Culture Film & TV

‘Of Substance’ or ‘In Spirit’?

Without fail the winter months bring us the same things: the cold, the dark, and the period drama. This seasonal TV programming correlation is not unsurprising; at what other time of the year do we spend quite so much of our lives indoors? Other than Christmas lights and basic necessities there is not a lot to inspire the enthusiasm needed for venturing outdoors. The idea of a drink in front the TV is somewhat more enticing. To save us from the monotony of impending bleakness the likes of the BBC, ITV, and Netflix fill our screens with drama. Their offerings never fail to occupy a space in the hearts and minds of their viewers, whether deliberate or otherwise. We have been crushed by the death of Downton Abbey’s Sybil, shocked by Ross’ assault of Elizabeth in Poldark, and less intentionally appalled by the fish skills of Josh O’Connor’s Prince Charles. 

In recent years, the things a programme gets wrong are often dwelt upon far more than the things they get right. People can pick apart the inaccuracy of costumes in Belgravia, or the authenticity of accents in Peaky Blinders but still enjoy the shows for their creative and fictitious merits. But the minute the essence of truth is proposed all bets are off and criticism forms an open season on creative licensing. The problem faced is that people have a hard time with the dramatization of the truth; viewers have enough of an issue with the adaptation of the ‘truth’ of a book into a film or TV programme. Take Game of Thrones or the Harry Potter franchise an example – both are enjoyable entities in and of themselves, both represent the sentiment of their source material; neither will satisfy those seeking a perfect representation. It is in this that we find the crux of the matter; those looking for substance will never be appeased by provision of spirit. 

The most pertinent culprit of this use of the truth as a guideline rather than gospel is Peter Morgan’s The Crown. With the release of season 4, The Crown comes closer and closer to the present day, and therefore similarly closer to the real-life people it depicts. Viewers judge more that which they remember or personally experienced, and the closer events come to the present day, the harsher the backlash programmes receive when they get it wrong.  Peter Morgan and The Crown’s cast have always staunchly held that while the show is inspired by reality and draws upon its spirit, it has never pretended to portray the truth. What we are watching is an outsider’s version of real events; events that have been edited, adorned and dramatized. The same principle applies to novels; Charles Ryder’s view of the aristocracy in Brideshead Revisited, for example, is not an accurate one – Evelyn Waugh dramatizes their class for interest and enjoyment. Theatre has its own examples, such as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton which sidelines historically weighted events in favour of depicting Alexander Hamilton’s private life. It seems that if we wanted the truth we could watch a documentary.

But people do not just want the truth. The truth is boring, the truth is known. People want to be privy to the conversations that go on behind closed doors. To know about the dirty little secrets that are shared when the cameras are off. To read – or watch, to be more accurate – between the lines of love affairs that we can only dream of occurring in reality. In effect, people want to watch the humanity of error, scandal, and honesty that a documentary cannot and will not provide. Yes, we must often sacrifice fact for this quasi-truth but is this not a worthy trade if what we gain is infinitely more valuable? By removing the substance of the truth and instead instilling spirit, the period drama is able to use and abuse, protect and attack its subjects. Fundamentally, it is able to entertain. Do people want to see a stately Queen Victoria doting upon her husband, or do they want to see Victoria’s Jenna Coleman flirt with Rufus Sewell? For most people, the latter will win this war of preference and it is thanks to this that we may excuse the period drama of its crimes. On a cold winter’s evening, I would rather be balling my eyes out as a character is killed or sitting with my mouth open in shock as someone else is resurrected, than falling asleep on the sofa as another voiceover explains the Windsor family tree. 

Katharine Spurrier

Beyond her degree, Katharine enjoys reading both social commentary and culture reviews. This provision of both high and low insights helps to inform the articles she has written for The Oxford Blue which range from pop-culture, to literature, to food, and even dipping into sports on occasion. In her free time you will frequently find her with a cup of tea and a book, or walking her dogs.