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.