The past might be a foreign country, but that country is in danger of becoming over-exposed. Don’t get me wrong: I like history as much as the next person and more than most. But on Sunday night - as The White Queen, based on Philippa Gregory’s hugely successful novel, played off against Agatha Christie’s Marple (also a period piece: the book on which it was based was published almost fifty years ago) - I switched off.
It’s not because I don’t enjoy a classy recreation of the past. But I find myself craving contemporary drama, and the occasional star vehicle for David Tennant or Gillian Anderson is not enough. If you want to watch a TV drama about modern politics, you’ll need to import it. The US remake of House of Cards has brought Michael Dobbs’ classic 80s novel into the twenty-first century. And if you prefer your politics to be slightly less camp, then Borgen has that covered. Tune into the home-grown political drama, and you’ll be lucky to catch anything set later than the 1950s.
If history reveals as much about the time in which it’s written as the time in which it’s set, our current obsession with the past is revealing: drama commissioners seem certain that we want ever-more royalty and posh people, and I suspect they will keep throwing them at us until we threaten revolution. Like it or not, we’re getting kings, queens, dukes, and court intrigues; as much landed privilege as money can buy. Frankly, it will be a relief when the BBC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall finally appears, because at least Hilary Mantel’s towering Thomas Cromwell is a compelling portrait of a self-made man, not some bloke in a fancy crown riding a horse.
The real problem is that television tends towards cannibalism. Without Mad Men, there wouldn’t have been The Hour. And without the reams of historical fiction being published every year, TV execs might start commissioning contemporary drama instead. Just glancing through my bookshelves at the last twenty books I’ve read for this year’s Man Booker Prize reveals that eight of them were historical novels. But that still leaves 60% that is devoid of kings, queens or either world war.
At the same time as the White Queen took on the Queen of Crime, fans of Scandinavian drama were at their first UK convention. Much has been written about our ceaseless appetite for grey-skied subtitled Nordic drama: we love the serious themes, the grown-up stories, the proper jumpers.
But at least part of the appeal is that we love drama which isn’t endlessly reworking the past. We tune in to The Bridge because it’s a good thriller, but also because it’s about contemporary characters, battling contemporary problems and prejudices. They do things differently in the past. It’s time we looked to the present.