Honoring Hilmes: Across the Borders

May 8, 2015
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Hilmes3 copyThis is the fourth post in our “Honoring Hilmes” series, celebrating the career and legacy of Michele Hilmes on the occasion of her retirement. 

Post by Jason Jacobs, University of Queensland

The impact of Michele Hilmes’ scholarship on me is best told by tracking its contribution to my early formation as an academic. In 1990 I was fishing around for a PhD topic; I’d spent the final year of my film degree at the University of Warwick under the charismatic mentorship of Charlotte Brunsdon, who had introduced a compelling television studies strand into the capstone Film Aesthetics course and, as a result, I found myself writing and thinking a lot about television. It was that period of British television when the last great dramas were still in recent memory: particularly that golden year, 1986, when the BBC transmitted The Singing Detective, The Life and Loves of a She Devil and The Monocled Mutineer; also the year, in fact, when public service broadcasting effectively ended as a practice in the UK. That, in turn, stimulated my curiosity about the history of television drama: Where did these great things come from? What traditions do they inhabit and respond to? With these questions in mind it made sense for me (plus I hail from the region) to enroll at the University of East Anglia under the supervision of Charles Barr, who had recently published a piece in Sight and Sound which had contrasted the achievement of Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson’s The Classical Hollywood Cinema with the dearth of work on television history. There really was very little written in the UK about the history of television that wasn’t anecdotal or mostly concerned with institutional history (such as Asa Briggs’ History of Broadcasting in the UK, rather like – but not quite – Barnouw’s three volume history of US broadcasting). Nothing, certainly, to compare to the work in Thomas Elsaesser’s magnificent collection Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, which was launched by him shortly after I arrived in Norwich.

hollywoodbroadcastingOf course, as the famous parable by Richard Hamilton instructs us, what I assumed were issues unique to my intellectual tastes and dispositions, turned out to be part of a much wider cultural momentum. There was work being written on television history, and the best of it was coming from the US: indeed most of my reading in my first year of PhD came from US based scholars, in particular William Boddy, William Urrichio and, of course, Michele Hilmes’ Hollywood and Broadcasting. This was precisely the rich, theoretically-inflected revisionist history I craved and, for a long while, my thesis had a strong US component. I even lived in Manhattan for several weeks in order to view as much early material as I could at the (then) Museum of Television and Radio. The advantages of scarce primary material! I didn’t meet Michele until a few years later in Madison and it really wasn’t until the early 2000s that we began to meet and talk fairly regularly. By then television history had considerable momentum, but it remained nationalized. Which is to say there was still that Briggs-Barnouw division: US history on one side, the rest on the other. When we were working on The Television History Book together there wasn’t a moment when we doubted the wisdom of bringing national television histories together – that underpinned, in a very small space, our shared belief in the intellectual fascination of flows of talent, technology, training and ideas between broadcasting nations. It is an indication as much of Michele’s commitment to this as it is to my weakness, that without her example I may have let it drop – so strong had the cultural-nationalist inflected British television history become.

There’s still a bit of that around, but it looks and sounds odd. A couple of years ago Michele was the keynote at a conference in the University of Reading, UK, and although her paper was typically stunning in its ambition and delivery, during questions I noticed some senior British academics carried the whiff of indignation at the effrontery of a Yank speaking so well about aspects of ‘their’ television and its connections and absorption in the US. Afterwards, as I drove Michele and her husband Bruce back to my hotel for a nice cup of tea, we reflected on the odd shortsightedness of such a response. One thing about Michele and her work (and as the title of one of her books puts it!) that is so distinctive and unusual is that she is all about making connections across the lines, and not about policing borders or holding territory.

I don’t have a copy to hand, but in his wonderful book, True Friendship, Christopher Ricks talks about Eliot and Pound’s friendship as incorporating competition, yes, necessarily – but never ruthless competition. Over the past few years I saw a lot of Michele as our projects converged, both interested in transnational relations between British and American broadcasting. Sometimes we’d run into each other at the BBC Written Archives in Caversham Park, or when I was up to my neck in the NBC archives in Madison. Once, over margaritas in her lakeside home, we both expressed a desire the other would publish first – it would be so helpful! I’m glad to say Michele’s Network Nations was first. Here’s an image that shows how helpful it has been, and continues to be for me. Each yellow leaf a reminder to return to her again.



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