The cast and crew during a shoot for Downton Abbey. Photograph: Carnival Films/Nick Briggs
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Horlicks for Chummy: Britain’s romance with cosy TV nostalgia

Why is our home-grown drama so fixated on the past?

British television is on a huge nostalgia binge. On one Sunday evening in January, the new series of Call the Midwife (set in the East End of London in the 1950s) was sandwiched between Blandings (a 1920s country-house comedy) and Ripper Street (a late-19th-century cop show). On the same evening, BBC2 was repeating the Second World War episode of Fawlty Towers (“Don’t mention the war”) and ITV was running Mr Selfridge (an Edwardian drama described as “Downton Abbey with tills”).

The following Tuesday, ITV offered the first part of Great Houses with Julian Fellowes. That’s not counting all the reruns of 1970s comedies. On BBC2 on Christmas Eve, apart from Carols from King’s, the entire evening schedule from 5.35pm to after midnight consisted of such repeats. Four of these made the top five for the channel’s ratings during Christmas week.

Much of today’s television drama, in particular, is set in the past, not least the two biggest hits of all, Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey. What is striking is not just that these are set in the past but how idealised their view of British history is. Why this turn to the past and why such cosy nostalgia?

There is a striking contrast with foreign TV drama. The best examples from the US (Homeland, Breaking Bad, Boss) are dark explorations of modern America. Similarly, Scandinavian series such as Wallander, The Bridgeand The Killing have used detectives to transform our sense of modern Sweden and Denmark. While these series make gripping drama out of Muslim terrorists, Mexican drug cartels and modern-day politics, British TV is making Horlicks for Chummy.

The big TV event of 2013 is the new series of Call the Midwife. The Radio Times dedicated 13 pages to its return. Series 0ne was acclaimed by critics and proved hugely popular with audiences. A second series was immediately commissioned after the drama’s opening episode attracted nearly ten million viewers. The figures for the next two episodes passed ten million and episode four’s rating of 10.89 million overtook ITV’s 2010 hit Downton Abbey as the largest first-series audience for original drama on UK television in recent years. Both Downton and Call the Midwife are period dramas; both are hugely popular. There are two principal reasons for their appeal. First, they are soaps. Second, they present a rose-tinted vision of the past.

Call the Midwife is based on four books of memoirs by the late Jennifer Worth, about her experiences as a midwife in the East End. The differences between the books and the TV series are revealing. Worth’s books are full of fascinating social history: about living conditions in east London, the scale of poverty and violence, the realities of postwar medicine and the workhouse. In her introduction, Worth points out what a “rough area” the East End of the 1950s was. “Pub fights and brawls were an everyday event,” and: “Domestic violence was expected.” Hardly any of this features in the TV series. The terrible daily grind of life without running water, central heating and washing machines that looms large in Worth’s memoirs gives way to dewy-eyed romance.

Romance hardly features in the books. Jimmy, Jenny Lee’s on-off “friend” in the TV series, barely appears in the books and there’s no mention of his romance with Jenny. Chummy’s romance with PC Noakes only features in one chapter in the four books and Chummy herself barely appears. Even Cynthia’s moment with the widowed husband of a violinist who dies of eclampsia never happens. Indeed, Cynthia and Trixie, the minxy blonde, don’t appear that much in the books. The opposite is the case with the TV series. It cleverly mixes romance with stories from Worth’s books.

Conversely, the darkest stories in the book (“Molly”, a story of domestic abuse; “Of Mixed Descent II”, about a white husband’s violent reaction to his wife having a black baby) never made it into the first series, though a predictably happier version of “Molly” began series two. What happened with the TV adaptation was that most of the history got taken out and soapy romance was put in instead – romance and a peculiar kind of nostalgia for a time of high employment and a strong sense of community and neighbourhood.

In Call the Midwife, there is always a friendly bobby on the beat, East Enders are salt of the earth types and, crucially, everyone is white (except for a few non-speaking extras). This is the appeal of Call the Midwife. Except for one Asian pimp and a few foulmouthed underclass mums, everyone is decent and respectable. Even in a family of 24 children, they all have white teeth and clean hair. This is the world we have lost, which bears little resemblance to today’s Britain of feral children, family and social breakdown and violence. Call the Midwife is like Dixon of Dock Green with babies. The result is a huge ratings success.

Something else has been cut out from the books. There’s a scene in one story in which Sister Evangelina makes a reference to The Black and White Minstrel Show and, several times, Sister Monica Joan is seen knitting golliwogs. There is no place for that in the TV series. All references to a past that might make us uncomfortable today get airbrushed out. It is unacceptable today. But isn’t that the point? We don’t want to be reminded of how different the past was. We want a past that is cosy and better than today, the past we would like to remember, not the past as it actually was – golliwogs, domestic violence and all.

