Don’t Look Back [But do, it’s socially and culturally necessary]

Posted: 11/09/2011 in Self-Indulgent Musings
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

More of a telly post than a filmy one- again, but it is all long form, screen-based popculture and I’m trying to differentiate The Noctuary from SL. More on Downton Abbey soon to come over there.

My AS Film Studies tutor always tried to impress upon us that each film is a ‘CULTURAL ARTEFACT’, every celluloid submission reflects and represents the society and era in which it is made- even if the content is ostensibly concerned with a near or distant past, future or part of the world. This is perhaps a bit of a stretch, but the evidence suggested that there was more than a grain of applicable theory in it. To use an inept metaphor. His favourite example was how Hitchcock’s adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps spoke of pre-war anxieties about fascist Europe.

I mention this because, subsequent to having this idea ingrained in my critical mind, I have been pondering the significance of the rash of backwards-looking British dramas of late. With the new series of ITV’s cracking rendering of early-century manners and mores upon us, now in the midst of the Great War, what are we trying to say to ourselves?Cast of ITV's Downton Abbey

With The Hour [which I entirely failed to watch, despite downloading all the episodes from iPlayer], the Beeb’s misfired 60s kitsch-and-conspiracy series, opening up dramatic lines of enquiry into our increasingly activist Cold War media, (to poor viewing figures and decidedly ambivalent critical response), it seems that period of our past isn’t salient to the collective conscious at present. America’s continual nostalgic love affair with the 50s and early 60, so well served by the much-vaunted Mad Men, continues apace though; The Playboy Club amongst others garnering a high profile, with its promise of more glossy, stylish misogyny and unfettered Capitalism.

Colin Forth in The King's SpeechThe nation capturing if uninspired The King’s Speech and Auntie’s attempted revival of Upstairs Downstairs [To continue without the venerable Eileen Atkins, alas] dealt with the ailing Upper Class’ internal malaise and uncomfortable proximity to fascism and even Nazism. The Hour’s Romola Garai (no stranger to period projects) also starred a couple of years ago in appeasement thriller Glorious 39 with strangely beautiful Eddie Redmayne [Andrew Garfield-alike and shrewd chooser of roles. I’d love to see those two play brothers with Harry Treadaway.] SpThe Night Watch BBCeaking of Treadaway, he gave a lovely turn in the woefully insubstantial The Night Watch last month. With such sound and complex source material and a reliable history of success for Sarah Waters adaptations, The Beeb really could have thrown some cash at this- or at least afforded a more appropriate runtime. The format of the novel very clearly lends itself to three hour long episodes. As it was, we were simply left with a nuance-free précis, albeit an impeccably cast one. With the exception, that is, of leading lady Anna Maxwell-Martin, entirely misplaced as Kay.

Wartime tales of ordinary Brits are so commonplace as to be virtually irrelevant to a discussion about fictional reflections of current concerns [I mean never, ever forget, but it is really time we got over it], but recent offerings The Night Watch and 2009’s (also exquisitely cast but narratively insufficient adaptation) Small Island have at least proffered a perspective from typically under-represented subcultures beguiled and let down by the promise of social progression that wove itself through the war effort.

The  Night Watch- Duncan and Fraser

With austerity, rioting, a callous and oblivious Tory government, endemic social stratification and a demonised and disenfranchised youth in mass unemployment, a slew of films and programmes full of 60s activism, 70s social seesawing and general strikes and 80s boom and crippling bust seem inevitable; those times are far back enough now to be scrutinised, rather than skimmed for mere nostalgia- and there are clearly lessons we’ve failed to learn.

Back to the Abbey (never seen monk mind you- don’t think wet cousin Matthew counts) and it seems women really ran the households in those days and Society, for the most part. With our emancipation has come a loss of gumption, an inability to guide the affairs of man; what with them now being our affairs I suppose. There has been an alarming backslide amongst women of my generation, afraid of being labelled ‘Feminists’, wanting our modern men to be macho and commanding, asking our fathers for our hands in marriage, before said fathers ‘give’ aforementioned daughters ‘away’ at the altar. I can’t even begin to express my despair and disgust at educated, socially advantaged young women in a progressive First World country, demanding to be made chattels and passed from the possession of whatever man happened to impregnate her mother into the ownership of anyone else who happens to own a penis. Never mind what’s in it for you ladies.

Harking back to my opening comments on cultural artefacts, I couldn’t say whether the series seeks to chastise modern women for wasting their emancipation or celebrate the fact that we no longer need to subvert established power structures. This is clearly a time for introspection, I feel. The tenth anniversary of the 11th September and all that ensued is inevitably instigating that, but more recent events should be a more potent catalyst to take a long hard look at our national character and the values we uphold. On the heels of Boardwalk Empire making its way across the Atlantic, followed by Mildred Pierce, perhaps this isn’t a strictly British (or rather, English) phase of reflection, though self-analysis isn’t really the US way. I don’t really know what we’re trying to say to ourselves yet, only time will tell.

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Comments
  1. Solo says:

    I was reminded today of The House of Elliot, which began in a 20s setting and was made in the 90s, which undermines my musing somewhat.

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