Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The selkie in literature and film

Updated 2/8/2016

The selkie in literature and film

Seal Woman by Ronald Lockley 
The Lady from the Sea by Henrik Ibsen
Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown
The People of the Sea by David Thomson
Tales of the Seal People by Duncan Williamson

Song of the Sea (2014)
Ondine (2009)
The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)

The White Birds, W.B. Yeats (1892)

Selkies - seals who change into people and back again - always seemed far stranger and more compelling to me than sirens or mermaids. A siren is simply a beautiful woman who lures the sailor to his doom. The fish part of the mermaid is the tail of a generic fish. But the selkie myth involves a specific species, and seems to pay careful attention to the attributes of that species. The stories told about selkies emerge from the northern coastal cultures and craggy landscapes that humans share with seals, and mirror the ambivalence in the relationship between seals and people, and people with nature.

There are various theories about the origin of the selkie myth. The stories are associated most frequently with the Orkneys, Faroes, and Shetlands, and the western coast of Ireland. One idea is that hunting parties of Finnish, Saami, or Inuit people were spotted on beaches beside their sealskin coats, or sealskin-covered boats, giving rise to the idea of the seal shedding its skin to assume human form. 

Faroese stamp, showing a seal woman entrapping, or possibly protecting, a man. 

Speculation on the origin of the myths is perhaps unnecessary once you think about the nature of seals, and what seals might have meant to the small, isolated fishing communities who lived close to them through the centuries. 

They have an almost-human quality. The seal embodies vulnerability when on shore – large, fat, and round, with short, apparently useless flippers, lumbering movements, and big, expressive eyes. In the sea, however, they seem a different species, supple and graceful, with a physical power and freedom impossible for humans. 

Like humans, seals are social, living in large groups. The males fight each other, pairs bond, they communicate with mournful, singing sounds, their babies are endearing. 

Seals and humans were in direct competition for fish, and fishermen would sometimes cull these rival predators. Seals were also hunted for their skins, and their blubber was used for lamp oil. So the selkie stories might express the hunters conflicted feelings: unease and lingering guilt about killing a creature that is both mysteriously other, and disturbingly familiar. 

The recurring themes in selkie folklore hint at repressed desires and fears. While in human form, selkies make loyal wives and husbands, so long as the seducer keeps their sealskin hidden. Once the selkie finds the skin, the game is up and she, or he, returns immediately to the sea, abandoning house, hearth and family. 

You might fear, or wish, that your partner would vanish; you might long for a reason to abandon the chores and embrace a new life in the waves. 

The selkie can be a romantic seducer, the stranger from the sea who enchants a villager only to disappear, leaving heartbreak in his or her wake. Selkies can be protective - saving babies, warning people of danger - or dangerous, bringing a tide of ill fortune to anyone who interferes with their freedom. 

In centuries past, life must often have been relentlessly hard and inward-looking for people in the remote, storm-blasted Irish and Scottish fishing communities. The more imaginative might well have stared out at the sea horizon, envious of the seals who could slip smoothly away into the distance, away from domestic bonds. 

Or they might have wondered about who, or what, might arrive on the shore in the twilight – a shapeshifting stranger who would rescue them, seduce them, free them from care, or carry them to their deaths. 

Selkie stories may have represented the fears and longings of isolated coastal communities. 
Photo: © David Ross/Channel Light Vessel

For his book, The People of the Sea (1954), David Thomson listened and recorded verbatim retellings of the selkie stories in pubs and front rooms, with versions of the myth being constantly adapted and embellished by the storytellers. They talk matter of factly about about hunting and killing seals, before spinning out stories that reveal a deep admiration for the creatures, guilt about causing them harm, fear and awe of their magical powers. 

The storytellers tone, as reported by Thomson, is sometimes mischievous, almost defiant, as if they were daring their listeners to doubt the tall tales, while at other times theres a hesitancy, like people afraid to relate their dreams in case it makes the dreams real.

In Tales of the Seal People (2005), Duncan Williamson suggests that selkies were a way of coming to terms with losing relatives at sea. The idea that your father or lover had gone to join the seal people would be easier than imagining them lying forgotten on the seabed, deprived of a funeral. The sea is clearly a symbol of death and eternity, as well as adventure and possibility, and the selkie myth draws on both of these. 

Duncan Williamson spent his life in Scotlands traveller community. His stories, he says, are retellings of tales he heard from the fisherman and crofters of Scotlands west coast, passed down through the generations. In each story, he tries to reproduce the voice and style of the original teller, and the the selkies (he calls them silkies’) are lovers, friends, replacements for lost children, rescuers and avengers. The conflict between characters who love and identify with seals, and those who resent them, is a common theme, but my personal favourite is The Lighthouse Keeper. The bond between a lonely man and the lost seal, is touching:

“You know it’s very hard when you live in a lighthouse on your own out in the sea and there’s not a soul to be seen. . . even a mouse would cheer you up! When somebody comes flip-flapping around the floor, especially a seal that you have just taken from the sea, it means so much to you - it means the world to you.”

