Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn at her wedding to Henry VIII — of course Wolf Hall is not covered in this volume, but it fits into the insights into historical film and fiction (it is Winston’s Graham’s first type, where all major character once existed for real) (2015, from Hilary Mantel, scripted Peter Straughan)
Dear Friends and readers,
After an unavoidable 2-week hiatus I continue my review of this rich volume. The first section was devoted to different approaches to costume drama; this one places the films and mini-series into their place in a history of historical films and fiction, in the heritage industry, among national identifications, and finally recent developments in historical films. I have treated and referred to Katherine Byrne’s “New Developments in Heritage: The Recent Dark Side of Downton Abbey” (Chapter 32); I’ve devoted a separate blog to Giselle Basin’s high praise for “Upstairs, Downstairs (2010-2012) and Narratives of Domestic and Foreign Appeasement” (Chapter 12) as I’ve watched the first season and am into the second of this mini-series.
Chapter 8, Andrew B. R. Elliot’s “British Historical Drama and the Middles Ages” packs an enormous amount of information and insight plus good bibliography (they all have that) in remarkably few pages. He begins with the common perception that there are few costume dramas set in the middle ages (most are later 19th century, Edwardian, early 20th century), with the occasional leap into another era other than the middle ages (I, Claudius; Poldark). It’s thought the era is not one easily to recreate from these artefacts, literal epitomizing and also itself not “a usable past,” its chaos does not lend itself to mirroring. His essay is an attempt to demonstrate there have been many many historical dramas and loose adaptations set in an imagined European middle ages (from Scott, from 1930s Erol Flynn style movies, from various modern Arthurian and crusade stories). Some are minimally historical and connect more readily in the way of other costume dramas and mini-series to fantasy and action-adventure or romance or parody today. So his essay is filled with brief descriptions of many series in which he really manages to say a lot about the very occasional (rare) superb one and describe much fantasy, stories of male hegemonic power and sheer dreck or smooth unexamined costume-y stuff (Men in Tights as the Mel Brooks parody has it).
First there are 3 typologies (why does everyone divide their subject into threes?): one Robin Hood-centered, one Crusades, and one Arthur matter. These intermix but they have different emphases. Elliot attempts to show which mini-series and films made a serious effort to make a statement about the period in which the films were made (the 1970s again comes out as a time of better films and mini-series) and those films which are (he would not use this word) drivel. A celebration of male power is seen across them all — the few good men saving the world. The early 1950s on TV (where there was an endless Robin series on popular and commercial TV) had a naive image of heroism and chivalry with lots of nostalgia, but also an image of unchecked male hegemony linked to physical and political power. Then Elliot goes through each subset from 1960 on. I single out a few he thinks worth re-seeing and study.
Robin Hood: Again the 1970s in general has better ones. He names as fine and interesting: Goldcrest’s Robin of Sherwood Forest and Richard Lester’s Robin and Marion (I resaw it this summer and loved it all over again). An inward melancholy piece about a deep sense of hopelessness for good goals. He says the 2006-9 Robin Hood series is about Robin as “an enlightened post-colonal leader suffering from PTSD; the sheriff now lends himself to a Bush-Blair analogy.
The Crusades: the third is the favorite as richest in anomalies and he singles out a 1961 Danziger Richard the Lionhearted with “gritty social realism” and “shabby style locations”. He goes at length into Derek Jarman’s Edward II 1991 movie) where identity issues, race (Ciarhan Hinds as Bois-de-Gilbert from Scott is particularly effective). The film has Ivanhoe choosing Rowena over Rebecca so reinforces English identity. There was a 1997 mini-series where the the heroes fought over an empowered Rebecca. He likes Cadfael: it was a mystery thriller detective with everyone in tights, but Elliot finds in it real examinations of modern ideologies plus good writing, good scripts, tension, well done.
King Arthur: Elliot says there is much less of Arthur nowadays in films than one would expect (given books where there is a lot, given Victorian background, given the Net and fan groups). He says of one 1956-57 Arthur hardly appears; it’s called The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. Again of what there is the finest is a 1970s Arthur of the Britons (ITV< 192-73, 24 episodes). Arthur redresses many modern nationalist misdeeds. I add that perhaps we don’t like an ideal hero as much as the Victorians did. Merlin is favored as a fantasy figure according to Elliott.
