Horlicks for Chummy: Britain’s romance with cosy TV nostalgia

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

The cast and crew during a shoot for Downton Abbey
The cast and crew during a shoot for Downton Abbey. Photograph: Carnival Films/Nick Briggs

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