An analysis of the representation of regional identity and class in ITV drama Doc Martin.

In this text, I will analyse how regional identity and class are constructed in ITV drama Doc Martin. The programme, which has aired since 2004, involves a central protagonist, Doctor Ellingham (colloquially known as Doc Martin), who is a surgeon from London that moves south to the small, fictional village of Port Wenn in Cornwall to become their local GP.

I have chosen to research regional and class representation because the way in which they are portrayed in the media contributes to the civil war of stereotypes that ensues in the UK. Many in England perceive region and class to be intrinsically linked, so it’s hard to research one without the other. We can conjure images of the London gangster, the Scouse criminal or the East Anglian farmer – but where do these come from? The media influences our understanding of stereotypes and goes a long way to constructing them, often in a negative light – as Richard Dyer says, ‘a stereotype is almost always a term of abuse’ (Dyer, 1999, p. paragraph 1).

According to Anssi Paasi(2009, pp. 121-146), ‘region’ and ‘identity’ have become common catchphrases in the modern global geo-economic and geo-political scene. Our regional identity and class are hugely defining factors in the UK. Sociologist Erik Olin Wright says (1980, pp. 177-214), ‘class and occupation are generally regarded as occupying the same theoretical terrain’. Combined, they can inhibit or increase our ability to get jobs, earn money or socialise in certain circles.

What defines identity? Andrew Higson (1998, pp. 354-364)notes that ‘identity is generally understood to be something shared amongst naturalized inhabitants of a particular political-geographic space – this can be a nation or region’. In addition, Tajfel and Turner (1979, pp. 276-292) determine that ‘identity stems from the groups with whom one belongs’. Withthese definitions in mind, I carried out some research as to what regional identity stereotypes pre-exist surrounding Cornwall (the central representation in Doc Martin) and, perhaps, how the programme has served to skew or reinforce them. The representation of region is discussed in a Guardian article titled ‘Doc Martin review: If I was Cornish, I’d be cross, why are they all portrayed as bumbly, workshy idiots?’ (Woollaston, 2015). Thearticle describes how locals are seen in a less than positive way. They are known to have ‘dropped their fish and shopping’, ‘crashed their boats’ and ‘muddled up urine dipsticks in the surgery’ – these scenarios are fashioned in a bid to debase the local identity and elevate that of the doctor.

Perhaps this portrayal, screened to millions of people weekly, has an effect on the perceptions of Cornwall. Throughout the series, the local area is depicted as a quaintly traditional but somewhat backwards place. In a report by the Cornish tourist board (Visit Cornwall, 2010), it was discovered that the second most common perception of Cornwall was that it was a ‘traditional’ place and that the idea of it being ‘modern’ ranked last on the list. Although they’re not necessarily negative, does Doc Martinplay a role in creating these ideas?

Benedict Anderson (1983, pp. 402-403) would say that the media doesindeed play a part in the construction of stereotypes surrounding regional identity. He states that ‘the unification of people in the modern world is achieved, not by military, but by cultural means. In particular, the media system allows people of nation or region to feel part of a coherent, meaningful and homogenous community’.

After reading Nick Lacey’s (1998)book Image and Representation – Key concepts in Media Studies, I decided upon a combination of ways in which I would analyse the media text. Semiotic analysis is the first way in which I will dissect it. According to the Media Students Book – 5thEdition(Branston & Stafford, 2010), semiotics is ‘a theory of signs and how they work to produce meaning’. An idea instigated by Ferdinand de Saussure (1916)and collated posthumously in his book Course in General Linguistics, semiology involves the relationship between the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’. Essentially, in modern terms, this is like denotation and connotation – the study of what information we assume from something we see. The audience is responsible for harnessing information from subtle signifiers they see on screen. This theory will be useful when analysing Doc Martinfor elements of mise en scene such as setting and props.

