Wednesday 27 October 2010

False Pasts

Television, that futuristic medium, is deeply in love with the past. It likes nothing more than sending people back in time to experience 'living in the past' for our delectation in 'historical reality shows' - coming very soon to a TV set near you: Turn Back Time (shopkeepers sampling retail life at various periods from the 1870s on), Edwardian Farm (sequel to - you guessed - Victorian farm), even Giles and Sue Live the Good Life (Seventies self-sufficiency, sitcom-style). That's not to mention the period dramas - ITV's Downton Abbey is currently sweeping all before it with its golden vision of the Edwardian age. But this 'past' that TV is so drawn to is of course always a partial and falsified version, viewed through the distorting lens of our present preoccupations, and wrong in so many ways. Leaving aside anachronisms of detail and (more importantly) attitude, TV just lays it on too thick; it tends to caricature the past, even the recent past. Victorian times were never that Victorian, and, as those of us who lived through them will testify, the Sixties were never that Sixties (the Seventies were far more Sixties).
David Cecil, in the Prologue to his life of Cowper, The Stricken Deer, is very good on this falsification of the past. Writing at the end of the 1920s, when the 18th century was very much in vogue, he describes the vision of that century embraced by the 1920s enthusiasts as 'not at all like the England of the eighteenth century... For one thing, their idea is too homogeneous. Only countries of the mind are so much of a piece. The past does not, any more than the present, escape that incompleteness, that inconsistency which is the essential characteristic of life as we know it, as opposed to life as we should like it to be. An historical period is not a water-tight compartment, containing only what it has itself created, sharing nothing with what has gone before and what comes after. It is a tangle of movements and forces, of various origin, sometimes intertwined and sometimes running parallel, some beginning, some in their prime, some in decay... To describe any period, then, as all of a piece is as inaccurate as to paint a picture of its streets with all the houses of the same age and style.' Precisely. The past, at any period, felt just the way the present does now - after all, it was the present.


  1. Hear, hear.

    It has always driven this petty pedant potty that films and television programmes insist on furnishing sets and clothing actors exclusively with the furnishings and clothing of the period the drama is set in. If you walk into my house you will see objects ranging from AD 200 to AD 2010, and the clothes aren't that much different.

  2. V good iobservation, Nige (though there are homes now kitted out entirely in 2000s Ikea etc, but they're rare I suppose and more likely to be apartments in city centres).

    I'm enjoying Downton Abbey and its amusing mix of cliche and anachronism. The only one I can't stand is Bates, with his gammy leg, tiresome decency and 'air of mystery', forever staring into the middle distance in a haunted sort of way.

    What have you got from AD200, Recusant?

  3. A little Roman glass scented oil flask. Not that rare, in the scheme of things, but nice to think that it has avoided being smashed these lat 1,810 years.

  4. Perhaps one the best illustrations is how our American friends seem incapable of making a historical drama about any period anywhere without the protaganists yearning openly for freedom and democracy.

    It isn't just films and novels either. A lot of intellectual debate founders on wildly simplisitc history. It's astounding how many modern types buy into the Whig shibboleth about how the Enlightenment was preceded by the "age of superstition", a time when the terrorized, priest-ridden people to a man passed their days looking for signs of divine anger or pleasure in everything from their ablutions to ship-building to royal taxes. These people should be locked up and forced to read Shakespeare's entire works. Something similar is happening about WW11, a time when very, very good people took on very, very bad people, both with perfect foresight as to how it would end.

    Maybe, Nige, we should start treating history books the way Catholics used to treat the Bible--important foundational documents that are far too dangerous to be shared with the masses.

  5. Oh yes I agree with most of that Peter - I think it's intellectual laziness and lack of imagination more than anything (and, as you say, that apparently ineradicable Whig view of history, so inimical to us reactionaries). Having said that, I thought John Adams (a US production of course) was one of the best period dramas I'd ever seen.

  6. I didn't see it, but I shall try to find it. But, Nige, I never meant to suggest the Americans weren't excellent at making historical dramas about people who really were yearning for freedom and democracy! :-)

  7. very well said Nige.
    Interesting to note that Dabbler contributor Philip Wilkinson has written the book to accompany the TV series of that new 'high street shopping through the years' programme

  8. I don't know, Peter - for those participants able to read the signs the outcome of WW2 wasn't in doubt: