The Problem With Nostalgia On TV

Roy Ward

My best friend Lottie is a bit of an anachronism. She loves big hair, big shoulder pads and bright colours. It’s criminal that she wasn’t born a bit earlier to fully experience the 1980s in all of its neon, animal print-clad wonder. Another friend of mine often jokes that he should have been a 1920s gadabout. It’s a feeling a lot of us will perhaps have – that we would have loved to have lived at another time in the past. It’s a feeling we especially experience when we’re watching period dramas on television – and there are a lot of those around at the minute. From Mad Men and The Hour (which I’m still in mourning for), to Downton Abbey and Call The Midwife, it’s become a rarity for modern dramas to actually be set in the present day.

It’s not hard to see the appeal of another time – at first glance everything seems so much simpler. Watching Don Draper lighting his thirtieth cigarette of the day on the train, or drinking endless whiskeys  in his office – who wouldn’t want that? I chalk it up as a win when our boss gets us ice creams to eat at our desks, so God only knows how I’d react to a midday workplace gin and tonic. The easy, genteel life of the Crawleys in Downton has some fairly obvious benefits to it – a beautiful country estate, lavish feasts and a complete lack of Made in Chelsea – but life in a stately home in the early 20th Century would only be awesome if you were on the upper rungs of the ladder, and even then only really awesome for the men. Sure, Lady Edith has a feather bed and all the champers she can quaff, but she can’t vote, and in order to make anything of her life she has to marry somebody else. If you watch shows like Downton Abbey or Mad Men and wish you were alive in that time period, you’re not paying enough attention.

If you’re a rich, white, heterosexual male, you’ve pretty much got it made at any point in history. As much as I’m sure there’s a disconcertingly large contingent of patriarchal bell-ends out there who long to return to a time where women stayed at home and made them sandwiches, I think most of us realise that life is just that little bit less crap these days for the rest of us. Look at poor Thomas from Downton, hiding his sexuality and having to settle for ogling sexy fellow servant Jimmy, because being gay was still a criminal offence. Then there’s Belle, from the BBC’s 1950s newsroom drama The Hour, who spends much of the first series struggling to be taken seriously as a television producer simply because of her gender. I’m almost at the end of the first season of Mad Men and so far the only African-American characters I have seen sell sandwiches off a cart or operate the elevators in Sterling Cooper’s glitzy, corporate offices, and Art Director Salvatore Romano has to stay in the closet for fear of losing his job.

I’m not saying that we can’t love the old-school glamour of these nostalgic shows, because that’s a huge part of their appeal. Christina Hendricks as Mad Men’s Joan Holloway, in all of her hourglass-figured, ginger-beehived glory, manages to make me feel things that no other woman ever has or ever will. Sexy Ben Whishaw in his horn-rimmed glasses and grey flannel three-piece makes The Hour even more watchable than it already is. Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham. ‘Nuff said. The problem comes when we start longing to return to a period we erroneously perceive as being more appealing because it seems to be a simpler time. Unless you’re a rich, straight, white dude – it’s all going to fucking suck. Equal rights? Basic human freedoms? Pour yourself a big, cold glass of NOPE.

I love these shows, and I will continue to do so, but I like my personal liberties and freedoms a little bit too much to long for the opportunity to rub shoulders with the characters I adore so much. I can Brylcreem my hair, wear braces, and drink Old Fashioneds until the cows come home – but would I want to go back to the 1960s? Not a chance.

About Roy Ward

When Roy was 7 a girl tied him to a tree and tried to set him on fire. He now lives in Leeds with his boyfriend. These facts may be connected. Vada's Deputy Editor, he loves pop culture in all its forms, plus feminism; drag queens and Nigella Lawson. Find him on Twitter @badlydrawnroy.