Although Saussure’s model goes a long way to helping us read a scene – some modern critics add that we need social context to understand it. Daniel Chandler’s (2001)theory of intertextuality  states that, for example, to understand the difference between Doc Martin’s clothing and that of the local plumbers – we need social understanding to be aware of the stature and prowess the wearing of a suit brings compared to a boiler suit, or else there would be no connotated difference in costume. Roland Barthes’ (1970)cultural code works in a similar way. He states that the audience need some body of shared knowledge to truly understand certain things we see on screen, such as said difference in costume.

In addition to these, I will also be analysing the text for sociological, linguistic and cinematographic techniques. Specifically, with the latter, how micro elements of the production such as camera angles, movement and framingcan construct and reinforce regional and class stereotypes. The camera is a powerful tool and is responsible for much of what we see on screen. The way in which it is used can tell us a lot about the representations at the heart of the narrative.

The section that I have chosen to analyse is the first episode of the first series. The producer’s aim here is to establish the characters. It’s these first impressions that launch their personalities and identities. As such, it is the perfect sequence to analyse. The reason I have not chosen to use any further episodes is because they offer much of the same thing. I know that, as an avid watcher of the programme, representations constructed in Doc Martin are rigid and infrequently change. The ‘fish out of water narrative’ is the vehicle that drives the drama, if the doctor and the locals were to homogenize, the central narrative of the programme would be lost. I will watch the first episode several times across multiple days, pausing the action and making notes when I seerelevant material – often stemming from a character’s fist introduction.

The dichotomythat is centric to the popular drama is that of the regional identities of the doctor and locals, and subsequently their class. As far as the doctor is concerned, having moved from London, he is of a higher class than those who reside in Port Wenn.  There are several production and post-production decisions that promote his self-absorption.

Multiple signifiers serve to portray the doctor as superior and of a higher class, something that he himself perceives to be greater than that of the Cornish villagers that he is now surrounded by. The first, and perhaps most obvious of these signifiers is costume, an element of mise en scene, (meaning in the scene). The doctor is dressed in a crisp, smart suit. His costume is immaculately and carefully constructed to illustrate his superior rank. Conversely, the locals’ costumes carry a more rural and rugged, working-class feel. As referenced in the  Working-Class Studies blog, the connotations of the working-class include ideas of ‘lazy, unproductive failures who are going nowhere, or relics of an earlier era of industrialisation’ (Linkon, 2008). That’s exactly what’s being portrayed in Doc Martin. For instance, Al and Burt Large, who come to fix the doctor’s plumbing, are adorned in full boiler suits (See appendix 1). The connotation that we make from this type of dress is of manual and arduous labour; often associated with those who lack the social, cultural and economic capital to do a more highly-skilled job such as the doctor. This difference in costume, and thus occupations, is an example of the lifestyles that their regional identity and class bring. The doctor, coming from London, is clearly the more intelligent, wealthy and important of the characters in that sequence.

Secondly, a combination of camera shots and movement further emphasise the doctor’s superiority over the locals and the surrounding environment. ‘Rule of Thirds’ is a way of arranging the composition of a shot; it involves splitting the shot into three and placing things within those parameters. In several of the shots throughout this sequence, the doctor is placed centrally (See appendix 2), this of course being the most ‘important’ third because our eyes are naturally drawn towards the centre. Because the doctor is placed ‘centre-stage’ throughout much of the episode, the audience are in no doubt that he is an individual of high regard and importance. In addition, other characters are seen as inferior because they are often placed on the periphery of the shot. This is constructed to further illustrate the doctor as a ‘fish out of water’. His blatantly outlandish costume ultimately embodies the socio-economic superiority of ‘London’ and the camera’s continued focus on him further highlights that. The aim of the production here is to induce a ‘preferred reading’  amongst the audience to mirror the doctor’s self-perception of being upper-class and having a superior regional identity which, once more, is seen as greater than that of the locals (Hall, 1973).

