In the Five Towns, and probably elsewhere, when a woman puts her head out of her front door, she always looks first to right and then to left, like a scouting Iroquois, and if the air nips she shivers — not because she is cold, but merely to express herself.
Arnold Bennett - Hot Potatoes (1912)
Nobody is unfamiliar with this type of body language. We see it all the time in one form or another, yet watching human behaviour isn’t the same as having it articulated in the way Bennett does. if the air nips she shivers — not because she is cold, but merely to express herself. I recall the image which still pops into my mind when I read this passage again.
I see a long row of terraced houses lining an empty street. It must be early because there are milk bottles on doorsteps and the scene is tinged with the past and the sombre, sooty grey of a November morning. A woman puts her head out of her front door, shivers and after this brief imagining I’m back with Bennett's story.
For a TV drama the image would be much the same but it would not be articulated as Bennett articulates it – obviously. We are shown the scene, recognise the body language and the drama moves on. Maybe she picks up the bottles of milk, hugs them to her chest for a moment then disappears back into the house.
This difference between the written word and the moving image is important simply because one is articulated and the other isn't. TV drama doesn’t prevent us from articulating such human subtleties but doesn’t help either. It isn’t feasible for a character to pop up and say to the woman:
I see you looked first to right and then to left, like a scouting Iroquois, and as the air nips you shivered — not because you are cold, but merely to express yourself.
Of course one cannot use this to demonstrate that TV makes people less articulate. We may assert it but that’s not good enough and in any event we probably do too much asserting. Yet the difference is still striking and still feels important.