Stiff skirts, clinking crystal, and worn plots: why I hate period dramas

The BBC’s latest offering, Sally Wainwright’s Gentleman Jack, reveals everything that is wrong with colour-by-numbers costume dramas – because it isn’t one.

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In the second week of my time at Leeds University, the tutor of our “Introduction to Prose” seminar asked us to name a writer we liked that more people should read, and one we didn’t like that everyone read. My answer – or the latter part of it at least – made me something of a pariah as an English undergrad: Hanif Kureishi, and Jane Austen. While my peers had clearly spent a significant portion of their teens dreaming of stone crescents, stiff skirts and Mr Darcy et al, I’d never managed to follow which sister was which long enough to make it much further than, “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”

It is perhaps not surprising then that, try as I might, I’ve never been able to grasp the obsession with costume drama. And I have tried. Sign into my various TV catch-up accounts and you’ll find myriad Sunday night shows of a particular period listed under “continue watching”, paused part-way through the first series: Poldark, Mr Selfridge, Downton Abbey, Victoria – all jewels in a crown so British you’d think viewing was compulsory to retain citizenship. Their maudlin fantasies of England are one of our greatest exports to the US, where viewers – an average 13.3 million of them for Downton at its peak on PBS – lap up the soothing respectability and amusing peculiarities of Brits Gone By.

But such TV dramas lean overwhelmingly on the aesthetics of the past rather than on its realities; they look like lovely places to live – as long as you are fabulously wealthy. They’re set in Yorkshire, or Bath, or some compressed, fictionalised version of Yorkshire or Bath. Sherry sloshes in clinking crystal and carriage wheels crunch over gravel. The narratives crawl along, stuffy and sterile, hastened largely by spoken exposition and rote devices: pearls set a-quiver by an unexpected telegram? Heavens! There’s always a hardened housekeeper, a garrulous cook, a gullible servant girl pregnant by a stable boy or wealthy young cad who promised to marry her. The men suffer from gout or have a limp from the War (it doesn’t matter which), or else are somehow unhampered in their virility by wearing tights.

The BBC’s latest offering, Sally Wainwright’s Gentleman Jack, reveals everything that is wrong with colour-by-numbers costume dramas – because it isn’t one. Based on the real-life diaries of Anne Lister, Gentleman Jack follows female landowner and lesbian Anne as she returns to her ancestral home after her former lover has taken a husband. It would be easy to argue that its success is due to Lister’s unusual life – it is not imprisoned by the conventions of the period – but that would be reductive: the BBC’s previous adaption of the same material, featuring Maxine Peake, barely registered. It’s not so much that it’s a different story (though it is) as that it’s a different way of doing that story. As Rachel Cooke pointed out in these pages last week, Gentleman Jack is bracing and pacey: people talk like actual people and have sex like actual people (there’s no soft, candlelit curve of a breast here). Suranne Jones’s Anne is dauntless and rapacious and does everything with a quiet fury. She breaks the fourth wall and talks to camera.

The appeal of period drama, so I’m told, is the reassurance of escaping present anxiety (hence the pre-Monday slot) for the gentle nostalgia of the past, but that all sounds a bit Brexity to me. I don’t want to self-medicate with a warming bath of cliché when I can sink into the dread of Chernobyl or be emotionally winded by The Virtues. At the very least, I want Suranne Jones dashing about in a top hat and having sex with the same efficiency with which she shoots lame horses. I’m sure some will disagree with me – in fact, I know of at least 13.3 million of them – but, dear reader, when it comes to period drama, I just don’t get it. 

Next week: Tracey Thorn

Pippa Bailey is the New Statesmans chief sub-editor. 

This article appears in the 31 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Theresa May’s toxic legacy

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