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Swellboy on… historical TV drama

Historical drama on TV is for enjoying, not nitpicking

Swellboy on… historical TV drama

Image: Brijesh Patel

November 09 2010
Nick Foulkes

There is way too much piffle, to quote my Oxford contemporary and future prime minister Boris Johnson, talked about Mad Men. If I hear one more time about how the properties master makes sure that he makes ice cubes using water from the early 1960s, frozen in a period tray, placed inside the freezer compartment of a period refrigerator, or that the dressing in the men’s hair is applied with a historically correct comb, wielded by a make-up artist listening to Desi Arnaz and trying to make up her mind whether to vote for Nixon or Kennedy, I might just get into my 1961 Chevrolet Impala and drive the wrong way down Madison Avenue.

The trouble is that this mania for so-called verisimilitude has afflicted Downton Abbey, the hugely enjoyable Julian Fellowes series on Sunday evenings. I am quite willing to accept that this Oscar-winning writer of immense talent has singlehandedly saved Independent Television and quite frankly the sooner he starts writing everything that is broadcast in Britain (including EastEnders and Coronation Street), the better I will like it. But I am not prepared to accept the nitpicking on the part of the audience who have nothing better to do than sit with their Waitrose claret and their selection of farmhouse cheeses trying to look for yellow lines, TV aerials and the wrong kind of riding skirt being worn on the wrong kind of horse.

I am all for detail – just ask me about the correct weight of interlining in the collar of a summer shirt – but what people seem to be missing is that in creating and watching such television we treat the past as some sort of palimpsest onto which we write our own vision of the world, assigning modern behaviour, motivation, morals, sexual mores, and emotions familiar to us onto the lives of characters who are supposed to be living in the past.

Part of the point of historical drama is that we know what is going to happen next: there will be a missile crisis involving Cuba, Kennedy will get shot, the Great War will happen, and so on. The other part is that we should identify with the people portrayed therein. Not having been a flunkey at a stately home in early 20th-century Britain nor the boss of a New York advertising agency half a century ago, I cannot say whether every scintilla of thought and every action is entirely as it would have been back in the day, so I am prepared to look the other way when someone uses an inaccurate corkscrew, or clips the “wrong” sort of cigar with a guillotine rather than a notched cutter. After all, it is only telly and it should be a pleasure rather than having to sit an O-level. But if you wish to pursue lapses in historical verisimilitude at a postgraduate level, may I suggest that you purchase a copy of Carry On Up the Khyber.

See also

People, Television