What is it about the British and period drama? The success of The King’s Speech might have taken a few critics by surprise, but ITV’s Downtown Abbey during the autumn and the BBC revival of Upstairs Downstairs over Christmas suggests it’s now open season for producers to raid the past for stories.
We have been here before. As I have argued elsewhere, during the 1970s it was almost impossible to watch television without being assailed by the clattering of hard hooves on cobbles and the rustling of discombobulated bustles.
If it was the decade that taste forgot, the 1970s was also a time of world economic crisis, falling living standards, unemployment and government cut-backs – and when the post-war social democratic consensus gave way to one based on neo-liberalism.
At the time many critics saw period dramas as a way of escaping this nasty reality. Some did serve that function – notably The Onedin Line (BBC1, 1971-80), which provided lovely sea views and comfort for millions of Sunday evening viewers. Other series – like When the Boat Comes In (BBC1, 1976-81) – tackled contemporary issues like Irish terrorism, class conflict and feminism, albeit with their cloth caps firmly on. It was as if such tricky issues could only be discussed by setting them in the past, thereby making them safe for mass audiences.
Most famously Days of Hope (BBC1 1975) gave viewers a Trostskyist interpretation of history from the First World War to the General Strike. Jim Allen and his collaborators argued that the contemporary Labour party – at that point in government – would betray workers’ interests just as it had done five decades before. Ironically it was the Conservatives who complained of left-wing bias, provoking irate Daily Telegraph readers and causing Margaret Thatcher to condemn the drama in her first leader’s speech.
The latest batch of period dramas suggests that something significant has changed since the 1970s. In its original version, Upstairs Downstairs (ITV, 1971-5) contained a mix of nostalgia for a by-gone age with reflections on how brutal that age could be. The revived version – very much like Downton Abbey – gave a perfunctory glance to the realities of downstairs life while focusing on the glamorous and lovable eccentrics upstairs.
The King’s Speech is part of this trend. As others have noted, it gives a highly conservative rendition of the period, even providing a defence of deference. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the film also avoids the awkward fact that the stuttering George VI was – like many others in the upper classes – an appeaser.
Period drama tells us more about the time in which it is produced than the time in which it is ostensibly set. This current crop – produced as in the 1970s in the midst of economic crisis and changing political priorities – suggests to me that David Cameron – one of the poshest Prime Ministers we’ve had in a long time – might already have the next election in the bag.