Recently the demand for high production values leads to a reliance on co-production and with the US in there you cannot have the same exploration of nationalisms, international casts become bland and cannot critique the present the way Arthur of the Britons and Robin of Sherwood once did. So there is a prioritizing of multiculturalism with some criticism of imperial power as such.
Elliot suggests that historical drama a process of selection and reassembly from traditional materials. W should not give up on historical drama set in the middle ages: it may be the reality of the Middle Ages was so dreadful in so many ways a long tradition of fantasy from the 1930s picturesque popular costume dramas got it off to a bad start (I left out Stewart Grainger kind of films in Gainsborough films), but we should not give up on it at all — consider for example, Games of Thrones.
Chapter 9: Sabrina Baron: “Desacralizing the icon: Elizabeth I on Television.” This was a grim account. There have indeed been a large number of films featuring the character or figure of Elizabeth I, but after a thorough review of these from 1938 on, Baron concludes, with a few parts of some series as exceptions (most notably the six-part Elizabeth I in 1971), the depiction of Elizabeth, a woman who was a powerful and effective leader in her day (lived long, stayed in power, overcame a number of attempts to when she was young kill her and older overturn her throne), she is repeatedly shown as a frigid jealous or humiliated sex object. Her icon in her era was manipulated to present an transcendant female figure effectively doing what men did; in the 20th century she was at first a sexualized female stereotype who failed at love and motherhood and did little of consequence. Recently she has taken over Mary Stuart’s role as an enthralled woman (by Leicester, Essex) deeply unhappy because of this. Says Baron, quite a revenge and erasure by a male hegemonic point of view and from women compensatory victimhood for them to cling to.
The essay is so chock-a-block with films and details I just offer a few: If you look at contemporary records, you see to many Elizabeth was a mystery, a curiosity, an anomaly, but not an abomination. What she proceeded to do gradually was showcase her virginity, insist on it as what wedded her to England. In 1596 an order was issued that all unflattering portraits of the queen should be destroyed. As a consequence a very few depictions of Elizabeth for real in her later years have survived. What was one to do with this unmarrying, unreproducting, later undesirable woman? Her relationships with Leicester and Essex (and others) so romanticized were about their desire for financial favor and political preferment (I add though evidence suggests that Leicester was responsible for the death of his wife). Baron briefly covers US films (e.g., especially the influential Bette Davis and Errol Flynn), particularly how they influenced or were the same as the UK. The Cate Blanchett movie is one of those transforming Elizabeth into the vulnerable yearning woman (I remember her dancing most of all) and Mary Stuart (Barbara Flynn) into the thwarted politician.
I was startled to discover the second BBC film about this queen was an adaptation of Scott’s Kenilworth and starred a very young Jeremy Irons as Leicester and Gemma Jones as Elizabeth. first done in 1956 and then 1967. This is one of those costume dramas wiped out. Irons returned in the same role on HBO in 2005 in a wildly popular version with Helen Mirren (Hugh Dancy, the Essex). (A sad fall away from Jane Tennison.) Alessandra Stanley (who wrote a sequel to GWTW) was a rare critic to dare to write of how this film wallowed in painful pity for this aging woman — none of her public successes made much of, hardly mentioned.
Chapter 10: Mark Fryer’s “‘It’s not the navy — we don’t stand back to stand upwards’: The Onedin Line adn the Changing Waters of British Maritime Identity.” To me as reader it was telling to have an essay on Elizabeth I where all her real achievements were erased juxtaposed to two essays on depictions of men who are seen as heroes at sea (whether businessmen or at war) where the figures are celebrated: Baron’s essay is grim because the public image is one of intense resentment and dislike of a worthy historical woman; Fryer’s essays is slightly uplifting because the series allowed (as it went on) for a real exploration of at least these characters’ experience of an empire built by the harshness and vagaries of mercantile endeavor. At first it was simply a dramatization of symbols of national identity, as it went on it questioned these.