Furthermore, the repeated use of a tracking shot (See appendix 3) ensures that the doctor is the vehicle for driving the narrative, the audience know that he will be involved in some kind of drama as the camera is transfixed on him. Even when interacting with other characters such as PC Mylo, the camera follows Doc Martin in and out of the door (See appendix 4). These cinematographic choices; camera movement and shot composition, serve to reflect the doctor’s arrogant attitude and his pre-conception that his class-based capital is superior to that of those around him, thus placing him on something of a pedestal.

The regional identity of the locals and their underclass complexion is highlighted specifically by the clever use of props; perhaps most evidently in the Police Station. The doctor enters to return a stray dog, only to be greeted by PC Mark Mylo vacuuming the floor (See appendix 5). On first inspection, this comes across as a somewhat innocuous sequence, but the mise en scene here gives the audience a big indicator as to the region’s archaic identity. The vacuum cleaner and computer on the desk at the back of the room are both woefully outdated and old fashioned. This is a signifier that not much has changed in Port Wenn over several years. It creates an ultimate juxtaposition with the doctor as he enters in his new suit – like a beacon of light in the dark. In addition to this, there is the very fact that the local policeman is vacuuming because the slow and laidback landscape of the village ensures that there isn’t much crime to pursue. All of these signifiers combine to indicate the slow pace and nature of the town – something that the doctor simply isn’t used to. These outdated items therefore serve as a metaphor for the obsolete and old-fashioned nature of the locals and their region’s identity.

Despite these seemingly rigid conformations to regional stereotypes, there are some characters that subvert these conventions. Al Large, the plumber, mostly follows suit with his fellow Port Wenn locals; however, his use of language in the doctor’s surgery is not what we’d come to expect. Al makes a literary reference to notorious Cornish writer Daphne Du Maurier when they’re discussing the local colloquialism of ‘going Bodmin’ (See appendix 6). This type of intellectual and sophisticated conversation is a complete subversion of the less academically-able regional and class identity that has been constructed for Al and his father. Basil Bernstein defines this difference in language as ‘Elaborated’ and ‘Restricted’ codes. The elaborated code is the ability to use terminology and expression in a sophisticated way to construct a sentence. Conversely, the restricted code is the lack of these qualities and thus the possession of a binary understanding of language (Bernstein, 1964). Cultural deprivation theory states that it’s often the lower classes that are burdened with a ‘restricted code’ as they don’t receive an adequate standard of education to improve it. Al begins to speak with an elaborated code when discussing Du Maurier, a complete juxtaposition to his lowly, uninformed character that has been established previously. This is the first sign that representation in Doc Martinis perhaps not just a set of strictures based on region and class and offers some challenges to traditional stereotypes.

Furthermore, Susan Bradings, a character who meets the doctor later in the scene, also flouts the conventions that we now associate with the locals. Her costume, accent and dialogue are also constructed to indicate a similar regional and class identity to the doctor rather than the locals (See appendix 7). She is dressed in formal trousers, a blouse and a cardigan. Her smart clothes are significant of her social and economic standing; she is more closely allied with the doctor than those of Port Wenn. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, is the way she addresses the doctor. She attracts his attention by using his official title ‘Doctor Ellingham’ as opposed to the more colloquial ‘Doc Martin’ that the locals use. This is indicative of her education and understanding of how to communicate and address in a formal and correct manner; something that the locals do not know how to do, perhaps because of their lack of education and thus, understanding. It’s also a further example of Bernstein’s elaborated code – this time used by a character that we would usually associate it with (Bernstein, 1964). Although the doctor may see her as equally omnipotent and finally someone who he can relate to, the audience are more closely affiliated with the clumsily comical locals who they empathise with.

