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Being Modern: Period dramas


The past is a lucrative country; they do things deliciously there. So runs one of the unsinkable maxims of 21st-century British television. Or at least it seemed unsinkable until ITV's Titanic: finishing tonight, the multi-decked extravaganza's ratings have drowned amid a vortex of so-so reviews and bad seafaring puns. Which might make you wonder: is the period drama set for a fall from grace to rival that of Tess of the d'Urbervilles?

Not on your nelly, we say: and not just because Sunday evenings without ironed newspapers and bumptious scullery maids are as unimaginable to us as Sunday mornings without tepid Irn-Bru and residual guilt. Rather, Titanic is a mere blip in the ravenous national appetite for frou-frou escapism reaching back to time immemorial. Or, say, 1969, a year which saw Woodstock, the first man on the moon, and 18 million viewers sweering at the Victorian bourgeoisie in BBC1's The Forsyte Saga. And by sweering, we mean that facially strenuous, dual act of sneering and swooning that's common to all self-respecting period-drama viewers.

Which isn't to say the genre hasn't continually adapted to modern tastes. In the 1980s, there was the Thatcherite-friendly, unalloyed aristo-adoration of Brideshead Revisited; in the Cool Britannia 1990s, Andrew Davies sexing up Dickens and Austen with wet shirts and anachronism. And in the ironic now, Julian Fellowes throwing aside the literary canon completely and embracing the absurdities of soap opera. So when when mealy-mouthed critics turned on Downton Abbey for turning into Dynasty in its second series, they were both spot-on and entirely missing the point.

Jules aside, meanwhile, the retro times continue to roll, from the 1950s heartstring-tugging of Call the Midwife to the 1960s tumbler-clinking of Mad Men. Oh, and it's noticeable that today's period pieces are edging ever closer towards our own era in servicing the demands of both nostalgia and "relatability". That Britpop melodrama is but a fortysomething commissioner's heartbeat away.