It’s still okay males to be at the center of an outward story where we see a lot of courage, stoicism, discipline, dignity (remember the brilliant expensive Master and Commander from Patrick O’Brian’s books, by Peter Weir). Fryer goes over a couple of the several seasons and in detail a couple of episodes. We are apparently allowed to see “the harshness of Victorian life” Fryer thinks the departure from conventional unexamined stories might come from its being merchant mariners rather then characters in the Royal Navy. He suggests how the series “did not shy away from depicting the atrocities of establishing capitalist spaces abroad.” He hardly discusses the women but they seem to be in totally conventional roles inflected by making them assertive (within bounds doubtless). So where the gender aspect of reality remains conventional and undisturbed we can have a pleasant history of a film … Since I’m just now reading Poldark and the new mini-series (scripted by Debbie Horsfield) is now airing I thought about the parallels here: Graham does go into the women characters at length and shows us marriage as coerced rape, and as marginalized people and what that does to them.
Fryer’s essay is also about the image of the sea in British films and books — central to Poldark because the sea is central to the area of Cornwall it takes place in; Fryer points out how the film adaptations of Austen’s Persuasion bring the sea in continually; how even Downton Abbey does not neglect it in opening on the Titanic. The sea is central to British mythology even now when it seems to be superceded by other technologies. The sea has and continues to provide sites of collective identity including all sorts of hard labor and experience.
Chapter 11: Bowdoin Van Riper, “Goodbye to All That: Piece of Cake, Danger UXB, and the second world war.” The title alludes to Graves’s famous book of course. Van Riper talks of how British costume dramas have embraced the interwar years (“the long weekend”) between WW! and 2, with settings that isolate them from modernity – Gosford Park, by Altman was such a film. Two extraordinary series: Danger USX (ITV, 1979: what a decade that was) and Piece of Cake (ITV, 1988). Characters heavily male focusing on work, centering on public life: tales of men defined by their knowledge and skills rather than wealth and social position. Inattentive, incompetent and inflexible characters fall and die. Individuals are framed as heroes or villains in accordance with whether they can get a job done, so characters marginalized or banished usually in costume dramas move to the center. Forget innocence, wit, virtue, charm, social graces.
These differ from previous films in their focus on combat and precise historical accuracy. Danger UXB focuses on the blitz, 9 out of 13 episodes. Piece of Cake is about the RAF Hornet Squadron transferred to France in 1939; the “phony war” comes to an end in 1939 and the Battle of Britain is the focus; few of the characters are left by the end and they do not see themselves as heroes. These mini-series then challenge aspects of the mythologies of the era. These groups of mend did not save the Old Britain but symbolize a new cultural order. Danger UBX shows characters continually pulled away from leisure time. One man goes AWOL in one episode to persuade his family to leave their bombed out house in Manchester and go live I the countryside; minutes after his arrival this house and his wife are destroyed, indistinguishable in the rubble.
Chris Hart and “Fanny” Barton treat war as a serious business (the others persist in apparent joking), something to be studied, worked at, practiced with clinical efficiency Hart is a wealthy American who flew for the loyalists in Spain; Barton mistakenly shot down a British aircraft; Hart teaches Barton how not to miss; he sneers at the self-congratulations of one kill and wreck which he claims was so easy. Hart instructs a mechanic in defiance of RAF practice to install a steel plate behind the seat of his aircraft to protect himself; someone without it comes out with shrapnel wounds in his back. Hart, Barton, “Flash” Gordon and Moggy are deeply dissatisfied with their leader’s adherence to RAF rules; it’s not important to have tight formations and the rest of the heroic claptrap as it is to look out for one another. Change comes from attrition rather than enlightenment. What matters is adapting; we see this in an Australian character; the language used is ruthless; “hammer the buggers hard;” after one inciden they are called “real killers” approvingly.
Enlisted soldiers in UXB are outsiders because they are the manual laborers and manual labor is deemed menial and despised. But they have to uncover the bombs (very dangerous) and their weapons/tools are spades, pickaxes, wheelbarrows; they have to shift hundreds of pounds of earth. Most of the time they are in working class and ordinary settings; when they do have to go to the stately country house where one of the few females in the series lives, Susan Mount (Judy Geeson yes she was the restoration lady wit who married Enys in Poldark), and her father, Gillespie, they are uncomfortable. Gillespie a man who earned his money, explosives expert, background in engineering and applied science. We see a vast network of people behind the heroes who are engaged with complexes of machines. So Susan assists her father; her husband is a cryptomanalyst and elsewhere (thus enabling her affair with Ash)
Anthony Andrews had a major role in Danger UXB; as Brian Ash, he is there to learn; it’s a story of his education. There is a guilt of comprehension between pre and post war worlds, junior from senior officers, English soldiers from people who have gone further abroad. People are lost and befuddle emotionally: Captain Francais, an executive officer incites a near mutiny by insisting his men follow a time-consuming polishing and social rituals.
