Thursday, June 06, 2024

Making Sense of Suburbia through Popular Culture, by Rupa Huq

I read this on holiday as research for something I'm working on at the moment. Dr Rupa Huq, MP for Ealing Central and Acton, explores depictions of suburbs in novels, music, films and TV and then devotes a chapter each to woman in suburbia and mapping Asian London in pop culture.

“The suburbs are in many ways ordinary,” she tells us on page 13: “according to estimates some 80 per cent of Britons live in them.” (The figure comes from Paul Barker's 2009 book The Freedoms of Suburbia.) That makes them almost universal, and entirely relatable when we see them on screen.

Huq delineates two kinds of suburbia, I think. First there's that idea of crushing, bland ordinariness, a place to be escaped. 
“Of recent UK offerings, The Sarah Jane Adventures, a spin-off from the long-running BBC science fiction series Doctor Who, was based in Ealing. Part of the show’s attraction was that such storylines of time travel and aliens could be unleashed in such an unlikely setting as a straight-laced, upstanding and ostensibly boring location.” (p. 130)

That Sarah Jane Smith hails from boring old Ealing (or, in The Hand of Fear, South Croydon) is juxtaposed against her adventures in all of time and space. It's a joke: after all her wild adventures, she ends up somewhere so ordinary.

Ealing is so ordinary and relatable that it could be anywhere - and indeed the Ealing scenes in The Five Doctors were actually filmed in Uxbridge, the Ealing scenes in The Sarah Jane Adventures were recorded in Penarth.

In the very first episode of Doctor Who, the mundane details of ordinary life - a policeman, a junkyard, a comprehensive school - create a credible, relatable frame for the sci-fi wonders that follow. Basically, the first half of the episode feels real so we buy the more outlandish stuff that follows. But again it's following that basic idea: we must leave the ordinary suburbs to go somewhere exciting.

And that's where the second kind of suburbia comes in. Huq quotes playwright Alan Ayckbourn on suburbia: 

“It’s not what it seems, on the surface one thing but beneath the surface another thing. In the suburbs there is a very strict code, rules … eventually they drive you completely barmy.” Think of England: Dunroamin’ (BBC Two, 5 Nov 1991, dir. Ann Leslie)

The suburbs are a place on anxiety, the “suburban neurosis” outlined in the Lancet in 1938 by Stephen Taylor, senior resident medical officer at the Royal Free Hospital (and, er, my dad's godfather). Huq also charts similar ideas in Betty Friedan's influential The Feminine Mystique (1963). I can see these same ideas being explored in sitcoms of the 1970s, that sense of the suburb as a place of strangeness and secrets and danger.

In fact, I think The Sarah Jane Adventures and quite a lot of Doctor Who makes more use of this second kind of suburbia, where more is going on that meets the eye. With aliens and time travel and daft jokes aplenty, the whole point is that Ealing - or anywhere else - isn't boring. Which might be of some comfort to the local MP.

Anyway. More of this to come in the thing I'm working on...

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