My wife and I have been watching what we call British television period pieces. I don't know the official names for their genre. I've seen them referred to as period costume dramas, dramatized period history and historic costume dramas, but we're good calling them period pieces.
"Downton Abbey" is one such, now being shown on PBS. We'd already watched that one through Netflix. Netflix told us, if you like that, maybe you'll like this. Netflix is intermittent about its accuracy so we vet the suggestions through other sources. The other sources are IMDB for television shows to see who is in it, and what else they did, to decide whether we like them. There's a few people, Judi Dench, Alan Rickman, Robsen Green, Michael Kitchens, and Bill Nighy, among a moderate list, that will make us consider the series more deeply. We'll usually give it a go, to see how it is. Can't hurt, can it? Can it hurt? What do you know? Please TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOW.
Other period pieces of sorts we've watched include, from long ago, "Upstairs, Downstairs", "Ballykissangel", "Foyle's War", "Inspector George Gently", and "Little Dorritt". Now we're watching two, sort of in parallel because of the mail and disc availability, "Canford" and "Larkrise to Candleford", while waiting for the next series of "Downton Abby" to be put out on DVD.
There's a couple parallels between "Cranford" and LtC. One is that Julia Sawhala, who played Saffron in "Absolutely Fabulous", is in both series, along with another fine actress, Claudie Blakely. Each series is also based on novel or novella trilogies by female British novelists, the novels were published in the 19th century, and the stories are set in the late 1830s, early 1840s, and focus on the social norms and characters of small English towns.
This was a period of change during English history, of which I don't know much, so as I watch the series, I google to learn more. A few striking difference arise between the two shows. In LtC, the young are being encouraged to learn how to read and write and make more of themselves. The young somewhat resist, not seeing the purpose, and some in the village frown upon this effort to educate the young poor. Two reasons are given: they're accused of being full of themselves, and the uneducated adults point out that they didn't need education, and they did "fine". Fine, of course, is relative, with their point being that they're not starving and don't wear rags.
Over in "Cransford", the children are being discouraged from learning by many. Again, it's a matter of being full of themselves, but it's also a matter of the upper class actively worrying about the poor becoming more empowered and enabled. That prompts me to wonder, which attitude was right -- or were both right? Were these attitudes even so stated in the books at the time, or have the modern writers and producers added these?
The growth and expansion of railroads also fuel speculation in me about how accurate these shows portray history. For among the congruencies of social norms, proper dress, dictim and class, is how the train will impact their little towns. Each face the issue of the train coming to their area, and how it might impact their lives. Each also show divisions among the classes about whether this will be a good thing or bad. Some don't want change. They like their slow-pace existence and their area's charm, and don't want others coming, fearing they will destory it. Others welcome the train as employment, trade and commerce opportunities.
Twentieth century conflicts in America faced the same issues. As the Interstate system emerged and expanded, small towns deplored them because they went around their towns. Towns became exits, losing business because of the faster pace provided the Interstates provided, and because there was less walk in business as people focused on getting from A to B with little thought about what was between. We became destination minded, rather than travel minded.
Likewise, we saw the Malls shift shopping patterns, along with fast foods. American towns often do now have a pattern, with a build-up of gas stations, fast food restaurants, convenience stores and 'tourist traps' out by the Interstate exchanges and exits, and the 'historic downtown' being located several miles away. Taking advantage of Interstate access, more areas added bedroom communities. Malls and outlet stores were added to the Interstate corridors.
Towns were still surviving, though, although with uneven results, which often depended upon what else was located in the area, such as heavy industry, government facilities and military bases, and college campuses, along with how well the area manage to establish itself as a tourist destination. Think Las Vegas, New York, Atlantic City, San Francisco and, well, most of Florida. Modern air conditioning impacted many places. It's often pointed out that without air-conditioning, places like southern Florida, Phoenix Arizona, and many parts of Texas would have never grown as they have.
The latest battle with towns now are about the big box stores, such as Target and Wal-Mart, and how they will impact local economy and culture. Harkening back to the Interstate days, the argument is, America is losing its individual regional flavors to commercially driven homogenization, an argument that you witness being protrayed in England in "Cranford" and "Larkrise to Candleford".
Back to the period pieces, I loved "Foyle's War" and wonder, has anyone ever done such a series about America, a detective procedural based on crimes during World War I or World War II. I think that would be fascinating as it looks at a piece of life on which we haven't given much attention. Likewise, it would be an interesting twist to me see how crime was investigated in the late USSR, aka, the Soviet Union. It had such shutters up to keep prying eyes out, yet it had much the same trappings of change, class and norms that are seen in the British period pieces.
The world is becoming more homogenized, losing some of its flavors. Languages are dying, no longer in use, as televison and industry spreads the gospel of cheap work and modern consumption. It'll be interesting to see what period pieces are being shown in a hundred years, and what the medium will be.
Note: "Cranford" is based on Elizabeth Gaskell's novellas. Flora Thompson's semi-autobiographical novels are the foundation for "Larkrise to Candelford".
Causes Michael Seidel Supports
Kiva, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Propublica.org, Doctors Without Borders, GreaterGood.com