A Certain Romance: How we put ourselves in history to deal with today
Next month Sky releases its new mini series This England, a near real-time historicisation of Boris Johnson’s covid tenure. It’s not yet clear how this will help us digest the pandemic. From Sharpe to Peaky Blinders, we have a habit of projecting ourselves onto history to both process and escape the ever-confusing Now.
The career of Harry Flashman, the bully from Tom Brown’s School Days, was spectacularly serialised in the 1960s by George MacDonald Fraser, about a century after Thomas Hughes’s semi-autobiographical novel was published. The eponymous bounder shags and scrapes his way through the Victorian Era in the literary tradition of the Quixotic anti-hero, before making the leap to the big screen in the critically-panned Royal Flash (1975).
Why did it flop then, backed by a canon of bestsellers, and with a generational talent, not to mention Droog, Malcolm McDowell playing the lead? Critics broadly agreed it was a confused tone of comedy and drama, and struggled to root for Flashman or indeed care about what happened. It watches back like a 70s sex comedy, with most of the humour deriving from Flashman’s hapless encounters with barely regal stunners like Britt Ekland. The eternal coward, Flashman is first discovered wrapped in the Union Jack unconscious, and declared the Hero of Kabul, when in fact it was the very flag he was trying to surrender.
Flashman is almost conscientiously aware he is passing through history, not his Victorian present day, rubbing up against celebs like Otto Von Bismarck – ‘God help Germany when he’s in charge.’ He is an abstracted figure put in a bygone era, his military cowardice and imposterism making him identifiable to his contemporary audience. Anti-heroes repeatedly play the role of the audience’s man-on-the-inside in historical adaptations, often championing our values over the era’s. So Flashman instead flies the flag for 1970s sexual liberation, pushing back with humour against repressed 19th Century England. McDowell puts in a sleazily game performance, but ultimately film execs decided they would only back a shagger, as long as he shagged the flag too.
Flashman’s influence is most openly worn in the next decade’s biggest comedy series, Blackadder. Like Flashman, Blackadder is a coward, deceitful and horny, and indeed most people’s favourite turn in Blackadder Goes Forth, Rick Mayall’s Lord Flasheart, is a faithful tribute. But unlike Royal Flash, Blackadder isn’t tonally confused, it is a situation comedy with a laughter track, and the biggest beats deservedly go to Mayall’s alpha flyboy. The only time the tone is flipped is at the very end, when Blackadder, despite every effort to avoid it, goes over the top. This is to some extent 1989 talking, decades more enlightened than the donkeys who ordered the attack, recoiling at the madness during the final de-escalation of the Cold War.
If Blackadder got the comedy of the anti-hero right, Flashman’s real dramatic protege was Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe. The first novel published in the early 80s, for a while he was being groomed for the screen, with Cornwell agreeing to write Sharpe’s Rifles as backstory for a television franchise that finally launched in 1993. Originally imagined as an orphaned Londoner, such was the success of Sean Bean’s casting, Cornwell wrote a Yorkshire background into additional novels to explain Bean’s bastard-ised take on his accent.
Sharpe, the Hero of Talavera, shags and scrapes through history just as much as Flashman, but is always on the side of the triumphant British by the end. Enjoying a hugely popular original run, it was the flagship drama at the same time David Cameron was director of corporate affairs for Carlton Television, the head office being described at the time as a ‘Tory enclave’. Part of its One Nation appeal, Sharpe adds a 90s social commentary to the Regency class system that Bean’s upwardly mobile character swims against, and aristocratic incompetence is as certain as Sharpe getting his leg over by the end of every episode.
Curiously, the TV series deviates from the books with its most interesting episode Sharpe’s Justice (1997). Here, the televisual Sharpe returns to his Yorkshire hometown, meeting his estranged brother, who is fighting against the anti-democratic, brutal capitalism Sharpe has been defending. The episode even features a simulacrum of the Peterloo atrocity, a spiritual event on the English Left, in a narrative that before then had used the Peninsula War to rehabilitate the memory of the British Empire. Sharpe, of course, had one final appointment in Sharpe’s Waterloo (1997), as the curtain fell on the Napoleonic War and John Major’s Tory government.
