Whatever Happened To History?
The Noughtiesisation of Costume Drama
- Being a Right Royal Drubbing of Modern Abominations as The Tudors c. 2008 and a Nostalgic Tribute to the likes of The Six Wives of Henry VIII circa 1970 -
Whatever happened to good old-fashioned television costume drama? In the halcyon days of British television – somewhere from the early Sixties through to the mid Eighties, but peaking in the Seventies – the BBC, and even at times ITV, excelled at bringing us a seemingly unending string of high quality, authentically realised costume dramas, pure historically based original scripts or literary adaptations, frequently adapted by actual writers such as Andrew Davies (Dickens’ The Signalman, RF Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days), Harry Green (Hardy’s Jude the Obscure), Jack Pulman (Robert Graves’ I, Claudius) Christopher Fry (The Brontës of Haworth), Dennis Potter (Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge; Casanova) and legion regular intra-serial episode writers such as John Prebble, Rosemary Ann Sisson, Hugh Whitemore, Alfred Saughnessy, John Hawkesworth, and even budding novelist Fay Weldon, all of whom contributed scripts to such iconic costume epics as Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75), The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), Elizabeth R (1972) et al.
Perhaps it was, in part, the relatively chronic budgetary restraints of these formative decades in British television-making that necessitated such detailed and intricate concentration on scripting and characterisation – long before the eye-candy of film-mimicking digital video (which is an inferior, mistier version of film camera by the way) and CGI invaded our screens – but even in spite of budgetary limitations, many of these vintage serials realised their settings beautifully in often rich detail of set and costume. These were the days when television was basically theatre in an electrical box, and in that sense an artform; when it took its time to build up narrative and tell stories, in the main carried through dialogue and first rate acting. Indeed, some of the most powerful and involving performances I have ever witnessed have been in vintage television costume serials and plays: Colin Blakely’s tortured Christ in Dennis Potter’s Son of Man (1965), Michael Hordern’s acutely observed Asperger’s-ridden academic in Whistle and I’ll Come To You (1968), Denholm Eliot's tangibly haunted Signalman (1976), Keith Michell’s infectiously fickle King in The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), Glenda Jackson’s titanic turn as Elizabeth R (1972), Alfred Burke’s infinitely subtle portrayal of Patrick Brontë in The Brontës of Haworth (1973), Barry Foster’s loveably fatuous Kaiser Wilhelm in Fall of Eagles (1974), Frank Finley’s electrifying take on the Fuhrer in The Death of Adolf Hitler (1973), and Derek Jacobi’s stuttering tour-de-force in I, Claudius (1976) - to name only a handful of examples are, to my mind, some of the most immaculately nuanced and intensely realised roles of all time, including all that cinema has to offer.
And what is about the other chief serendipity of these vintage adaptations (again, dictated to a large extent by budgetary limitations), verbal exposition of a setting's events through dialogue, that was somehow far more involving and compelling than actually having these events visually depicted? There is something intrinsically more engaging in things being verbally described or alluded to rather than entirely visually represented, in the same way that supernatural and horror narratives are far more disturbing through what is being suggested or partially shown/explained rather than blasted on the screen before us (for instance, in film terms, The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1960) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) are lastingly haunting due to their poetically ambiguous atmospheres and absence of visual closure or rational explanation). The reason being of course that it allows the viewers' imagination to play around with the possibilities, often in turn describing far worse ideas and possibilities in the dark of 'suggestion' than graphic visualisation could muster. So here is the power inherent in verbal exposition and description (exemplified, for example, in a scene in the otherwise fairly graphic I, Claudius, in which a woman vividly, yet only in partial detail, describes the sexual perversions she has been subjected to by the Emperor Tiberius, just prior to stabbing herself after shouting 'If only I could just cut the memory out...' - if this were re-made nowadays, we would have had it all spoon-fed, distastefully as possible, in visceral flashbacks) that makes us do much of the imagining ourselves, thus involving us more in the drama, and is in essence of course a key aspect to theatrical drama, which vintage serials were crafted from. And to be frank, any vintage series that attempted to use visual exposition of integral narrative events - the French Revolution being carried out by a peasant rabble of half-a-dozen in 1980's adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities springs to mind, as does the 1971 attempt to capture the majestic setting of Last of the Mohicans by throwing a handful of face-painted character actors into the Sussex undergrowth - often only served to cheapen the sense of reality to the un-matchable quality of their scripts.
