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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Happiness is a huge gun: Cold War thrillers and the modern nuclear deterrent

For all that books and films laud Britain's strength, ultimately, they show that our power is interdependent.

Francisco “Pistols” Scaramanga, the ­assassin for hire in Ian Fleming’s 1965 James Bond novel, The Man With the Golden Gun, has invested more than money in his favourite weapon. Bond’s colleagues in the Secret Service have concluded from Freudian analysis that Scaramanga’s golden gun is “a symbol of virility – an extension of the male organ”. It is just one of many phallic weapons in the Bond saga. In Dr No, for instance, Bond reflects on his 15-year “marriage” to his Beretta handgun as he fondly recalls “pumping the cartridges out on to the bedspread in some hotel bedroom somewhere around the world”. Objectively speaking, guns comprise little more than highly engineered metal and springs, but Fleming invests them with an ­extraordinary degree of psychosexual significance.

Size matters in the Bond novels – a point made by a furious Paul Johnson in a review of Dr No for this paper in 1958 (“everything is giant in Dr No – insects, breasts, and gin-and-tonics”). One of the Bond stories’ biggest weapons is a rocket carrying an atomic warhead: the Moonraker, which gives its name to the third Bond novel, published in 1955. The most important thing about the Moonraker is that it is apparently British – a gift to a grateful nation from the plutocrat Sir Hugo Drax. And, like Bond’s Beretta, it is freighted with psychosexual significance. When Bond first lays eyes on it there is no doubt that this is an erotically charged symbol of destructive power. “One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” Bond says, with a “rapt expression”:

Up through the centre of the shaft, which was about thirty feet wide, soared a pencil of glistening chromium [. . .] nothing marred the silken sheen of the fifty feet of polished chrome steel except the spidery fingers of two light gantries which stood out from the walls and clasped the waist of the rocket between thick pads of foam-rubber.

The guns in the Bond books can be seen as expressions of their bearer’s power – or, as with Scaramanga’s golden gun, compensation for a lack of virility. The Moonraker is equally symbolic, but on a far larger scale: an expression of a nation’s geopolitical power, or compensation for its impotence.

As what is known officially as Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent (“Trident” to everyone else) returns to the top of the political agenda, the cultural dimension of the debate will no doubt continue to be overlooked. Yet culture matters in politics, especially when the issue is a weapon. As the guns in the Bond novels remind us, weapons are not merely tools, they are also symbols. Trident is not just a system comprising nuclear warheads, missiles and four Vanguard-class submarines. Its symbolic meanings are, to a great extent, what this debate is about. Trident stands for Britain itself, and it does so for different people in different ways. Your opinion on whether to cancel or replace it depends to a great extent on what kind of country you think Britain is, or ought to be.

The Cold War British spy thriller is particularly topical because it developed in tandem with Britain’s nuclear programme through the 1950s and 1960s. Moonraker was published just weeks after Churchill’s government announced its intention to build an H-bomb in the 1955 defence white paper, and three years after Britain’s first atomic test on the Montebello Islands, Western Australia. These novels drew on technological reality in their plots concerning the theft of nuclear secrets or the proliferation of nuclear technology, but they influenced reality as well as reflected it, with stories of British power that helped create Britain’s image of itself in a postwar world.

The main theme of the genre is the decline of British power and how the country responded. Atomic or nuclear weapons serve this as symbols and plot devices. Len Deighton’s debut novel, The Ipcress File (1962), for instance, concerns a plan to brainwash British scientists to spy for the Soviet Union, and has as its centrepiece an American neutron-bomb test on a Pacific atoll, observed by a British double agent who is transmitting Allied secrets to an offshore Soviet submarine. The novel’s technical dialogue on nuclear technology, and its appendices providing a fictionalised account of the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb test and a factual explanation of the neutron bomb, are in the book not merely for verisimilitude: Deighton’s British spies are observers or victims of the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR, agents with remarkably little agency.

A more dour variation on the theme is John le Carré’s The Looking Glass War (1965), in which the prospect of obtaining information on Soviet nuclear missiles in East Germany provokes “the Department”, a failing military intelligence organisation, to try to regain its wartime glory with an intelligence coup. This hubris leads to tragedy as its amateurish operation unravels to disastrous effect, le Carré’s point being that military and economic might cannot be regained through nostalgic wish-fulfilment. These novels situate British decline in the context of superpower domination; their characters recall the technological and operational successes of the Second World War but seem unable to accept the contemporary reality of military and geopolitical decline. For Deighton and le Carré, Britain simply doesn’t matter as much as it used to, which is why, in le Carré’s later Smiley novels and Deighton’s Game, Set and Match trilogy (1983-85), the spymasters are so desperate to impress the Americans.

