Thursday, March 7, 2013

Being a "Period Piece"

Ah, how we love our British period pieces!
Downton Abbey? Pride and Prejudice? Jane Eyre? House of Eliott? Call the Midwife? Whether set in 1800 or 1950, we adore them more  because there's such attention to fine, accurate detail. Remember the episode when Lady Sybil entered the drawing room sporting a pair of pants?
Everyone was adequately shocked, and we smiled. We like our period pieces to be accurate to the time, you see, right down to the waistcoats and toasters, pants and bobbed hair -- and the reactions to them. How much money do they spend making sure each tiny piece of furniture and jewelry, each passing car and street sign, is just right. There's a whole industry providing these props to such shows, like Farley Prop House.
Have you ever stopped listening to and watching the plot and characters, and just examined the kitchen at Downton Abbey?
How would you react if Lord Grantham reached into his dinner jacket and answered his cell phone? Or if Cousin Violet mentioned her affinity for Days of Our Lives? What if Mrs. Patmore used a pressure cooker, which apparently was not presented for home use until 1938?  We would curl up our noses and declare that the directors were doing a horrible job!

All that to say, we have no tolerance for anachronism in our period pieces.


Except with ideas and cultural trends. Thus, Downton Abbey can introduce an active homosexual, known as such to everyone in the house -- an aristocratic house in rural England, no less! -- and the characters smile, accept this fact, and Lord Grantham plots a way for the criminal (at that time) to remain on his staff -- as his own valet, helping him dress and undress, traveling with him, or serving his guests! Thomas's presence in the household is as out-of-place as a wide-screen TV.

Or Ethel. An fallen woman who became pregnant out of wedlock, who chooses to keep her baby, and later becomes a prostitute in London. Did those sins occur in the 1920s? Of course. Did women like Ethel usually keep the baby when wealthy family want to adopt him? No. Babies like that were commonly placed elsewhere and a woman like Ethel was not trusted, not allowed, to raise a child alone. That's a modern ideal. And Ethel, cooking and serving lunch in an aristocratic home? Ludicrous! We may deplore Lord Grantham's vitriol and anger, but his reaction was certainly more in tune with the times. The women's placid response, Violet's interest in only the food, would be unheard of. In fact, Ethel would never have been hired there in the first place.

My point is that yes, Thomas and Ethel existed in the 1920s, but they were so buried, so unspoken of and unknown in good society, that they would not have touched Downton Abbey's characters or plot. A home like Downton was the height of rigid tradition. The directors make a flacid attempt at mock shock toward homosexuality and fornication, but they present it so that the audience dislikes such censure. We prefer the drama of introducing characters and thinking wholly unsuited to this supposed "period piece."

These pieces are not history. When we watch them, we should not fool ourselves that we're learning anything accurate about the times they claim to depict. We learn only how modern directors, producers, and actors desire to reinterpret those times. Sadly, they interpret the history (or literature) in light of their own cherished vices. Sometimes they are subtle enough that we tolerate them. If they over-reach, we occasionally roll our eyes and turn off the TV.

I did this with Miss Marple. How many Miss Marples have there been? I adore Joan Hixson. I spent many years reading Christie's mysteries over and over. I knew her mind, her world. But when the new series with Geraldine McEwan arrived, I could not watch. It seemed at every episode there was an attempt to wheedle homosexuality into a story where I knew Christie had never placed it. Why? The answer was clear:  Adherence to Christie's world was not the goal.  Introducing homosexuality into something I love and already accept -- that was the goal. It's a blatant manipulation, a cultural maneuver.  Being a "period piece" is pure sham.

I'll continue to enjoy the beauty of Lady Mary's dresses and hats, but I'll do so with a critical eye.


  1. That David Kennedy Bird FellowMarch 7, 2013 at 9:55 PM

    Well done, MK!


  2. Do you, MK, I might venture to disagree... I'm thinking of Oscar Wilde. I think that that Victorian era- just fater and just before has got to be one of the most hypocrtical in British history. I think all sorts of things were happening at all levels of society- just better concealed in houses like Downton. We may deplore what is ahppening now, but i think it's always been there.

  3. Yes, Mags -- Oscar Wilde was one of the first people I thought of. And I certainly think there was plenty of vice in certain circles, particularly artistic circles in urban areas. Even Wilde though, did not come "out" himself -- he was discovered through something he wrote to someone.

    My point is NOT that such things weren't going one -- not at all! My point is that a place like Downton Abbey would be one of the old-line, Tory, staunchly traditional (and yes, probably also shallow and hypocritical at times) places in all of England. And I'm sure there was vice even there, as you say. My problem is NOT with the presence of the vice itself; it's with the response depicted to the vice. The idea that rural, highly-traditional, stick-in-the-mud folk like the Granthams would blithely accept homosexuals and prostitutes among their permanent staff is, to me, ludicrous. It's more likely that such folks would be run out of town on a rail.

    And I bet the gay community would agree, yes? I mean, if they insist that today's society is still intolerant and oppressive, how much moreso was it back then? There was complete intolerance. Such actions were criminal. Women like Ethel were sent to wash houses to work, their children were removed and adopted. Thomas would have been committed to an asylum b/c his condition was viewed as a mental disorder at the time.

    These are the very severe reactions that society has worked so hard to overcome. But my point is that the shows themselves are anachronistic b/c they do not accurately depict the REAL responses of the people of the time. I do agree with you very much that sin and vice is ever-present in humanity. That's never changed.

  4. Just a small comment, but glad you've brought it up. Noticed that the new Sherlock Holmes on PBS has gay character(s) as well. As my husband says, seems "they" are continually thrusting the homosexual agenda at us at every turn.

    A bit overdone, I think. :)


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