Visual Details in the BBC’s Roadkill

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Recently I watched the new BBC drama series Roadkill, starring Hugh Laurie as ambitious but morally-unsound cabinet minister Peter Laurence. Many have wondered how it would be possible to set political fiction in the 2016-2020 era without Brexit, Trump and now Coronavirus (although this series was filmed a little to early to know of that last one) completely dominating every character’s every thought, or indeed without those certain real names and faces with whom such events are so intimately intertwined. This series has the innovative solution of moving an unspecified time into the future, by which point these issues have supposedly been resolved and everything is back to normal. That alone would surely make it a utopian invention, but the purpose of this post is not to review the series on a dramatic basis. Instead, I wish to draw attention to the ways in which government location and insignia – including the royal arms – are depicted in television.

Television program-makers have to tread very carefully when depicting real life brand names, trademarks, uniforms or other insignia. This often leads to them creating slightly off-model versions for their fictional purposes, in the hope that the result will be different enough to avoid legal liability but similar enough for viewers to understand.

In Roadkill there are multiple shots in this miniseries of the grand staircase at 10 Downing Street, with its display of the portraits of former prime ministers. Exactly when the political history of this work diverges from real life is unknown, but the most recent leader seen on the stairs is Margaret Thatcher (whose premiership is likewise something of a fixed point in time). Comparisons to virtual tours of the real staircase (both taken during Cameron’s tenure) reveal that the portraits on set were from different photographs. They are also quite literally larger than life, as the real portraits from Baldwin onwards are seen to be rather diminutive within their frames.

Laurence begins the episode as Minister of Transport, and there is a shot of him pulling up outside his headquarters, with “Ministry of Transport” on plaques either side of the main entrance. In real life Britain last had an organisation by that name in 1970. Since 2002 it has been called the Department for Transport, though the initialism MOT is still used for vehicle safety tests. Later in the episode Laurence is moved to Justice. In his meeting with the Prime Minister she refers to “the Ministry of Justice” which is what it has been called in real life since 2007, yet later when we see our protagonist at his new desk his screensaver says “Department of Justice” instead. For the rest of the series he is called “Minister” rather than “Secretary of State” and there is no mention of him holding the office of Lord Chancellor. What’s striking about these examples is the subtlety of the change – the typeface doesn’t look any different, nor does the coat of arms, only the arrangement of the arms to the left of the text instead of above.

The current template for government letterheads debuted in 2012, alongside the rolling out of GOV.UK, in a drive to rationalise the costly and confusing sprawl of departmental websites and logos which had emerged over the past twenty years. Prior to that there was no consistency in branding – while some departments did use the royal arms, others just put their names in stylised lettering, or had some other unrelated imagery. While this looked rather poor for the real life institutions, it probably made things easier for creators of political fiction, who could plausibly make up just about any title design for their invented offices without having to carefully alter the official insignia. The DoSAC logo as used in The Thick of It, for example, is perfectly believable as part of the Whitehall lineup of that period.

A long time ago there was a Doctor Who episode called The Aliens of London, in which much of the action takes place at Number 10. There was an attempt at recreating the grand staircase – in this version the helical staircase ascends anticlockwise and the walls are red, with the portraits few and far between. A coat of arms can be seen printed on the window, but too distant for much clarity. A later scene shows a conference room in which the royal arms appear on a backlit screen. The crown, motto, garter circlet and shield are correct (albeit the tinctures are changed), but the supporters are swapped around so that the unicorn stands to the dexter of the shield and the lion to the sinister – as if in the Scottish version. The lion is chained this time while the unicorn wears the crown of Scotland. The unicorn is still gorged with a circlet at the neck.

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I also have a distant recollection of a scene in Torchwood series 3 or 4 in which a much worse state emblem is seen – the supporters and motto of the royal arms but the shield just shown the Parliamentary portcullis badge. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to track down a screencap in order to check.

Arms of Arda

I have two out of four. Now I just need a peerage and an ancient hall.

Twice before I have mentioned creating Wikipedia pages compiling illustrated heraldic lists: One personal, for the Speakers of the House of Commons, and one corporate, for Britain’s many armigerous universities. Yesterday I started drafting another two such pages. The first was for all the schools (primary and secondary education) in the United Kingdom which bear arms, the second was for the armigerous entities – whether single characters, whole families or the polities they rule – within Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

I notified the heraldry and vexillology project of both of these undertakings. I also told the Middle-earth project, though only while typing this post did I find the project for schools. So far the schools page has garnered negligible attention. This was expected given the Speakers page took three months and three submission attempts to be published, while the Universities one took almost a year. The Tolkien page, however, has already been moved to mainspace, with editors from that project rushing in to cite academic papers analysing heraldry in the legendarium (including the two articles to which I linked back in May) as well as the exact points in the books themselves at which the various shields or banners were described.

