Presentation by Clair Schwarz: The Pastoral Turn and Routes to Wellness in the Contemporary British BBC Comedy

On Tuesday 18th May, Dr Clair Schwarz shared her current research ‘The Pastoral Turn and Routes to Wellness in the Contemporary British BBC Comedy’ at a work in progress meeting of the VCRG. Here she introduced the term “pastoral turn” and described the aims and scope of the project:


Utilising a discursive, interdisciplinary theoretical framework, my research explores the combinations of humour and challenges to wellness formed through the ludic sensibilities of recent British comedy – specifically examples broadcast by the BBC – asking questions of the extent to which the educative imperatives within the diegesis of the storyline emphasise the pastoral and whether this can be considered a ‘pastoral turn’. By this phrase I mean a doubling of both pastoral and turn, a double consideration of the etymological slipperiness of the words. This begins with the pastoral as an adjective in two senses: the first related to action describing the giving of advice by an educative agent (a character within the programme) to their ‘flock’ (where the flock consists of characters within the programme and the audiences without); and in a second sense, which relates to the aesthetics of place where the caregiving described above occurs within settings which emphasise the pastoral aesthetics of the rural. By ‘turn’, I mean both the performative aspect – a clowning – by agents who present blurred distinctions between their on-and-off screen personas; and the noticeable shift among an identified range of recent British comedy broadcasting which evidences newly expressed emphases on the role of the rural in relation to health and wellbeing.

Focusing on the two figures in a field model of the Shepherds of the Idylls of Theocritus, the research explores the ways in which ‘The Pastoral Turn’ is manifested in the programmes: Detectorists (2014-2017); This Country (2017 – 2020); and Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing (2018-2021). It explores how, through the comedic, these programmes offer a tangible rejection of the commodification of wellness – a state erroneously presented as something one can buy – a ‘goopification’ – and instead, show it is as something gained through an embodied engagement with people, places, nature, jokes, which are offered through generous invitation.


That notable examples of contemporary British comedy mark tangible cultural shifts which imply a move away from studio set comedy; the sketch format; the pastoral as elegiac, romanticised, and set in the past, and towards an understanding of being in green spaces as central to wellbeing; a nuanced appreciation of the lived experience; acknowledgement of economic realities; educatively driven narratives; and ultimately informed by compassion.