Life Notions & Impact Personifications: The PBS TCA Summer Press Tour 2012 – Feature

PBS always tends to find the balance between notions of life represented in hope along with the tragedies and personifications present in our past. From the notions of planetary exploration to the impact of the Dust Bowl to new arts initiative in (of all places) Vegas, the network continues to support and represent the best in our tendencies.


Within the texture of “American Experience”, “Death & The Civil War” examines the aspect of this war which changed the fabric of America. The idea of informing next of kin and handling of the dead in war was made strategic in later conflicts simply because of the emotional harm it wrought in this war.

Ric Burns, director of this “Experience” who also made “The Civil War” for PBS with his brother Ken, saw the expansion inherent in this exercise. He explains in terms of visual representation that “we didn’t want to use physical re-enactments but more the physical realities of war” continuing that “the [balance] between life and absence is a very powerful theme”. The idea was that “things are going to come to an end and how do we hold on to those things”. Elements such as “lockets of hair that are pulled off [and still exist] are profoundly moving”. He admits that “we were dedicated to showing the war in its full gruesomeness” because “we must understand what war is before we again undertake something so ghastly”. He strongly pleads that “we need to know what it costs” which in the series “became a moral imperative to be encompassed”. Cutting his teeth of “The Civil War” with Ken in 1990, “the emphasis was someplace else”. Making this series, using the battle at Bull Run as an example, “it was about the fact that they [the commanders] didn’t know what they were getting into” because “there was an utter lack of preparation for casualties of that tremendous number”. In terms of connecting the audience, “if it is not death, it is a mortifying constraint” because “I think there is a powerful way to connect to this basic human urge” in the essence of the fact that “the dead and living are [constantly] having conversation”.

Drew Faust, the current President of Harvard University and author of the book: “Republic Of Suffering” on which this film is loosely based, says that “this was a war in which there was a vividness” and “that had to do with the arrival of photography”. This was specifically true because “far more dramatic were the battlefield photographs after the battle that showed mostly the dead”. The book that she wrote “deals with questions of meaning and religion”. The death toll of the Civil War “as inflated for today was 7 million and half of them were unidentified”. She adds that “as a sister or as a wife, you would never know what happened to your loved ones”. She finds it interesting that “people asked me when I wrote the book if it was depressing? Not at all.” Rather she “found it inspiring to see people’s response in dealing with death tolls”.

Balancing in structure to an element of domesticity, “Martha Stewart’s Cooking School” offers a more intimate approach to the domestic maven’s ideals of normalcy. Stewart is quick to angle saying “I really think people need to know how to cook”. She likes this program in terms of making it “because it is basic and informative”. In terms of her own approach, “I talk about buying organic when you can”. She relates a story about one of her housekeepers saying “that I brought a big basket to her and she almost cried”. Relating the organic structure, she takes note of “what is going on in Texas with the starving cattle” saying that “we are going to see all of this reflected in the prices.” She encourages people “to grow something to eat”. Then she talks about the growth of her empire saying “I originally started with KMart which was a great store in 1987” but that “we have been up and down the retail pyramid”. She also addresses who might be good to play her eventually in a movie saying “Meryl Streep’s too close to me and I will live longer than anybody”. When she is asked about her hobbies, she says she has lots of them but most “are babies because of my grandchildren” but adds that “babies are another business”. In terms of a quick fix fast food in today’s marketplace she says that she has “eaten 1 Burger King and 2 McDonalds” though she admits coming into LA that morning “I had an In N’ Out burger today”. Her parents, according to Martha, were “original organic people” though she says that “every once in a while I snuck down to a friend’s house” (whose father worked for Pepsi) “and put whipped cream” on the drink. In terms of her legacy, Stewart says “you can edit your life which I do more frequently than ever” which, for her, means “simplifying it”. This translates for her into “making things to add to your home and yourself” adding that “I don’t plant any annual flowers for example”. Overall, she explains, “my story is that I am the daughter and one of six kids”. In terms of her life occupation, “I centered on a subject matter that I could actually excel in” though she half jokes that “Oprah and I are very different people”.


Showing a propensity for the balance of many things, Kenneth Branagh always remains faithful to his roots in returning to “Masterpiece”. In coming back to his Swedish-set vision of “Wallander” in its third incarnation, he explores the notion of character structure with his always specific eye. Branagh finds Wallander “thoughtful and meditative” but supposes “the distinction of him is the rather lack of vanity” in that “he doesn’t have the machismo swagger as much”. His perception is that Wallander “seems to just live for the job” but “he has a kind of empathy for crime that is dangerous to him because it is dehabilitating”. In terms of ticks, Wallander “doesn’t have the coat or the toothpick or the weird obsession with cars”. The location in Scandinavia where the series is set is also important for Branagh in that “I felt it was a landscape that I was not familiar with” in that “it feels like everything has been composed by God”. Remaining faithful to the character is important “though, in terms of closeness to the ‘Wallander’ novel, with the author’s permission, we try to do that nebulous sounding thing of staying within the circumstances [of it].” Branagh has recently become Sir Ken which he was informed of “a full six weeks before the Queen’s birthday” joking that “I thought I was really in trouble”. Right now, he is working what he calls “the Jack Ryan origin story” (at Paramount) which he will also have an acting part in. He continues that “he is always in search of good work” adding that “I have come at directing that way” because “I enjoy directing actors”. The satisfaction of doing certain projects is different. For him, “sometimes in a film, you can have ownership” but “you give yourself differently in film than you do in theater”. Looking at his roots, he admits “working class Belfast is what we were” and that “my father was a joiner”. Both his parents were “of the idea that money doesn’t make you happy” and “they were concerned because they couldn’t help me [in that way].” In terms of his father’s influence, he says “I made a garden bench that sits in my garden to this day” admitting that “it is unsafe” but “I had a design” though “it was terrible”. Now, “it sits in a rackish garden with a sense of mockery” and “shows my uselessness as a practical man of the house”. Looking at his progression to “Wallander”, Branagh speaks that “my first job was in television” so “there was a sense of returning home”. He admits that “it is remarkable to come back and learn a little bit more about a role that is quite naked” because “you are trying not to have schtick”. In playing the character, “you feel upset as Wallander alot of the time” though he continues that “the third time I was better in dealing with it but not devaluing what I was doing creatively”. The key relies in that “when I don’t know, I don’t think the audience quite knows”.


With a dexterous number of Emmy nominations, “Downton Abbey” broke through the structures of British/American crossover by finding a way to speak to both angles of the youth and the mature at the same time. Many adhere this thought to the inflection of modern perceptions in an otherwise period setting.  Julian Fellowes, the exec producer and showrunner who also wrote the Robert Altman film “Gosford Park” says “we like our laughs” but “this season, in a way, is about redemption from the war”. What has been most fulfilling for him in terms of the show’s crossover is that “there is a liberation in it being original” but “that you must be careful to give [it] reasonable action and emotional resonance”. The effectiveness relies in that “it looks like a classic period drama of the 70s but the energy is much more modern”. He indicates one of his influences in the “trollop novel”. In terms of writing, “the language is more what we hear as modern” but “colloquial language is much older than you think”. However, he has yet to find one colloquialism complaint that has been correct. He explains that the latest example was the word: “kids” which was first used in the 15th Century. He jokes that “there isn’t a strange place called ‘period’ where people dress in funny clothes” but admits that “it is true that as life changes, disciplines change”. For specifically the family in “Downton”, “these were tough years” because “even though the ways of keeping up these estates became easier, it was a toss up for many families if it was indeed worth the struggle”. Focusing on the characters, he thinks “[Lady] Mary is one of those people who gives into society” but “she is not a rebel”. In terms of production for “Downton”, each series takes about 2 years to make. Looking to the future of the story, he says “the 1920s is a very interesting period for me” in that it is a “much more nebulous time” because “it is a transition between the Old World and the time before the 2nd World War”.

Approaching Lady Mary Crowley, actress Michelle Dockery thinks her character “started out as a bit of a brat” and “was far colder [at the inset]”. Leading into the most recent series, she says “her incident with the Mook softened her in that something actually happened to her which made her more vulnerable”. Initially, because of Fellowes’ “Gosford Park” history, “I thought initially she was going to be like Kristin Scott Thomas [in that movie]” but now “I really enjoy this journey I wasn’t expecting”.


Balancing out as Robert Crawley, the Earl Of Gratham, Hugh Bonneville says that his reaction to the series’ impact was “gobsmacked” but that in looking at the simple progression of the characters: “[Robert’s] destiny was predetermined” because “his marriage was a business transaction” though he happened to fall in love.

Elizabeth McGovern plays Cora, the wife of Robert and Countess Of Gratham. Her intention balances this trajectory which reflects in the next coming series when Shirley MacClaine joins the cast as her mother Martha Levinson. In the progression of this casting, McGovern speaks that “I think there is a light that mothers give to their daughters” but “it became very clear that the journey of Cora had gone from Shirley”. Shirley’s character Martha “is a more old fashioned idea of woman’s strength” which “is good to resurrect if it is correct”.

MacClaine, always outspoken, relates that “Downton Abbey” “definitely creeps into your pores” but that the shooting process “was increasing [difficult] in stamina and work ethic”. As to why the show is such a hit, she heard about it from her hairdresser. MacClaine also relates when she first met one of her co-stars on “Downton”: Maggie Smith, saying “We met at the Oscars. I guess I lost. There was this big chocolate cake. I came off [the stage, grabbed a piece of the cake] and said “Fuck! I don’t care if I’m thin ever again”. She says that Smith remembers it but that “she’s younger…by one year”. In seeing this world, she makes an interesting observation explaining that “the corsets were so demanding” adding that “I realize, of course, that there was a class system” but that was because “you couldn’t get dressed” on your own.


Heading into the following intention, “Half The Sky“, inspired by the book of the same name by Nicholas Kristof and his wife/co-writer Sheryl WuDunn, explores the notion of women’s persecution in the world. Enlisting the eyes of several well known activists including Meg Ryan, Diane Lane and America Ferrara, they attempt to put names to the faces to expose and educate people on some of these actions around the world.

Maro Chermayeff tries to put a picture within the structure saying that with these specials “we are not trying to elect someone” but rather to “tell stories on the ground” that “people might not otherwise be thinking about”. She adds that “it makes a difference but sometimes with this subject matter, there is commitment that is already there”. In approaching the celebrities to this cause, she explains that “it was not that Meg [Ryan] or Diane [Lane] should be experts but that they would be the eyes and the ears” or rather “witnesses”. The balance remains in what is seen to which Chermayeff states “there is a moment when people say “we cannot stay that long” because it is too much for them. However, she continues “if you give people a chance, people will come” because by “opening that door, people come in”.

Kristof, the author of the book, reflects this ideal encouraging that “there are real issues here” and “no one can ignore that fact”. The aim “is that we try to focus on organizations that are on the ground”. WuDunn, his co-writer as well as wife, speaks of her personal connection to this plight, recollecting stories of her family. She begins by saying “my grandmother’s feet were bound [as was tradition]. It happened that there were some Westerners [visiting] in China who thought [the action] was horrific”. These Westerners began talking to some Chinese intellectuals, which initialized an intervention to stop the practice at the least in that area. WuDunn echoes her husband’s intentions saying “we are not trying to tell people what they should do” but that by exposing a viewing audience to this material, “they can choose what they are drawn to”.

Diane Lane gives her perception of this outreach by connecting it to her own work relating that “many years ago, I did a film called ‘Unfaithful’ and everywhere I went, they enjoyed the movie. [Because of the subject matter], I was conflicted about that.” She saw that disconnect in that “there was an acceptance of another world which is forbidden in their culture”. Through her experiences within charities and projects like this “there is forgiveness” and “it is separate from being a woman and citizen of the world” but she also stresses that “education is the key through and through”. For her, “the legal right to say no is a physical experience” along with “a convergence of influences”. Her faith becomes one of connection as she adds that “my grandmother was a Pentecostal preacher” but that the horrors some women face in the world are just “a question of the odds of one’s birth”. She concludes speaking that “it is really unfair that people have to be saved rather than have an opportunity”.


Moving into a more artistic-based terrain, “American Masters” continues to examine different interflowing personas. The intrinsic subject of the most recent incarnation revolves around a business and creative mogul with as many stories as the artists he shepherded: David Geffen. Retrieved from his boat off Sardinia, the notoriously media shy Geffen made his presence heard in a relatively angled way. He begins succinctly saying “I had successes [but] I think failure is the great motivator”. His mother, he relates, came from Palestine in 1931 and that both his parents were socialists. He was bar mitzvahed but didn’t have much of a religious upbringing. He initializes a conception of his early days in the music industry saying “when I was a kid, all my peers wanted to play guitar and be in a band”. Switching quickly to film, Geffen relates that “the demise of the DVD has had an extreme impact” but “that it is very hard to get into the movie business both then and now”. What began changing his life is when he was misdiagnosed with bladder cancer in 1976, commenting that “I just stopped working” and “I took my eye off the ball at Geffen Records”. That said, he explains “I always thought it was fun to get to the office” though “I never thought I was the smartest guy in the room”. He recollects that “I’ve had any number of jobs I was fired from” but in order to create a true company, “it takes time to create an infrastructure” which was the case in the rise of Dreamworks. Moving back to discussing film [Geffen tends to jump around], “the business has changed dramatically” in that “in the world today, the story means more than the cast”. “There are not many big stars [now, in both music and film],” he continues, “because you need repetition. [Especially in music], you need to hear things alot”.


Rounding up structures comes back to the history of broadcasting which is inevitably reflected in the always effective “Pioneers Of Television“. Focusing on the impact of miniseries along with shows such as “Knots Landing”, the reconnection of Rachel Ward and Richard Chamberlain of “The Thorn Birds”, who last made an appearance 30 years ago, speaks to the impact of television with such a TV event that is still remembered.

Ward relates that originally “I came from England but I had been working for a little bit before I got ‘The Thorn Birds'” She arrived in the US in 1981 and the “stars were in my favor”. She says “when I originally read ‘The Thorn Birds’ I did not want to do it but my agent was insistent” explaining “I was kind of half-hearted about it” because “it did not have a natural rhythm” and “read stiffly”. In terms of the audition process, she said that she was disdained for her acting ability but “everything else was kind of right about me”. She says she took her luck “for granted” but that “I got it right with Richard [Chamberlain] at the next audition”. As production began, “I definitely struggled with it” because “you need a bit of talent” and “enormous guts”. Chamberlain, sitting next to her, beaming, says “the whole structure of the miniseries is wonderful” connecting that “series television moves a little too fast and movies were a bit too slow”. He relates that “for ‘Shogun’ we were 6 1/2 months shooting in Japan” but “I had a lot of trouble remembering lines”. Lou Gossett Jr., on hand representing “Roots” (by far one of the most watched miniseries of all times, relates “[with ‘Roots’] lo and behold, we stopped the world. [It was] an opener and put us on the map.”

PBS continues to reflect life with both legends passing on knowledge and perceptions to a younger age and, with a hit like “Downton Abbey”, is connecting to the cross-section of America like never before.

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