From Dr Finlay to Downton Abbey: a short history of Sunday night nostalgia

Sunday, 4 June 2017

20 July 1969. You sit down at 6 pm and turn on your television set…

No wait, that’s not right. I’ll start again. These details matter. 

20 July 1969. You have to turn on your television set first, then sit down. You’ve had the set a few years, so it takes time for the tube to warm up and for the image to appear on the convex screen. There’s a distinctive smell when you’re close to it—ozone and burning dust. Hang on, you wouldn’t smell that yet, would you? That’s how it will smell when it's been on for a while. You watch BBC1, because it’s what you were watching last night, and nothing short of a ‘DO NOT ADJUST YOUR SET’ card will get you out of your armchair to retune to another channel.

First, you watch a news bulletin with the latest on the Apollo 11 mission, plus the weather. Then there’s a special edition of Songs of Praise from the Chapel of the United States Airforce Base in West Ruislip. The chaplain is from Louisiana and has a sense of humour. He makes a joke about beatniks. Then there’s the programme you’ve been waiting for: a forty-minute special that includes live footage from outer space. You witness a crucial moment in the helter-skelter race to be the first people to reach the future. If you’ve seen 2001 A Space Odyssey in the cinema, then it must seem like fiction is morphing into reality before your very eyes, as the lunar module separates from the command module and heads for the moon.

Then it’s over, and the continuity announcer tells you that it’s time to head for Tannochbrae in the 1920s, and another episode of Dr Finlay’s Casebook (1962-1971).

 

Is anything more unchanging than Sunday night TV? It has always been founded on a bed of ‘sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past’—i.e., nostalgia. Anyone over fifty who watched Dr Finlay that night would have been transported to the pleasant idyll of their childhood or young adulthood, a simpler time that existed before they had responsibilities. And their own children and grandchildren, if they were interested at all, would have been caught up in the exoticism of a time before innovations in communications had spread communities thin.

A decade after the night of the moon landing, which occurred 14 months before I was born, I would have been watching All Creatures Great and Small (BBC 1978-1980, 1987-1990) and dreaming of being a veterinary surgeon in 1930s Yorkshire. I don’t think it was the sight of James Herriot (Christopher Timothy) with his arm shoved shoulder-deep in a cow that persuaded me that this was a good idea, or even the puppies and kittens being treated in the day surgery. I think it had more to do with the strange little motor cars and odd clothes, the beautiful vistas, and the general unharried happiness everyone displayed. This past was definitely a foreign country, and one populated by proper ‘characters’. My favourite was Siegfried Farnon (Robert Hardy), a figure of near-Dickensian absurdity, who delivered every line as though it needed to reach the gods at Drury Lane, regardless of whether he was out on the moors, at the breakfast table, or calling someone on the surgery's candlestick telephone. Imagine being on the receiving end of that?

Nostalgia is always a kind of dream, but it is possible to make distinctions between how different examples of it manage to relate to reality. For instance, although All Creatures Great and Small was undoubtedly escapist, it was at least based fairly closely on the memoirs of a real vet, and took pains to visually recreate the period within the constraints of a BBC budget. Recordings of real news bulletins emerged from the Bakelite wireless sets, and eventually sent the characters off to fight Hitler. By the time the series came to a complete stop in 1990, the story had reached the 1950s, and the characters had aged along with the actors who played them.

Compare that with the ITV series Heartbeat, which began two years later in 1992. Initially, this was also based on a series of memoirs—Nicholas Rhea’s Constable books—but that path was soon abandoned. Most episodes seemed set in every year of the decade at the same time, and the decade lasted for 18 years. By the end, teenagers had unaccountably become 30-somethings without any time appearing to have passed. Nobody batted a single mascara-thickened eyelash. By rights, the village pub should’ve been barring punks and skinheads, not rockers/mods/hippies (delete as applicable to any given episode at any point in its run).  It’s hard to imagine what people who actually remember the 1960s thought of it—unless that old saw is a true saw, and those who can remember them weren’t really there…

But the most powerful brand of Sunday night nostalgia has been supplied by Downton Abbey (ITV 2010-2015). Since it was set beyond the memory of anyone living, we might be within our rights to call it historical drama, like Wolf Hall.  We might then imagine that it was built on the same rigorous regime of research. But let’s not kid ourselves: Downton Abbey is nostalgia, and in detaching itself from both memory and historical fact, it's a particularly pure blend. If anything, it's a memory of other acts of memory—namely, those dramas set in the same era but made forty years earlier, such as Upstairs, Downstairs (ITV 1971-1975; revived with only moderate success by the BBC in 2010) and The Duchess of Duke Street (BBC 1976-1977).

