Research by Karen Shepherdson (2001)

Karen Shepherdson Senior Lecturer,

Department of Radio, Film and Television,

Canterbury Christ Church University College,

Canterbury, Kent, CT10 1QU


Research: My interest in Tony Garnett has proved the driving force behind my PhD research / book proposal and the following defines my current research undertakings.

Motivations: The catalyst for this work began when, as a fifteen year old in 1978, I saw Kes for the first time. I didn’t know Tony then, nor Ken Loach as director or Barry Hines as writer, but what I did know was that this film did not provide a pat solution and it did not provide a happy ending as I, a child raised on Hollywood movies, had anticipated. And yet, unlike many of my friends who felt cheated (particularly by the final scene), I knew that this was a film of significance, that something of importance was being revealed and that for people like Billy there was no way out and to show it otherwise would be the cheat.

Thus, when the opportunity arose I returned to Kes and to Garnett and began the research proper.

Tony Garnett: the new realism


Eschewing the 1960s classical mode of electronic television studio production, Tony Garnett is considered instrumental in shifting drama away from the studio and onto the ‘streets’. Through the deployment of light-weight, 16mm cameras he, along with many of ‘The Carnaby Street Left’, advocated extreme naturalism and an adherence to a neo-realist philosophy. The ideological and political agenda of Garnett arguably governs the means of production and as a consequence has aesthetic implications for both form and narrative. Up the Junction [1965 / script editor] and Cathy Come Home [1966 / producer] are two early principal examples of a belief in realism conveying a message. This was a form which, throughout the sixties and seventies, was debated due to its close proximity to the documentary mode and whereby Garnett:

…wanted viewers to stop thinking of film as fiction, but to think of them as having a factual point. (1)

Taking a predominantly chronological approach, the book examines Garnett’s contribution to television [and to a lesser extent film] over the past four decades with the integrated central theme of Garnett as ‘agitator*: a subversive with access to a mass audience. Sydney Newman’s insistence that “agitational contemporaneity” be present in The Wednesday Play and Gus MacDonald’s 1977 observation that:

Television authorities (and viewers) get agitated when drama is mixed with actuality, or fact with opinion, without the proper signposting… (2)

is pertinent to this discussion. Garnett not only recognised this institutional and mass reaction but embraced the belief that he could repeatedly ‘agitate’ both authority and audience via: the facilitation of sympathetic writers and directors; the adoption of confrontational narrative structures; and through ambiguity of televisual style. In this regard, the book provides an analysis and evaluation of Garnett and the specificity of his modus operandi, what I identify as agitational realism.

For the past four decades Garnett’s polemical position has generated consistently radical texts and whilst in terms of confrontational themes this can stand alone as agitational, it is I argue, galvanised through its relationship with his aesthetic. Unlike the consistent polemical stance, Garnett has encouraged a dynamic, shifting, often ambiguous aesthetic which defies succinct categorisation. The productions, whilst predominantly realist in both style and motivation, paradoxically also includes oppositional techniques of non-naturalism and strategies of distanciation [though not necessarily Brechtian]. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, Garnett conflates the classical mode of production with a documentary aesthetic where shots, or sequences of shots, appear “unplanned” or “unpremeditated” (3). Such seeming spontaneity is frequently coupled with the recognition of the camera’s presence thereby connoting unmediated reality. This variation and conflation of aesthetic configurations within and across the films and television texts of Garnett is, I argue, the key to creating an agitational structure.

Thus agitational realism is shown to provide on the one hand a stability of voice, whilst on the other presenting dynamic aesthetic strategies which frequently wrong-foot the spectator. Evidence for this emerges via the diversity of productions ranging from Cathy Come Home (1966), and Prostitute (1980), to This Life (1996) and The Cops (1998/99/00). All of which, whilst clearly differing significantly in terms of production era, genre, subject matter and structures of style, nevertheless importantly share a commonality of political perspective.

Seeking to identify the specificity of Garnett and his mode of production, the book, using close textual analysis, explores both methods of agitational realism and its motivational forces. Can such texts as The Cops and Cardiac Arrest offer as Garnett suggest ‘a truth’ (4)? Or, do they present not objective versions of reality, but ‘pseudo-objective’ (5) versions, thus providing a subjective fiction masquerading as truth and thus ultimately a falsification?

Whilst undoubtedly problematic Garnett’s body of work, despite variance in aesthetic construction, nevertheless presents a coherence vigorously established via the polemical configuration. Garnett’s realism has thus paradoxically demonstrated a consistency over four decades of production while concurrently avoiding predictability. Consequently, it has generated an ‘agitational’ viewing experience.




1 Loach, K.. quoted in Saynor, J. [1993], ‘Imagined Communities’, Sight and Sound, J[12], 11- 13

Brandt, G.W. [ed.], [1981], British television Drama. Bath, Cambridge University Press. Brandt’s


Caughie, J. (1981), Progressive Television and Documentary Drama, Screen, 21 (3), p27.

4 Tony Garnett interviewed by Karen Shepherdson 16/04/99

Williams, R., [1976], Keywords. London, Fontana Press, p260