Television’s false past

Nige explains why period television always gets it wrong…

Television, that futuristic medium, is deeply in love with the past. It likes nothing more than sending people back in time to experience ‘living in the past’ for our delectation in ‘historical reality shows’ – Turn Back Time (shopkeepers sampling retail life at various periods from the 1870s on), Edwardian Farm (sequel to – you guessed – Victorian farm), even Giles and Sue Live the Good Life (Seventies self-sufficiency, sitcom-style).

That’s not to mention the period dramas – Downton Abbey sweeping all before it with its golden vision of the Edwardian age. But this ‘past’ that TV is so drawn to is of course always a partial and falsified version, viewed through the distorting lens of our present preoccupations, and wrong in so many ways. Leaving aside anachronisms of detail and (more importantly) attitude, TV just lays it on too thick; it tends to caricature the past, even the recent past. Victorian times were never that Victorian, and, as those of us who lived through them will testify, the Sixties were never that Sixties (the Seventies were far more Sixties).

David Cecil, in the Prologue to his life of Cowper, The Stricken Deer, is very good on this falsification of the past. Writing at the end of the 1920s, when the 18th century was very much in vogue, he describes the vision of that century embraced by the 1920s enthusiasts as:

‘not at all like the England of the eighteenth century… For one thing, their idea is too homogeneous. Only countries of the mind are so much of a piece. The past does not, any more than the present, escape that incompleteness, that inconsistency which is the essential characteristic of life as we know it, as opposed to life as we should like it to be. An historical period is not a water-tight compartment, containing only what it has itself created, sharing nothing with what has gone before and what comes after. It is a tangle of movements and forces, of various origin, sometimes intertwined and sometimes running parallel, some beginning, some in their prime, some in decay… To describe any period, then, as all of a piece is as inaccurate as to paint a picture of its streets with all the houses of the same age and style.

Precisely. The past, at any period, felt just the way the present does now – after all, it was the present.

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About Author Profile: Nige

Cravat-Wearer of the Year Nige, who, like Mr Kenneth Horne, prefers to remain anonymous, is a founder blogger of The Dabbler and has been a co-blogger on the Bryan Appleyard Thought Experiments blog. He is the sole blogger on Nigeness, and (for now) a wholly owned subsidiary of NigeCorp. His principal aim is to share various of life's pleasures.

13 thoughts on “Television’s false past

  1. Worm
    February 2, 2012 at 11:47

    so true Nige, so true! I cant stand all the pointedly over egged ‘period touches’ in programmes – at an apogee in things like ‘ashes to ashes’ and other 70’s and 80’s based dramas. Cue lingering shot of somebody eating some spangles

    Joey Joe Joe Jr.
    February 2, 2012 at 12:29

    I don’t know if you’ve been watching the TV sequels to Shane Meadow’s This Is England, but the latest was set in 1988. This raises the troubling prospect, if a further series is made, of having a period drama set in the ’90s!

  3. Worm
    February 2, 2012 at 12:31

    yes the thought of painstakingly researched 90’s period dramas truly terrifies me

    February 2, 2012 at 14:34

    In mitigation it must be said that the BBC offerings are marginally more accurate than it’s news and current affairs stuff, the least worst. The commercial channels, poor souls are skint, offering drama that employs wrinklies and, in some cases, stiffs and therefore cost very little. Thanks should be offered up for the fact that a certain K More has passed beyond and not available for audition, arboreal acting at it’s worst. Even Maggie Smith is gathering the whiff of the dotty old broad around her, possible what the director wants.
    I recently attempted a moan on the BBC contact us with a whinge page, asking how I would go about claiming back that portion of my license fee that went towards the Vine-Marr salaries. I was told, in a roundabout way, to eff off.

      February 12, 2012 at 02:21

      Perhaps because it should be ‘licence’ not license?

    jonathan law
    February 2, 2012 at 17:59

    I’m sure I’m not the first to point this out, but there’s one very basic reason why the set dressers and costumiers always get it wrong. Until about 100 years ago, clothes, decor and household stuff generally was made to last — no mass production or built-in obsolescence then. And even when it didn’t, it would have been patched and mended and variously recycled until it wore away to threads. This means that a street scene from (say) the 1860s would have looked nothing like a carefully researched TV-drama street scene from the 1860s. Outside the fashionable classes, people would have worn a mixture of old clothes inherited from their parents or grandparents or thrown out by their social betters.

    There’s something similarly homogenizing about TV’s way with recent decades, and with altogether less excuse. It sometimes feels as if our real memories of the 1970s and 1980s, in all their variety and inconsistency, are being supplanted by some collective TV documentary version. Has anyone else noticed how the same scraps of news footage get trotted out time and time again, in order to represent the supposed zeitgeist? So for the 1960s you get M. Whitehouse in a berserk hat making that speech about “the dairtiest play I’ve ever seen”, packets of contraceptive pills coming off the production line, a bunch of moon-faced flower children idiot dancing in (I think) Hyde Park. 1980s? That would be Maggie on the steps of No 10, yuppies bawling into brick-sized mobiles, bit of rioting, down comes the Wall, Maggie on the steps of No 10. I’m sure a kind of false memory syndrome sets in after a while: “I remember having one like that!” “No you don’t, you remember seeing it in I Heart the 1980s and that other one and that other one”.

      February 3, 2012 at 10:54

      I can only speak about ‘the Sixties’ but I think in this media-dense world we forget that the archives are far less bulky than one might expect. It wasn’t only what are now seen as ‘classic’ light entertainment seriers that were dumped. There is effectively very little available footage of counter-cultural London. Having written on the era I have been dragged into the odd ‘look-back’ program and the researchers are invariably tearing out their hair in a vain search for good stuff. That said, I recall a seemingly endless procession of what we lumped together as ‘German TV crews’ so maybe they need to look further afield.

      Excuses aside, Jonathan is wholly right about the homogenizing, a sort of wilful refusal to ‘face facts’, The same researchers present one with a fait accompli in the form of their outline script, and however much one says, ‘But it wasn’t anything like that at all’, they definitely don’t wish to know. E-Z-watch shorthand is so much simpler, and perhaps all that for most viewers is required.

  6. Brit
    February 2, 2012 at 20:22

    Well perhaps it IS just me then, who on the first of January at the turn of every decade replaces all of his furnishing, decorations and clothing with new and modish items.

    JL – spot on. The 90s are: Renton running down the street at the start of Trainspotting, cut to Blair entertaining Noel Gallagher at Downing St (Cool Britannia/Britpop), flowers outside Buckingham Palace for Diana (“the famous British stiff upper lip was gone forever”)…

    February 2, 2012 at 20:28

    There’s a movie called “The Bank Job” starring Jason Steatham in a rare non- ass kicking role (although he does get a bit of a fight towards the end) and it’s probably the best film I’ve ever seen for getting round this intensely irritating issue. It’s set in the late 60s, I think, around the era of Michael X if you remember him, and everybody is dressed in different period styles. Some folk as if it were still the 30s, others as if it were the 50s, others in a more contemporary 60s style… I watched a few minutes of the extras and the director or whomever made exactly Jonathan’s point above. It’s not a bad movie either, an entertaining yarn well told by those two geezers wot wrote Auf Wiedersehn Pet, I believe.

    February 3, 2012 at 17:03

    “The past is another country” – and if you go another country eg Syria, some will be wearing niqabs, and some will be wearing jogging outfits, some will be in bright fashionable clothes with hijabs, and some will be drab, some will be wearing giballayahs, and some will be wearing jeans, some will be in Western suits and some will look like an illustrated bible.

    But that’s why the past is pleasanter to contemplate than the present – you feel you can hold it all in your mind as one thing, instead of the random data that the present chucks at you.

    February 3, 2012 at 21:20

    It’s always fun to feel young and in love again, Nige – hope they bring back The Partridge Family… and David 🙂 (do young girls still swoon?)

      February 12, 2012 at 02:32

      Susan – I had the misfortune to see David Cassidy perform in Brighton a few years ago (went to accompany a friend) – on the same bill were Les McKeown (puffing around a bit), 4 Osmonds (totally professional) and erm DC. Believe me, the memories were better than the reality…

    February 12, 2012 at 02:28

    oh yes, Nige. but have you never heard about ‘poetic licence? or should that be ‘license’ according to some. Certainly, the David Cecil extract is a good point well made etc, but it’s telly for goodness’ sake. I can surpass no-one (see posts passim) with my dislike of Downton Abbey -but that’s due to rubbish writing when it could have been oh-so-better with a bit more care.
    One of the most boring films I have ever ever seen – and it’s back on the BBC iPlayer is ‘The Shooting Party’. And by the way, it was interesting to hear Julian Fellowes getting a bit rattled (but claiming to the lovely Kirsty that he wasn’t really) about the fact that the bits that people claimed were historical inaccuracy in fact weren’t. Lighten up and let fiction – which usually is necessarily a moulding of historical facts, imagined feelings, places and action, into a coherent story for the entertainment and possibly enlightenment of the audience – do its stuff.

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