I wanted to look at how far the the selkie myth has penetrated beyond these traditional stories into mainstream culture, either literally or more indirectly as a symbol of transformation, enchantment, or freedom. The answer seems to be not very far, which is surprising, but there are some interesting examples nevertheless.

Community of common seals 

Seal Woman by Ronald Lockley (1974)

This strange novel, which I read as a teenager, was my introduction to the idea of the selkie. It is the story of a young man from London enchanted by a feral young woman, Shian, whom he encounters living outdoors in a wild coastal forest in the far west of Ireland, “somewhere on that little-known stretch of coast which runs from Valentia Island south to Cape Clear”. 

Unlike many selkie tales, Lockley’s story is not written for children. Lockley was a scientist, not a novelist, and this is an eccentric erotic fantasy, expressing a passionate longing for isolation, for wilderness, and the desire to submerge and obliterate oneself in nature, to become absorbed by it. The fantastical and improbable aspects of the story are underpinned by the author’s precise attention to the physical world. Seal Woman is perhaps a neglected example of magical realism. 

There are two protagonists, the narrator and Shian. Shian is the last of a noble Irish family, the O’Malleys of Kilcalla, but she has abandoned the decaying mansion she inherited, and rejected all connections with human civilisation. Her true home is the sea, and her true people the seals who live there: “I have given my heart to the sea and the folk of the sea.” 

Shian lives inside her own myth. She believes her grandmother’s story that she was found as a baby washed up in a seal cave after a storm. She is spellbound by this idea, and the ballad she sings, ‘Song of the Sea’, includes a prophecy that a ‘prince from the ocean’ will arrive in the waves to claim her: “We shall follow the seals on the wings of the waves. . . he will crown me his queen in the far Holm of the seals.” 

The narrator decides to pose as this sea prince in order to win her love, deliberately wrecking his boat off the seal cove so that he can arrive in the storm and fulfil her prophecy. 

For a time, the couple are happy; Shian teaches the narrator to how to live wild, both in the forest and the sea, foraging for food and eating raw fish, learning to spend longer and longer under the waves, making love on the shore. But Shian is not content with this idyll – she is increasingly impatient to swim away with the seal herd, further and further west to the Skellig islands and the wild Atlantic beyond. The narrator is more conflicted, immersing himself and luxuriating in Shian’s world while secretly hoping he can entice her back into some form of civilisation. 

Shian teaches her lover to live wild in the forest and the sea. This photo shows deciduous woodland  carpeted with wild garlic in Co. Kerry, where Seal Woman is located. Photo:Wikimedia/Geograph

Shian seems to be a selkie in transition – she has webbed fingers and seal-like powers in the water, but her shape remains human, at least while she is with her lover - though he never sees her in winter (preferring to return to London rather than face the force of the Atlantic gales).

The story is almost a reversal of  The Little Mermaid. In Hans Christian Anderson’s story (1836), the mermaid sacrifices her sea life and sea-family for the chance to win a human man’s love and gain an immortal soul. She exchanges her tail for legs, but at a horrifying and painful cost: she will always feel as if she is walking on knives. She also loses her power of speech and song (interestingly, the narrator in Seal Woman loses his voice too). As a final blow, the prince marries someone else. 

The Little Mermaid accepts the magic potion from the Sea Witch, exchanging her marine identity for a human soul, legs, and suffering. Picture: Wikimedia Commons.

In Seal Woman, it is the man who is seduced by a sea woman, but though he loves her, he is not prepared to abandon civilisation for her and throw in his lot with the seals. “I pretended a deep interest in everything to do with the sea, for only in water was my seal woman really at home.” 

In the end, he sacrifices nothing, except his peace of mind: she haunts him. 

Ronald Lockley (1903-2000) was an ornithologist and naturalist – he wrote over 50 books on natural history, including The Private Life of the Rabbit, a source for Richard Adams’s Watership Down. He had ample personal experience of wild living: he spent school holidays living rough in his local Welsh woods, and, during the 1930s, he and his wife were the only human inhabitants of Skokholm, a small island four miles off the coast of Pembrokeshire, where Atlantic grey seals would have been regular visitors.

Ronald Lockley, around 1940.

Seal Woman reveals more of the author’s passion for ancient, untouched woodland than for the sea. There is a tension between his descriptions of the deep peace of the wild Irish forest, with its trout streams, otters, flower species (all carefully named), and the cold, stormy, powerful sea, always threatening to sweep Shian away forever. The sea, the seals, and the selkies are his rivals. 

I spent some time on Google Earth and Geograph trying to locate ‘Kilcalla’ on the coast between Valentia and Cape Clear in County Kerry. Lockley writes of a long strand where the seals rest, with the Skelligs visible on the horizon. The wild forest, as he mentions in the melancholy epilogue, “is now almost entirely stripped . . . the last deer killed, or fled, and  the seals driven away by hunters. I couldn’t see any signs of woodland, but these views below of cliffs at Drumnagour, with the Skelligs almost lost in mist, might come closest to the place he had in mind. He might also have been thinking of the Blasket islands to the south.