But above all, particularly in the more grittily-lit Seventies’ serials (benefiting more often than not from the intimate immediacy of video camera), but also throughout the Eighties and even into the early Nineties (in particular, Andrew Davies’ superb adaptation of George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1994)), the pre-digital video/cod-filmic television age – at its peak between 1968-1978 – had a humility in its historical and costume authenticity. And this is the key differentiation between pre-Nineties television costume drama and its post-Nineties inheritor, the latter more often than not tailored to a misconceived ‘populist’ approach to television-making dictated by the ‘bums-on-seats men-in-suits’ production cartel that’s dumbed down the medium for the past decade and a half.
After the cloying infatuation with chocolate-box Jane Austen adaptations, pioneered by the insipid Pride & Prejudice (1995) – and one would think the famous shot of Colin Firth in a wet frilled-shirt would have been more off-putting than, as it was, brand-making – and, in turn, Persuasion (same year), a string of similarly callow productions ensued, even transferring to – almost indistinguishable – films through yet more tedious dissections of upper-class Georgian matchmaking (the yawn-provoking and woefully miscast Sense and Sensibility, 1995; Emma, 1996; and more recently, yet another adaptation of P&P, 2005), something seemed to shift in the entire perception of costume drama adaptation, a fundamental re-adapting of adaptation itself, to fit the modern-centric populist attitudes of the wider viewing public; or at least, television big-wigs’ own tabloid view of the wider viewing public. This seems in essence to be the view: the public needs constant coaxing and persuading to watch anything not set literally in the present day and concerning present day issues – and invariably haircuts – by having historical series either spoon-fed to them through the plague of absurdly edited docu-dramas (more on which later) or ‘contemporised’ through a sort of scriptural, visual and even follicular translation, or transposition, as if these are characters and situations which could be of today, in all except their costumes. Anything deviating from this ‘Noughtiesisation’ of history is passed over to BBC Four, along with the only truly challenging original plays.
I say ‘Noughtiesisation’ since to my mind this modernisation and popularisation of the period drama into a more consumer-palatable mock-form truly came into its – less than impressive – own, this decade. The signs were already there in the Nineties that choices in literary adaptations for television were growingly mirroring the more Daily Mail-sated audiences in increasingly populist author choices, mostly of course Austen, and if not, Dickens (the last truly authentic adaptation being Martin Chuzzlewit, 1994), and more often than not inexorable re-vamps of Oliver Twist.
There was also a disturbing abrading of time, period, trend and custom in the crass casting of Colin Firth as another Darcy in 2001’s adaptation of the vapid Bridget Jones’ Diary, obviously echoing both the ‘novelist’s’ and the casting director’s mutual crush on said actor’s portrayal of said character, as if to oddly juxtapose these two novels and adaptations on screen. So stony-faced Firth found himself the unwitting pivot in this inter-textual conspiracy. It is also perhaps the fact that the main themes of, say, Austen’s novels, romance and matchmaking (albeit societally-determined in her narratives), being timeless and perennial, that her writing more than any other author’s translates so easily to historically disinterested modern audiences. This also probably partly explains why a string of Hardy adaptations throughout the Nineties and early Noughties (The Woodlanders; Tess of the D’urbevilles; Far From the Madding Crowd) and of George Eliot (Middlemarch; Mill on the Floss), were relative ratings flops – Middlemarch, for instance, having never been repeated since its original broadcast in 1995. Naturally, anything as socially critical (though, ironically, still relevant to our own times to a degree) as Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, would simply not be attempted on the small screen (and in any case, would have an uphill climb to come anywhere close to the definitive and uncompromising adaptation of 1971).
But now, well into the Noughties, even this populist-tempered choice of adaptations is seemingly not enough: I recently witnessed a trailer for a new series in which a modern day woman changes places with a Jane Austen character. So it has gone well beyond a mere metaphor now, and into the inevitable literalism. Strange and seriously maladjusted entities who have for some time claimed that the interminably dull and unrealistic Coronation Street is comparable to Dickens, might count themselves chief among those to blame for this bastardisation of the medium of costume drama.
