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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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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