Distant Skellig islands and the cliffs at Drumnagour. Photos:  Dennis Turner/Geograph

The novels epilogue, written over 40 years ago, now reads like a sad prophecy of environmental degradation. The seal slaughter at the end of the book had a real life echo in 2004, when a brutal slaughter of 60 grey seals on Begenish island in the Blaskets caused public outcry and demands for better protection. A film by Jacquie Cozens, Grey Seals: Life on the Edge is available on YouTube and tells the whole story. 

The Lady From The Sea, by Henrik Ibsen (1888)

The paintings in this section are by the Norwegian artist Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928). This one is from 1926.

While Ibsen’s play never mentions the selkie myth, the theme – a woman obsessed, bewitched, by the sea – has clear selkie resonances. The open sea, and the stranger who returns from it, haunt the play as symbols of freedom and terror, undermining the claustrophobic safety of small-town Norwegian fjord life. 

By Nikolai Astrup, 1909.

The title might lead you to suppose that it is the central character, Ellida Wangel, who is the selkie spirit here. Ellida initially seems to fit the bill: she is the daughter of a lighthouse keeper, she swims in the fjord every day in all weathers, the townspeople call her ‘the lady from the sea’, and she pines for the open ocean, unsatisfied by the “sluggish” waters of the fjord: “night and day I’m haunted by this irresistible longing for the sea,” she says. 

This obsession is undermining her relationship with her husband, Dr Wangel, who, incidentally, must deserve a prize for being the most understanding husband in literature.

But Ellida is no selkie, she is entirely human. Her enchantment derives from a meeting, before her marriage to Wangel, with a passing stranger at the lighthouse: a sailor to whom she feels fatally bound. In Ibsen’s cast list, he is listed simply as ‘A Stranger’. 

Everything about this man, however, is mysterious, slightly sinister, remorseless, free, and strongly selkie-like. 

Ellida says she never knew much about her lover: “Only that he went to sea when he was very young. And that he’d been on long voyages.” His name was Friman, but then changed to Johnston. He has killed his ship’s captain, for reasons unknown. Before leaving Ellida, he joined their two rings and threw them into the waves. “Then he said that we must be married to the sea.” Married to the sea, not beside it, or to each other.

The stranger came, Ellida tells her husband, “From Finnmark [the northernmost part of  Norway] . . . but he was born over in Finland.” Dr Wangel then replies, “He was a Kvaen, then.” This is an intriguing reference, because one theory about selkies traces the myth back to Finns, Finmen, Saami or Kvaen people visiting the northerly British islands in centuries past. 

“What did you talk about?” asks Dr Wangel.

“Mostly about the sea . . . 
About its storms and its calms . . . dark nights at sea . . . and the sea sparkling in the sunshine. But we talked mostly about the whales and dolphins – and the seals that lie out on the rocks basking in the noonday warmth. And we talked about the gulls and the skuas and all the other seabirds . . . . And, do you know, it’s an extraordinary thing, but as we talked like this he seemed to me to have something in common with the birds and beasts of the sea.”

There is an implacable, mythical, dreamlike quality about the sailor that seems to permeate the whole play, affecting not only Ellida, but her husband and the other characters. Ellida says she wrote to him, breaking it off. “He wrote back, quite coolly and calmly, that I must wait for him. He would let me know when he was ready for me, and then I was to go to him at once.” 

She admits he has a inexplicable power over her mind; she is bound to him by fear rather than love, for she loves her husband. 

The Stranger in The Lady from the Sea is a symbol of freedom and terror. Luminous and alarming painting by  Nikolai Astrup, 1917.

Ellida also attributes supernatural powers to the man: “I suddenly see him – actually standing there, right in front of me. . . or rather, a little to one side. He never looks at me – he’s simply there.”  Most disturbingly, it emerges that Dr Wangel and Ellida have had a baby together, a baby who died. Ellida is convinced there was something strange about the baby’s eyes: 

Ellida: The child’s eyes changed colour with the sea – when the fjord was calm and sunny, so were his eyes; but when it was stormy – oh, I saw it even if you couldn’t!

Dr Wangel [humouring her]: Well – possibly. But even if that was true – what of it?

Ellida [softly, coming closer]: I’ve seen eyes like that before…the child had the stranger’s eyes.

For Ellida, this is evidence that she can never escape her sea ‘marriage’ to the sailor, and can never be a proper wife to Wangel. At this point in the drama, especially given the vagueness of Ellida’s details about the sailor, you are left wondering if Ellida is simply mad and the sailor-lover a fantasy figure. 

She certainly understands depression, comparing human happiness to “the joy we get in the long summer days – it implies the darkness that is to come, and that implication casts its shadow over all human joy, just as the drifting clouds cast their shadows over the fjord . . . ”

But the sailor is real. 

