Small Axe and/as Cinematic Television

Andrews, Hannah (2023) Small Axe and/as Cinematic Television. In: Steve McQueen: I Want the Burden. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN UNSPECIFIED

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Small Axe and/as Cinematic Television
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Abstract

“These are cinema. These are films that happen to be on TV” Steve McQueen said of his Small Axe series, broadcast on BBC One in November and December 2020. That McQueen had to make this statement speaks to the rhetorical divergence between cinema and television that is becoming increasingly unsustainable in a converged industrial context. In a year in which cinema closures forced film viewing to largely take place in the home, the category confusion over Small Axe (BBC One/Amazon Studios, 2020) was perhaps inevitable.
This paper will analyse Small Axe through the conceptual lens of medium specificity, focusing particularly on the contested concept of ‘cinematic television’. The term ‘cinematic’ when applied to television has generally been understood as an expression of cultural hierarchy, where dramas with ‘cinematic’ aesthetics are ‘legitimated’ and acquire elevated cultural status (Newman and Levine, 2011). The promotion of Small Axe as an auteur-led project can be read as an attempt to legitimate the series in these terms. Yet, as Roshni Naidoo (2021) notes, its schedule position in the peak time Sunday evening slot favoured in the UK for prestige television drama, is a profoundly televisual gesture of reclamation on behalf of an audience that historically has been underserved, misrepresented, and marginalised by British broadcasters (Malik, 2017).
Recent work by Jonathan Gray and Derek Johnson (2021), and Rashna Wadia Richards (2021) has attempted to deepen and complicate definitions of ‘cinematic television’ drawing on theorisations of media convergence and intertextuality. These analyses of cinematic television respond specifically to American texts, leaving a gap in understanding of how cinematic television emerges in other national contexts. This discussion of the Small Axe series will therefore consider the longer history of convergence between cinema and television in the UK (Andrews, 2014).
This chapter will combine analysis of this context of aesthetic and industrial convergence with a discussion of affect-driven (post-)cinematic aesthetics (Shaviro, 2010, Restivo 2019). It will evaluate the ways the Small Axe films appropriate cinematic forms of affect for television. Through analysis of mise en scene, editing and sound design, it will examine how a cinematic ‘feel’ is created in these dramas. Applying theorisations of affect and blackness (Ashley and Billies, 2017, 2020; Palmer, 2017), it will argue that the specificity of context is crucial to understanding the meaning and value of ‘cinematic television’.
This novel synthesis of (black) affect theory with medium specificity analysis will attempt to make sense of McQueen’s assertion that he partnered with the BBC “because I wanted my mother to see these stories on TV.” It will consider how Small Axe represents a fusion of cinematic aesthetics and affect with televisual access and address, attending to the specificity of representation of, access for, and address to a black British audience.

Keywords:cinematic television, black cinema, cinematic affect, television, black filmmakers, television address
Subjects:P Mass Communications and Documentation > P303 Film studies
P Mass Communications and Documentation > P301 Television studies
Divisions:College of Arts > Lincoln School of Film & Media > Lincoln School of Film & Media (Film)
ID Code:49169
Deposited On:06 May 2022 10:11

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