Alan Bates ‘78

Creator's Statement

The British film actor Alan Bates stated that his favorite screen performance was as Michael Henchard in the BBC television adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (1978).[1] This video essay considers why The Mayor of Casterbridge was so meaningful to Bates, offering four answers to that question: it struck a balance between stage and screen; it resonated with the rural and pastoral aspects of Bates’ star persona; it negotiated tensions between his public and private life; and it contained a subtle poetic commentary on the fraught relationship between actor and star image. In this accompanying written statement, I situate this approach to Bates’ career within a particular theoretical framework.

'Alan Bates ’78' is an analysis of what Pierre Bourdieu calls a career trajectory; a category that encompasses the structure of specific works – in this case, The Mayor of Casterbridge – as well as the structure of the artistic field in which it was made.[2] To consider a career trajectory is to make good on Bourdieu’s recommendation to examine individual biographies, the field of cultural production, the individual work, and intertextual dynamics all at the same time.[3] From this perspective, Bates’ affection for the role of Henchard can tell us something about the ways in which the actor’s dispositions intersected with the positions available in the field of cultural production at this time.[4] To explore that configuration of positions and dispositions requires organizing a constellation of knowledge about a range of topics, including Bates’ training, his relationship to other actors and stylistic movements of the era, and even technological developments in television production. 

From this perspective, the interview material from Bates’s agent Michael Linnit illuminates a period when the relationship between the actor’s inclinations and the structure of the cinematic field circa the mid-1970s became legible and consequential. For example, Linnit talks about how some of Bates’ 'competitors' took advantage of his departure from Hollywood after The Rose (1979). At one point during my interview with him, Linnit mentioned Michael Caine as an actor who moved into roles that were left untaken by Bates. With regard to Bates’ individual biography, 'Alan Bates ’78' documents a time when, to use Howard Becker’s terminology, Bates rejected the status of an 'integrated professional' who is fully immersed in mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, and instead opted for the position of the 'maverick' operating on the peripheries of that art world.[5]

Videographic criticism is a powerful tool for the investigation of career trajectories since individual audiovisual clips allow for the close analysis of style and performance, while montage enables a succinct overview of a long career. Moreover, juxtaposition and superimposition visualize the traffic between text and intertext, as well as between an actor’s onscreen and offscreen persona. In 'Alan Bates ’78', superimposition brings The Mayor of Casterbridge into dialogue with Women in Love (1969) and An Unmarried Woman (1978), and so draws out the complex performance of masculinity embodied by Bates at this time.[6] I hope that 'Alan Bates ’78' will demonstrate the potential for further videographic work on career trajectories in the field of media production, extending to other kinds of creative labor besides acting. 



Jacob Smith is Professor in the Department of Radio-Television-Film and Director of the MA in Sound Arts and Industries at Northwestern University. He has written several books, most recently Eco-Sonic Media (2015), ESC: Sonic Adventure in the Anthropocene (2019), and Lightning Birds: An Aeroecology of the Airwaves (2021). ESC and Lightning Birds are experimental audiobooks that can be heard for free at the University of Michigan Press website.


1. Zucker, Carole. 1999. In the Company of Actors. New York: Theatre Arts Books, p. 29. See also O’Hallaren, Bill. 'Alan Bates of The Mayor of Casterbridge', TV Guide, Vol. 26, No. 35, Sept. 2 1978, p. 14; and Spoto, Donald. 2007. Otherwise Engaged: The Life of Alan Bates. London: Hutchinson, p. 158.

2. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1993. The Field of Cultural Production. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 181.

3. Ibid., p. 9.

4. Ibid., p. 61.

5. Becker, Howard. 2008. Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

6. See Williams, Linda Ruth. 2013. 'Bad sex and obscene undertakings: Ken Russell’s Women in Love', in Journal of Adaptation in Film & Performance, Vol. 6, No. 3, p. 348; Lowenstein, Adam. 2014.'“Horror’s Otherness and Ethnographic Surrealism: The Case of The Shout', in Benshoff, Harry ed. A Companion to the Horror Film. John Wiley and Sons, p. 522-523; Starr, Paul. 1978. 'Hollywood’s New Ideal of Masculinity: The New Masculine Hero', New York Times, Jul 16, 1978, p. D1.