This essay exhibits an effective example of how regional identity and class are portrayed in Doc Martin and the, not necessarily negative, effects of its representations on places like Cornwall. ITV in particular churn out regional dramas at a rate of knots. This would provide opportunity for further research of different regional and class representation in the future. Programmes such as Vera, set in the North East of England also have a strong regional and class representation that could be analysed in a similar way – Northumberland is portrayed as a bleak and uninhabited place throughout Vera’s five series, it’s also England’s least-frequented holiday destination according to Tourism Alliance (2017, pp. 395-420).

Stereotyping of regional and class identity, although also stemming from factors such as occupation and accent, is partly influenced by the way in which the media inculcates us with information– Doc Martin is a prime example of that. The way in which the dichotomising identities of region and class are conveyed through semiology, intertextuality, language codes and cinematography serves to create a divide between the two groups based on their attaining of cultural, economic and social capital, or lack of. Despite Wollaston’s stance in The Guardian of being ‘a bit cross if I were Cornish’, the way in which the locals are portrayed invokes compassion amongst the audience who, out of empathy take the side of the comically confused Cornish.

 

Bibliography

 

Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities.Verso.

Barthes, R. (1970). S/Z.Paris: Blackwell Publishing.

Bernstein, B. (1964). Elaborated and Restricted Codes: Their Social Origins and Some Consequences.University of London.

Branston, G., & Stafford, R. (2010). The Media Students Book – 5th Edition.Routlege.

Chandler, D. (2001). Semiotics, the basics.Routlege. Retrieved from Visual Memory: http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/S4B/sem09.html

de Saussure, F. (1916). Cours de linguistique générale.

Dyer, R. (1999). The Role of Stereotypes. In P. Marris, & S. Thornham, Media Studies: A reader.Edinburgh University Press.

Goffman, E. (1956). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.Penguin Random House LLC.

Hall, S. (1973). Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse.Birmingham School of Cultural Studies.

Higson, A. (1998). Nationality: National identity and the media. The media: an introduction, 354-364.

Lacey, N. (1998). Image and Representation – Key concepts in Media Studies.St. Martin’s Press.

Linkon, S. (2008). Stereotyping the Working-Class. Retrieved from Working-Class Perspectives: https://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/2008/09/08/stereotyping-the-working-class/

Paasi, A. (2009). The resurgence of the ‘Region’ and ‘Regional Identity’: theoretical perspectives and empirical observations on regional dynamics in Europe. Review of International Studies, 121-146.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. (1979). Student CC.Retrieved from The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behaviour: https://student.cc.uoc.gr/uploadFiles/%CE%92310/Tajfel%20&%20Turner%2086_SIT_xs.pdf

Tourism Alliance. (2017). UK Tourism Statistics 2017.Retrieved from Tourism Alliance: http://www.tourismalliance.com/downloads/TA_395_420.pdf

Visit Cornwall. (2010). Perceptions Research – Generating strategic insight for Cornwall.Retrieved from Visit Cornwall: https://www.visitcornwall.com/sites/default/files/generic_files/Arkenford%20-%20Generating%20Strategic%20Insight%20for%20Cornwall.pdf

Woollaston, S. (2015, September 8). The Guardian. Retrieved from Doc Martin review: If I was Cornish I’d be cross – why are they all portrayed as bumbly, workshy idiots?: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2015/sep/08/doc-martin-clunes-cornish-idiots-review

Wright, E. O. (1980). Class and Occupation. Theory and Society – Volume 9, Pp. 177-214.

Appendix

Figure 7: The doctor converses with London ally Susan Bradings.
Figure 5: PC Mark Mylo’s outdated Vacuum Cleaner in the Police Station.
Figure 6: Al Large flouts his stereotype by discussing Daphne Du Maurier.
Figure 3: The doctor is subject of a ‘Tracking Shot’ as he walks up the hill towards the Police Station.
Figure 4: The doctor is followed in and out of the door by the camera.
Figure 2: The doctor is featured in the centre of a ‘Rule of Thirds’ shot composition.
Figure 1: The doctor talks with Al and Burt Large as they come to fix his plumbing.

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