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TV’s struggle to live in the moment

As period dramas from Downton Abbey to White Heat show, it can be easier to tell a story by setting it in the past.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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Television, we are constantly reminded, is a very conservative medium built around endless repetition. The revolutions tend to be very small-scale, which makes them a lot more fun to debate. What, for instance, are the significant differences between Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75), Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs (both 2010-present)? What were the makers of ITV’s forthcoming Titanic hoping to achieve that had not been done by the bigger-budget, and monstrously successful, 1997 James Cameron movie (about to hit our cinemas in 3D)?

As many before me have noted, the appeal of period dramas on TV partly lies in this tonal subtlety. Aristotle’s classical theories of drama – unity of time, place and action – can be observed, or overthrown, almost literally at the change of a hat. You feel sorry for programme-makers trying to capture the contemporary era, so heavily laden with vintage and retro styles: when culinary-history show The Supersizers Go… hit the Eighties, Sue Perkins and Giles Coren looked palpably exhausted by trying to convince us how microwave meals, instant coffee and cocktails were wackily of that moment. Even the Nineties has the advantage of slick curtain haircuts on boys to summon up some atmosphere.

We are certainly living through a culturally conservative moment, at least on our screens. The most striking example of how confusing it will be for cultural historians of the future was rather brought to mind by new BBC comedy, Watson & Oliver. The show itself has been a triumphant example of television presenting itself as doing something innovative (female comedians!) combined with something reassuringly familiar (a comedy double-act in the style of Morecambe & Wise, but they’re ladies!) while seeking to convince you that is hasn’t already been done before. Of course, the whole premise is sexist – the screens are littered with banal male comedians recycling the same shtick – but what really makes Watson & Oliver so unique is how utterly it lacks any grounding in the modern moment.

Whereas Miranda built its success on knowingly retro stylings – from old-fashioned slapstick comedy, avoidance of gratuitous swearing, end credits which break the fourth wall with the audience – at times Watson & Oliver seems actively hostile to the idea that someone might date it as a recent show. One sketch, for example, featured a stunning send-up of a provincial Fifties boarding-house owner, setting rules on overnight visitors and pledging allegiance to the King. No, no, the joke wasn’t that she was in the present day. The joke was that she behaved like a provincial Fifties boarding-house owner. Another centred around female executives fighting like schoolgirls in the boardroom, yet one of them happily puffed away on her cigarettes unremarked as if no one had heard of the smoking ban. Yet it also features gags about current celebrities, including Wills’n’Kate, so it can’t be an example of the Beeb dusting off a programme it made, and canned, a decade ago. Sadly, however, it certainly feels like it.

A much more pleasant surprise is BBC2’s big new drama, White Heat, which covers a range of characters from their student house-share in 1965 through to the present day. It is hardly breathtaking stuff in terms of ticking the period details (it even uses archive newsreel footage to tell us, for example, that Winston Churchill has died, in order to symbolise a Big Generational Shift), but there is no doubting that it is an extremely well-made and absorbing drama. Pitching itself rather honestly at baby-boomer viewers who would remember the period in question, with its celebration of youthful idealism and excited experimentation, it has already been compared to classic dramas of yesteryear – Our Friends in the North and This Life, for example – and doesn’t hugely disappoint. Doesn’t hugely excite either, mind, but that’s nostalgia for you.

It won’t, naturally, quite fill the void of Mad Men, which is garnering considerable anticipation for its coming return to British screens in a fortnight’s time (a week after its US debut), but has famously been pilfered from Auntie by Sky Atlantic. Unlike White Heat, Mad Men cleverly balances its painstaking evocation of period detail with a more critical perspective on the past and changing social mores: while the former tell us the familiar story of how the baby boomers grew up, the latter is perhaps more accurately a show which focuses on why they didn’t (they’re still comparing themselves to their parents’ generation). Only time will tell whether the new series, the first one made since it became a global success rather than a cult hit operating under threat of cancellation, will match up to the promise.

For those struggling for their fix, 5* US import Archer is well worth a look. A 20-odd minute comedy with a slightly coarser sense of humour may not seem like an obvious comparison, but given the notorious failure to replicate the success of Mad Men (Pan Am, The Kennedys, The Playboy Club), then perhaps it’s better to look for an adequate substitute rather than inferior imitation. Essentially a parody of James Bond-style espionage kitsch, this show has been unfairly overlooked by UK audiences and something of an underreported coup for an oft-derided broadcaster. Mining the same whipsmart cultural references and gentle absurdism as the prematurely late and increasingly influential comedy, Arrested Development, (indeed, the two share several cast members), it has just returned for its third series, and is definitely worth living in the present for.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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