'Alan Bates ‘78' is a very effective and well-researched video essay, which uses the audiovisual format to present a clear and persuasive argument about the significance of Bates’s role in The Mayor of Casterbridge to his broader career and personal relationship to acting and stardom. 

As presented in the work, Bates was a reluctant star who prioritized acting over developing a star image. Smith’s critical decision to examine why Bates was most fond of his role in The Mayor of Casterbridge therefore provides a useful focal point that is grounded in the actor’s own experience and comments, but which is thoroughly contextualized in relation to Bates’ broader career and personal life. 

Smith’s work is clearly structured and provides a helpful introduction to Bates’s career, rather than assuming a familiar audience, before guiding us through his working life and a variety of significant roles, in order to imaginatively position The Mayor of Casterbridge as something of a culmination of, and turning point for, Bates’ career. 

Smith’s creative and critical choices are effective throughout. He provides the viewer with well-selected film clips, useful audio recordings from Bates’s agent Michael Linnit, and a range of relevant excerpts from publicity materials, including magazine covers and article headings. The voice-over narration is well-paced, leading us through a video essay that covers a long period and a wide range of examples. 

Videographic approaches to actors’ careers can provide the challenge of navigating depth versus breadth. Rather than becoming a montage of clips, Smith uses the format and techniques like superimposition very well in order to organize Bates’ performances into distinct periods, and to place particular roles in dialogue with one another. The presentation of Bates’s sexually ambiguous and, later, his openly queer roles is particularly effective. The superimposition of the sexually loaded wrestling scene in Women in Love (1969) onto part of the comparative combat scene in Casterbridge is especially productive. Smith’s editing allows us both to perceive these scenes discretely and to register their overlapping choreography by seeing parts of them simultaneously. 

In watching this work, there is a clear sense that Smith is highly informed on Bates’s career and life. This research is carefully arranged in the video essay and it is an excellent example of how videographic approaches can render the complex dynamics of something like a film career into a media work that is both informative and compelling to watch. 

This video essay offers a thoughtful analysis of a key moment in an actor’s career, exploring what it was about the 1978 television adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge that made its lead role so satisfying and resonant for Alan Bates by scrutinizing that individual performance while also ranging back and forth across his whole career to provide illuminating contextualization and comparison. Its central arguments are persuasive and well presented, combining voiceover narration with pertinent illustration from a range of film and television texts. The theme of uncanny doubling and divided selfhood is particularly compellingly handled through a focus on moments across Bates’ career but especially the disturbing effigies which appear in The Mayor of Casterbridge. The potential connections between Bates’ performances and roles and his private self (a more mysterious entity than usual for a film star perhaps) are subtly but convincingly presented; it struck me that there are some fascinating possible parallels to be drawn with another bisexual actor who often played divided selves, Michael Redgrave, as well as with his more immediate contemporaries like Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Michael Caine, etc.

There were some key films that I was slightly disappointed to see going unmentioned (Whistle Down the Wind, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, An Englishman Abroad, The Return of the Soldier) and I wondered if it needed to place more emphasis on his parallel theatrical career, especially being Simon Grey’s ‘muse’ (although Butley was foregrounded), but of course it is impossible to cover everything in a limited running time and I felt it managed to be as near as possible to comprehensive in its coverage while seeking to draw out and provide evidence for its central hypotheses.

Overall, I found this a very shrewd and engaging exploration of a specific career which homed in on a highly significant moment within it with an analysis that yielded numerous insights. As a historian of British cinema and television of the period who has explored issues surrounding stardom and performance as well as gender, I found it especially fascinating.