In Piece of Cake after a while Hart is no longer so formidable. ”Skull” Skelton uses gun camera footage to see what has happened in each case (numbers of enemy destroyed, what damaged). Here it’s the senior officers who are out of touch with realities of modern warfare. Want to preserve gentility; Rex offers fine food and wine and must pay for it;he requisitions a country estate as barracks in France. Skelton the intelligence officer describes his leadership style as “feudal” – he dispenses largesse but demands absolute loyalty. Another older man, Kellaway insists using gun camera footage is an insult: people ought to be taken at their word as gentlemen. Bletchley too (so there’s that name) wants to deny war realities, describe the war as a football match. When the men go to the country house, they say this is one kind of war for one class of people and another for another. Moggy Cattermole the most effective as he casts aside rules (sho down unarmed German rescue planes, berates a squeamish man for not doing the same), Bletchley commends him for initiation but says never mention how he did what he did. Moggy bailed out of his Spitfire regardless of civilians and says he does not intend to get himself killed. Women and children cannot fly spitfires, can they? He says – he is seen as a callous self-centered bully but (says Van Riper) he is the character who speaks” the most unvarnished truth”. But there is a deeply poignant scene where Barton murders a dog who stands waiting for its dead master because there is no room on the plane.
Britain, emerged, says Van Riper, determined to hold power by developing high technologies and using them.Early warning radar, jet engines, digital computers. Pursuit of that dream seen in “Boffin” films (Sound Barrier,1947, Dambusters`1954) and novels like Shute’s No Highway (1948) and Clarke’s Prelude to space (1951). Reality far more complicated and Britain emerges in the shadow of the US, and global influence (ironically?) rests on its culture, new and old. Leading cultural figures who made Britain’s influence felt outside Britain were these technologically expert outsiders (is this so?)
Van Riper sees these films as products of Thatcher’s era, she grocer’s daughter and university trained scientist who became a politician. The men of these series embody Thatcherite virtues, Iron people because uncompromising. I remember Jim mocking a speech of Prime Minister Wilson’s which was famous at one time; it was in praise of technology as the great savior for everyone.
Chapter 14: Stella Hockenhull’s “Experimentation and Postheritage in Contemporary TV Drama: Parade’s End.” This mini-series (scripted by Tom Stoppard) failed with the public, which Hockenhull attributes to its departures from traditional heritage aesthetic techniques. I watched and read some of the screenplay (like his Anna Karenina screenplay published by Stoppard), and would counter that despite the increase in sexual scenes, the filmic techniques of this series are not unconventional; fancy camera work does not make this a post-heritage drama. The problem with the mini-series is Stoppard is (unlike Ford) not interested in the politics of the war and destruction of old England except as fodder for ironies; the characters are not enough developed believably (as in Fellowes’s thematically inferior Downton Abbey); the departures from Heritage drama that matter are found much earlier in mini-series e.g, The Jewel in the Crown (for politics, ethnicity, exposure of the realities of heterosexual romance) or Tipping the Velvet (focusing on lesbian sexuality). What the mini-series seemed to me was an exposure of the falseness in characters’ miseries, motives, lives, of the world of Downton Abbey — the real ugly behavior of the people upstairs and their variously desperate existences under the pressure of the break-up of the old aristocratic order (or so it seemed in WW1; it has returned in a new form since 1970). It was (as opposed to DA), often deeply hostile to its women characters — as was Ford as far as I can tell — the central heroine is utterly treacherous, disloyal, other women characters are weak, go mad, turn inward and walk away — and this is not sympathized with.
This hostility could account for the mini-series’ failure. As with Stoppard’s Anna Karenina, you have to have read the book to enjoy the film adaptation, itself a response to other film adaptations of this kind of novel. But Hockenhull’s perspective teaches the reader much about film and mini-series on TV today.
Viewers, critics and scholars of historical film and historical fiction have a feast before them in this part of the book, as each essay itself has a rich bibliography in the form of footnotes.