The same is true with Downton Abbey. There are a few pantomime villains (the scheming Thomas, a gay servant, and Miss O’Brien, Lady Grantham’s lady’s maid) but otherwise almost everyone is decent. The Granthams treat the servants kindly and respectfully. Lord Grantham sends the cook to Moorfields Eye Hospital and pays for her cataracts operation. He employs his old batman as his valet at Downton. When the footman Will’s mother is dying, he is swiftly sent home on compassionate leave. Carson, the butler, speaks of Downton as “family”: “They’re all the family I’ve got.” This is England as one happy family with Lord Gran - tham, an old-time Tory paternalist, in charge.

Downton Abbey has exactly the same formula as Call the Midwife. It mixes this rosetinted view of the past with lots of romance. Grantham has three grown-up daughters – lots of opportunity for romance and gossip. Numerous young chaps come to Downton. Which one will marry Lady Mary? Or perhaps Lady Edith? There’s even the occasional scandal – the dodgy Turk (bisexual, of course); the gossipy Lady Rosamund. It’s like Dynasty with butlers.

What has been smoothed out, again, is history. There are barely any references to trade unions or tenant farmers. The Strange Death of Liberal England seems far away. There’s history with a big H: Lady Sibyl is interested in women’s rights; two distant relatives (who we never meet) die on the Titanic; there’s a single reference to Lloyd George; series one ends with the announcement of the First World War (cue countless reaction shots). Yet poverty, unemployment and falling agricultural prices are far from Downton Abbey. “I hanker for a simpler world,” says Maggie Smith as the dowager countess. That’s what we get: a simpler world with the complexities of real history removed.

It’s not just that the dark side of British history has been edited out. What is revealing is what has been left in. Both series are about close-knit communities, in which everyone knows everyone: Nonnatus House and Downton Abbey. There’s always plenty of cake and Horlicks, pale ale and allotments and, as we are reminded several times, the NHS has made miracles possible. We hear no talk of cuts. There’s always an obstetric flying squad or a copper with a kind word on hand. It’s a world of happy endings: the woman with rickets will have her healthy baby, Chummy will learn to ride her bike, Mrs Patmore will see again. In the background, we hear the dulcet tones of Harold MacMillan saying we have never had it so good.

Meanwhile, a few acclaimed American series are set in the past: Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men. But there is no Horlicks in The Killing, no coconut cake in Boss. The best Scandinavian and American drama is TV noir. Young women get sexually abused and murdered; terrible things happen in the Middle East and spread to the US and Denmark; Mexican drug barons perpetrate acts of unimaginable violence. There are no good old days, just bad new days, and nowhere is safe.

A central issue in many of these series is the border between good and evil and the constant worry that the border will not hold. Middle Eastern terrorists and Mexican drug cartels are never far away. In the second series of The Killing, Breaking Bad and Homeland, the question is: “Where is the bad guy?” The dark answer is: “He’s here.” Too close for comfort.

There is another alternative to rose-tinted nostalgia: dramas that explore the past in all its complexity and challenge conventional wisdom. During the 1970s and 1980s, a number of British TV dramas and series did exactly this: Days of Hope, Alan Bleasdale’s The Monocled Mutineer, David Hare’s Licking Hitler and Ian McEwan’s The Imitation Game and Ploughman’s Lunch were among programmes that explored significant moments in 20th-century British history, as well as issues of national identity and mythology.

More recently, Stephen Poliakoff’s plays have been about personal and national history; how we come to terms with the past and how we don’t; how the past gets to be sold off (Shooting the Past); secret histories (Perfect Strangers, The Lost Prince); black and Jewish people. Or he brings together bits of the past that don’t seem to belong together: the royal family and black jazz musicians in Dancing on the Edge; the Holocaust and country-house drama in his earlier plays. Poliakoff shows how we can see the past differently. We don’t have to see it through the soapy prisms of romance and nostalgia.

David Herman is a writer and former television producer

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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The lost magic of England

The great conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne reflects on a long life at the heart of the establishment.

