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Natalie Haynes: All these TV series set in the 1950s are really contemporary drama


Now that I wear flip-flops in March and scrape the windscreen in August, I have stopped relying on the weather to tell me which season we're in. Instead, I'm using cinema and TV listings. I can tell summer's over, because the men in tights and capes have swooped away from the multiplexes. I'll know Christmas is coming when the vampires hit the big screen (this also works with wizards). And autumn means only one thing: costume drama.

The season of mellow fruitfulness has morphed into one of cosy nostalgia. You might already be watching Parade's End, on the BBC. You can try your damnedest to avoid the Downton Abbey juggernaut that will soon demolish all before it. You can head to the big screen this weekend for a new version of Anna Karenina, or hold off a couple of weeks for Hysteria, a Victorian-era rom-com about the invention of the vibrator.

Even the murders have gone back in time: ITV's The Bletchley Circle, which begins on Thursday, stars Anna Maxwell Martin as a woman whose wartime experiences (listening in to Enigma-coded wireless messages) were vastly more exciting than her post-war life. No wonder she starts solving murders in her spare time.

The autumnal costume-fest is often derided as empty escapism, but I wonder if there's more to it. Costume dramas reflect the era in which they are made, just as much as the era they depict. It's no accident that The Bletchley Circle is set in the 1950s, the same period as the hugely successful Call The Midwife.

Our real lives are full of austerity, of stagnant wages and rising prices, so why wouldn't we find consolation in thinking about the 1950s, where austerity was so much more severe, and came with a ration book? As underemployment afflicts so many, why wouldn't our minds turn to an earlier time which took women out of the home and into the workplace, before running out of money and jobs for them?

TV and film companies finally seem to have stopped adapting Austen, and replaced her with Dickens. That may be simply because we have watched all the versions of Pride and Prejudice or Emma that any society reasonably could. But it's surely also because Dickens seems to speak to our current condition: his interest in urban and rural poverty, and particularly in the morality of money and its lack, just seems more apposite than Austen's more genteel vision of society.

But the past isn't all gloomy. The third series of Downton has ditched the Great War, as the action moves forward to the jollier 1920s. So let's all just hope they stop before the Wall Street Crash.

Hail, the Latin revolution

The Pope is apparently planning a new Papal Latin Academy, to promote study of the not-so-dead language. In spite of my reservations about Vatican Latin (I think Latin was fine before they came up with translations of "photocopy" and "blue jeans"), this is surely another sign that students still want to learn the language of Virgil, Horace and the rest.

While the numbers of British children studying French and German have slumped since 2007, numbers taking Latin and Ancient Greek are up by 7.5 per cent. It hardly matters whether the credit goes to JK Rowling (for all those Latinate mottoes and names), Barbara Bell and Helen Forte (who write and illustrate the Minimus books about a Roman-British mouse), or the phalanx of passionate classicists across the country. Latin has kicked the nails out of its coffin, and that is good news to me.