Inter-war Britain through the lens
Britain in turmoil: high unemployment, nationally owned companies being privatized, strikes threatened in all the major industries, a government that is never quite sure it enjoys the support of the nation. Sound familiar? It should be – at least if you watch Downton Abbey and Peaky Blinders. The current Downton Abbey starts in 1922 and Peaky Blinders is set just after the end of the 1914-18 war. The interwar period provides prime material for dramatists and viewers love the gas-lit cobbled streets, the horse drawn carriages, the born-to-rule masters and their obsequious servants. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not embracing nostalgia. Part of the appeal of these programmes lies in how they spirit us back to a time when things were so much worse than they are today. British society might have been a blissful idyll unspoilt by progressive notions like sex equality or workers’ rights, but mostly, it was a joylessly harsh and merciless place where the spectre of the workhouse was never far away.
Before the First World War, the class structure seemed like a permanent feature of British society. Permanent because the industrial working class expected so little. The rulers who lord over Downtown enjoy their privilege by consent: the working class approved of their masters’ rights and by implication their own lowly position in the natural order of things. By the end of the war, the workers were not so easily placated. Four years of conflict with the loss of 956,703 British lives changed things. Industrial disputes became commonplace and radical politics centred on the emergent Labour Party, which was to form its first government in 1923. When unemployment crept towards the two million level, trades unions called for militancy, building eventually to a nationwide general strike in 1926. In Peaky Blinders, we see communist Freddie Thorne preparing for a revolution that never materialized. His friend Tommy Shelby calls him a fantasist and opts for a practical if deviant way of life in which the rewards are more tangible and immediate. We see him and his gang extorting money from Birmingham publicans, shopkeepers, and bookies, or using their razor-lined caps to slice open enemies’ faces.
Downton is supposed to be only a hundred or so miles north of Brum in Yorkshire, but it could be on a different planet. True, we see the working class again, but this time they are domesticated, waiting hand and foot on the landed gentry, taking orders, no matter how unreasonable, with a smile, bowing and scraping, their role in life to cater for every need of their social and moral superiors. The enchantment of Downton Abbey lies partly in its plausible depiction of Britishness, replete with class distinctions, meticulously observed prejudice and downright snobbery. Looking backwards from the 21st century, these practices seem both elegantly civilized and cruelly archaic.
This was a time when women were renegotiating their social status. For long paralyzed politically, they were awarded voting rights by the legal reforms of 1918, after an often-painful campaign by suffragettes. The extension of franchise reflected changing though not altogether enlightened attitudes towards women. For decades before the War, manliness was synonymous with moral goodness as well as physical health and vestiges of this are apparent in both shows: women are always peripheral to the main narrative and either support, encourage or express their appreciation.
The dramas’ embodiments of gender irruptions take the form of Lady Mary, who unexpectedly and unconventionally decides to play an active role in the running of the Downton estate, and Polly Gray, a Brummie Valkyrie, who masterminds criminal operations for all-men gangs. Birmingham, by the way, never looked so gorgeous on screen, shot through a smoky industrial haze with sprays of furnace sparks decorating its streets like firework displays (compare with Martin Scorsese’s New York in his Gangs of New York).
The 1920s were known in America as the “Jazz Age,” a period characterized by carefree hedonism, wealth, freedom and the kind of exuberance we find in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald and, of course, the movies based on his work, The Great Gatsby being the most famous. There’s no evidence of this at Downton yet, but it promises to arrive over the coming weeks with two new characters: a breezy relative from Scotland and the show’s first black character, who is a jazz musician.
The narratives of both dramas are congruent with both the laissez-faire doctrine of individual action unrestricted by government interference and a conception of masculinity in which the vigorous, physical and pursuit of goals is the ideal. Both chime with the free market ideology. The gangsters of Peaky Blinders are almost character studies in cutthroat capitalism, individualistic, operating privately and driven solely by profit; they are friends of anyone with whom they can do business, regardless of political or any other kind of affiliation. So we see them dealing with the IRA, the British government, other gangsters – anyone who can be used to turn a penny.
If Peaky Blinders is inspired, if not based on reality, it is also ludicrously fantasticated: whenever it threatens to become believable, there is a comically false Brummie accent, a contemporary phrase or an outfit that is so glaringly out-of-place that the drama’s plausibility, weak at best, crumbles. This is a pity because the subject matter and the social context is so promising and the issues seems so fresh. The worst offence of Downton Abbey, apart from the clichéd characters and its social Manichaeism, dividing upper from working class as if Britain still had a strictly two-class structure with no emergent bourgeoisie, is its uninspired inclusion of a comic character in the form of the Dowager Countess of Grantham’s Father, who might, in another script, be a vile, imperious, heartless matriarch who looks down on … well, everyone apart from the upper class. In Downton, she comes across as a basically well meaning, if misguided but deeply implausible figure with a nice way of putting people down.