Monday, October 23, 2017

"The following programme may be an ice-pick in your brain"

Don’t worry: this is not about students. And it’s certainly not about Cambridge University. But I have been thinking about trigger warnings.

Late on Saturday evening BBC2 broadcast the film In OurName. Its blurb on iPlayer describes it thus:
On returning home from Iraq, British soldier Suzy struggles to readjust to normal life. Haunted by memories of the death of an Iraqi child, she becomes obsessed with the safety of her own daughter and becomes increasingly paranoid and scared of everything around her. Meanwhile, husband Mark, also a squaddie who served in Iraq, turns out to have serious problems of his own.
I didn’t watch it, but it sound like a serious attempt to look at important issues in modern Britain. And at least it’s not another romcom or British gangster film.

What I did see were the warning before it began. We were told that In Our Name contained:
  • very strong language
  • some sexual content
  • prolonged violence
  • some upsetting scenes

My first, flippant, reaction was to wonder what they though viewers wanted from a Saturday night film.

Since then I have been wandering what effect this proliferation of trigger warnings has on viewers.

You can say that their appearance is a sign that broadcasters, the BBC in particular, have more concern for them these days. I suspect it has at least as much to do with fear of litigation or being monstered by pressure groups – we’ve all seen W1A.

But I think of the time when some filmmakers set out to upset, or at least discomfort, viewers.

As Wikipedia says of Cathy Come Home from 1966:
The play broached issues that were not then widely discussed in the popular media, such as homelessness, unemployment and the rights of mothers to keep their own children. It was watched by 12 million people – a quarter of the British population at the time – on its first broadcast. Its hard-hitting subject matter and highly realistic documentary style, new to British television, created a huge impact on its audience. 
One commentator called it "an ice-pick in the brain of all who saw it". The play produced a storm of phone calls to the BBC, and discussion in Parliament. For years afterwards Carol White was stopped in the street by people pressing money into her hand, convinced she must be actually homeless.
Should it have been preceded by a warning? What would the effect have if it had been? Would it have had fewer viewers and less impact?

No doubt part of this is my nostalgia for an era 10 years Cathy Come Home when a marxist Play for Today could attract a similar audience, though even I recognise that this was largely because there was not much else to watch.

Mind you, in that era if you went to the theatre you risked being harangued by the cast for being bourgeois and going to the theatre. We can’t go back to those days and I am not sure I would want to.

But I do think it is worth asking whether trigger warnings reduce the audience for challenging work and, if so, whether that is a price worth paying for making sure viewers feel comfortable.

No comments: