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 New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times