Sun, Feb

In Praise of Period Dramas & Comedies

I should have guessed I’d become a history teacher. Falling in love with period dramas — especially those produced by the British — confirmed in childhood that the siren song of long ago is irresistible to my mind & soul. PBS, CBC and TVOntario were responsible for opening the door to this feast of period pageantry…and I’m forever grateful to them.


I’ve been spoiled in the last year or so…the juggernaut that is Downton Abbey…the revival of Upstairs, Downstairs…gracing the small screen with gusto, delicacy, gorgeous detail, unrepentant soap-operaish glee, and sweeping events flowing as undercurrent to the story lines of the vast universe of characters. Aristocrats, servants, working men & women, suffragettes…all the way back to emperors, viceroys, philosophers, and sultans.


The BBC & ITV have always been able to produce unrivaled productions in this genre. I can only imagine that, being at the heart of the greatest empire the world has ever seen, the British have opened themselves up to examining, defending, prosecuting, revising, and revisiting not only their personal experiences, but those of the peoples, civilizations & cultures that they have touched…for better, and for worse. The panoply of human experience, laid bare with comedic genius…comforting folksiness…and heartbreaking terror.


Downtown Abbey & Upstairs, Downstairs are reminders of our longing for simpler times…and our realization that, no matter what degree of nostalgia, past times were never simpler. Sometimes they were more complicated…sometimes more vicious…but never EVER were they simpler. The Human Adventure is never simple, no matter what the era. Complexity build upon complexity. Relationships, loves, lusts, insanity & insufferability…we are the same…except when we struggle to be better…and wallow when we fail utterly at the same endeavor. Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs are the microcosms of all this — the class struggles framing emotional triumphs and tragedies that are timeless, across the strata of human civilization.


But let us not forget the variety of ways these series have explored history. Especially when it’s through the lens of the greatest literature available…whether it be the workhouses of Dickens’ London, the dark moors of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, or the quiet beauty of of fictional backwater pastoral utopias such as Cranford & Lark Rise.


Other times, we watch the savage and the unforgiving…and the blunt trauma they expose…whether it be the hilarity behind the Blackadder clan’s endless machinations…or the real life repulsiveness of Roman emperors, as Robert Graves’ I, Claudius demonstrated so wickedly.


Tonight, I tune into the second season finale of Downtown Abbey, and I will completely immerse myself in its world with unrepentant relish. Period dramas are our mirrors to society…everything that has happened before, happens again. Life and love, the indomitable human spirit…sometimes distorted, sometimes all too clear…and all on display with exacting beauty. I love it to pieces.

I am a period drama boy. I am a period comedy boy. I am a history teacher, history student…and it refreshes me like a cold, mountain spring.