There was a time when British television was the envy of the world. As a child in Malta, we would all be glued to the great imported series from Britain – things like the original Upstairs, Downstairs, and the long but fascinating adaptation of War and Peace, starring the young Anthony Hopkins. No videos in those days, so no recording, and thus on those nights no going out for the adults, and the children allowed to stay up late specially. And though it is a long time ago now, some of those distant scenes are still burned into my memory: Pierre playing patience as the French march on Moscow, or in the queue to get shot; Lady Margery’s daughter being arrested as a suffragette… and many others.
Fast forward a few decades and all is changed. British television drama is a wasteland. Look at last night’s offering, Titanic. Where to begin? Surely the Titanic theme has been done to death? If you doubt that, Julian Fellowes’s version will settled the question. His drama had some uncomfortable resemblances to the James Cameron (on the whole very good) film. But its main weakness was its historical illiteracy.
I could go on and on about this, but luckily I won’t. Take one couple, the Earl and Countess of Manton. Lord Manton embarrasses his middle class Irish lawyer, something no gentleman would ever do deliberately; Lady Manton is rude to his wife; she also snubs Mr Guggenheim and is rude to his French mistress; Lady Manton points out that someone is in trade. I do not think a real Edwardian Countess would have ever done any of these things. As a member of the upper class she would have taken pride in putting people of all backgrounds at their ease. It is unlikely she would have snubbed a Jewish American, or indeed refused to speak to his mistress in a public place: the court of Edward VII, who had only recently died, had been full of foreigners and included several mistresses including the King’s own. As for trade, well, by the time the Titanic went down the idea of British aristocrats shoring up their financial positions by marrying Americans, all of whom had made their money in trade, was commonplace. Money, as the Italian love to say, has no smell. Jenny Jerome, Consuelo Vanderbildt, and the fictional lady in Downton Abbey are just three examples of this.
All this may not seem important, but Lady Manton made me squirm, with her caricature toffness. In the interests of truth, this sort of thing should not be allowed to pass. The only reason a person in Lady Manton’s position would act like that would be if she were socially insecure or a little bit potty.
I was very glad to escape into the world of Channel Four plus one and watch the next episode of Homeland. This is such a good series, well scripted, well acted, and posing a very simple but disturbing question: there is a Trojan Horse in our midst, but who is it? My guess is that we are in for a surprise. Could it be Saul? But please do not tell me. I want to enjoy this one for as long as it runs, just like those great television series of old.