Thursday, 3 February 2011

Under the Bonnet of the Bonnet Drama

This year sees the 40th anniversary of the BBC's biggest international success story - The Onedin Line, the first series they sold worldwide and which is still big in the former Yugoslavia and selling as a DVD box set 40 years later.
Following the fortunes of a mid-19th century Liverpool shipping dynasty as steam ships aka 'floating kettles' begin to overtake sailing ships, this mix of pithy social commentary with riveting storyline devised by former real-life seaman Cyril Abraham kept viewers hooked for ten years from 1971 and formed the seminal Sunday night backdrop of my early childhood with its unforgettable theme tune of Khatchaturian's 'Spartacus'. Watching a couple of series again recently, it has lost none of its power to mesmerise, even if the stock storm footage and sets seem a little more obvious to the more sophisticated eye (and television set).

Prior to The Onedin Line, vicars were previously shocked when entire congregations stayed in to watch The Forsyte Saga every Sunday night in the late 60s and even altered their service patterns to fit in with it.

Since then, Poldark, Upstairs Downstairs, various Dickens, Austen and Conan Doyle adaptations and a myriad of other costume dramas, epic and not so epic, have all taken their turn to enthral us with their vanished values and worlds in our increasingly cynical and moral compassless times.

I for one have relished them all except for some appalling and highly unnecessary remakes of The Forsyte Saga, Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House and David Copperfield, among others.
In fact the one thing which annoys me most about costume dramas are the constant re-makes of the same dozen or so most popular titles when there are so many classic books out there which have never even been adapted. George Eliot for example has often been considered too challenging but when the risk was taken and 'Middlemarch' was produced, it was a triumph! Ditto Elizabeth Gaskell's 'Cranford' though perhaps Anthony Trollope is a slightly more acquired taste with his political 'The Way We Live Now' but I feel sure his work would have built a significant following had they taken a risk with more of his books.
'Lark Rise to Candleford' took the novel approach of using up the material from Flora Thompson's original book fairly quickly and then writing lots of new stories using the same characters to spin out half a dozen series. With mixed results I may say, though it still proved as addictive as crack cocaine and a runaway success commercially.

'Downton Abbey' albeit not based on a classic but written by the very much still alive, Julian Fellowes, has proven that our appetite for period drama remains as voracious as ever, critical as we may be that historical details are not as scrupulously poured over as in the past to leave the odd TV aerial in shot in 1913. We may prefer a classless society in real life, but that doesn't necessarily make for good or textural telly.

Another function such dramas undoubtedly serve is to remind us of our Britishness in a modern world where our national identity is increasingly blurred. Which is not to condone the less desirable aspects we have shed, more acknowledge that plenty was also lost which was worth retaining and celebrating such as good manners, concern for one another, community, backbone, moral turpitude and having both a love and a duty to one's country. And as the writer Julian Fellowes points out, not all Lords of the Manor were obnoxious users of the peasantry, many were good and benevolent employers who provided work for the majority of their villages and sponsored welfare and education for the children of their workers, even though this was also in their interests if they wished to run a thriving estate.

The original Upstairs Downstairs and The Onedin Line are notable for how much actual history they wove into their storylines, both social and national, so that viewers were educated as they were alternately affected and entertained by watching their favourite characters go through various difficulties of history and formed more understanding of how their society had evolved.
Studying TV costume drama from the 70s in particular, it seemed that every series had a killer theme tune, dramatic stories, wonderful costumes and memorable characters.

Pundits profess great surprise that the appetite for costume drama remains as unabated as ever But is it really so strange that as old certainties are swept away and challenged, we are more likely to cling on to any vestige of the past and familiar? The past may have been muddy, cold, smelly and often hungry with raging toothache in real life, but the costumes are still wonderful, the architecture beautiful, the moral dilemmas not a million miles from our own and we have the luxury of enjoying top notch storytelling in our cosy centrally-heated homes.


The Sagittarian said...

I used to love watching Poldark, always wished I had been names Demelza cos I wanted her hair!! Having said that, The Onedin Line certainly is a classic and the costumes dramas have remained a favourite with me over the years.

Steve said...

There is something morally comforting about the costume drama. It makes history cosy and personable. I'm a real sucker for most of it.

Wisewebwoman said...

The original Forsyte Saga remains one of my favourites, I now have the boxed set.
I also loved "Irish RM" which starred Peter Bowles, he of "To the Manor Born who could read a telephone book and still enthrall me.
You neglected to mention "The Duchess of Duke Street" which is in my top 5 of all time.
Feisty women get me every time.
Great post Laura, lovely memories.
Oh and The Golden Bowl and Lily Langtrey.

DuchessOmnium said...

Oh, quite a lot of Trollope has been adapted. There was a huge series of the Palliser novels in the 70s. I missed it first time around (that was my no tele decade) but have tremendously enjoyed it on DVD recently -- one of the best I have ever seen. Susan Hampshire as the Duchess of Omnium...

The Barsetshire novels were later and equally stunning, starring Ben Kingsley and Alan Rickman (among others).

More recently there was He Knew he was Right with Bill Nighy which was excellent.

I'd say The Way We Live Now was my least favourite of the Trollopes --ditto the book.

I am, as you can tell, a sucker for costume dramas, though I missed the well-reviewed Downton Abbey.

I absolutely loath the Cranford series. I didn't love the (short) book, but the idea that it could make hours and hours of television is ridiculous!

Martin H. said...

I stopped watching Lark Rise, after the first series. I had an awful feeling it was going to be milked beyond recognition. I was right.

brokenbiro said...

But remember, ladies - if you need someone to fiddle under your bonnet, make sure they're qualified.

Nota Bene said...

Of these oldies, I only really enjoyed Upstairs Downstairs, and even then only because I had a crush on Lesley Anne Down...but more recently I loved Downton Abbey...great nonsense, and a wonderful way to finish a weekend

Steerforth said...

I never saw the because my parents took against it, for some obscure reason.

But Poldark! Wonderful stuff; particularly when Ross occasionally gave George Warleggan the hiding he so clearly deserved. I loved that series.

Middlemarch was also great, although I felt that Juliet Aubey's accent was a little too NW3. But very well acted all round.

I loved the new series of Upstairs Downstairs. I know that it got some sniffy reviews, but it ticked all the boxes as far as I was concerned. The only problem is that modern production values mean that the days of the 13-parter are long gone.

Steerforth said...

"I never saw the..." seems to turned into a missing words competition.

I meant The Onedin Line.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Yes Sagittarian, Demelza certainly had great tresses as well as heaving bosom dresses in Poldark!

Steve, you and me both. I also much prefer the language of past times.

WWW, I too watched the full boxed version of the original Forsyte Saga and it was superb. Thanks for drawing my attention to a few classics I didn't see (past my childhood bedtime, no doubt!) I will make a point of looking them up!

Duchess, thanks for some excellent recommendations of classics I haven't seen also. However I do remember 'The Barchester Chronicles' being excellent when I saw the box set in my local library a few years ago.

Martin H, You are so right, but it still worked as a bonnet 'soap' of morality with amusing moments so long as you didn't take it too seriously. Better than Eastenders anyway!

Broken Biro, none of that until you're married if you please!

Notabene, I loved the original Upstairs Downstairs too. Needless to say because I had a hopeless crush on Simon Williams (though David Langton as his father Richard Bellamy MP was an even more class act!)

Steerforth, you poor deprived child! I suggest you get a box set of the first series from your local library this instant - I promise you won't regret it! Even your boys would probably enjoy it.