Amanda Potter: Putting Audience Reception Centre Stage in Classical Reception Studies

Picture1From a very young age I was fascinated by all things ancient Roman and Greek, fuelled by my consumption of films made before I was born like Ben Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963), which were broadcast on British television in the 1970s.  I found these stories exciting and exotic, and more information (with pictures) was available in the Ladybird books that I collected.  An early memory as a very young child is of playing at being Antony with my plastic helmet and sword.  I was never interested in being Cleopatra; in those days I thought that Cleopatra spent all her time in a bath of asses’ milk, looking like Amanda Barrie in Carry On Cleo (1964), which seemed a very dull existence.  Filled with Roman bravado I hit a neighbour’s fence with my plastic sword repeatedly.  When he told me that he would smack me if I did it again, I, of course, called his bluff, and the episode ended in tears.  A lesson gained from this encounter was that engaging with the ancient world could cause me pain as well as pleasure, but this did not put an end to my interest.

When I embarked upon my doctoral research with the Open University in 2004 I wanted to investigate an aspect of classics on television, the medium which had first brought me to the ancient world.  I was particularly drawn to Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001).  As a feminist I liked the premise behind the series that a strong female heroine from antiquity had been written out of the history books, but was now being reclaimed on television.  This interest in the female hero perhaps also sprung from my childhood television-watching preferences.  I had been a fan of Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman (1975-79), and could be seen twirling into my imaginary superhero costume when not engaged in Roman pursuits.

My choice to focus on audience, or viewer, reception, sprung from watching an episode of Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood, ‘Greeks Bearing Gifts’ (2006).  When I first saw the episode as it was broadcast I was surprised by the use of the story of the archer Philoctetes from Greek myth.  I wondered whether many viewers had heard of Philoctetes, a hero who is not as well-known as Hercules, Theseus and Perseus (who all appear in the Ladybird books featuring Greek myths, Famous Legends Books 1 and 2).  I also wondered what viewers thought about the use of Greek myth in a science fiction series set in modern-day Cardiff.

'Greeks Bearing Gifts'

‘Greeks Bearing Gifts’

I quickly pulled together a questionnaire on LiveJournal and posted the link to a number of fan sites, and was amazed by the speed with which people responded and the useful detail that they provided.  More fans than I had expected had heard of Philoctetes (41% of the 109 respondents) and many wrote eloquently of how knowledge of Greek myths could enhance their viewing experience.  I realised that I could gain valuable insights by engaging directly with viewers.  I borrowed my methodology from the field of television studies, and audience research such as Ien Ang’s Watching Dallas (1985) and Jackie Stacey’s Star Gazing (1994), where letters from and interviews with audience members shed light on the impact individual television programmes and films could have on different people.  I eventually used the tool of viewer questionnaires to collect masses of viewer data that fed into my thesis on viewer reception of Greek myth in Xena: Warrior Princess and Charmed (1998-2006).

I had expected that more classicists might start to incorporate audience reception into their work.  However, most classical reception scholars working on film and television continue to use close textual analysis and state their own opinions, without searching out other views.  There are some exceptions, such as Amanda Wrigley, who has done some great work using archival material to garner audience responses to twentieth century radio programmes, but these exceptions are few and far between.

Xena Warrior Princess

Xena Warrior Princess

Films and television series featuring the ancient world were not written for classicists, but for a mass market, and so how can we write about media texts without including external views?  Newspaper reviews written by professional critics only go so far, but now there are many ways to seek out a wide range of opinions without conducting a full-scale audience study.  Websites like iMDB, TV.com and Rotten Tomatoes, as well as fan sites, contain the views of large numbers of critical viewers, providing average ratings along with individual comments.  Understanding how audiences encounter the classical past, whether viewers of films and television series, theatre-goers, museum visitors or readers, can help us as classicists to think about the role of the ancient world in contemporary society, and gain new insights into its re-interpretation in the modern world.

Amanda is a Visiting Fellow with the Open University, where she was awarded her PhD in 2014 for her thesis on Viewer Reception of Greek Myth on Television, in Xena: Warrior Princess and Charmed.  Amanda has published on Xena, Charmed, Doctor Who, Torchwood, HBO-BBC Rome and Starz Spartacus.  

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