Without being too specific, I was probably about the age of the actors in Erica Eyres' work “Pam’s Dream” when I watched Dallas “realtime”, i.e. at the time of BBC broadcast. At the time, unthinkably, there were only 3 TV channels on British TV – BBC1, BBC2 and ITV, and only the last was a commercial channel. If Dallas had been broadcast on ITV, I wouldn’t have seen it – commercial TV was banned in my house, the herald of man-made uppers, microwave meals and mothers who worked. Despite the fact that Dallas was American, and therefore by definition “commercial”, I was permitted to watch it in the living room of my home on the fringes of a small, rural Scottish town because everyone – literally everyone – at my school watched it, and my mother gradually recognized the value of me being at least marginally conversant with the most popular, “Popular” culture: anything Punky was off limits, (“They don’t believe in private property”), but Dallas, with its impotent pretties, home-style grannies and incredible real estate was OK. I knew about the habit of a Great Diving Beetle, I knew JR had been shot and, though I didn’t know I knew it, I knew that perspective correlated to power: the higher up a skyscraper your office, the better. Knowing Sue-Ellen was my favorite compensated to some degree for my resolutely sturdy shoes and my swotty school reports: Dallas aided the presentation of myself as “normal”, very much what it was designed to do.
The aesthetic legacy on which “Pam’s Dream” trades is distinctly North American, but there is little sense that Eyres’ work has been made by a Dallas obsessive: the sets and costumes are so approximate that the idea of “Dallas” recedes soon as the title sequence ends. The conventions and aesthetic she employs are more closely derived from the unregulated sprawl of public access re-enactment, embodying, perhaps, an ironic homage to the makeshift scenery characteristic of the afternoon soaps from which a prime-time episodic drama like Dallas takes its structure. In the sediment of North America’s cultural archaeology, episodic drama is bonded with public access. The soapbox preacher broadcasting from a broom cupboard decked out in paper stars is at least as American a phenomenon as is Dallas, a correlate “other” to clear-cut soap moralizing. It was never a phenomenon that exerted much influence in the UK: we got Dallas, Knots Landing, Falcon Crest and the rest, but we didn’t get public access. User-generated cable-content – surreal and multifarious – was largely absent from the British TV landscape and psyche: free speech was something largely entrusted to the BBC, the global benchmark for arms length impartiality whose license-fee funding “guaranteed” quality programming immune to commercial pressure. British TV did (does) not sprawl. Even in the commercial sector, it was planned and tightly regulated. In the 1980s, the heyday of public access broadcasting in the USA, when Dallas was screened in the UK, TV was top-down broadcasting. Some British soaps, (Coronation Street, Emmerdale, Crossroads), pre-date Dallas – naturally, they were broadcast on ITV - but they produced no compensations in area of public access. Eastenders, the BBC produced soap renown for its depressing story-lines, especially in the run-up to the annual Christmas dinner denouement, was first broadcast in 1985.
If we are so minded, we might take up with Theodore Adorno’s rationalization of “How To Look At Television”, (written in 1954), and subscribe to the notion that television, “mass media”, psycho-socially produces and determines hegemonic behavior models, enforcing ideas of conformity and convention: “The typical psychological mechanisms utilized by television and the devices by which they are automized function only within a small number of given frames of reference operative within television communication, and the socio-psychological effect largely depends on them. We are all familiar with the division of television content in various classes, such as light comedy, westerns, mysteries, so-called sophisticated plays and others. These types have developed into formulas which, to a certain degree, pre-established the attitudinal pattern of the spectator before he is confronted with any specific content and which largely determine the way in which specific content is being perceived.” The perverse margins of public access have been the places where attitudinal patterns distort, amplify, mutate – though what it means, in the Internet age, that the idiosyncratic, slip-shoddy, eccentric and badly rehearsed take centre-stage remains to be seen.
There is little sense that there are any fraternal relationships between members of the cast in Eyres’ work. The eye behind the camera does not seem to belong to the group – it could be that of an enthusiastic youth club worker or drama club teacher. Despite the slap-dash sets and improvised costumes, there is little sense that the video has been directed or overseen by the actors, all elementary school-age children. These children, born in Scotland in the last 10 years or so, have no native knowledge about the Dallas brand, though some attempt American accents (JR’s is memorably and revealingly “New York cop”). Then again in “Pam’s Dream”, despite the iconic title sequence, the triumphal fanfare, “Dallas” is itself just a prop, as it was in CBS’s business strategy. In Eyre’s work, the prop function of Dallas might shift from “ratings delivery” to “facilitating role-play”, but it is a prop function nonetheless. Perhaps in this respect, Eyre’s work alludes less to public access broadcasting and more to the use of re-enactment and video technology as diagnostic tools in the field of (child) psychology: props and toys, role-play, facilitate professional observations – subconscious character “tells” and behavior patterns might be made obvious (given away) in the course of scripted drama, in schematic improvisation. Personality leaks out. We are drawn into “Pam’s Dream” by a lack of guile in the children’s performances, by comedic mishap, genuine enthusiasm and occasional reticence: the sense of what they say matters less than their manner of delivery.
Feeding back from here into the soap form, “Pam’s Dream” might be seen to work with the disposal of narrative, or at least with the provisional nature of narrative. In soaps and serial dramas, hyperbole and staged sentiment proceed through scripts and stereotyped characters without any necessary connection to plot, a state of affairs taken to logical conclusion in the infamous Series 9 finale episode from which “Pam’s Dream” takes its title. In that episode, Pamela Ewing – Victoria Principal - wakes up to find her previously dead husband showering in the en suite; in Series 10, before she dies, it becomes apparent that the crises and climaxes of Series 9 have all been a dream, her dream. The Dallas audience may have been perplexed by Bobby’s resurrection and the retrospective implication that neither his death, nor anything since, had been anything but a figment of Pamela’s sleeping subconscious, but the notion that nothing in the Series had been “real” did not completely destroy their faith in the format. Having said that, in Dallas, Pam’s dream was less a post-modern conceit or schematic non-sequitur than it was a pragmatic response to the high-rolling ratings competition with the altogether more fabulous Dynasty, a response permitted by genre. Dynasty’s power bitch Alexis was a gold-standard ball-breaker whose manipulative swagger cast long shadows over the passive-aggressive frustrations of the Texan prom queens and alcoholics – a Lucifer in high heels more than capable of trouncing the resurrected cowboy with his buckle belt and double denim. In this respect Dallas’s “deus-et-artifex” - Pam’s dream - was devised for effect not within the drama, but in the real world, and it is in the “real” world that Eyre’s work lodges itself.
Fiona Jardine July 2012