The Downton Abbey Effect: Modern Day Drama In Period Dressing
With the news that the BBC’s answer to Downton Abbey, Poldark is being re-commissioned for a second series, there’s no question that period dramas are as popular as ever. From The Forsythe Saga to just one more Pride & Prejudice remake, audiences at home and overseas love a blast from the past. However, don’t be fooled into thinking our new found TV obsession is, well… new. It may be dressed up in historical costumes but our much-loved TV shows are anything but antique.
Mr Selfridge, Call The Midwife, Indian Summers… Whatever period drama has got you talking, chances are it’s not for its accurate portrayal of historical life. Unlike shows like Sherlock Holmes, Ripper Street and Boardwalk Empire, which are set in the past but have a very specific focus, these period dramas are supposedly a slice of life.
However, trying to get contemporary audiences to relate to (and therefore care about) the daily lives of a post-Edwardian aristocratic family would be almost impossible because life has changed so much since then. No one wants to watch a year-long courtship that ends with the couple marrying for financial reasons, so creators turn to more contemporary storylines to entice audiences.
Does it seem likely that a Lord’s daughter would be able to marry the family chauffer? Would a young nobleman risk his livelihood to employee his miners for a few more months? And would a businessman sell his company’s shares to build affordable housing for the poor? Ok, so that’s why they call it fiction, but what we’re actually watching is modern day tales in period dressing.
The star of BBC 1’s Poldark is an aristocrat who refuses to follow society’s rules, recognises the struggle of the common man, marries his kitchen maid and feels an economic responsibility to his people. Although an extremely admirable character, we cannot pretend that this is a true representation of 18th century Cornwall. However, it is something audiences today can get behind, conveniently ignoring how things would have really happened.
Downton Abbey also sees a mixing of the classes, which would not have been acceptable at the time and although there is a lot of objection to it from certain characters, it still happens with relative ease. Mr Selfridge may be based on a true story but somehow I doubt the real American businessman was as fair and generous with his money as ITV’s depiction would have us believe.
Currently the only exception on TV is Indian Summers, which highlights quite drastically what it was like in India in 1932. With most of the characters happy with the status quo and the rest willing to turn a blind eye, it is extremely hard to relate to them as an audience because they do things we don’t agree with. We might accept that these were different times but we can’t support someone who condemns and tortures an innocent man for a crime he did not commit.
Poldark, Mr Selfridge and more all give us the period backdrop we’re craving whilst providing us with the focus of a main character who represents a more modern view. He’s a hero, someone who fights against the tyranny of the times, someone to be looked up to. He is a modern-day superhero dressed up in a wig to appeal to ‘grown-up’ audiences. Now we just have to hope for a happy ending.