In a recent editorial meeting, our subscriptions manager happened to mention that Peregrine Worsthorne was still a New Statesman subscriber. A former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and, during a long Fleet Street career, a self-styled “romantic reactionary” scourge of liberals and liberalism, Worsthorne used to be something of a pantomime villain for the left, a role he delighted in. He had close friends among the “Peterhouse right”, the group of High Tory intellectuals who gathered around Maurice Cowling at the small, conspiratorial Cambridge college. He was a frequent contributor to Encounter (which turned out to be funded by the CIA) and an ardent cold warrior. His social conservatism and lofty affectations offended lefty Islingtonian sensibilities. On several occasions he was the Guardian’s reviewer of choice for its annual collection of journalism, The Bedside Guardian, and he invariably delivered the required scornful appraisal while praising its witty television critic, Nancy Banks-Smith. There is no suggestion, he wrote in 1981, that the “Guardian ever sees itself as part of the problem; itself as having some responsibility for the evils its writers described so well”.

His prose style was Oxbridge high table, more Walter Pater than George Orwell. It was essential not to take Worsthorne too seriously, because he delighted in mischief-making and wilful provocation – one of his targets for remorseless ridicule was Andrew Neil, when Neil edited the abrasively Thatcherite Sunday Times. He ended up suing Worsthorne, who was famous for his silk shirts and Garrick Club lunches, for libel; he was awarded damages of £1, the then cover price of the Sunday Times.

“I wrote that in the old days editors of distinguished Sunday papers could be found dining at All Souls, and something must have changed when they’re caught with their trousers down in a nightclub,” Worsthorne told me when we met recently. “I had no idea he was going to sue. I was teasing. I occasionally run into him and we smile at each other, so it’s all forgotten and forgiven.”

After his retirement in 1989, Worsthorne, although he remained a resolute defender of aristocracy, seemed to mellow, and even mischievously suggested that the Guardian had replaced the Times as the newspaper of record. In the 1990s he began writing occasionally for the New Statesman – the then literary editor, Peter Wilby, commissioned book reviews from him, as I did after I succeeded Wilby. Like most journalists of his generation, Worsthorne was a joy to work with; he wrote to length, delivered his copy on time and was never precious about being edited. (Bill Deedes and Tony Howard were the same.) He might have had the mannerisms of an old-style toff but he was also a tradesman, who understood that journalism was a craft.

Shortly before Christmas, I rang Wors­thorne at the home in Buckinghamshire he shares with his second wife, Lucinda Lambton, the charming architectural writer. I asked how he was. “I’m like a squeezed lemon: all used up,” he said. Lucy described him as being “frail but not ill”. I told him that I would visit, so one recent morning I did. Home is a Grade II-listed old rectory in the village of Hedgerley. It is grand but dishevelled and eccentrically furnished. A sign on the main gates warns you to “Beware of the Dog”. But the dog turns out to be blind and moves around the house uneasily, poignantly bumping into objects and walls. At lunch, a small replica mosque in the dining room issues repeated mechanised calls to prayer. “Why does it keep doing that?” Perry asks. “Isn’t it fun,” Lucy says. She then turns to me: “Have some more duck pâté.”

As a student, I used to read Worsthorne’s columns and essays with pleasure. I did not share his positions and prejudices but I admired the style in which he articulated them. “The job of journalism is not to be scholarly,” he wrote in 1989. “The most that can be achieved by an individual newspaper or journalist is the articulation of an intelligent, well-thought-out, coherent set of prejudices – ie, a moral position.”

His Sunday Telegraph, which he edited from 1986 to 1989, was like no other newspaper. The recondite and reactionary comment pages (the focus of his energies) were unapologetically High Tory, contrary to the prevailing Thatcherite orthodoxies of the time, but were mostly well written and historically literate. Bruce Anderson was one of the columnists. “You never knew what you were going to get when you opened the paper,” he told me. “Perry was a dandy, a popinjay, and of course he didn’t lack self-esteem. He had a nostalgia for Young England. In all the time I wrote for him, however, I never took his approval for granted. I always felt a tightening of the stomach muscles when I showed him something.”

***

Worsthorne is 92 now and, though his memory is failing, he remains a lucid and engaging conversationalist. Moving slowly, in short, shuffling steps, he has a long beard and retains a certain dandyish glamour. His silver hair is swept back from a high, smooth forehead. He remains a stubborn defender of the aristocracy – “Superiority is a dread word, but we are in very short supply of superiority because no one likes the word” – but the old hauteur has gone, replaced by humility and a kind of wonder and bafflement that he has endured so long and seen so much: a journalistic Lear, but one who is not raging against the dying of the light.

On arrival, I am shown through to the drawing room, where Perry sits quietly near an open fire, a copy of that morning’s Times before him. He moves to a corner armchair and passes me a copy of his book Democracy Needs Aristocracy (2005). “It’s all in there,” he says. “I’ve always thought the English aristocracy so marvellous compared to other ruling classes. It seemed to me that we had got a ruling class of such extraordinary historical excellence, which is rooted in England
almost since the Norman Conquest.

“Just read the 18th-century speeches – the great period – they’re all Whig or Tory, but all come from that [the aristocracy]. If they didn’t come directly from the aristocracy, they turned themselves very quickly into people who talk in its language. Poetic. If you read Burke, who’s the best in my view, it’s difficult not to be tempted to think what he says has a lot of truth in it . . .”

His voice fades. He has lost his way and asks what we were talking about. “Oh, yes,” he says. “It survived when others – the French and Russians and so on – were having revolutions. It was absolutely crazy to set about destroying that. There was something magical . . . the parliamentary speeches made by Burke and so on – this is a miracle! No other country has it apart from America in the early days. And I thought to get rid of it, to undermine it, was a mistake.”

I ask how exactly the aristocracy was undermined. Even today, because of the concentration of the ownership of so much land among so few and because of the enduring influence of the old families, the great schools and Oxbridge, Britain remains a peculiar hybrid: part populist hyper-democracy and part quasi-feudal state. The Tory benches are no longer filled by aristocrats but the old class structures remain.

“Equality was the order of the day after the war,” Worsthorne replies. “And in a way it did a lot of good, equalising people’s chances in the world. But it didn’t really get anywhere; the ruling class went happily on. But slowly, and I think unnecessarily dangerously, it was destroyed – and now there are no superior people around [in politics]. The Cecil family – Lord Salisbury, he was chucked out of politics. The Cecil family is being told they are not wanted. The institutions are falling apart . . .

“But there were people who had natural authority, like Denis Healey. I’m not saying it’s only aristocrats – a lot of Labour people had it. But now we haven’t got any Denis Healeys.”

Born in 1923, the younger son of Alexander Koch de Gooreynd, a Belgian banker, Worsthorne (the family anglicised its name) was educated at Stowe and was an undergraduate at both Cambridge (Peterhouse, where he studied under the historian Herbert Butterfield, the author of The Whig Interpretation of History) and Oxford (Magdalen College). “I have always felt slightly underprivileged and de-classed by having gone to Stowe, unlike my father who went to Eton,” Worsthorne wrote in 1985.

Yet his memories of Stowe remain pellucid. There he fell under the influence of the belle-lettrist John Davenport, who later became a close friend of Dylan Thomas. “He was a marvellous man, a famous intellectual of the 1930s, an ex-boxer, too. But in the war he came to Stowe and he was preparing me for a scholarship to Cambridge. He told me to read three books, and find something to alleviate the boredom of an examiner, some little thing you’ll pick up. And I duly did and got the scholarship.”

Can you remember which three books he recommended?

“Tawney. Something by Connolly, um . . . that’s the terrible thing about getting old, extremely old – you forget. And by the time you die you can’t remember your brother’s name. It’s a terrible shock. I used to think old age could be a joy because you’d have more time to read. But if you push your luck and get too far, and last too long, you start finding reading really quite difficult. The connections go, I suppose.”

Was the Connolly book Enemies of Promise (1938)?

“Yes, that’s right. It was. And the other one was . . . Hang on, the writer of the book . . . What’s the country invaded by Russia, next to Russia?

Finland, I say. Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940)?

“Yes. Wilson. How did you get that?”

We both laugh.

***

Worsthorne is saddened but not surprised that so many Scots voted for independence and his preference is for Britain to remain a member of the European Union. “What’s happening is part of the hopelessness of English politics. It’s horrible. I can’t think why the Scots would want to be on their own but it might happen. The youth will vote [for independence]. This is part of my central theme: the Scots no longer think it’s worthwhile belonging to England. The magic of England has gone – and it’s the perversity of the Tory party to want to get us out of the European Union when of course we’re much more than ever unlikely to be able to look after ourselves as an independent state because of the quality of our political system.

“The people who want to get us out are obviously of an undesirable kind. That the future should depend on [Nigel] Farage is part of the sickness. I mean the real horror is for him to have any influence at all. And when you think of the great days of the Labour Party, the giants who strode the stage – famous, lasting historical figures, some of them: Healey, Attlee, who was probably the greatest, [Ernest] Bevin. I’m well aware that Labour in the good days produced people who were superior.”

He digresses to reflect on his wartime experience as a soldier – he served in Phantom, the special reconnaissance unit, alongside Michael Oakeshott, the philosopher of English conservatism who became a close friend, and the actor David Niven, our “prize colleague”.

