Monday, October 24, 2011

The Willing Suspension of Disbelief...

One of the very first expressions I learned in my youthful study of poetry came with the ballads that constituted much of the diet deemed suitable for fourteen-year-olds in the late '50s. "The willing suspension of disbelief", I was told, was the essential ingredient in the enjoyment of any drama, whether it was a ballad involving talking crows or a play whose action hinged on the say-so of a ghost. I was reminded of this in the immediate aftermath of the final episode of the wonderful Spooks on BBC1 last night, when more than one friend opined on Facebook that it was a bit predictable and unduly melodramatic, and now I can't start work without writing, briefly, about why I think this is sad.

I have to say that my disbelief was well and truly suspended - not just last night, but all through the series - though I must admit that, very properly, I don't have a clue what goes on in the machinations of 5. But what I am well-attuned to is emotional truth and good acting, and I'd say we had that in spades. Look at Harry. Last night the character was put through the trauma of having the woman he loved die in his arms, and the actor had to express grief in a manner in keeping with the character he played. Have you ever wondered how someone you know, perhaps fear, certainly respect, would react to an extreme situation? The acting in this scene was on a par with the greatest screen acting - different in scale, obviously, from that on a stage - in that all the rawness was expressed in near silence, with gestures redolent of hopelessness, disgust, love, compassion, loss ...

You get the picture? We don't need our drama to reflect our own narrow lives. Whether it's the best episodes of Star Trek - think of Picard in full Shakespearian mode in First Contact - or the death of Hamlet, we want catharsis: the purging of pity and terror so necessary to the dramatists of ancient Greece.

Maybe the trouble is the disengaged watching of drama that occurs in our own sitting-rooms. Maybe we're too used to discussing the action as it occurs, putting the TV on hold while we answer the phone or make some tea, playing computer games at the same time as we watch. Catharsis isn't possible without complete involvement. And I'd argue that complete involvement precludes the self-awareness that criticises technique - unless, of course, the drama itself is unworthy of attention.

But Spooks? Spooks was worthy all right.


  1. Rob Rhodes10:43 AM

    Yes, it was predictable - it's Spooks! We all knew one of the main characters was going to die (though I was expecting a Blake's 7 style massacre of the entire principal cast), we all knew it probably wasn't going to make much sense, but... but...

    It wasn't just the quality of the acting, but the writing too - to lose *that* principal character, who's been with the show from the beginning (bar a brief hiatus), turned the whole show from bieng "about Harry" to being "about Ruth". Harry's the same character (more-or-less) we met in Series 1, episode 1. Ruth has been transformed - and we've all watched and been involved in that transformation.

    And frankly, I *want* melodrama for the departure of a character I've known for 10 years, I *want* the writer to wring the tears from me - anything less would have been unworthy of the character.

  2. Anonymous11:20 AM

    Hm, perhaps I missed a trick. I found the acting in series 2 less than credible, so didn't bother with it thereafter.

  3. I do hope Spooks makes its way here. Haven't seen it for ages.

    The last series I saw is when the guy got blown up as he tried to keep the bomb from blowing up.