A  steamship glides into the fjord. Shortly afterwards, Ellida’s lover appears on the footpath by the Wangels’ garden. He has “bushy red hair and a beard”, and wears a “Scottish cap”. Ellida does not recognise him, until she sees his eyes. But he has come to claim her, just as he promised.

The conversation between them is one-sided: all the stormy emotion and conflict is on her side, he neither entreats nor bullies, he simply states that he has come to keep his promise and delivers his ultimatum: she has 24 hours to decide whether or not to sail away with him, of her own free will. 

His attitude, in short, is selkie-like: calm, uncompromising, faithful, singleminded, remote, inhuman.

In the final scene, Dr Wangel’s generosity of spirit breaks the Stranger’s spell over Ellida. She realises that it was prospect of a completely free choice that both fascinated and horrified her. Given that freedom, her choice is clear. The Stranger departs immediately like an exorcised ghost. “From now on,” he says briskly to Ellida,  “you are no more to me than – than a shipwreck that I have come safely through.”

The conversation between Dr Wangel and Arnholm, the teacher, (Act Four) leaves open the question of whether Ellida’s obsession is due to mental illness or supernatural influence:

Arnholm: What do you think is the real explanation of this power that the stranger has over her?
Wangel: Ah, my dear friend, there may be aspects of that question that aren’t capable of explanation. . . 
Arnholm: Do you believe in that sort of thing?
Wangel: I don’t believe or disbelieve; I simply don’t know. That’s why I leave it alone. 
Ibsen in Dresden, c 1870

Ibsen spent 27 years living and working away from his native Norway, principally in Dresden, Germany – a long way  from the sea. The Lady from the Sea was written in Munich, after a period spent back in Norway. His nostalgia for Norwegian coast was probably one inspiration for the play. 

In 1880 he wrote to Hegel from Munich that “of all that I miss down here, I miss the sea most of all; that is the loss that I find it hardest to reconcile myself to.” 

In the play, Dr Wangel echoes this feeling:

“Haven’t you ever noticed that the people who live by the open sea are a race apart? It’s almost as if the sea were a part of their lives; there are surges – yes, and ebbs and flows too – in all their thoughts and feelings. They can never bear to be separated from it . . .” 

Ibsen in Oslo, circa 1897

Selkies make guest appearances in books with other themes. In George Mackay Brown’s strange novel, Beside the Ocean of Time, the hero, Thorfinn Ragnarson, imagines himself into episodes of the history of his Orkney island. 

In one chapter, his shy 18th-century alter ego falls for Mara, whom he sees dancing on the shore in human form. Naturally, he steals her sealskin, they marry (selkie women make good wives, for a while). One slightly sinister twist is that Mara’s arrival spells doom for her mother-in-law, who sickens,  finally dying when the couple’s child is born. 

I liked the way that practical details of Orkney life (Mara refuses to eat the oatcakes and porridge, preferring raw fish) come slapping up against the more poetic: “Mara’s speech had something of the music of breakers in a cave-mouth, or far-off horizon bell-notes, or dolphins in the flood tide.” 

Mara finds her sealskin one day when Thorfinn and the children are away at the Lammas Fair. She chooses the sea over her family and domesticity, as selkies always do, and poor Thorfinn is left alone on the darkening shore: “One of the seals called to him, but the very sound of his name was strange in that ocean language. It was a strange, terrible cry, of love and loss, joy and longing.”

One of the most haunting retellings occurs in Rowena Farr’s Seal Morning. An old woman befriends a female seal. The seal comes to live with her and gives her financially valuable information about the location of fish shoals. But when the seal finds a mate, the old lady tethers her companion on a long rope, so that she (the seal) is allowed to swim out and continue providing the lady with marine intelligence, but cannot join her seal-lover. 

The rope ends up strangling the seal, leaving her mate bereft. The old lady pays a high price for her meanness of spirit and is condemned to loneliness for eternity. 

The story is a sad summary of what goes wrong in relations between human beings and other animals. 

Atlantic, or grey, seal.


Song of the Sea (2014) 
Director: Tomm Moore

This animated film is quite simply a delight: poetic, moving, funny, and above all, luminously beautiful. It is such a powerful aesthetic and sensuous experience that the unapologetically happy ending is a bit of a surprise – you suddenly remember that this is actually a children’s film. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2015; the mystery is why it didn’t win. 

The story centres on an unhappy family and an epic journey away from the sea and back again. Ben (10) and Saoirse (6), are children of a lighthouse keeper on the west coast of Ireland. Saoirse, who cannot speak, finds her mother’s selkie coat one night and slips out to the strand to swim with the seals – she is a selkie (she may be the last one – the film implies a scarcity of selkies).  Only her selkie song, if she can find her voice, has the power to break the spell of suppressed grief that paralyses both her family and the fairy spirits of Ireland (literally in the case of the latter – they are turned to stone). 

