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This article was written on 29 Jan 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

This country is facing the wrong way

This country is facing the wrong way. It’s facing backwards, endlessly picking over its own past and, incredibly, getting it wrong, while other nations don’t seem to be similarly encumbered. At least, not to the same extent. No other country seems to fetishise history as we do, while the present and future are mortgaged, sacrificed or ignored. Consider the evidence.

One of the most popular TV programmes is Downton Abbey. The reason for its popularity is that it presents a massively tidied-up version of the past where all is sanitised and made to seem like an extended Terrence Rattigan play with nothing to scare or disconcert anyone. There’s intrigue upstairs, deference downstairs and everything stays stubbornly in its place.

It doesn’t take a particularly huge imagination to think that this is how our present Government would like the present day country to be, but an equally savage critique is that this really wasn’t how that epoch played out for most of the population. Life was bastard hard for pretty much everyone and, before the NHS, a routine ailment could kill you stone dead in days.

Similarly, there was little in the way of social harmony. There was a hierarchy in which most of the viewers who like to dream of being one of the lords and ladies would instead have died in infancy or lived lives of crushing, debasing penury, but this isn’t the same. The Jarrow March revealed social tensions, there was a General Strike and, oh the horror, Labour came into being as ordinary working people were starting to get overtly hacked off.

I’d like to have seen a version of Downton in which the people below stairs declared that they had founded a workers’ soviet and went upstairs to shoot their former bosses before flying the red flag, but alas, it wasn’t to be. Still, if you want to imagine life as it was outside the prickish imaginings of Julian Fellowes, all you have to do is read Robert Tressell’s ‘The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.’ That shows you an ordered society, but one that is very far from the one in Downton.

Just in case you think this frenzied fingerbanging of our past is a one off, look at all the costume dramas, Austen adaptations and sundry versions of Charles bloody Dickens that the TV sicks up on an almost hourly basis, in which actors who have allowed age to turn them into a parody of themselves ham it up in performances that have all the subtlety of an am-dram farce in which a vicar continually loses his trousers.

Of course, America will buy this nonsense until the bloody cows comes home and probably think that we’re all walking around in top hats and bonnets only breaking off from witty, urbane banter to have a cream tea and shoot some poor people. Somewhat sadder is the state of the modern version of this country, however, in which people die days after a work capability assessment, the employed are in perpetual fear of losing their jobs and zero hours contracts are an actual, genuine Thing.

There may be new dramatists out there, a new Shakespeare or an Austen, but we don’t need to hear about them when we have the originals who are safely dead with a completed body of work. No room for disappointment or edgy new directions. We’ll do another version of Pride and Prejudice, stick on an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and all sink into a nice, drowsy torpor in which we can’t be surprised and disconcerted.

Maybe this is why things like The Killing found a cult audience. They don’t give a stuff for Dickens or care two shits for Downton, the Scandies. They’d rather make an edgy crime thriller that oozes darkness and despair and which has an unremittingly cynical view of human existence, or do the same again with The Bridge, which had me on the edge of my seat for successive episodes. What do we come up with? Some formulaic cobblers with much the same cast of actors. Danes get von Trier and Dogme, we get some worn-out pap about the Marigold Hotel.

Conservatism of this kind, endlessly regressive and exhuming its own past for a quick dry hump, is toxic. There is a block on anything new or which looks like it may be too imaginative in favour of the old and understood and safely successful. Why commission something new when there’s loads of royalty-free stuff that can be endlessly recycled? Never mind plot and characters. Just stick on a period hat, look like you’re sucking a lemon, roll your eyes, overact and the audience will love it.

Is there a way to turn this country around so it’s facing forwards? Probably not. In a recent poll, a depressingly large number said that the Empire was probably a positive thing and that actually involved the murder of thousands upon thousands of people who had made the fatal mistake of not being born white in a country that Britain wanted to steal. With that level of ahistorical idiocy abroad in the land, who gives a yellow, rubbery fuck if we tart up our own past and pretend it was all lovely?

Michael Gove, that fish-lipped apology for humanity, said that he disliked the Blackadder version of first world war history, presumably one that was less about working class people being sent to die like cattle and more about noble and clean-limbed sacrifice. Blackadder, of course, is reasonably recent, which is obviously a cardinal sin, and portrays something that was really not great news for anyone. And if there’s one thing we like, it’s a happy ending and everyone married off. Not dead in a pointless charge.

Welcome to Britain, a heritage theme park for a history that never really was where you can visit Bronte museum, see a new version of The Globe where you can see a play you’ve seen a hundred times before and have some real Downton fudge. Perhaps the only reason why we like the past is because the present is screwed, in which case, heaven help us all.

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