First time I saw a BBC period drama adaptation on the TV, I had mumps.
I’d had the inoculation, mind, but I still had mumps, and oddly enough, running a high fever and loaded up with drugs, Pride and Prejudice suddenly seemed like the most thrilling piece of television I’d ever seen. (That, and Basil the Great Mouse Detective, which even without mumps was the cultural highlight of my childhood.)
Oh BBC Period Drama! Oh the floppy shirts! Oh the starched collars! Oh the dodgy accents; the humble sons of soil with their ee-by-gums Ms. Farthingdale, yea don’t be knowin’ what yea don’t be knowin’ don’t yea know. Oh the posh ladies about town chittering amongst themselves, for have you heard, Lizzy dear, that Mr Jones has a new waistcoat that is most fetching and isn’t it a shame that you, through some vile misunderstanding two episodes ago, mistook his sister for a lover and he mistook your friend for a brother and your brother mistook your father for your mother and well wasn’t it quite the thing, oh lordy oh lord!
And here’s the fascinating thing: almost nothing happens. Nothing happens at great length except awkward glances and fraught dances in which physical contact is strictly averted. Lovers fail to unite, families fail to come together, characters are not freed of their burdens until the last ten seconds when the sun rises and the music soars – but how it soars! The violins strike up as the expensive camera shot spins round the same three inches of Lincoln’s Inn Fields that always serves for Victorian London, the bassoon comes in low and the cellos set to in full forte voice for here at last, after so much confusion and more tea than the mind can comfortably conceive, through mis-adventure and happenstance, our heroes are united together in polite middle class comfort, to darn socks by the fireside as only true lovers can!
It’s all marvelously British stuff; and what’s more, there’s a typical BBC style. It’s a style that can be very clearly defined by middle class anxiety, no-sex, no-swearing, and any violence must be enacted in no more than twenty seconds of heavily shadowed brutality, or in a single flash that sends our heroine falling in a swoon, a single drop of blood staining her immaculate white shirt, a man rushing to catch her as she falls. It’s all delightfully daft, and, courtesy largely of the bassoon, vastly romantic; but, alas, when witnessed without the comfort of a high fever and all the antibiotics the NHS can supply, the urge to bounce up and down screaming, idiot! You idiots! You total idiots! … seeps into my soul. Sure, there are a few honourable exceptions to the rule, but a lot of the time the urge to scream don’t propose to her, you total moron, she doesn’t like you yet DUH! or for god’s sake just talk to each other! overwhelms my otherwise decorous and doubtless tea-fuelled TV watching.
Naturally, there are some exceptions to the rule; though I would like to take this moment to say that I have no interest in Downton Abbey and its ilk, mostly, I suspect, because I like a beginning, a middle and an end, and to be unaware of dialogue when I hear it, hearing only speech, not written words being said by actors, if that makes sense. I should also add that I’m dealing quite specifically with that area of ‘period drama’ that falls from roughly 1750-1880, since the BBC seems to regard the Middle Ages as a time when the only thing to do when not poisoning fellow princes, was to have ridiculous amounts of sex despite the lack of contraception. But that’s a different rant…