“I remember Harold Macmillan saying to me, after the Second World War, the British people needed their belt enlarged; they’d done their job and they deserved a reward. And that’s what he set about doing. And he wasn’t a right-wing, unsympathetic man at all. But he didn’t – and this is what is good about conservatism – he didn’t turn it into an ‘ism’. It was a sympathetic feel, an instinctive feel, and of course people in the trenches felt it, too: solidarity with the rest of England and not just their own brotherhood. Of course he didn’t get on with Margaret Thatcher at all.”

Worsthorne admired Thatcher and believed that the “Conservatives required a dictator woman” to shake things up, though he was not a Thatcherite and denounced what he called her “bourgeois triumphalism”. He expresses regret at how the miners were treated during the bitter strike of 1984-85. “I quarrelled with her about the miners’ strike, and the people she got around her to conduct it were a pretty ropey lot.

“I liked her as a person. I was with her that last night when she wasn’t prime minister any more, but she was still in Downing Street and had everything cut off. The pressman [Bernard Ingham] got several of us to try to take her mind off her miseries that night. There’s a photograph of me standing at the top of the stairs.”

In the summer of 1989, Peregrine Wors­thorne was sacked as the editor of the Sunday Telegraph by Andrew Knight, a former journalist-turned-management enforcer, over breakfast at Claridge’s. He wrote about the experience in an elegant diary for the Spectator: “I remember well the exact moment when this thunderbolt, coming out of a blue sky, hit me. It was when the waiter had just served two perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast . . . In my mind I knew that the information just imparted was a paralysingly painful blow: pretty well a professional death sentence.”

He no longer reads the Telegraph.

“Politically they don’t have much to say of interest. But I can’t put the finger on exactly what it is I don’t like about it. Boredom, I think!”

You must read Charles Moore?

“He is my favourite. Interesting fellow. He converted to Catholicism and started riding to hounds in the same week.”

He has no regrets about pursuing a long career in journalism rather than, say, as a full-time writer or academic, like his friends Cowling and Oakeshott. “I was incredibly lucky to do journalism. What people don’t realise – and perhaps you don’t agree – but it’s really a very easy life, compared to many others. And you have good company in other journalists and so on. I was an apprentice on the Times, after working [as a sub-editor] on the Glasgow Herald.”

How does he spend the days?

“Living, I suppose. It takes an hour to get dressed because all the muscles go. Then I read the Times and get bored with it halfway through. Then there’s a meal to eat. The ­answer is, the days go. I used to go for walks but I can’t do that now. But Lucy’s getting me all kinds of instruments to facilitate people with no muscles, to help you walk. I’m very sceptical about it working, but then again, better than the alternative.”

He does not read as much as he would wish. He takes the Statesman, the Spectator and the Times but no longer the Guardian. He is reading Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, The Maisky Diaries by Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943, and Living on Paper, a selection of letters by Iris Murdoch, whom he knew. “I get these massive books, thinking of a rainy day, but once I pick them up they are too heavy, physically, so they’re stacked up, begging to be read.”

He watches television – the news (we speak about Isis and the Syrian tragedy), the Marr show on Sunday mornings, and he has been enjoying War and Peace on BBC1. “Andrew Marr gave my book a very good review. He’s come back. He’s survived [a stroke] through a degree of hard willpower to get back to that job, almost as soon as he came out of surgery. But I don’t know him; he was a Guardian man.” (In fact, Marr is more closely associated with the Independent.)

Of the celebrated Peterhouse historians, both Herbert Butterfield (who was a Methodist) and Maurice Cowling were devout Christians. For High Tories, who believe in and accept natural inequalities and the organic theory of society, Christianity was a binding force that held together all social classes, as some believe was the order in late-Victorian England.

“I was a very hardened Catholic,” Worsthorne says, when I mention Cowling’s book Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. “My mother was divorced [her second marriage was to Montagu Norman, then the governor of the Bank of England] and she didn’t want my brother and me to be Catholic, so she sent us to Stowe. And I used to annoy her because I read [Hilaire] Belloc. I tried to annoy the history master teaching us Queen Elizabeth I. I said to him: ‘Are you covering up on her behalf: don’t you know she had syphilis?’

“Once I felt very angry about not being made Catholic. But then I went to Cambridge and there was a very Catholic chaplain and he was very snobbish. And in confession I had to tell him I masturbated twice that morning or something, and so it embarrassed me when half an hour later I had to sit next to him at breakfast. I literally gave up going to Mass to get out of this embarrassing situation. But recently I’ve started again. I haven’t actually gone to church but I’ve made my confessions, to a friendly bishop who came to the house.”

So you are a believer?

“Yes. I don’t know which bit I believe. But as Voltaire said: ‘Don’t take a risk.’”

He smiles and lowers his head. We are ready for lunch. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle