Whether it’s Matthew Crawley in the trenches, breech births in 1950s London or 165 Eaton Place on the eve of the Second World War, it appears that we can’t get enough of TV’s re-creation of the past.
Period drama is currently big business, with Call the Midwife attracting audiences of ten million and Downton Abbey enlisting Shirley MacLaine as a guest star for series three. Technological advances may have brought us futuristic 3D and WiFi flatscreens, but what we’re increasingly watching are reminders of how we used to live.
Yet hasn’t it always been this way, I hear you ask? Back in 1995, Andrew Davies’s Pride and Prejudice, in which a saturated Colin Firth seemingly had half the nation swooning, went on to spawn a phaeton-full of Jane Austen dramatisations. For a while it seemed that no part of the schedules were free of bonnets, bustles and halcyon days.
However, the more recent big hitters in the costume drama canon point to a very different phenomenon – that of the 20th century being mined for inspiration. And instead of conjuring up lands of lost content, what these stories provide are a context for how we live today.
For example, in seeing the formative years of the NHS on television each weekend, we get a sense of which conventions have survived and which have been eroded in one of our few shared experiences: childbirth. What we find is that despite advances in healthcare having vastly changed the experience of pregnancy in the last 50 years, we can still learn from the uncomplicated, pragmatic approach of the nuns at Nonnatus House. Has some of this essential wisdom from a time where there was little resource been lost amid the rush of medical progress?
Of course, there is an element of nostalgia here, just as there is in the interplay between masters and servants on Downton Abbey. Call the Midwife portrays a National Health Service full of hope and idealism in the same way as Downton and Upstairs Downstairs offer up a class system notable for its benevolence and deference. But the fact remains that these are tales set within living memory, full of recognisable institutions and attitudes that have relevance to our daily existences.
The other big change since Mr Darcy took his dip in Pemberley’s lake is that we’re no longer solely reliant on pre-existing classics. Gone are the days of Sunday-night serials that lasted only six episodes and that just told the narrative of a novel.
Writers such as Julian Fellowes and Heidi Thomas are producing original material in a period setting, imaginatively re-creating (through a number of different methods) a time in history that viewers can return to over a number of series. This device may have its origins in ITV’s original Upstairs, Downstairs but it's now become very much the norm rather than the exception.
Thomas’s Cranford, for instance, became a seamless amalgam of Elizabeth Gaskell’s original text and the dramatist’s own vision, while Fellowes – a self-confessed Coronation Street addict – utilises soap-opera tricks such as the cliffhanger in order to ensure our repeat visits to Downton.
By setting their programmes in yesteryear and bringing along the benefit of hindsight, the main achievement remains however the stripping away of the cacophony that is modern life. By journeying back to a time when life seemed simpler, viewers then have the chance to gain perspective and reassess what matters to them now. What’s often most revealing about dramas that evoke the past are the insights they provide for the present.