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Vanity Fair (1967) and the contradictions of colour

Bignell, J. ORCID: (2021) Vanity Fair (1967) and the contradictions of colour. In: Cardwell, S., Bignell, J. ORCID: and Donaldson, L. F. (eds.) Moments in Television: Simplicity/Complexity. The Television Series. Manchester University Press, Manchester. (In Press)

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In December 1967, on the BBC2 channel, the first colour drama serial in the UK was broadcast. It was an adaptation of Thackeray’s 1847 novel Vanity Fair, and this chapter evaluates the colour in Vanity Fair using analysis of the programme, archival documentation and public discourses at the time. The significance of colour in this serial relates to the aesthetic frameworks through which literary adaptations, and especially classic novel adaptations, were conceptualised, and to what colour meant in the television culture of 1967. The chapter argues that an appreciation of the achievement of Vanity Fair depends not only on how it looks today but also how it could have been viewed at the time it was made. The BBC had been preparing for colour for years, and as Britain’s first and oldest television institution it might seem simple and obvious that the BBC would take the next technical step in broadcasting. It might also seem simple and obvious that colour would offer greater realism and visual pleasure to viewers. These ways of understanding simplicity depend on an assumption of incremental development, adaptation and extension, where colour is the next step in a linear progression. The BBC also had a long history of broadcasting the classics of English literature, on radio and then on television, so choosing a nineteenth-century novel to showcase the colour service might also look like a simple step onward in an established direction. It married tradition with technical innovation. But conversely, the engineering challenges of making colour pictures and the production challenges of staging a multi-episode serial in colour were immense. It was costly and complex, as BBC itself explained in detail to potential viewers. For cultural commentators and BBC executives, there were also concerns about the tastefulness of colour, which was tainted both by an association with Hollywood and the uneven technical quality of US colour television. Moreover, only a small minority of the UK audience had colour television sets, so the BBC, as a national public service broadcaster, had to avoid alienating a large section of its audience by making and promoting a serial that those viewers could not properly enjoy. Vanity Fair’s broadcasts had to work well in black and white, while also trumpeting colour as the next big thing. Introducing colour was fraught with difficulty and risk, and meant finding a way through complexities of technology, institutional policy and cultural politics. It also demanded creative responses to new artistic challenges, making the most of colour while maintaining conformity with established aesthetic norms.

Item Type:Book or Report Section
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Arts and Communication Design > Film, Theatre & Television
ID Code:98445
Uncontrolled Keywords:Television, adaptation, colour, BBC, 1967, Thackeray, broadcasting, TV history, style, aesthetics, drama
Publisher:Manchester University Press

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