Cast your mind back to a time or an incident. Maybe it was a family wedding on a West Country cider farm, where the photos were taken in the dusky autumnal beauty of the orchards and where you danced in a barn to the Killers’ Smile like You Mean It with alarming, floor-clearing abandon. So that’s my memory, and if it was part of a TV drama, it would be a flashback, filmed in gauzy yellows, perhaps even in slow motion for that extra bit of emphasis. And someone would be horribly murdered at the end. (Only on telly. In real life the only violence was the headache after all of that home-made cider.)
Ah, flashbacks. I am currently flashing back right now in my own imagination to a time when flashbacks weren’t a thing, where they weren’t a key that unlocked the stories in every television drama. Oh, how did we survive in the days before multiple time-frames? Now everyone’s at it – Southcliffe, The Returned, Broadchurch, Scott & Bailey, Top of the Lake, The Syndicate, The Ice Cream Girls, Mayday, The Town, Homeland... and this week The Guilty, a crime drama (starts today on ITV) involving the murder of a small boy that switches between the day he disappeared in 2008 and the day his body is found in 2013.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with flashbacks or time-switches. If they’re done properly, they can add an extra layer to a complex, adult story. As it happens, The Guilty uses them well, at least well enough so when the caption “2008” appears on screen and the colour leaches from the film in that flashback-signalling way, I didn’t want to sigh and shout, “Make up your flaming minds. Are you telling a story now, or then?”
And I loved the way Southcliffe director Sean Durkin used flashbacks in an almost choreographed, sinuous way to recall events before the mass shootings that blighted a small seaside town. Subtle changes in the colour of the landscape told us we were slipping back in time. It made the drama more involving, somehow, as well as putting an unspoken trust in the ability of an adult audience to keep up with a difficult, emotionally charged story.
So we’ve established that, if done well, flashbacks can be subtle and revelatory. But if they’re done badly, they trip up the action and, worse, leave audiences puzzled, seasick and wishing they’d told a family member where they were going in case they ended up getting lost.
Watching the last series of Scott & Bailey, I often yearned for a flare and a whistle because its multiple time-frames hindered the action and left me stranded, not knowing whether to look right or left.
If overused, flashbacks will become boring, or worse, a smarty-pants shorthand for something that’s too clever for its own good.