It may not be based on a 19th century novel but The Hour is yet another example of our national obsession with re-imagined histories. British television schedules are dominated by period dramas: the past 12 months alone have brought us Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs, The Crimson Petal and the White, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, South Riding, Garrow’s Law and The Night Watch, not to mention endless repeats of Jane Austen adaptations. In short: we can’t get enough of polished silver, pantaloons and impossibly laced-up corsets.
You could put this down to escapism. The genre’s cosy blend of familiarity and fantasy comforts us in hard times, playing on our sense that life was better and values clearer-cut in pre-industrial, pre-technological eras. The second world war gave us historical dramas such as That Hamilton Woman (1941) and Henry V (1944); the subsequent austerity of 1946 coincided with record-breaking cinema attendance numbers; more recently still, a glut of Dickens adaptations thrived under Thatcher.
But audiences don’t want unbridled fantasy—they expect a degree of authenticity. When a new period drama airs, the sticklers for detail can be relied upon to start a debate, which most of us are tempted to weigh in on. Downton Abbey’s most impassioned critics were concerned with its fictional servants having too much leisure time, and the makers of The King’s Speech were grandly accused of falsifying history. Meanwhile The Crimson Petal, with its gritty portrayal of Victorian London’s backstreets, was praised by many for its realism.
If we take our period dramas seriously, perhaps that is because we are taking our past seriously too. Historians such as Jeffery Richards have argued that nostalgia is actually a dynamic force. We’re not just looking to a distant “golden age” with passive longing. We’re comparing our lives to those of the characters on our screens and, in doing so, we are making judgments about the ideals we should preserve and those that have already vanished, sometimes with relief. We might want the frocks but we certainly wouldn’t want the corsets.
TV does this particularly well. In The Hour, we see the Suez crisis from several, widely differing perspectives: from imperialists who have inherited their views along with their country houses, from humanitarians and rebellious youths and from an empirically-minded hero bent on justice. At the same time, the show gives us a safeguard. However villainous The Hour’s political officials are, its film noir styling distances the government from uncomfortably direct criticism. We follow the arguments played out over the series but we are spared the glib conclusions.
Of course, enjoying a sharply-written, snazzily-dressed 1950s drama hardly counts as a rebellion against a society tied to an unstable economy and shaky institutions. But our continued reinterpretation of national history on screen shows that we’re committed to certain ideals of the past, however fictionalised—the spirit of the Blitz, the Dickensian cry for social reform, the integrity of the press—and trying to work out which of them could benefit our uneasy society now.