The real brilliance of the film lies in the way it illuminates themes of transformation and shapeshifting, weaving traditional Irish stories into the everyday life of the characters. Everybody (except Ben, who is really the ‘narrator’) has a dual identity: the father, for example, is also the giant Mac Lir, and the ferryman moonlights as the Great Seanachai, whose beard contains all the world’s stories in its long trailing hairs, but suffers from amnesia himself. 

Nothing is quite as it seems, even the rocks and islands of the landscape are always on the verge of turning into something else, animated by spirits and mythical powers. This seems to capture the essence of the selkie myth.

Animation and animism: the landscapes of  Song of the Sea live and breathe.

The outstanding shapeshifter though, is the grandmother, who is also Macha the owl witch. The transformation is quite subtle (on seeing Macha, I thought ‘where have I seen that face before?’): she’s simultaneously a fat, frowsty, sad old woman, a convincing owl, and a spirit. 

Macha, who traps and imprisons emotions in bottles and jars in her attic, made me laugh, especially when her gang of vicious owls are trying to heave her huge bulk up the staircase (she is half turned to stone), but these scenes would be thrillingly frightening if you were seven or so. 

The difficult relationship between brother and sister evolves with humour and without sentimentality, making it surprisingly moving. Ben initially resents Saoirse because he associates her with the disappearance of their mother. His snappishness in the early scenes develops into an exasperated protectiveness, punctuated with outbursts of sarcasm: “Yes, why don’t we follow the magical lights? That would be so much more sensible than using a map!

Ben and Saoirse make an epic journey from Dublin back to the sea.

The attention to detail is exceptional: the decor in the grandmother’s stuffy Dublin house, the crackly, moaning (1930s?) song on her radio, the laconic Dublin bus driver, Saoirse drawing seals with her finger on the misted car-windows, a line of pylons in the shape of owls, looming over the selkie and radiating ill-will. Sounds of rain, waves, and trickling watery sounds create a hypnotic, sensuous background to the haunting soundtrack.  

Song of the Sea is one of the few films I’ve seen that capture the magical effects of light on landscape and mood. The film’s climax, in which sea, sky, rocks, hills, and cliffs are transformed by the shifting colours of the aurora borealis and animated by reawakening spirits and myths, is breathtaking. This film repays a second (or third) viewing. 

Keep the credits running if you want to hear the final lullaby sung by Nolwenn Leroy, or listen here:
Lullaby from Song of the Sea

Ondine (2009)
(contains spoilers)
Director: Neil Jordan

Ondine was the only selkie film I could find that is aimed at adults (there may be others, please let me know). 

The opening scenes are promising – a Cork trawlerman (Colin Farrell) pulls up a half-drowned young woman in his net, a woman whose origins are mysterious. His small daughter Annie believes the woman, Ondine, must be a selkie. 

Given that this is directed by Neil Jordan (Company of Wolves, The End of the Affair) I was expecting a compelling treatment of the borderlines between fantasy, myth, and reality, and between child and adult perspectives. 

But this film seems determined to sabotage itself. We are invited, for example, to believe that Ondine’s singing induces improbable loads of fish out of the sea and into her admirer’s nets, giving weight to Annie’s magical theory, only to be let down at the end of the film by a banal drugs-based explanation for Ondines presence in the village. It is as if the film can’t credit adults with any tolerance of ambiguity, let alone magic. 

The selkie figure (Alicja Bachleda) is attractive but lacks the otherworldly quality the part demands, and the total absence of sexual chemistry between ‘selkie’ and fisherman does not help. Dervla Kirwan does her best with the part of the crabby wife, but seems miscast. 

There are other false notes: the arbitrary eastern-European connection, and the way the little girl, though confidently acted, is often too knowing, using expressions like “sartorially challenged” (would she believe in selkies at all?). Above all, I only spotted one brief appearance by a solitary seal in the entire film.

The Secret of Roan Inish  (1994)
Director: John Sayles

The Secret of Roan Inish brings selkies firmly back into children’s territory: the selkie myth is recruited to tell a story about homecoming and family roots in rural Ireland in the decades after WW2. Little Fiona arrives from the city (portrayed as a smoky den of vice) to stay at her grandparents’ cottage, isolated in the grey and watery beauty of Ireland’s north west coast.

In welcome contrast to Ondine, you do get to see a lot of real seals, though their role remains peripheral and auxillary. Seals and selkies chiefly serve to add buoyancy to the human story. The use of the myth feels forced at times, though I liked Fiona’s uncle’s deadpan reference to the seals as ‘another branch of the family’.

Theres a nagging sense that the seals’ only reason for existing is to look after Fiona’s lost baby brother and help her family to return to their rightful home on the island. I was left wondering what the seals and selkies got out of it all. 

Another moment of adult cynicism arose for me when Fiona (10) and her slightly older cousin completely renovate a row of ruined cottages by themselves, though I cant really explain why I found this idea harder to swallow than the thought of seals looking after a baby boy for years. 