In the last decade of British television, and the BBC can count itself particularly guilty, we have been bombarded with a ‘Noughtiesisation’ of the past, a re-telling of history in modern day vernacular, behaviour, attitudes and even hairstyles – a follicular imposition on historical representation which makes the ubiquitous boot-polished quiffs of Sixties’ period adaptations or the flared trousers and proto-afros of Seventies' sci-fi, look comparatively authentic – and have now, through the auspices of populist programme makers, discovered that, among other revelations, the young Henry VIII wasn’t actually ginger-haired and pallid but actually the spit of an Esquire model replete with ludicrous scalp-quaffed haircut (an evolution from the appropriately Roman-style forward-comb of the Nineties) and designer stubble, and that Robin Hood was in actual fact an arse-kicking lincoln-green-clad Ninja who foreshadowed a future breed of Brighton-based Britpop band frontmen. The latter 're-visioning' of our most popular folk hero is for me the pinnacle of 'Noughtiesised' historical adaptation, and has to be the singularly most abysmal 'bastardisation of the past' ever made - even the badly-aged electro-fantasia of Eighties' Robin of Sherwood is inspired by comparison (but for vintage TV afficionados, I'd point you towards 1975's The Legend of Robin Hood, with Paul Darrow's proto-'Avon' (Blake's 7) turn as a Plantaganet-nosed Sheriff of Nottingham, for the moodiest, most authentic take on the folk story).
As if this is not seen as enough to spoon-feed the past into the mouths of a perceived race of Cro Magnon morons, the writers then re-write the diction and expressions of these historical figures to fit those of the specific time of the viewers to whom it is first broadcast. This will, in time of course, and quite ironically, only serve to age these cod-adaptations even more starkly than the aforementioned Quiff-centric Sixties, as products rooted in the time of broadcast, so will prove pretty pointless all round in the future. It’s costume drama for the culture of immediacy – and any faint notions among the so-called producers and writers of these abominations that somehow their work will serve as didactic Trojan Horses, I would only point them back to their grossly inauthentic scripts as proof that this is evidently not going to be the case.
For me, the true downturn in costume drama authenticity was heralded by Ray Winston’s cockney version of Henry VIII (2003). This ‘re-interpretation’ of one of our most famous monarchs was, to say the least, brave. But in all other respects, utterly ridiculous and laughable. One almost expected him at some point to turn to one of his Catherines with a gruff, ‘Full English please Caff’. Ok, so one might argue that this curiously unrestrained casting was a revolutionary move in the continued erosion of the fashion for Received Pronunciation in television adaptation. Well, one might argue this, as well as some spurious, politically correct notion of class equality, that it somehow seems fair for once to portray an historical royal as a stubbly working-class bad boy – but then to anyone with a modicum of perception, this is just gimmicky and misleading. One can re-interpret, adapt the past to a degree, but one cannot, to suit a particular audience, change a historical fact, at least, not with any artistic credibility: and the fact is, being King of England, it is highly unlikely that Henry VIII would have spoken with a cockney accent. Period (excuse pun). It is equally more unlikely that, as according to the abominable tripe that is The Tudors (2008) – basically a modern day sex-romping soap opera transposed into the 1600s – that same monarch would have had the diction, mannerisms and hairstyle of an average young Londoner of over 400 years into the future. We also know, from historically reliable portraits of Henry VIII, that he looked absolutely nothing like this latest ‘interpretation’, even as a young man, but was blatantly ginger in complexion, pallid and rather plain (at least, by modern perceptions, such as they are).
It’s also curious to note that alongside the continued Austenite infatuation, the British viewing public are also, apparently, equally besotted with the dynasty of the Tudors – in particular, the endlessly re-visited reign of Elizabeth I, on both small and big screen, none of which have come anywhere near, still, to the definitive portrayal by Glenda Jackson. Is this perhaps because, in a climate of resurging monarchism, and the continuing post-Imperial decline, we like to morbidly revel in the very dynasty which first stamped ‘Britishness’ on the rest of the world? This is made even more ironic by the fact that, to be pedantic,the Tudors represented the first significant break in the original royal line, having tenuously taken the throne from the last legitimate British dynasty, the Plantagenets. But since, of course, our current Queen is descended from her namesake, though indirectly, but far more indirectly descended from any of the Plantagenets, I suspect we will never see a costume drama entitled The Plantagenets on our screens.
To conclude on this topic, I’d like to turn, in brief, to the contemporary televisual mutation we know as ‘docu-drama’. To my mind this strange chimera between half-hearted historical adaptation and intrusive academic commentary, having started in the form we view it in today during the Nineties, was also in part significant in this degeneration of the costume drama. When I first unwittingly watched a docu-drama, not realising that it was one, or what a docu-drama was anyhow, my first thoughts were, why does a University Historian keep interrupting this period drama, and with all the charisma of Simon Schama? Was there interference from Open University? To this day, I have never fully understood the point to docu-drama in such a literal form as this, except to assume it is due to a dearth of proper television writers or a determination not to employ any, but instead, hire a few dull academics to fill in the ‘difficult bits’ during a misty-lensed, CGI-clogged Roman or Mongol computer game. Is this down to scriptural cost-cutting on paying actual writers to tell a didactic, fact-based narrative with some modicum of literary flair (the heady days of the brilliantly written and characterised I, Claudius now a very distant glint in the past), and to instead corner much cheaper University lecturers in their lunch breaks to mumble a string of unembellished facts so that more budget is freed up to attempt Gladiator-scale reconstructions? Partly, I would think, yes.
But the more sinister aspect to docu-dramas is that they are clearly used now to literally spell out any didacticism inherent in the programme, rather than allow an audience to make the effort to pick this up through the dramatisation of historical events, as exemplified in the costume dramas of the Seventies in particular. For me this strips the colour out of the process, the flair and the evocation, the artistry, and reduces the effect to simply a fairly mundane attempt at depicting the past as if it’s happening now, but rarely if ever in a particularly interesting or even authentic way. The highly visceral Rome series, rather like a docu-drama but with the academic commentaries cut out from it, manages to be both distasteful and boring at the same time, which is quite a feat. Though not nearly so graphically sexualised as the 1997 adaptation of Anna Karenina, which left no stone unturned in its title character’s finesse at filleting her illicit lovers; or the corset-bursting male-fantasy bed-romp of Tipping the Velvet (2002) – more like Crushing the Velvet. So now we know what our ancestors, throughout the ages, were busy doing: inexorably copulating. What an intriguing take on the past.
It’s interesting to note that docu-dramas actually originated as far back as the Sixties, but were, of course, a much less muddled/disorientating breed back then; not cauterised between bored academic and CGI battlefield, but properly scripted by television writers, acted by proper actors, though directed more as fly-on-the-wall documentary-style dramas, specifically made to put across a certain social message or topical issue, or to try and capture the true feel of a certain period or historical figure. These were frequently exceptionally written and acted dramas in their own right, but created as didactic narratives, and so not as colourfully embellished as the average ‘dramatisation’ of the time, being made with more of a sense of ‘reality’. Cathy Come Home (1966) was perhaps the most hard-hitting distillation of this genre. But there were many others, some now available on DVD through the BFI, including Ken Russell’s Elgar (1962) and the infectiously intense Delius (1968); and director and film historian Kevin Brownlow’s deeply moving biopic Winstanley (1966), which depicts the doomed Digger commune of its eponymous subject in 1649 as immediately and candidly as if it was happening today – but, without any spoon-feeding, dumbing down, or inauthentic ‘contemporising’ of its lead character, his appearance, manner or diction. In fact, this particular made-for-TV film drew its entire script from the actual writings of Gerrard Winstanley on his experiences in the Digger commune, not excerpted in-between academic commentaries, but used as an inter-textual narrative device, and through occasional dialogue and monologue, through the medium of ‘dramatisation’. Remember ‘dramatisation’?
Fortunately through the medium of DVD those of us who are driven by the sheer idiocy of modern costume drama to scour the shelves of the obdurately priced BBC Shops, or painstakingly surf the likes of Network DVD and Acorn, are able to uncover those lost gems of authentically crafted vintage TV costume drama, the genuine articles you might say, to give us blissful sanctuary from the mind-numbing ‘Noughtiesisation’ of history.
Alan Morrison © 2008