The most painful thing for an academic is to watch period dramas, and I am starting to think I should actively avoid them. The recent experience I’ve had has been traumatic, and I don’t think I ever had such a disappointing run, whether with movies or TV shows. It started with the Gunpowder Plot on British TV, followed by a couple of Churchill films, finishing with The Crown and Poldark, against my better instincts. I saw the trailer for Murder on the Orient Express, but I don’t think I have the courage to endure any more period movies after seeing those gravity-defying moustaches and Kenneth Branagh’s terrible imitation of Poirot.
Most Americans might not be familiar with all the historical or period dramas now airing on British television (mercifully, I might add) but for some reason they love the ones that do make it over to the U.S. I was talking to an American colleague the other day who loves both Poldark and The Crown and wouldn’t listen to my severe protestations of how terrible both of those shows are.
Consider Poldark. Nothing could be more cliché than the tale of a rebel aristocrat. It is a trope, systematically used in art, literature and now in a TV series. Why is it so popular? Because it provides a story of simplistic hope and social mores that suggests that even those who lord over us are still troubled by some of the same burdens as us commoners. It is also, historically, rarely true. Yes, there have been exceptions—aristocrats who left everything and dedicated their life to some egalitarian mission, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. Aristocrats do turn rebellious, but mostly in their own interests or to topple and replace existing elite structures to create a new elite structure. Human history, especially since the French revolution, is evident enough.
The original Poldark series, which aired in the 1970s, was ridiculous enough, with a lead actor sporting hippie sideburns, among other anachronisms, but today’s re-booted show has taken things to a different level altogether. Let’s for a moment forget the many inconsistencies in costume and settings (village roads were never that clean). No human male from that era would have the chiseled body of a twenty-first century gym rat, like Poldark’s male lead does. Nor would an eighteenth-century gentleman constantly find opportunities to take his shirt off or walk around with carefully manicured stubble on his face. It would either be a full beard, or a clean shave.
The new Ross Poldark (played by Aiden Turner) not only takes his shirt off whenever he gets a chance, but also spends an inordinate amount of time sitting around brooding. He broods on cliffs; he broods when he talks to Demelza; he broods about Elizabeth, or his insufferably dull cousin. He makes Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow look like a motivational speaker. Riddled with pouty, post-modern angst and speaking in a bizarre modern intonation, this Poldark’s purpose is clearly to confirm the millennial moral sensibilities of his audience. It is also what makes the show genuinely uninteresting, politically correct and predictable.
As for The Crown, actress Claire Foy’s Queen Elizabeth acts less like the (real) plucky young monarch who fixed military Jeeps during World War II and more like a beleaguered grad student discussing Kierkegaard. She’s frowny rather than fearsome.
Why can’t we have period dramas that reflect the gritty realism of their times, the savage experiences of war and famine and heroism in the face of grave adversity, rather than easily digestible postmodern fables that barely rise above soap operas? History offers plenty of stories of hope, nobility, and courageous deeds. It also reminds us that some of our fellow men and women really were born to lead during challenging times, and did so with bravery and wit. Too bad the creators of period dramas aren’t telling those stories.