The cinematography however is impressive, the music haunting, and the storyline strong, if slow. Seen at the right age, the film might inspire an interest in selkies and cast the spell that failed to work on me. 

In general, there seems to be plenty of scope for a new adult drama, perhaps adapting Ibsen, that explores what the the selkie myth means to people, or what people mean to seals. There’s a fertile seam of potential themes: dreams of escape, the illusion of possession, blurred and shifting identities, the seductive stranger, conflicts between the erotic and the sinister, the domestic and the wild.

Whether the treatment was literal or metaphorical or both, it would need a grand and confident vision, and the only director I can imagine succeeding would be Lars Von Trier. 


This poem by W.B. Yeats takes seabirds, not seals, as a motif, but the identification of the sea with transformation, love and longing, freedom and sadness, seems to connect with the spirit of the selkie myth. 

The White Birds

I would that we were, my beloved, white birds on the foam of the sea!

We tire of the flame of the meteor, before it can fade and flee;

And the flame of the blue star of twilight, hung low on the rim of the sky,

Has awakened in our hearts, my beloved, a sadness that may not die.

A weariness comes from those dreamers, dew-dabbled, the lily and rose;

Ah, dream not of them, my beloved, the flame of the meteor that goes,

Or the flame of the blue star that lingers hung low in the fall of the dew:

For I would we were changed to white birds on the wandering foam: I and you!

I am haunted by numberless islands, and many a Danaan shore,

Where Time would surely forget us, and Sorrow come near us no more;

Soon far from the rose and the lily, and fret of the flames would we be,

Were we only white birds, my beloved, buoyed out on the foam of the sea!

(Written for Maud Gonne after she had refused his marriage proposal.)

* * * * * 

© Josephine Gardiner 2016


* If you are interested in the origins of the selkie myth, the website OrkneyJar is excellent on the theories, and includes many other folktales and traditions of the Orkney Islands. 

* All books mentioned in this article are available either new or second-hand from Amazon and other sources. 

*Elaine Morgan and the Aquatic Ape hypothesis (Guardian interview from 2003) and Aquatic Ape hypothesis in Wikipedia

Thursday, 2 June 2016

And then what happened? A defence of soap opera

And then what happened? A defence of soap opera

Why is it OK to sneer at soaps? Why should it be embarrassing, or a ‘guilty pleasure’, to enjoy them? And why are critics so terrified of taking soap seriously? 

Every now and again a review or feature appears in the online newspapers about EastEnders (BBC1) or Coronation Street (ITV). The comments below these articles are always the same. To save you the trouble of reading them in the future, I’ll reproduce a typical selection off the top of my head: 

“Are Angie and Den still at the Vic?”

“Coronation Street has never been the same since Ena Sharples died.”

“I can’t believe the BBC is wasting our licence fee on depressing rubbish like EastEnders.”

“Terrible acting and ridiculous plots. Stopped watching in 1990.”

“My wife likes EastEnders. I have to sit through this rubbish every night.”

“Banal fodder for the terminally stupid masses.”

“I haven’t watched EastEnders/Coronation Street since Dirty Den died/Deirdre had an affair with Mike Baldwin.

As you can see, the comments range from the crudely disingenuous (‘Is Angie still at the Vic?’ You know very well she isn’t), through clunky sarcasm to frankly cruel insults directed at cast members and scriptwriters. 

My personal favourite is the one from the man who explains that his wife loves EastEnders, and then goes on to pontificate about the dire intellectual level of the drama. I’ve read varieties of this comment many times - you have to wonder about the state of these writers marriages. 

Even when there is a grudging admission that soaps occasionally have good moments, a wry, superior tone is always present: great care is taken by the commenter to avoid any embarrassing suggestion that they might enjoy watching EastEnders or Coronation Street themselves. These people always seem to have watched episodes by accident, or in the distant past (it is somehow acceptable to know who Elsie Tanner was in Corrie, but not OK to know about Carla’s disastrous wedding last week). Strangely, though, they take the trouble to comment on articles about soap operas, and often reveal a remarkable familiarity with characters and plots. 

Critics and their clichés
The commenters are not entirely to blame for this snootiness, however, because they take their cue from formal reviewing. There is a standard tone journalists adopt when writing about soaps: tongue firmly in cheek, mocking, heavy on the sarcasm, sometimes witty, always implicitly condescending. 

This might partly be a legacy of the label, ‘soap opera’. The original soaps were, as you probably know, interspersed with detergent adverts aimed at a presumed audience of women at home, the ‘opera’ referring to melodrama in the content – plenty of scope for easy condescension there. 

More specifically, at least in the UK, it could be an unwitting homage to the enjoyable TV reviews by Nancy Banks-Smith in The Guardian. Banks-Smith once wrote that she “thought Coronation Street was a documentary, for I grew up in a pub like that with people exactly like that”. Her reviews of soaps were witty and whimsical, and the teasing was affectionate, the sort of mockery that happens between friends and family - she recognised the truth in the characters.

