Dramatic. Period?

The season finale of Downton Abbey is this evening, and so last week, presumably in preparation for the big day, something finally happened. After six episodes where the only interesting event was someone not cheating on her husband, things started to heat up: one engagement was made; another was announced; the maid saw the pig-farmer with the lady’s illegitimate child; and not only did Branson use a naughty word but he stood up during dinner. Whoa!

Downton is an odd programme. I can’t decide if I love it or hate it. Pretty much everyone in the show is someone you’d go several miles out of your way to avoid (I except two characters from this – the afore-mentioned Branson, and Mrs Hughes, both of whom are hardcore Nice Guys). Nonetheless, most of them are strangely fascinating. Lady Mary is a particularly strong example of this. She’s haughty, condescending, annoyingly beautiful, painfully graceful, indifferent to the point of cruelty, and so, you would think, instantly dislikeable. But for all these reasons I’m weirdly obsessed with her: no dinner, garden party, family crisis or financial decision is complete without a smoothly delivered put-down from the oldest Crawley daughter. At the same time, even though there are virtually no storylines, I’m still anxious to know what happens (or maybe ‘happens’) next. This conundrum is perhaps best summed up by a recent gem of a comment from ‘McScotty’ on the Guardian website, “The whole series is beautifully acted, terribly written, annoyingly addictive and utterly preposterous”.

As a whole, the show is probably interesting (to me and to its many other viewers) because it portrays a world quite unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. Enormous house! Servants! Dressing for dinner! Flirting over priceless artwork! Those lovely dresses with beads and feathers! No television! It’s a bit like a fantasy world, allowing us to go, “Huh, so that’s what life would be like if I had to make sure my subjects were correctly maintaining my pig collection.” Which is why I was surprised when I recently read an article complaining that, in general, historical dramas just weren’t historical enough. The gist of the piece (as far as I can remember, since I committed the worst possible research faux pas and didn’t note down where I read it, and have since forgotten where that was) was that all too frequently the characters in period dramas are anachronistically similar to the audience, eliciting sympathy from modern-day viewers by creating characters just like them at the expense of historical accuracy.

I see that this is true in some cases, especially in programmes that aren’t really period dramas but have historical elements. Doctor Who is one of these – a trip to the past is not only likely to take place in England (pretty convenient, given that the entirety of time and space is at the Doctor’s disposal) but is sure to include a group of characters who look like people from ye olden times but who are basically twenty-first century people in crinolines and suits of armour. Take the recent episode Robot of Sherwood: Robin Hood may have been dressed like a medieval bandit but he looked, acted and spoke like any other action hero, down to the obligatory secret despair visible only at quiet moments… TV Tropes has coined the rather pleasing term ‘Purely Aesthetic Era’ for just this kind of happening.

But overall I disagree that period dramas are just dramas with a bit of lace and dirt thrown in, because most of the time you need to make a certain amount of adjustment at the start in order to get involved. One fairly generic example is smoking: a cigarette in a show set post-1980 is a sure sign of a ruffian, petty criminal or sinister puppetmaster controlling not only every major political event in the last fifty years but also all of Earth’s communications with extra-terrestrial life. In a programme set before these modern times, however, a puff of smoke is a mere bagatelle, an everyday occurrence, a sign of the times.

And there’s more. Take, for example, Rome, set in, well, Rome, during the Julius Caesar/Augustus years. The series’ main characters, and thus the two with whom we are presumably supposed to identify, are Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) and Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd – LIKE) – and these are not modern, metrosexual, egalitarian gentlemen. The series opens with them in battle, Vorenus blithely ordering crucifixion for traitors and sending messages to “the torture detachment with the third”; then, once they’re on their way back to Rome, they pause to slice open some marauders before bashing a dead man’s jaw apart to steal his gold teeth, all the while sharing their best brothel tips. I think it’s fair to say that such antics would be seriously off-putting in a contemporary drama, but the viewer performs a sort of mental rearrangement and somehow comes to terms with the idea that people in the past did things a bit differently. And that’s not even taking into account the murder, betrayal, prostitution, orgies and incest that pepper the rest of the series (think Game of Thrones in togas).

Less violent is Mad Men (1960s New York), but the same kind of mental adjustment is necessary, primarily for the atrocious gender attitudes. Women are wives or, at best, secretaries, universally referred to as ‘sweetheart’ by the men in charge of them, seen as creatures made entirely of boobs and hair. Having just started watching the second series, I found myself being impressed by how much the main character, Don Draper, had grown since the first series, on the basis that he’d gone all of two episodes without cheating on his wife. What a superhuman! (That’s not even the worst thing about the programme. The worst thing is Pete Campbell, the most infuriatingly pointless character in the history of storytelling. That, and the fact that, again, really not much happens.)

And what’s striking is that the writers of these period dramas are bold enough to give even the nicest, most sympathetic characters at least some elements of attitudes that we now see as sexist/racist/classist etc. Both Downton and Grantchester have recently had storylines concerning gay characters, in which some of our beloved favourites have demonstrated worryingly homophobic tendencies. In Downton, Carson the butler (whose stubborn old-fashionedness is usually endearing) has shown himself to be staunchly immune to the sufferings of poor Thomas, who this season has gone so far as to concoct some kind of hideous intravenous medication to cure him of his Gomorrah-esque ways. Meanwhile, in Grantchester (1950s Cambridgeshire), while the hero-vicar Sidney Chambers is open to people of all faiths, colours, creeds and orientations, two of the his closest friends (the motherly housekeeper and the stalwart police inspector) failed to show even a shred of sympathy for the man whose (male) lover had been murdered because he was his (male) lover. This kind of attitude would hardly be acceptable coming from Inspector Barnaby.

Of course, this leads us to wonder: how far can we change our mental stance before we’re just too disgusted to keep watching? On the one hand, it probably depends on the programme. Rome throws f-bombs out all over the place and seems to think it a wasted episode if at least one character doesn’t get naked, and so a certain level of arseholery is expected. In Downton and Grantchester, on the other hand, the use of the word ‘bastard’ from Branson or Sidney is a damning indictment of the pure evil of their interlocutor, and the most we’ve ever seen of a person’s body is a bare shoulder; in such cases, uncivilised behaviour is more of a shock. Either the filth is everywhere, it seems, or it’s banned outright.

On the other hand, though, I wonder if it’s a case of ‘the bigger, the better’. Programmes where the events and attitudes are so far removed from our reality that they’re barely recognisable – for example, the slavery and gladiator combat and back-stabbing of Rome – are comparatively easy to switch into and then switch out of again; sure, it’s all pretty horrific and brutal, but you feel as though few viewers will accidentally crucify someone because they saw Vorenus do it. But the sexist jokes in Mad Men and the homophobic attitudes in Grantchester are more worrying because they’re not that far removed from the jokes and attitudes that are still ongoing; many otherwise lovely people are inexplicably uncomfortable about women working or men being in love with other men. That makes it much harder, it seems to me, to make a strong differentiation between how the characters behave and how people in general behave. Maybe, then, the problem isn’t that period dramas are too close to modern sensibilities; it’s that, in many cases, modern sensibilities are still too close to those found in period dramas. Perhaps some things never change.

And with those words of wisdom, I’m off to buy three pigs and toga.

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