Who can resist War and Peace? When it was a 1,300-page Russian novel, the answer was: plenty of us. But now it’s on television, its second episode airing on BBC1on Sunday, millions of Britons find it just too tempting.
A quarter of the entire UK audience watched the new £2m per episode adaptation. The women are beautiful, the men are handsome, the costumes gorgeous, the locations lush: throw in Tolstoy’s enduring story and characters, stripped, says adapter Andrew Davies, of all the “boring bits”, and no wonder it’s irresistible.
It has instantly taken over the Sunday night slot that Downton Abbey made its own. That show was so popular, its finale gave ITV a rareChristmas ratings victory. And now War and Peace can settle in alongside newcomer Dickensian, a second series of Poldark, and a fifth season of Call the Midwife in that cosy stable of programmes Britain does best: period drama.
In the United States, they’re churning out hits too, at such a rate that critics have been hailing a golden age of television for more than a decade. There are new seasons coming of Mr Robot, a cyber-security thriller about hacktivism, the prison drama Orange Is the New Black, and the counter-terrorism saga, Homeland. They’re all part of a 21st-century box set canon that includes Breaking Bad, laying bare the moral dilemmas of an indebted, drug-producing chemistry teacher; inner-city epic The Wire; and the dark crime tale True Detective.
Can you spot the difference? While America’s TV dramatists are focused on the angsts of the present, the most high-profile British stories dwell on the past. A similar picture emerges from British cinema. If it’s not Suffragette, it’s The Imitation Game, set in wartime Bletchley Park, or The Theory of Everything, portraying Stephen Hawking’s life in the 1960s and 1970s. Earlier it was The King’s Speech.
Of course there are exceptions, on both sides. American TV is not without its forays into the past, whether in Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire or John Adams. And the present is not a foreign country to British writers: witness the soap staples of EastEnders and Coronation Street, or ratings winners such as Luther and Doctor Foster. For all that, when it comes to blockbuster, event TV, in Britain the focus is more likely to be on tales of long ago.
Sometimes it’s British broadcasters digging up the British past, in shows such as Wolf Hall or the upcoming adaptation of the Woman in White. Sometimes it’s Brits excavating someone else’s past, as with the latest move into the Russian heritage industry. And sometimes it’s Americans paying Brits to turn backward. Coming soon is The Crown, a Netflix production about the early years of the current Queen’s reign with an all-British cast, save for John Lithgow as Elizabeth’s first prime minister, Winston Churchill.
What explains this curious division of labour, with the US telling stories that might illuminate the now, while so much British TV talent is directed towards the then? Producers say that commissioners are hungry for contemporary work – but struggle to resist a juicy costume-drama once it’s in front of them. For one thing,War and Peace, like Pride and Prejudice before it, enjoys instant name recognition. The hard work of creating memorable characters and powerful plotlines has already been done. And, when it comes to selling a show abroad, they fear that American networks will balk at buying in a drama set in contemporary Britain when such a story could just as easily be set in the US.
More simply, such shows are given the green light because we, the audience, keep lapping them up. The present can be a forbidding place, with threats at every turn – whether it’s Islamic State, violent crime, drug abuse or the dark side of the internet. An hour in front of carriages, castles and corsets offers that most valuable service: escape. “It’s comfort viewing,” says one leading producer. “Because it’s not now.”
Of course a bit of Sunday evening escapism is no crime. But it does have an effect. Not always, but often these period stories focus on those born at the top of the pyramid. On Sunday night, we shall be returned once again to the world of princes and dukes, of those with titles, servants and grand estates.
It’s a little like studying history before EP Thompsonand Raymond Williams taught us that the past was not the exclusive preserve of the aristocracy: miners and cobblers, washerwomen and match girls all had history too. But in too much period drama – not all – such people are there as background: extras with no inner life that need detain us.
The overall result of this treatment, either patronising working people or omitting them altogether, is to suggest that the lives that really mattered, and therefore still matter, are those at the top. Through these programmes, that’s the message we export to the world – and tell ourselves.
Of course it doesn’t have to be this way. Call the Midwife is more than yet another tale of posh folk, while Dickensian – a kind of Greatest Hits compilation of the great man’s work: Now That’s What I Call Dickens! – is, naturally, peopled with as many characters living the low life as the high.
But even when a show displays the full range of society as it used to be, there’s still a cost. For this British fixation on the past can’t help but imply that our past is the most interesting thing about us: a short step away from saying that our best days are behind us.
On some level that is obviously true, if by “best” we mean most powerful, most globally dominant. Britain once commanded a vast empire. What happened here had automatic significance, simply because it happened here. (The US is in that position now, though some of its drama suggests an anxiety that those days might be numbered.)
It’s natural that we would keep returning to that well. It is, after all, very deep: we have many centuries to draw on. But we have a present and a future too. We can’t leave it to others to face the questions confronting us now, while we snuggle under a duvet of heritage, gazing at yesterday.