Period dramas like ‘Downton Abbey’, ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Wolf Hall’ have ascended to a quintessential domination of British television, but why is it that dramas set in distant time periods and often even in different continents resonate so well with a modern British audience? Following the overwhelming success of the BBC’s six-part adaptation of the classic Russian novel ‘War and Peace’, the original Tolstoy novel was rocketed back into the ‘Bookseller’s Top 50’ list for the first time since 1998. This is hardly surprising when you consider the viewing figures that the big-budget BBC drama boasted – with around 6.3 million viewers for its first episode, which aired on 3rd January 2016. This data is not an anomaly in British viewing, either. One of the UK’s most iconic television programmes, ‘Downton Abbey’, drew in 6.9 million viewers (with an additional 4 million watching via ITV’s catchup service) for its ‘goodbye’ finale episode on Christmas Day 2015. The period drama that chronicles the lives of an aristocratic family in the early 20th Century, won itself ‘best drama’ at the 2016 National Television Awards. This award can added to its already extensive collection of Emmys, Golden Globes and BAFTAs.
Speaking with Dr. Mattias Frey, a reader in film studies (specialising in historical films and television) at the University of Kent, he explained some of the reasons as to why historical dramas are so compelling to a modern audience.
“Well I think there’s several reasons. One is what I call ‘safe space’. What I mean by that is that there are some issues, whether it’s class, race, gender, etc. that are difficult to deal with in a society, they’re sensitive issues. But if you locate them in 1912 Britain like in ‘Downton Abbey’, or in 1960s New York like in ‘Mad Men’, then it’s easier to deal with. We can say: “we know better now”. We’re not as sexist as Don Draper in ‘Mad Men’, we’re not as class-obsessed as the people in ‘Downton Abbey’.”
“Another reason is that traditionally, historical film and television have enjoyed a different status than dramas set in the current day. There’s a perception amongst people that there is something better about historical films, whether it’s ‘War and Peace’, whether it’s ‘Downton Abbey’. There’s something classy about it, there’s something that is better. And then people like to show off a bit and say “Well I watch ‘Downton Abbey’, I’m not watching ‘Hollyoaks’.” Even though, let’s face it, ‘Downton Abbey’ is just as much a soap opera.”
Dr. Philip Boobbyer, reader in modern European history (specialising in Russian history) also at the University of Kent highlighted similar reasons as to why historical dramas, in particular, ‘War and Peace’, are so popular with a modern British audience.
“I think that ‘War and Peace’ is a kind of soap opera, but a rather highbrow one. You are enabled to get to know and see a series of characters over a period of time in their social context and quite an emotional range to reflect with. So, in that sense, the novel itself is conducive to this type of presentation. It’s got that sort of combination of social commentary, and people discovering themselves and falling in and out of love, and it’s got the big houses, and the wealth, and the costumes, and so on. So the novel is suited to that type of adaptation.”
“One of the things that is appealing about ‘War and Peace’ that I think came across to some extent in the production was Pierre Bezukhov’s journey of self-discovery and his interest in asking big social questions and big sort of philosophical religious questions. And it’s possible that in a quite secularised society, like our own, it allows people to enjoy asking those questions within a slightly different framework by looking at them and how they were asked in the past.”
Both academics had different ideas, however, when it came to addressing the popular question concerning period dramas that is: whether or not they are beneficial to an audience who want to learn more about the historical periods in which they are set.
Dr. Boobbyer said: “They make the past accessible. But I think that if you’re going to become a serious scholar historian, you need to move on from that or be well aware that there’s another side of it. You must be aware that you are watching a soap opera. If you are not aware of that, and there will be viewers who perhaps don’t think in that way, then it is perhaps a potential pitfall.”
Dr. Frey, on the other hand, considered the view that these dramas are not built on historical accuracies and that the drama and the storylines of the shows hold precedence.
“If you look at the way that a lot of people are writing about these things, and when I say writing about them, I mean on an internet forum or something, they say things like: “That frock wasn’t invented until two years later!” This is an obsession with accuracy. I take a much more relaxed view to it. What is history anyway? It’s a collection of facts that we choose to structure in a certain way. I could tell history in the same way that I can tell a story about what happened today. It’s a completely constructed thing. We can’t get too hung up on it. I’m quite relaxed about things like so-called inaccuracies and inauthenticity because I think that history is something that is much more natural and organic.”
Whatever the definition of ‘history’, and whether or not historical accuracy is more important than the soap-opera-style qualities in these dramas, there is no doubting this overwhelming trend in modern British television. This obsession with period drama has set a certain standard in British viewing, and that is not a trend that is forecast to change.