Perhaps if I’d watched Downton Abbey as a prepubescent, I might have revelled in its jolly depiction of an entirely benign feudalism. I know plenty of people who did. There'd been a mild sort of hierarchy at work in All Creatures Great and Small, with the educated professionals positioned above the horny-handed men of the Dales. But the joke was so often on the former—who found themselves socially and sometimes literally (there was a lot of mud on those farms) out of their depths—that I find it difficult not to forgive the fault. Downton does something quite different. In fact, the creator, Julian Fellowes, might have done well if he'd drawn his title from another verse of that Victorian hymn from which James Herriot's series had got its name: 'The rich man in his castle/ The poor man at this gate/ God made them high and lowly/ And ordered their estate.'

Watching the Downton Christmas special became for some years the price I paid for getting to watch the Doctor Who special earlier in the day. I couldn’t argue with the splendour of the costumes and locations, or with performances from the charismatic likes of Hugh Bonneville and Phyllis Logan. But it was all I could do not to shout lines from the Communist Manifesto at all the forelock tugging and aristocratic magnanimity happening on screen. 

The show’s engagement with the passage of time could be unintentionally hilarious, too. My own faulty memory has turned one inelegant bit of dialogue into this: ‘Of course, being a woman, I have very few rights compared to you men, at least until the suffrage movement and the First World War forces a change in women’s roles, which will lead to the vote and the first woman MP…’ I'm half surprised Lord Fellowes (Conservative) didn't carry the thought forward, and suggest the eventual rise of a shopkeeper's daughter to the preeminent role in the land. Too often, the series’ grasp of history was only a little less specious than that of Heartbeat.

Is it wrong of me to be so bothered by all this? Downton Abbey was just a bit of well-mounted entertainment, after all—a curl of poppy smoke to waft us to sleep before the grind of the working week began next morning. But it did and does bother me. It’s hard not to see the country’s current obsession with an invented past as a clear and present danger. That myth of a happy time when rich men in their castles took protective care of the poor men at their gates—a myth that carefully excludes any mention of slum dwellings, infant mortality rates, atrocities committed by the authorities in overseas dominions, the pooling of political power among the most wealthy and best connected—is bloody powerful, and right now it's being played for all it's worth.

 

So, what of 20 July 1969, and my own contribution to this national nostalgia binge? In The Continuity Girl, the hero isn’t keen on TV and leaves after the end of the Apollo 11 special to go to a very happening ‘moon party’. He doesn’t fit in among the crowd there, but eventually another TV set is turned on and he is able to watch Neil Armstrong step onto the moon's surface. If he had stayed at home and watched Dr Finlay, he might also have watched The Black and White Minstrel Show (1958-1978), a work of nostalgia that’s more bizarre than anything on offer today. We misremember the 1960s if we imagine it was without its own strange yearnings for the past.

But the decade’s keynote—the one that politicians struck when they wanted to appeal to as many people as possible—was about innovation and the future. Harold Wilson won the election in 1964 promising to take advantage of technological advances while they were white hot. Three years earlier, Kennedy had promised to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. This was a time when the young—ironically, the baby boomers now seen as a crushing force of reaction—drove popular culture and kept it changing, even if they didn’t entirely exclude Frank Sinatra and Perry Como from the charts. Listen to The Beatles in 1963, 1966, and 1969 and they sound like three different bands from three different eras. The generation gap was stark by the end of the decade, but this was not a time when the young could be ignored. There were too many of them, and they were actively engaged in taking a stand against wars abroad and social inequalities at home.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel the tug of nostalgia while I was writing my novel—a nostalgia, let’s not forget, for my parents’ decade, the time just before I was born. I have tried to mix it up, and to avoid telling those same old lies about consensus and uniformity. And I have done my research. Not quite the reference-card system favoured by Hilary Mantel, but there was a lot of reading nevertheless. I am very aware of when I've stretched the timeline of the specific thing I'm writing about, or have shuffled events to make them fit in with the fictional parts of the story. Being in contact with people who were actually there has forced me to make such decisions carefully.

The other thing I’ve done is add a framing narrative, set in the present day (well, 2014, which presents its own problems). This means I haven't been tempted to apologise for my 1969 characters' lack of prescience about which of their views will be considered beyond the pale in the 21st century. I have been able to present them warts (and velvet jackets, and backcombed hair) and all. I'm trying for a historical novel (see fellow Unbounder Simon Miller's recent blog to see how I may or may not qualify), but let's face it, there's nostalgia in it, too. It's a potent drug, and that early exposure to a 1930s vet with his arm stuck in a cow isn't something I can shrug off easily. 

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