What Happens When Your Home Is on Television?

How to Cite

Mills, B. (2007). What Happens When Your Home Is on Television?. M/C Journal, 10(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2694
Vol. 10 No. 4 (2007): 'home'
Published 2007-08-01

In the third episode of the British sci-fi/thriller television series Torchwood (BBC3, 2007-) the team are investigating a portable ‘ghost machine’, which allows its users to see events which occurred in the past. After visiting an old man whose younger self the device may have allowed them to witness, the team’s medic, Owen Harper, spots Bernie Harris, who’d previously been in possession of the machine. A chase ensues; they run past a park, between a gang of kids playing football, over a railway bridge, through a housing estate, and eventually Bernie is cornered in a back garden and taken away for questioning. The scene demonstrates the series’ intention to be a fast-paced, modern, glossy thriller, with loud incidental music, fast cuts, and energetic camerawork. Yet for me the scene has quite a different meaning. The housing estate they run through is the one in which I used to live; the railway bridge they run over is the one I crossed every day on my way to and from work; the street they run down is my street; and there, in the background, clear and apparent and obvious for all to see, is my home. Yes; my house was on Torchwood.

As Blunt and Dowling note, “home does not simply exist, but is made … [and] … this process has both material and imaginative elements” (23). It is through such imaginative elements that we turn ‘spaces’ that are “unnamed, unhistoried, unnarativized” into ‘places’ that are “indubitably bound up with personal experience” (Darby 50). Such experiences may be ‘real’ (as in things that actually happened there) or ‘representational’ (as in seen on television); my relationship to ‘home’ is here being inflected through the “indexical bond” (Kilborn and Izod 29) that links both of these strategies. In using a scene from Torchwood to say something about my personal history, I’m taking what is, in essence, a televisual ‘space’ and converting it into a ‘place’ which is not only defined by my “profilmic” (Ward 8) relationship to it, but also helps express that relationship. Telling everyone that my house was on Torchwood certainly says something about the programme; but more fundamentally I’m engaging in a process intended to say something about me.

A bit of autobiography. The house is in Splott, a residential area of Cardiff, the capital of Wales, where Torchwood is set and filmed. I lived in Cardiff from 2000 to 2006, when I worked at the University of Glamorgan. For much of that time I lived in rented accommodation in Cathays, the student area of Cardiff. But in 2005 I bought a house in Splott, and this was the first property I ever owned. A year later I moved to Norwich (virtually the other side of the UK from Cardiff) to take a job at the University of East Anglia, but I kept the house in Cardiff and now rent it out. It was while living in Norwich that my house appeared on Torchwood, and I had no idea that the programme had been filming in that area. This means that, strictly speaking, at the time it was on television the property was no longer my ‘home’, but was instead my tenants’. Yet what I want to examine here is the “geography of feeling and emotion” (Rodaway 263) which is central to the idea of ‘home’, and which has been kick-started in me since some fictional television characters ran down the street I used to live in and the ‘real’ and the ‘representational’ began to intersect.

There certainly is something personal which is required in order to turn a ‘space’ into a ‘place’, but what is it that then transforms it into ‘home’? That is, for me Cardiff is more than a ‘place’ which I know. Owning a property there makes a difference, but that is to too easily equate a commercial transaction with an emotive sense of feeling. Indeed, Cardiff felt like ‘home’ before I’d bought a house, and the majority of my memories of the city are connected to other properties I’ve lived in. In a capitalist society it’s tempting to equate ‘home’ with the property we own, and this probably is the case for the majority of people (Morley 19). Nevertheless, something emotive stirred in me when I saw my house in a chase sequence on a science-fiction television programme when I live in an entirely different city. Tuan defines this as ‘topophilia’, which is “the affective bond between people and place or setting” (Topophilia 4), and it’s clear that such bonds can be highly emotionally charged and a significant aspect of one’s sense of self.

