Lori Anderson: Turn down volume on TV drama violence

Quirke, starring Gabriel Byrne, exudes menace with less violence. Picture: BBC
Quirke, starring Gabriel Byrne, exudes menace with less violence. Picture: BBC
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I have put away childish things but for one, not a once loved teddy, or a report card from the days when teachers wrote the truth – “rarely speaks, has difficulty in movement” – but a slightly musty and worn, illustrated volume of Grimm’s fairy tales.

Nothing gave one a better education about the wiliness of man and the traps that lay waiting in the grown-up world than the luridly intoxicating, blood-soaked tales of the Brothers Grimm. To this day, I pride myself on never having mistaken a beguiling wolf for a bedridden shawl-draped grandmother.

Looking back, I realise that I was mesmerised by the violence and sense of menace in so many of the stories. Today, what I once found in the pages of a book, I now find on the television screen. My evenings are filled with dark deeds and if you are honest, so are yours. True Detective. The Following. Sons of Anarchy. American Horror Story. Hannibal. (Am I alone in being madly in love with Mads Mikkelson’s portrayal of Dr Hannibal Lecter? He’s surely the Bryan Ferry of serial killers.) I draw the line at Game of Thrones. I just don’t do dragons. The focal point of my penumbral panopticon is, when I think about it, violence. Oh of course I’m drawn in by brotherhood, relationships, the eternal struggles of life, but –as with so much of today’s TV drama – it all comes draped in a bloody cloak.

At the weekend, the Irish author John Banville suggested that today’s television drama is too steeped in violent acts, an argument previously made by the playwright David Hare and the actress Helen Mirren. Banville was speaking ahead of Sunday night’s broadcast of Quirke, a period drama based on his own crime novels, which stars Gabriel Byrne as the chief pathologist in the Dublin city morgue, who begins to investigate the lives and violent deaths of those he first meets on the slab. It is more restrained than its contemporaries, but still exudes menace.

Banville said: “Nowadays, if a crime series doesn’t start with a beautiful young woman being raped and eviscerated, then it’s not very exciting. The Swedes, the Scandinavians, seem to see no limit to the violence. But because there’s so much violence on the news, on drama and in books, we feel that somehow we’re missing out, as if we’re not living authentically because we’re not in touch with blood and guts every day of the week. This is the thing that these extremely violent series and books provide. But it’s time that we pulled back a bit.”

I think he’s right. We should pull back a bit, but its unlikely to happen. The extreme violence pioneered by American cable stations such as HBO, FX and Showtime has become acceptable to audiences and has now gone mainstream. The Following and Hannibal, two dramas with the grisliest scenes, are both made by US networks which a decade ago would never have broadcast such acts.

There has always been a market for violent entertainment, ever since the gladiator duels at the Coliseum and the hangings at London’s Tyburn, where seats in Mother Procter’s Pews cost two shillings but offered an elevated view. In the late 16th century, spectators could go straight from Tyburn to the Globe Theatre to see Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, which even today takes its toll on the viewer. On Sunday, the BBC also showed a production of John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, first staged in 1612, which is not for the faint of heart. Jeffrey Goldstein, an academic at Utrecht University, concludes in his book Why We Watch: The Attractions of Violent Entertainment that people enjoy the emotions associated with danger such as fear and anxiety when experienced in a safe environment. There is also a degree of voyeurism at play, as well as a desire to distract ourselves from everyday lives. But at what cost? Adults can choose to watch what they wish, but in the age of illegal downloads it has never been easier for the technologically-minded teenager or pre-teen to watch inappropriate and disturbing dramas.

Although my evening viewing lies in the genre of crime, I do find many of the graphic scenes in today’s dramas unpalatable. Screen violence is going further than it ever has before. In Ancient Greek drama, so much of the violence and cruelty occurred off stage and was then reported to the audience and I don’t see why writers can’t manipulate our imaginations instead of allowing directors to simply assault our eyes.

I abhor violence in real life. I can’t watch violent scenes on the news as it is happening not to actors, but to real people who will have to live – if they do at all – with the consequences of such cruel acts.

Yes, I have concerns that too often the victims of violence on television are women when, statistically speaking, the majority of acts of violence happen to men, but I’m also pleased that today our society is increasing less violent than in the past. Violence will always exist, but it would be good to reduce it on the screen as well as on the streets.