Fleming is usually seen as a reactionary, even blimpish writer – his England was “substantially right of centre”, Kingsley Amis remarked – and he signalled his own politics by making a trade unionist the ­villain of his first novel, Casino Royale (1953). So it might seem surprising that he was as concerned as his younger contemporaries Deighton and le Carré with British decline. The historian David Cannadine, for one, emphasises that although Fleming may have been aghast at certain aspects of postwar change such as the welfare state and unionisation (opinions that Bond makes no secret of sharing), he simply refused to believe that Britain was in decline, a refusal embodied in Bond’s very character.

Bond the man is more than the “anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a ­government department” that Fleming described to the Manchester Guardian in 1958. He is an expression of the British state itself, demonstrating Britain’s toughness while besting its enemies – the Russian agents of SMERSH and, later, the international criminals and terrorists of SPECTRE. He is supported by a formidable apparatus of technological and logistical capability that mythologises British research and development, which had peaked during the Second World War (a point made more obviously in the film franchise when Fleming’s Armourer becomes the white-coated Q, heir to Barnes Wallis and the ingenious technicians of the Special Operations Executive). And, as Cannadine astutely observes, “this comforting, escapist theme of Britain’s continued pre-eminence” is most evident in Bond’s relationship with the United States. The Americans may have more money, but they cannot spy or fight anywhere near as well as Bond, as is made plain when the hapless Felix Leiter, Bond’s friend in the CIA, literally loses an arm and a leg to one of Mr Big’s sharks in Live and Let Die (1954).

Moonraker, however, exposes a more complex and sceptical side to Fleming’s Bond. It is significant that this emerges in a book that is explicitly about Englishness and the Bomb. The rocket is being built atop another symbol: the white cliffs of Dover, prompting some surprisingly lyrical passages on the beauty of South Foreland coast. And yet, though replete with emblems of English tradition and bursting with hatred of ugly, evil-minded foreigners, this novel has an unmistakable political subtext that undermines its apparent confidence in British power. Drax, it turns out, is a patriot – but a patriot of Nazi Germany, which he had served as an SS officer and plans to avenge with a missile that is pointing not, as everyone believes, at a test site in the North Sea, but at central London, the intended Ground Zero being a flat in Ebury Street, Belgravia (the location, incidentally, of Fleming’s own bachelor pad in the 1930s and 1940s). The missile has been designed and built by engineers from Wernher von Braun’s wartime rocket programme, and its atomic warhead has been generously donated by the Soviet Union, which is looking to bring Britain to its knees without having to go through the rigmarole of fighting a war.

The Moonraker, we are told repeatedly, will restore Britain to its rightful place at the global top table after its unfortunate postwar period of retrenchment and austerity. But the rocket is not British, except in being built on British soil, and the aim of the man controlling it is to destroy British power, not project it. The implication is that Britain is not only incapable of looking after its own defences, but also pathetically grateful for the favours bestowed on it. After the missile is fired, its trajectory diverted by Bond back to the original target (thereby fortuitously taking out a Soviet submarine carrying the fleeing Drax), the government decides to cover it all up and allow the public to continue believing that the Moonraker is a genuinely British atomic success.

One of the ironies of the Bond phenomenon is that by examining the myths and realities of British hard power, it became a chief instrument of British soft power. Of the first 18 novels to sell over a million copies in Britain, ten were Bond books, and Moonraker (by no means the most successful instalment of the saga) was approaching the two million mark 20 years after publication. The film franchise continues to offer Cannadine’s “comforting, escapist” image of Britain (the two most recent pictures, directed by Sam Mendes, are especially replete with British icons), but the novels are altogether more uncertain about Britain’s role in the world. Moonraker is full of anxiety that the myth of British power is nothing more than a myth, that Britain lacks the industrial and scientific wherewithal to return to greatness. It even conjures up an image of the apocalypse, reminding readers of the precariousness of those cherished British values and institutions, when the love interest, the improbably named Special Branch detective Gala Brand, imagines the terrible consequences of Drax’s plan:

The crowds in the streets. The Palace. The nursemaids in the park. The birds in the trees. The great bloom of flame a mile wide. And then the mushroom cloud. And nothing left. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

***

Even though their plots ensure that apocalypse is averted, Cold War thrillers thus made their own contribution to forcing us to imagine the unimaginable, as did more mainstream post-apocalyptic novels such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), Nevil Shute’s bestseller On the Beach (1957) and The Old Men at the Zoo (1961) by Angus Wilson. In Desmond Cory’s Shockwave, first published in 1963 as Hammerhead and featuring the Spanish-British agent Johnny Fedora (whose debut preceded Bond’s by two years), Madrid is saved from destruction by a nuclear bomb that the Soviet master spy Feramontov almost succeeds in delivering to its target. As he contemplates his objective, Feramontov muses that, in the “bomb-haunted world of the Sixties”, death in a nuclear fireball “might even come as a release, like the snapping of an overtautened string; and after the rains of death had flooded the Earth, those who survived in the sodden ruins might think of him as a benefactor of the race”.