This is noticeable because of the ways in which I’ve used my house’s appearance on television. I’ve not been quiet about it; I was telling everyone at work the day after it appeared. Whenever people mention Torchwood it’s something I point out. This might not sound as if that is likely to occur very often, but considering the programme is a spin-off from the highly successful revival of Doctor Who (BBC1, 1963-89, 1996, 2005-) it is part of a well-known media landscape. Both Doctor Who and Torchwood are predominantly filmed in Cardiff and the surrounding areas of South Wales, but whereas Torchwood is also narratively set in Cardiff, Doctor Who merely uses the locations to represent other places, most often London. Yet many of these places are distinctive and therefore obviously Cardiff for those who know the area. For example, the hospital in the episode ‘New Earth’ (2006) is recognisably the interior of the Wales Millennium Centre, just as the exterior location where the Tardis lands at the beginning of the episode is clearly Rhossili on the Gower Peninsula. Inevitably, the use of such locations has often disrupted my understanding of the story being told. That is, it’s hard to accept that this episode is taking place on a planet at the other end of the galaxy thousands of years into the future if the characters are standing on a cliff you recognise because you’ve been camping there. Of course, the use of locations to represent other places is necessary in media fictions, and I’m not trying to carry out some kind of trainspotter location identification in an attempt to undermine the programme’s diegesis. But it is important to note that while “remembering is a process that today is increasingly media-afflicted” (Hoskins 110), media texts can also be affected by the memories, whether communal or individual, that we bring to bear on them. A ‘real’ relationship with a place can be so intimate that it refuses to be ignored when ‘representations’ require it to be unnecessary. I’m a fan of Doctor Who and would rather not recognise the places so I can just get on with enjoying the programme. But it’s not possible to simply erase “Expressions of community” (Moores 368) which bring together identity and place, especially when that place is your home.

Importantly, my idea of ‘home’ is inextricably bound up in the past. As it is a place I no longer live in, the ways in which I feel towards it are predicated on the notion that I used to live there, but no longer do. It’s clear that notions of home – especially those related to nation – are often predicated on ideas of history with significant emotional resonance (Anderson; Blunt and Dowling 140-195; Calhoun). This is a place that is an emotional rather than geographical home, even if it used to also be my home geographically. In buying a house, and engaging in the consumer culture which dominates the ways in which we turn a house into a home (oh, those endless hours at Ikea), I spent a lot of time wondering what it was that this sofa, or those lampshades, or that rug, said about me. The idea that the buildings that we own are a key way of creating and demonstrating a particular kind of identity or affiliation with a certain social group is necessary to consumer capitalism. But as I no longer live in it, the inside of this house can no longer be used as something I can show to other people hoping that they’ll ‘read’ my home how I want them to. Instead, the sense of home invigorated by my house’s appearance on Torchwood is one centred on location, related to the city and the housing estate where my house is, rather than what I did to it. ‘Home’ here becomes something symbolised by the bricks and mortar of the house I bought, but is instead more accurately located in the city and area which the house sits in; Cardiff.

More importantly, Cardiff and my house become emotionally meaningful because I’m no longer there. That is, while it’s clear I had a particular relationship to Cardiff when I was a resident, this has altered since my move to Norwich. In moving to a new city – one which I had never visited before, and had no family or friends living in – it seems that my understanding of Cardiff as my ‘home’ has become intensified. This might be because continuing to own property there gives me an investment in the city, both emotionally and financially. But this idea of ‘home’ would, I think, have existed even if I’d sold my house. Instead, Cardiff-as-home is predicated on an idea of personal history and nostalgia (Wheeler; Massey). Academics are used to moving great distances in order to get jobs; indeed, “To spend an entire working career in a single department may seem to be a failure of geographical imagination” (Ley 182). The labour market insists that “All people may now be wanderers” (Bauman, Globalization 87), and hence geographical origins become something to be discussed with new colleagues. For me, like most people, this is a complicated question; does it mean where I was born, or where I grew up, or where I studied, or where I have lived most of my life? In the choices I make to answer this question, I’m acknowledging that “migration is a complex process of cultural negotiation, resistance, and adaptation” (Sinclair and Cunningham 14). As Freeman notes, “the history one tells, via memory, assumes the form of a narrative of the past that charts the trajectory of how one’s self came to be” (33, italics in original). Importantly, this narrative must be seen to make sense; that is, it must help explain the present, conforming to narrative ideas of cause and effect. In constructing a “narratable self” (Caravero 33, italics in original) I’m demonstrating how I think I came to end up where I am now, doing the job I’m doing. In order to show that “I am more than what the thin present defines” (Tuan, Space and Place 186) it’s necessary to reiterate a notion of ‘home’ which supports and illustrates the desired identity narrative.

This narrative is as much about “the reflexive project of the self” (Gauntlett 99) in these “liquid times” (Bauman, Liquid Times), as it is a “performance” (Goffman) for others. The coherence and stability of my performance was undercut in a recent episode of Doctor Who – ‘Smith and Jones’ (2007) – in which a family row occurred outside a pub. I became quite distraught that I couldn’t work out where that pub was, and was later reassured to discover that it was in Pontypridd, a town a good few miles from Cardiff, and therefore it wasn’t surprising that I couldn’t recognise it. But in being distraught at not recognising locations I was demonstrating how central knowledge is to an idea of ‘home’. Knowing your way around, knowing where certain shops are, knowing the history of the place; these are all aspects of home, all parts of what Crouch calls “lay knowledge” (217). Ignorance of a space marks the outsider, who must stand on street corners with a map and ask locals for directions. For someone like me who prides himself on his sense of direction (who says I conform to gender stereotypes?) an inability to recognise a pub that I thought I should know suggested my knowledge of the area was dissipating, and so perhaps my ability to define that city as my home was becoming less valid. This must be why I take pleasure in noting that Torchwood’s diegesis is often geographically correct, for the ‘representational’ helps demonstrate my knowledge of the ‘real’ place’s layout. As Tuan notes, “When space feels thoroughly familiar to us, it has become place” (Space and Place 73), and the demonstration of that familiarity is one of the ways of reasserting one’s relationship to home.

In demonstrating a knowledge of the place I’m defining as home, I’m also insisting that I’m not a tourist. Urry shows how visitors use a “tourist gaze” (The Tourist Gaze), arguing viewing is the most important activity when encountering a place, just as Tuan (Space and Place 16) and Strain (3) do. To visit somewhere is to employ “a dominance of the eye” (Urry, “Sensing the City” 71); this is why photography has become the dominant manner for recording tourist activity. Strain sees the tourist gaze as one “trained for consumerism” (15) with tourist activity defined primarily by commerce. Since Doctor Who returned Cardiff has promoted its association with the programme, opening an ‘Up Close’ exhibition and debating whether to put together a tourist trail of locations. As a fan of these programmes I’m certainly excited by all of this, and have been to the exhibition. Yet it feels odd being a tourist in a place I want to call home, and some of my activity seems an attempt to demonstrate that it was my home before it became a place I might want to visit for its associations with a television programme. For example, I never went and watched the programme being filmed, even though much of it was shot within walking distance of my house, and “The physical places of fandom clearly have an extraordinary importance for fans” (Sandvoss 61). While some of this was due to not wanting to know what was going to happen in the programme, I was uncomfortable with carrying out an activity that would turn a “landscape” into a “mediascape” (Jansson 432), replacing the ‘real’ with the ‘representational’. In insisting on seeing Cardiff, and my house, as something which existed prior to the programmes, I’m attempting to maintain the “imagined community” (Anderson) I have for my home, distinguishing it from the taint of commerce, no matter how pointless or naïve such an act is in effect.

Hence, home is resolutely not a commercial place; or, at least, it is a location whose primary emotive aspects are not defined by consumerism. When houses are seen as nothing more than aspects of commerce, that’s when they remain ‘houses’ or ‘properties’; the affective aspects of ‘homes’ are instead emotionally detached from the commercial factors which bring them about. I think this is why I’m keen to demonstrate that my associations with Cardiff existed before Doctor Who started being made there, for if the place only meant anything to me because of the programme that would define me as a tourist and therefore undermine those emotional and personal aspects of the city which allow me to call it ‘home’. It also means I can be proud that such a cultural institution is being made in ‘my’ city.

But it’s a city I can no longer claim residence in. This means that Torchwood and Doctor Who have become useful ways for me to ‘visit’ Cardiff. It seems I have started to adopt a ‘tourist gaze’, for the programmes visually recreate the locations and all I can do is view them, no matter how much I use my knowledge of location in an attempt to interpret those images differently from a tourist. It’s tempting to suggest that this shows how there is a “perpetual negotiation between the real event and its representation” (Bruzzi 9), and how willing I am to engage in the “mobile privatization” that Williams saw as a defining aspect of television (26). But this would be to accept the “unhomeyness” which results from “the ultimate failures of the home in postmodern times” (Lewis and Cho 74). In adopting an autobiographical approach to these issues, I hope I’ve demonstrated the ways in which individuals can experience emotional resonances related to ‘home’ which, while clearly inflected through the social, cultural, and technological aspects I’ve outlined, are nevertheless meaningful and maintain a dominance of the ‘real’ over the ‘representational’. Furthermore, my job tells me I shouldn’t feel this way about my home; or, at least, it reminds me that such emotionality can be explained away through cultural analysis. But that doesn’t in any way make ‘home’ any less powerful nor fully explain how such dry criteria mutate into humanist, emotional significance. So, I can tell you what my home is: but I’m not sure I can get you to understand how seeing my home on television makes me feel. In that sense it’s almost too neat that the episode which kick-started all of this is called ‘Ghost Machine’, for television has become the technology through which the ghosts of my home haunt me on a weekly basis, and ghosts have always been difficult to make sense of.

Author Biography

Brett Mills