But Banks-Smith has had many imitators. The best, like Grace Dent’s ‘World of Lather’ column (also in The Guardian until 2012) took teasing and irreverence to a new level, but this reviewing style is now getting tired.

Reviewers seem to be saying, “I know you only watch soaps in an ironic sort of way, so let’s sit down together and rip the piss out of them.”

This strikes me as an oddly dismissive and lazy approach to an entire genre. For one thing, soaps have an impressive history – Coronation Street has been broadcast several times a week in the UK for over half a century (first episode was December 1960), EastEnders since 1985. If you want to delve back into radio soap, Mrs Dale’s Diary started in 1948 and ran to 1969, and The Archers, still going strong, started in 1951. Radio soap has an even longer history in America. 

Not that longevity and popularity have much to do with quality, but they do suggest that soap opera addresses a powerful human need. Criticism of soaps concentrates relentlessly on the worst the genre has to offer, the most farcical storylines, the most flagrant shark-jumping – it makes for easy laughs. Convincing, natural acting is often passed over, as is the observant, eccentric writing that makes Corrie sparkle in almost every episode. 

Lacey Turner's portrayal of her character Stacey's bipolar disorder and postpartum psychosis has won praise and multiple awards.

Also strange is that a soap will receive serious critical attention only when it is reformulated as a drama series – the US Netflix series Orange is the New Black has received deservedly positive reviews, but it owes a huge debt to the fabulous Prisoner: Cell Block H (Australia, 1979-1986, UK 1987-91; 692 episodes) which served as the butt of critics’ mockery for years. Perhaps critics see the robust popularity of soaps as a challenge, obliging then to keep their gloves off at all times.
Soap opera: a unique narrative form

The general disdain is much more curious – and more interesting - when you consider what a soap is, dramatically speaking. A soap is a story that never ends. There are narrative arcs, plots and subplots, denouements and revelations, exits, entrances (and countless re-entrances), explosions, sexual disasters, murders, love and pathos, tragedies and bad hair days, but it is never, ever over. If last night the cobbles (or the square) were strewn with corpses, in the morning, surviving characters get up, make tea and toast and get on with it. No final curtain. In this sense, soap is the only genre that comes close to mirroring the shapeless, untidy, ongoing experience of real life. 

Barbara Windsor made her final appearance as Peggy Mitchell in May 2016.

Soaps answer the childlike question, ‘And then what happened?’, and they are the only form of fictional narrative that can really do this. Who hasn’t wondered what happened next when a story ends? Who hasn’t felt that melancholia as the remaining pages in a deeply absorbing novel get fewer and fewer? Who hasn’t struggled to remind themselves that a fictional character never actually existed? Novels can have sequels but in the end the author dies. Film sequels are notoriously difficult to make successfully. TV drama serials come closest, but their stories tend to be contained within each season, character development has to fight with the demands of plot, and the long hiatus between seasons undermines realism. 

Soaps by contrast have a luxurious freedom to concentrate on character - the quirks and idiosyncrasies that make people memorable - developed at the leisurely pace of daily life and in the commonplace contexts of sitting rooms, pubs, cafés, workbenches, and corner shops. The characters insert themselves into your life over the months, years, and decades, becoming as familiar as family and friends and more so than neighbours. 

Catherine Tyldesley's character, Eva Price, is a Coronation Street classic. Always immaculate, Eva is placid and pragmatic until provoked - then she deploys the most formidable withering look in soap. 

The mythical soap addict who ‘talks about soap characters as if they were real’ is mocked, but would the same contempt be directed at someone talking about characters from novels, or cinema, in this way? I doubt that anybody ever thought that soaps were ‘real’. The point is that they are real for half an hour each evening.

As someone who has always found it remarkably easy to suspend disbelief, both in written fiction and film, I’m always mentally prepared to co-operate with the writer, or actor, in maintaining the pretence, and the writing or acting has to be pretty poor to prevent this happening at least temporarily. Sometimes, though, a soap will introduce a new actor who turns out to be truly terrible (more often in EastEnders, Coronation Street is more circumspect about introducing new cast members). That sudden burst of pure rage when the whole illusion is shattered by really bad acting shows how efficient soaps usually are at creating the illusion in the first place. 

Where do soaps go wrong?

If you accept that there is nothing intrinsically ridiculous about soap opera, it becomes easier to criticise soaps honestly and ask how they could be better. 

First, there are a number of tropes and traps. Some are so hoary they almost define the genre, but are still worth questioning.

1. Storyline stretching
An obvious recent example is the murder of Lucy Beale in EastEnders. I’m in two minds about this one. On the one hand, this murder of a character who was never very likeable when alive seems tortuously drawn out, but in terms of plausibility, a murder and its concealment would certainly reverberate for years. Storyline stretching, like cliffhanging, is most irritating when it manipulates the viewer too crudely, and when the plotline was weak to begin with.