But where the post-apocalyptic dystopias might be viewed as an argument for nuclear disarmament, later Cold War thrillers such as Cory’s usually accepted the fact of mutually assured destruction – and that British peace and prosperity were guaranteed by US nuclear firepower. Nowhere is this more apparent than Frederick Forsyth’s 1984 bestseller, The Fourth Protocol, which turns the Labour Party’s famously unilateralist 1983 election manifesto into a uniquely party-political espionage plot. In it, the general secretary of the Soviet Union conspires with the elderly Kim Philby to smuggle into Britain a small, self-assembly nuclear bomb that a KGB “illegal” will put together and ­detonate at a US air force base in East Anglia.

Unlike in Moonraker and Shockwave, however, the objective is not to provoke hostilities or prompt military capitulation, but to persuade the British public to vote Labour – by provoking horror and outrage at the risks of US nuclear weapons remaining on British soil. However, the new and moderate Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, will have a scant few hours in Downing Street, as a hard-left rival under Soviet control (such as a certain Ken Livingstone, whom Philby describes as “a nondescript, instantly forgettable little fellow with a nasal voice”) will at once usurp Kinnock and reinstate a policy of unilateral disarmament, leading to the removal of the US missiles.

The ideological force of Forsyth’s novel is clear enough: Britain is beset by enemies within and without, and must arm itself morally and politically against communism. But although this is an insistently, even tiresomely patriotic novel, its plot makes no attempt to conceal Britain’s relative military weakness and dependence on the United States, though disaster is averted by the combined brilliance of MI5, MI6 and the SAS. The Fourth Protocol thus becomes an allegory of this country’s world-leading “niche capabilities”, which maintain Britain’s prestige and relevance despite its declining military and economic might.

Today, the political argument remains on much the same terms as at the start of the Cold War. Whichever way you look at it, Trident symbolises Britain. To its supporters, it is symbolic of Britain’s talent for “punching above its weight”, and its responsibility to protect freedom and keep the global peace. To its opponents, it is an emblem of economic folly, militaristic excess, and a misunderstanding of contemporary strategic threats; it is an expression not of British confidence but of a misplaced machismo, a way for Britons to feel good about themselves that fails to address the real threats to the nation. One academic, Nick Ritchie of York University, argues that Britain’s nuclear policy discourse “is underpinned by powerful ideas about masculinity in international politics in which nuclear weapons are associated with ideas of virility, strength, autonomy and rationality”.

In 1945, shortly after Hiroshima became a byword for mass destruction, George ­Orwell predicted in his essay “You and the Atom Bomb” that nuclear weapons would bring about what he was the first to call a “cold war”. Because an atomic bomb “is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship”, it could be produced at scale only by countries with vast industrial capacity; this would lead to the emergence of two or three superpowers, confronting each other in a “peace that is no peace”.

Orwell’s point about industrial capacity helps explain why Trident is totemic: it is proof that our industrial might has not entirely vanished. Alternatively, it can be seen as a consolation for industrial decline. This may be why the huge cost of the Successor programme – one of the main arguments wielded by Trident’s opponents against replacement – appears to be a source of pride for the government: the Strategic Defence and Security Review proclaims that, at £31bn, with a further £10bn for contingencies, Successor will be “one of the largest government investment programmes”.

Clearly, size matters today as much as it did when Fleming was writing. But Moonraker again helps us see that all is not what it seems. Just as the Moonraker is a German missile with a Soviet warhead, even if it is being built in Kent, so the missiles carried by the Vanguard-class submarines are, in fact, made in California, Britain having given up missile production in the 1960s. The Trident warheads are made in Berkshire – but by a privatised government agency part-owned by two American firms. Trident may be British, but only in the way Manchester United or a James Bond movie are British.

The Cold War spy thriller presciently suggests that true independence is an illusion. Britain may consume the most destructive weapons yet invented, but it can no longer produce them or deliver them without America’s industrial might. British power is interdependent, not independent: that is the Cold War thriller’s most politically prescient message.

Andrew Glazzard is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of “Conrad’s Popular Fictions: Secret Histories and Sensational Novels” (Palgrave Macmillan)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt