Artillery Row

The past speaks for itself

The problem with modern period drama

Last week the death of the film-music composer Carl Davis was announced, prompting many of a certain age to rummage through our DVD collections (assuming we haven’t thrown them out), in search of one of the best period dramas of all time. With its charismatic casting and top-notch script, the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was a major television event. Back in those archaic times when everyone watched the same programmes at the same time, millions were captivated from the moment the opening credits rolled. Davis’ infectiously jaunty galloping melody signalled to us that we were about to watch something utterly joyous.

You might as well have characters wander on in jeans

One of the things that marked the series out as special — the budget was surely colossal — was its extreme level of attention to detail, creating a drama that felt fresh and contemporary yet entirely faithful to the novel. Even the supporting roles were exquisitely cast: who could forget David Bamber’s unctuous clergyman or Anna “Duckface” Chancellor as Mr Bingley’s supercilious sister? Scrupulous care was taken in researching period costumes and hairstyles (no anachronistic “half-up hair” here), using muted paint colours authentic to the period, even grading characters’ carriages according to social status. So nerdy were the production team that they would only use food that could have been prepared with utensils and methods available in 1813.

Perhaps most unusual was the care Davis took in creating a soundtrack that was both beautiful in its own right and historically appropriate. Music was vital in a story in which characters are constantly singing, playing instruments and dancing. The adaptation featured works by Handel, Mozart, Clementi and Beethoven, composers whose music would have been familiar to middle-class young women in Austen’s time. Davis went further than this, writing an original score of the most convincing pastiche, cleverly emulating the musical style of the era (Classical verging on early Romantic, though he harkens back to the Baroque for scenes involving the pompous Lady Catherine de Bourgh). Period instruments were used, particularly the fortepiano, whose timbre is very different from the modern piano.

Sound tends to be the Cinderella of period drama. Producers employ historical advisors to help them get the “look” of a period just so, whilst often paying little attention to the music or even the dialogue. Some might say that only a sad pedant would object to using parts of Mozart’s Requiem (1791) and Elgar’s Enigma Variations (1899) in a film set in the Tudor period (Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, 1998). If you’re going to use music that postdates the action by several centuries, though, you might as well have characters wander on in jeans.

More recently there has been a wholesale move towards the use of pop from our own time, or the target audience’s youth, in period-film soundtracks. It began with Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001) and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006). It has now become routine and seemingly obligatory. A 2021 BBC adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, set in the interwar period, incorporated songs by Bryan Ferry, New Order and T. Rex, alienating many of us who love both the novel and the BBC’s previous adaptation (as Love in a Cold Climate, 2001). T. Rex was great in Billy Elliot, not so much here.

In a less narcissistic age, we did not need the connection to our own time

Some directors may simply be jumping on a bandwagon; others evidently believe it the height of sophistication to “giv[e] the finger to period-drama conventions”, as a reviewer of Marie Antoinette put it in Empire magazine. The impetus in our age of “relatability” — a term originally drawn from reality TV that is now the all-governing yardstick of cultural worth — encourages viewers to see themselves reflected in the characters and situations on screen, however remote the setting. Pop music is used to capture a supposedly unchanging, essential human nature, to propose that “these characters were just like us”. We are constantly told that period drama must move with the times and reflect our own age if it is to make history accessible to younger viewers.

Those of us who were in our early twenties when watching Pride and Prejudice in 1995 could relate perfectly well to these characters from a much earlier age, however. Because the producers didn’t go deliberately chasing a young demographic, the series had cross-generational appeal. The thoughtful, humane portrayal of Elizabeth Bennett by Jennifer Ehle (an actress we should have seen much more of afterwards), the giddiness of Julia Sawalha’s Lydia, and Alison Steadman as the embarrassing mother all did the work. In a less narcissistic age, we did not need the connection to our own time and concerns patronisingly flagging up to us in neon letters with snippets of Oasis’ “Wonderwall”, Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” or Shaggy’s “Boombastic”. We could imagine ourselves in different times with different people’s lives and still take something of personal value from them.

Modern period drama, the cool people tell us, has to be a “playful” ironic game, rather than simply a powerful story well told and acted. I miss the genre as we used to know it, where a sense of place was evoked not only by pretty costumes but by appropriate music. I consider myself a period drama fan, but the genre is losing me, with its ever more gimmicky attempts to seek new audiences and reinvent itself as “relevant”. If you want to transport me to 1940s Paris, play me Edith Piaf, not Beyoncé. The Beatles were the sound of the Sixties, not of the 1860s. Music is an incredibly powerful tool in evoking the feel of an era, as Carl Davis realised, and today’s directors would do well to make more intelligent use of it. Though historical dramas are always made, to some extent, in the image of the present, they also do an important job in communicating an understanding of the past to a wide audience. We do that audience a disservice if we make such dramas all about ourselves.

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