The manner of description is where this armorial necessarily differs from the others I have done, for the Anglo-Norman terminology of blazon would be inappropriate in this fantastical pre-history. The devices which appear are thus constructed from plain English sentences, giving accessibility for layman at the expense of the precision desired by heraldists. The armorial ensigns of Middle-earth are far more primitive than those of the modern (or even later medieval) age, usually consisting of a single charge on a plain background – the white hand of Isengard, the red eye of Mordor, the coiled serpent of Harad and the running horse of Rohan. Some have no charge at all, though of course this strains uniqueness – the Elf lord Maeglin and the Vala devil Morgoth both used emblems of plain black. Repetition can occur even with the more complex designs – the lines of Elendil and Durin both set their main charge (the White Tree of Gondor, or the hammer & anvil of Moria) beneath a crown and a chevron of seven stars. For the kings of men these represented the palantíri from Númenor, for the dwarves the Valacirca constellation.

Legendarium figures were not immune to resorting to writing in their insignia: The stewards of Gondor inscribed their seal with the Tengwar form of R · ND · R – shorthand for the Quenya name of their office. Gandalf used a certh G on a grey roundel, and Saruman a certh S on white. It is not said if Radagast ever used a certh R on a brown roundel in the same way.

The sixteen-pointed lozenge of Finwë, High King of the Ñoldor.

Elves, as one might expect, exhibit a greater degree of sophistication in their devices, sometimes with details that could prove too fine for mere human eyes. Personal devices were on lozenges (for the males) or roundels (for the females). Squares bore the signs of entire dynasties, or the nations they led. The average Elven cognizance features either stars or flowers, with the number of points (either flares or petals) that touch the edge indicating the owner’s rank. In this way there is some resemblance to modern human heraldry with its many different coronets and helmets, though in Middle-earth these details must be placed on the shield for there are no such external ornaments.

Exceptions to this convention were found in the lost city of Gondolin, where the twelve houses each had their own emblems depicted on shields. Thankfully I did not have to add these all by myself, for the existing article on The Fall of Gondolin included a handy table for me to transclude. In many cases the shield merely depicts the image for which the house is named – the White Wing, the Pillar, the Tower of Snow, the Tree, the Golden Flower, the Fountain, the Harp. Some are less intuitive – the House of the King uses a crescent, sun and heart, and the House of the Heavenly Arch depicts a multi-coloured jewel. The House of the Hammer of Wrath shows the titular hammer striking an anvil, similar to Durin’s emblem.

There is one unfortunate omission – the Shire, which provides the main protagonists for Tolkien’s best-known stories, has was never given any flag, arms or seal by which to be identified. Perhaps this is to be expected given the minimalist government of the region and the rarity with which Hobbits interacted with other nations even for trade, much less war. Still, it is interesting to ponder what a fitting charge might be – a pipe, perhaps, or a bare, hairy foot? Far stranger coats of arms have been employed in the real world, after all.

The Lockdown Specials

One of the more interesting phenomena to emerge since the start of the pandemic has been the proliferation of makeshift online productions by those who previously would have been on mainstream television. The gap between amateur and professional has been noticeable diminished as a result of the virus, as actors and presenters have been deprived of their studious, props and make-up artists.

Only this year did I discover the radio sitcom Cabin Pressure. In March the writer John Finnemore launched the online video shorts entitled Cabin Fever. In April David Walliams and Matt Lucas performed a Little Britain compilation with improvised costumes. This was warmly received despite the main show having ended thirteen years ago and despite an ongoing controversy about some of its content. On the same night Dawn French released a “Parish Update” based on The Vicar of Dibley.

Especially notable about these online substitutes is the extent to which their creators are open to public contributions for ideas. Earlier examples included Jimmy Carr’s Little Tiny Quiz of the Lockdown. After a while he began asking viewers to suggest questions. I sent in a whole slideshow’s worth, but got no acknowledgement. The latest one – actually three months ago but I only just found it – was on the Sid City channel, a fan channel for actor Alexander Siddig. He played Lt. Dr. Julian Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine from 1993 to 1999. Although the series ended twenty-one years ago the fanbase goes strong. Fans writing their own stories about characters from their favoured franchise is hardly uncommon, but convincing the cast themselves to perform it is vanishingly rare. The circumstances obviously prohibit the cast from physically interacting, so the stories are formatted as futuristic epistolary novels in which the characters interact through video link. The premise of Alone Together is very topical, of course, being that Cardassia has been closed off due to the spread of a disease – though this one attacks its victims’ thought processes rather than their respiration. A later story, Curse from the Prophets, is even more on-point in its commentary about immigration.

It will be interesting to see which franchise is next to have this treatment – perhaps The Thick of It, as virtual conferences are now so dominant in real-life politics, although Iannucci has said that his satire is redundant now, and how many of the main cast in 2012 would have survived to 2020 is far from certain.