Why is it, that when it comes to capturing the past in drama, it often goes spectacularly wrong? In 2010 we had Sam Taylor Wood’s lamentable film Nowhere Boy...
Nowhere Boy 2010.
wildly over art directed. Plus the equally dismal BBC drama about John and Yoko, Lennon Naked with Christopher Eccleston decked out in a ridiculous ill-fitting wig.
"I'm John Lennon. Honest, I really am."
And just last week the BBC aired We’ll take 'Manhattan, a drama centring on the love affair between photographer David Bailey and model Jean Shrimpton.
We’ll take 'Manhattan 2012
It was so bad I burst out laughing in disbelief – I was in bed at the time watching it on my iPad, which catapulted off the duvet.
Mad Men 2007. The grandaddy of the current 60s frenzy
Since the success of the excellent Mad Men, every TV and film executive has been clamouring to jump on the 50’s and 60’s bandwagon. As in BBCs The Hour last year…
The Hour 2011. Imagined BBC studio life in 1956, featuring a telephone not introduced until 1959. It's the little things that really count.
The real thing. The BBC in the 50s with the correct telephone.
Out come the black horn rimmed glasses, pipes, shift style dresses, Dansette record players, overly immaculate vintage cars and trucks, along with a scattering of period magazines, conspicuously displayed in shot. I wonder if any of the directors of these efforts ever bother to talk ‘in depth’ to people who lived through the period they are trying to evoke? Only the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy got near a 60s feel.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 2011
But even that featured the most bizarre sound proofed portacabin affairs placed in the middle of the spy headquarters. They were far more suited to the set of Doctor Who.
The original Tinker Tailor Solider Spy 1979 BBC series with Alec Guinness
In 2009, An Education was passable with its 60s look...
An Education 2009, with the ubiquitous Dansette to set the 60s scene
and Anton Corbijn’s 2007 film Control was an extremely good rendition of mid 70s mood, but opted
for a more 60s Dick Lester, Hard Days Night cinematic quality rather than the more appropriate grainy pushed coloured film stock of the 70s.
Hard Days Night 1964
We also have the current TV series Call the Midwife featuring the cleanest 1950s East End slums I have ever seen.
Call the Midwife 2012. The cosy myth...
I recently went to see Mike Leigh’s new play Grief at the National and, although it only had one static set, it manage to utterly capture the sprit of the late 50’s middle class…
Just as he did so wonderfully in the working class world of Vera Drake…
It is directors of a certain age and experience, like Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Alan Parker, Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick and Terrence Davies who tend to get things right when it come to evoking a period.
A refreshing exception was the 2-part dramatisation of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong a stunningly realised evocation of the First World. Made possible by the perfect sets designed by Grant Montgomery, beautiful cinematography by Julian Court and costumes design by Charlotte Walter. Plus the sterling work of the many make up artists involved. But I feel it would have been even better if they had shot it on film rather than HD. The dancing grain of film just adds the magic and takes away that 21st century hyper pristine clarity. Capturing the past is a combination of period detail, casting - especially the extras, who often stand out for being so wrong. Costumes, make up, the overall look of the period - often everything is far too clean and shiny. And the voices and language, overlooked by many directors. It's rare to to see a film where all of those things in sync.
We seem to be drifting deeper into a world of nostalgia. The Oscar nominated The Artist (a perfect example of getting it right) is testament to this along with a myriad of period TV dramas.
When things are depressing in the present, we seem to take solace in the past. It seems more comforting somehow.