The show’s cult opening titles featured a set of anachronistic electric guitar chords that helped propel a modern audience into the 1800s. Their contemporary was director Baz Luhrmann, who has long since used modern editing, storytelling and music to revamp history, starting spectacularly with William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), a love story set in a 90s world of network news, gang violence and party drugs. Likewise, Plunkett & Macleane (1999) projected the rave culture onto 18th Century English courtship, with composer Craig Armstrong’s track ‘Ball’ toying with classical strings and club beats as would a Balearic trance producer.
Luhrmann has since used the same technique elsewhere, amplifying 19th century Parisian excess with Millennium pop culture and hip-hop inflections in Moulin Rouge! (2001), whereas Manhattan of the 1920s received the same time-bending bling in The Great Gatsby (2013). In Elvis (2022), Luhrmann uses rap to transplant us back to the Black energy underneath the Elvis Presley phenomena of the 1950s. The idea is an old one – that they lived then as we do now, that the past was their present, and that what is now dated to us was electric to them – and the tools of our era are swapped in to rhyme with theirs.
New York’s history is further rifled through in Gangs of New York (2002) where the city is transformed into an adventure playground of tribal vice and inequity. The immigrant world of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Amsterdam Vallon is a further example of how we try to save yesterday’s villains with contemporary liberal values. They are the minority torch holders of, say, multiculturalism or queerness that we lift out of their own cruelly unlightened era into ours – Tipping the Velvet (2002) explored female same-sex attraction in an unsuspecting Victorian period, whilst in The Long Firm (2004), Mark Strong’s performance as homosexual, Jewish gangster Harry Starks navigates 1960s prejudice through sheer strength of character and masculinity.
The 2000s saw an interest in Victoriana which mutated into a fascination with other besuited periods. So why did eras often associated with repression suddenly become sexy? Well, repression and sexuality are one and the same, with the former perhaps even being a multiplying force, and sex, most obviously, never went out of fashion. But perhaps also, it was a counterwave against successive echoes of post-1960s permissiveness. This could be expressed on two fronts: an exhaustion of post-Baby Boomer liberal culture displayed on screen, and a push back in fashion against 40 years of loosening of formality.
The last revival of guitar music revivalism was the arena where this could play out, or more specially, Camden, where Russell Brand resurrected dandyism, spawning a host of guylinered imitators just in time for a recession-friendly stand up boom. There was even A Child of the Jago, a Victorian-themed fashion store in Shoreditch – and The Chap magazine, founded in 1999, reflected the new Noughties taste for refinery, even hosting its own yearly Chap Olympiad for middle class Englishmen terrified about facing the 21st century.
Shining a forgiving modern light on bygone rogues, deviants and scoundrels became a recurring trend: Tom Hardy provided a gritty choice of Bill Sikes in a kitchen sink version of Oliver Twist (2007). Channel 4’s docu-drama City of Vice (2008) was concerned with Georgian homosexuality and the formation of the Bow Street Runners police force, followed by the miniseries Desperate Romantics (2009) and the outlier eccentricities of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Even Guy Ritchie re-packaged Sherlock Holmes (2009) as a brawling action hero, whilst Ripper Street (2012) combined the appeal for seedy Victoriana with sturdy whodunnit storytelling. Ultimately, by blending outlaw history with a 2000s audience’s tolerance for sex, drugs and drawing rooms was a way of applauding our social progress in a titilating way.
The story of World War Two and Italian-American gangsterism were well told to, and by, the Baby Boomer generation. Mad Men (2007) was sold as the story of the white Anglo-Saxon mafia. Like The Long Firm before it, it provided an alternative perspective on the 60s, when the old order of the chaps was starting to crumble and the Sexual Revolution was at its outset. In terms of its cultural impact, it was to the 2000s what Peaky Blinders (2013) was to the next decade. Don Draper was a sex symbol embodying the ongoing tension between established male privilege and sex-based equality. The BBC, in pursuit of making a ‘British Mad Men’ responded with The Hour (2011), covering the dawn of TV news journalism in the mid-1950s, with Romola Garai’s pioneering producer taking on the censorious British establishment in a similar manner.
History depicted on screen in the 2010s represented the audience’s contemporary concerns no less than in previous decades, as was the desire to turn previously overlooked eras inside out. 1920s Atlantic City-set Boardwalk Empire (2010) was a good place to start – with characters such as Stephen Graham’s young Al Capone providing foreshadowing to more familiar biographies. 2013’s The Great Gatsby offered escapism, alongside a quickly-dated trend for electro-swing music which too attempted to cushion the austerity years.
In the same year Peaky Blinders was launched on BBC Two. Like Boardwalk Empire it sold new chronological real estate to house reliable gangster stories, documenting the travails of the shellshocked Shelby clan from the First World War to the rise of 1930s fascism. It also finally provided Birmingham, England’s Second City but less culturally confident than Liverpool or Manchester, a creation myth it could revel in – a swagger enhanced by the musical use of Nick Cave and Arctic Monkeys to bring the period to life. The results were not just abstract, either; beyond the trend for a Tommy Shelby haircut, creator Steven Knight is building brand new film studios in Digbeth, where he has been followed by the BBC. The syndication of Peaky Blinders on Netflix has made it a global phenomenon, generating a cultural interest in Birmingham to rival heavy metal.
Peaky Blinders was also a win for the BBC in terms of its Charter obligation to nations and regions – taking the franchise’s production outside of London after years of drifting opportunities and wealth to the capital. Tommy Shelby’s first conquest, or course, was besting the overtly cockney-sounding racketeer Billy Kimber for domination of the Worcester Races betting pitches. In Taboo (2017), Knight’s one-series collaborative passion project with Tom Hardy, he puts our repression theme as his central premise, but its steamy Regency romp made some of the previous decade’s sexy Victoriana look like a mere flash of ankle. Naturally, an expletive adaptation of A Christmas Carol (2019) followed.
If Taboo was a recall to an aesthetic explored in the 2000s, historical drama of the 2010s reflected back the crises of the second half of the decade. Their Finest (2016), Dunkirk (2017), Darkest Hour (2018) were all about Britain going it alone during the Second World War, and chimed loudly with audiences after Britain had unexpectedly dunked itself out of the European Union in 2016. This was cinema to stiffen the sinews, not to escape but inspire – if perhaps betraying the psyche of a country not altogether confident about the crisis it had voluntarily entered into.
Escapism however became the nullifying form of entertainment for the Covid crisis when Bridgerton landed in audiences’ laps during Christmas 2020. It followed on from Armando Iannucci’s casting of Dev Patel as the lead in David Copperfield (2019), a timely reflection of a febrile online debate about colour-consciousness and history. The book itself is a work of fiction, granting significant license, and Iannucci uses multiracial casting to faithfully illuminate Copperfield’s rollercoaster through each societal echelon of Victorian England, whilst able to express our 21st century values regarding race, talent and opportunity.
Bridgerton similarly championed diverse stars, but takes place in a world that could not have existed in Regency high society, which was heavily buttressed economically by the slave trade. Instead, it is openly ‘alternative history’, closer to Philip K. Dick than Dickens – where the timeline diverges from reality when King George III falls in love with a Black woman, changing the dynamics amongst the London elite. It is a bold brush stroke, expanding on speculation regarding the real life Queen Charlotte’s ethnicity. It may not bear a visual resemblance to the era, but it consciously absolves itself by being a piece of science fiction. It is a fantasy aesthetic that refurbishes the joys of Regency literature, its success data driven by locked down audiences devoid of human contact and good news. In this way it becomes a product more of our time than the 1800s, and one that people clearly needed.
So what then, of the pandemic itself being historicised by Sky before we’ve even had a chance to process it? There is, like everything else, a precedent here too. Peter Morgan’s The Deal (2003) remembered Tony Blair’s alleged pact with Gordon Brown for becoming prime minister whilst he was still in the job, and Channel 4’s Coalition (2015) documented the brokerage behind the Cameron years, filmed whilst it was still in its first term. The same network was behind Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019), with Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Dominic Cummings as a Northumbrian Joe Public-whisperer aging quickly in light of the punter’s response to Barnard Castle, not to mention his current hardboiled Twitter account.
The sell here is providing an audience with a story they have their own stake in, particularly for younger audiences, combined with perhaps an overly-conscious desire to see ourselves in history, and a race to get in front of it. This England may well provide some insight into what went on, perhaps through a dramatic device more useful than any guarded talking head that the former powers that be would provide. But it may give someone like Boris Johnson, a place-in-history-concious writer of biographies like The Churchill Factor, a role canonised by drama, and one, without letting perspective take its full course, might end up being far different than the one he deserves.