Those Were the Good Old Days… or Were They?

30 November 2012

Rebecca Thomas explores Britain’s infatuation with nostalgia, and its expression through the medium of television…

You’ve lived your life and I’ve lived mine. Now it’s time we lived them together.” So said the middle class lawyer set to inherit Downton Abbey, to his snooty upper class cousin, whose sister rebels against convention and runs off with the Irish chauffeur, and whose mother happens to be an American heiress.

It’s the 1920s and it’s all kicking off in Downton. Cliched? Maybe. But with 8.6 million viewers tuning in to watch the two hour 2011 Christmas special, Julian Fellowes is obviously doing something right. And as the credits roll, then comes the inevitable heavy sigh followed by the tired old saying: ‘those were the days’.

Were they? Are period dramas like Downton Abbey really a gateway to a glorious past? By adjusting the angle at which Fellowes has trained the telescope on his dramatic world, a different image emerges. The characters have just lived through four years of war that claimed the lives of approximately 880,000 British soldiers. Women’s rights were questionable to say the least, leading to the sticky situation of the inheritance of the Abbey that essentially encompasses the first series. To say that class tensions existed is an understatement. Britain was about to plummet into the most severe depression of the century, followed closely by the Second World War. Pause a minute. Rewind 50 years…

“You’re my little champion!” says the self made middle class hero, owner of the first ever department store, to the beautiful blonde working-class shop assistant whose uncle also happens to own a struggling tailor shop across the road. It’s London in the 1870s and The Paradise charts the progress of the exciting new London department store, along with the love affair between the owner and shop-girl. Cliched? Almost definitely.

Were these the same good old days? A ‘good old days’ bridging a five decade gap between the two dramas? We can widen the gap to a century if one sets Cranford (1840s) on one end of the timeline and the recent remake of Upstairs Downstairs (late 1930s) on the other. A hundred years of good old days. The British public ignore the mathematical improbability and continue to sigh nostalgically.

The Paradise at least attempts to show negative attributes of the period: the run-down smaller shops forced to close in the face of modern development, questionable upper class values and mysterious ‘disappearances’. All may not be rosy in the period drama garden then (gardeners make very boring characters after all). So why do we feel that everything was so much better ‘back then’?

It is fair to say that we are viewing the past through tinted spectacles. The clothes pass the test of course. Bows, frills, silk and outrageous hair styles make us yearn for a stylish age. Opening letters covered in beautiful calligraphy at the breakfast table using a stylish letter opener is also a must. The old fashioned cars and horse-drawn carriages (depending on the period) are a crowd-pleaser. A sarcastic old woman is also de rigeur. All good so far; nothing wrong about highlighting the best bits of British history, even if it is just bows and ribbons.

But what fails the test of veracity? Apart from the occasional outburst from a revolutionary chauffeur, class issues are swept aside. The aristocrats treat their servants well and have a good laugh with them, after all. The suffragettes are there, but merely in the context of a love affair. They swim in and out of focus, the blurry background in a watercolour painting. Don’t bother straining your eyes, concentrate on the costumes instead! This is selective memory, to say the least.

But it’s not just period dramas – the longing to return to a better time has swept into all aspects of British life. Consider living history programmes such as Coal House, transporting families back to the 1920s and 1930s and evoking a national discussion about the values of the past. The conclusion that the viewer is supposed to reach is that, yes, life was hard, but better; people led simpler lives back then. They had more time for each other.

Nostalgia is everywhere, even in the recent John Lewis advert, “two worlds colliding”: she with her fountain pen and calligraphy paper saying ‘sorry’, he on his i-pad typing the same message. The colours of the 1920s world are far brighter than those of the twenty-first century. The recent lease of life given to the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster illustrates the same phenomenon. The focus isn’t on Britain under attack, but the fact that Britons pulled together to counter the common threat. The negative aspect is conveniently forgotten.

That sort of unblemished past doesn’t exist. The white canvas isn’t properly white; it’s just an illusion. We choose to ignore everything that doesn’t fit.

So how is this idealism conjured? What is the component that unites Downton Abbey, The Paradise and Upstairs Downstairs (apart from amusing hairstyles, posh accents and Maggie Smith) and launches them into the spotlight to thunderous applause?

It’s the sense of community. In every successful period drama, the focus is on a feeling of belonging. In Downton the war, the ambiguous family relations and the questionable class references can all be brushed aside because life was good! People sat around the dinner table and talked. There wasn’t a mobile phone in sight. The village all came together for the flower show, the Bonfire Night fair, various weddings and funerals and whatever other celebrations Julian Fellowes could think to include.

Likewise The Paradise. It’s not a period drama about the first department store. It’s a period drama about the community within the first department store, the sense of belonging to something greater. This doesn’t stop with period dramas. Consider modern day soap operas, such as Coronation Street, Eastenders, or Emmerdale. They all have one thing in common: they’re based on the concept of community. We only have to look around today and let our eyes fall on the idea of the Big Society to see how important the ideal of community has become.

As long as period drama glorifies the community, the public will glorify the selective past that they choose to represent. The nostalgia for a world without iPhones, iPads or iPods, and the time when ‘apple’ was just a delicious flavour of pie will continue to proliferate, and the nation’s popular memory will continue to deceive.