2. The repeatedly interrupted revelation
This is my personal bugbear. The character has just started to spill the beans, when another person arrives, or their mobile goes off, etc. Next episode, repeat. It feels cynical and mocks the viewer’s intelligence. 
3. The coincidental crossing of paths
If someone is getting a little too close to another person, of course it is always the partner of one of them who just happens to be passing, not any other member of the cast. 
4. Waking up in perfect makeup 
Kudos to Kellie Bright, who plays Linda Carter in EastEnders, for defying this: Linda regularly appears entirely makeup-free in the mornings. It’s fascinating to see her transformation from bareface to glitter and glamour. Actors in other genres are guilty of waking up in perfect makeup, of course, but it looks sillier in a soap than a film.

Kellie Bright as Linda Carter

5. Eating breakfast in cafés every day
Do people really do this? It must be expensive. Also under this heading is cooking full fry-up breakfasts on a weekday, high launderette use in Eastenders (don’t any of them have washing machines?), and the profligate use of taxis. 

6. Weird concepts of distance
Talking about places like Brighton or Oxford (an hour away by train from London), as if they were the other side of the planet, and as if people who move there are effectively lost to the civilised world. 
7. Shouting near eavesdroppers
Loudly discussing highly sensitive personal matters (the body under your patio, adultery, your cross-dressing habit) in places like your local pub where people know you.

8. The Day Out 
For some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on, excursion or holiday episodes never work. Seeing the cast out of context, larking about in the country, produces the same awkward, deflated sensation I remember from childhood when you suddenly realise you are not a pirate or a witch, youre just playing a game. 

Many of these objections are trivial, often the result of lazy plotting, but cumulatively they erode realism and frustrate viewers. Other criticisms are more serious.

Melodrama versus character 

You have to sympathise with writers faced with producing stories for several episodes a week, indefinitely. The big trap is to resort to the set-piece disaster – a fire, train/car/tram crash, followed by a convenient cull of cast members and a rich supply of episode fodder for weeks or months. The more often this happens, the more credulity is stretched and the greater the risk of descending into farce. 

More generally, I think soaps massively overestimate viewers’ appetite for sensational events and personal meltdowns over character development and realism. Characters in EastEnders face once-in-a-lifetime crises almost weekly, which obviously cheapens the impact for viewers. Conversations are feverishly emotional both in content and delivery (Sharon being the archetype here), and the preoccupations of the characters are also almost exclusively emotional rather than practical. ‘Can you change the barrel?’ and ‘Would you watch my stall for a minute?’ seem to be the only sops to everyday dialogue.

This is probably the exact opposite of viewers’ experience – work, money, housing, transport, children, schools, shopping, domestic and medical difficulties form the daily texture of most lives, and it is normal life that is the natural constituency of the soap – it is not as if the schedules were short of high-octane dramas full of murder, sex, police, and so on.

Making drama out of the superficially ordinary, and developing believable characters, presents a much tougher, but potentially more interesting, challenge for writers, and here Coronation Street succeeds better than EastEnders. New characters are introduced to the Street almost imperceptibly. If they fit, they stay (let
s hope this is true of the wonderful Gemma, played by Dolly-Rose Campbell). People just chat, without contributing to any particular plotline, but enriching our impression of that person. Some characters do very little but drink in the Rovers, dress hair, or serve customers, for weeks at a time. The action is all in the talk: one surreal exchange between Norris, Mary and Rita in the Kabin (a newsagent) is worth a thousand tram crashes.  

Having said that, as I was writing this article, the hapless Gail Platt discovered that the corpse of a local gangster had been buried under her bed for months, and her own children were the murderers, so the Street is hardly immune from the siren call of melodrama. 

Kate Ford has twice won the 'Best Bitch' award for her character Tracy Barlow in Coronation Street. 

EastEnders has some superb well-established characters, and many promising ones, but they often seem swamped and sidelined by overheated plotting. EastEnders has also suffered from the real-life erosion of its original 1980s context, a shabby square in the traditionally working-class East End of London. Runaway house-price inflation in London has made it highly unlikely that any of the characters could afford to live in these desirable terraced houses – or should I say ‘properties’ – today. Coronation Street, set in the Manchester area, remains more credible. Its hard to know what EastEnders should do about this, but some acknowledgement of the housing crisis in the plots might be a start.* 

And what they do right . . . 

British and Australian soaps, unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the world, are free from prurient and obsequious fascination with the lives of the rich and pampered, and this is a massive plus. At their best, as in all good drama, soaps show that there is no such thing as an ‘ordinary person’, a ‘minor character’, or an ordinary place, but they need to stay aware of what they are good at.

Coronation Street: The action is all in the talk: one brief, surreal conversation between Norris, Mary, and Rita is worth a thousand tram crashes.

* It seems that someone might be reading this blog (!) because since I wrote this article, EastEnders has started to include quite a few references to house prices, difficulties with rent, and so on.

© Josephine Gardiner 2016