we held in Hull as part of this project. It’s been a difficult article to write and I’ve struggled to get going so I’m pleased to have been able to get things properly moving now! The aim of the project was to explore how international television crime drama can promote multiculturalism and multilingualism in the UK today, thanks to the explosion of these types of series in recent years.
Indeed, a recent article in the Evening Standard posed the question ‘Is it a coincidence that just as governments are seeking to close their borders, television is opening them?’ (“Eight foreign language TV drama boxsets to binge online, from Black Widow to Suburra.” Evening Standard, 15 March 2017). Indeed, in post-Brexit Britain, television viewers have access to an ever increasing number of foreign language programmes. And ‘with the boom in streaming services, a single TV drama can cross borders like never before. Yet still, telling local stories appears to be the secret to international appeal’ (ibid.). But what is the relationship between the local, national, and transnational that is presented on screen? And how do these dramas influence viewers’ perceptions of the countries, nationalities and languages which are depicted on screen? The article addresses these questions by focusing on popular crime dramas from France, Italy, and Germany as case studies, and analysing their reception amongst UK audiences. The programmes taken into consideration here are: Spiral; Mafiosa; Inspector Montalbano; Maltese: The Mafia Detective; Inspector Falke; Dark. All are readily available in the UK through the BBC, Walter Presents, and Netflix. In order to explore how these programmes are received by the UK audience, we held viewing groups at the University of Hull September-November 2018. Members of the public with little to no knowledge of the three languages involved were invited to watch examples of the series and discuss the presentation of themes such as national identity and nationhood, and to reflect on the ways in which these programmes challenge or re-affirm preconceived ideas about languages and European cultures. The article I’m writing presents the findings of these viewing groups, exploring how these programmes promote and challenge national cultural and linguistic stereotypes. I’m hoping that the article will ultimately shed light on the extent to which international crime drama may function to encourage language learning and intercultural awareness in the twenty-first century UK context!
In writing this piece, I’ve been able to revisit some of my ideas about Walter Presents, whose philosophy draws on the idea of international television drama as constituting quality television. The video-on-demand service was launched in 2016 and specialises in subtitled foreign language drama and comedy. It is curated by Walter Iuzzolino, co-founder of the service with Jo McGrath and Jason Thorp. The platform clearly benefits from the industry shifts in distributing non-UK programming, sourcing international series and distributing them to UK viewers via a partnership with Channel 4 and Global Series Network. The programmes are selected for inclusion on the service according to three criteria: they must be huge hits in their country of origin; they must be critically acclaimed or award-winning nationally and internationally; and they must be examples of ‘premium stuff, just as beautiful as the very best English and American drama you’re used to but a lot more varied’, says Iuzzolino.
The branding of Walter Presents in this video is revealing of just how important the ideas of quality, critical acclaim, premium and curatorship are for the platform – and, by extension, the programmes. Part of the attraction of these shows is their potential exoticism, which is often underlined by Iuzzolino in the introductions he gives to each series on the platform in the guise of curator. This role gives Iuzzolino the authority to label the shows he chooses as being of high quality. Moreover, as Longden points out, Iuzzolino’s professional background as a television producer renders him a professional gatekeeper of television culture and a trusted and experienced voice who can designate a programme of sufficient quality that is worth watching (Longden, Kenneth. “The Curated TV Experience with ‘Value Added’: Walter Presents, Canned TV, Curation, and Post-production Culture.” View: Journal of European Television History and Culture, vol. 9, no. 17, 2020, pp. 12-13).
As I’ve been researching Walter Presents for this article, I’ve been thinking again about ideas of brands and brand identities (which I looked at in the context of my work on Mina). In particular, I think it’s useful to remember that ‘a brand emerges as various ‘authors’ tell stories that involve the brand. Four primary types of authors are involved: companies, the culture industries, intermediaries (such as critics and retail salespeople), and customers (particularly when they form communities)’. Moreover, ‘as [brand] stories collide in everyday social life, conventions eventually form. Sometimes a single common story emerges as a consensus view. Most often, though, several different stories circulate widely in society. A brand emerges when these collective understandings become firmly established. […W]hat makes a brand powerful is the collective nature of these perceptions; the stories have become conventional and so are continually reinforced because they are treated as truths in everyday interactions’ (Holt, Douglas. How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2004, p. 3). The story that Walter Presents tells about itself reinforces the ideas of quality, local and national, and exoticism that have come to be associated with the brand (and Walter himself as the curator) – and arguably also with the programmes that the platform offers. However, it will be interesting to see if the participants in the viewing group pick up on these connotations when watching the shows that Walter Presents offer.