By Pat Stack
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 336

Throw the costumes to the moths

This article is over 15 years, 1 months old
There was a time when the BBC produced some of the finest drama series. Not so now. US channels such as HBO have been leaving them standing.
Issue 336

From this I exclude costume drama, which people still say the BBC does better than anyone else, maybe, but frankly dear readers, who gives a damn?

While watching Mad Men recently it occurred to me just how superior the Americans are. Contrast it with, for instance, Life on Mars, one of the BBC’s critically acclaimed and successful shows which is about to embark on a third series.

I think the basic idea of Life on Mars is a very good one, and as a great fan of John Simm, who played Sam Tyler in the first series, I always made sure I watched it. However, I never felt it fulfilled its potential.

First of all, the attempt to recreate the early 1970s is superficial. Getting actors in the right clothes and making sure a few old songs from the period are played does not in and of itself re-create an era.

Furthermore I have a profound uneasiness about the central theme to the whole show. Essentially it is that “back in the day cops were rough diamonds – some of them exceedingly thick – who bent and broke rules, were mildly corrupt, and the cleverer of them were really good at locking up ‘villains’ even if it required a bit of rough housing to do so”.

By implication today’s cops are bright, university educated, forensic and scientific in their methods, incorruptible, but perhaps a little effete and tied down by rules and regulations.

Given that in the recent G20 protests one man died and a woman appears to have been physically assaulted, it is a somewhat ironic portrayal of modern policing.

That is not to say that there wasn’t an almost open and careless thuggery, racism and sexism to the police back then, but even here Life on Mars ducks the question.

The casual racism that many black people would have felt at the hands of the cops of the time is played down – in fairness this is partly due to the difficult dilemma about the use of racist language. But it is ultimately the result of the fact that because we are meant to like rough and ready Gene Hunt and his less intelligent sidekicks, they can’t be too racist, violent or corrupt.

On the face of it, Mad Men should be a much less successful vehicle for portraying an era. It tells the story of a bunch of privileged Manhattan advertising agents in the early 1960s.

Yet everything about the show drips with a feeling of the early 1960s. Of course the clothes are right, though interestingly they do not opt for the easy route to authenticity via the use of an extended early 1960s soundtrack.

Instead things that were casual and normal at the time are thrown at you in a way that pulls you up sharply. Everyone smokes; people drink and drive with hardly a second thought. There is even a wonderful scene where at the end of a picnic a mother just pulls up her blanket, leaving all the debris behind. This really is a brilliant observational view of the way things were.

Furthermore real historical events provide a crucial backdrop. The election of John F Kennedy, the Cuban missile crisis, space travel, the death of Marilyn Monroe, the black civil rights movement – all get referenced and all make their impact albeit in small ways on the characters.

Furthermore the mores of the time are portrayed brilliantly. One young woman, Peggy Olsen, has risen above the role of secretary – this is viewed as almost freakish. The secretaries clearly see flirting with and titillating their bosses as part of the job description.

The men see extramarital affairs as a male birthright, and you begin to see the first stirrings of resistance to this subordinate role from some of the wives.

A gay man suppresses his sexuality and hides behind his marriage. A mixed race couple are viewed, politely, as weirdos. An unmarried mother is viewed as having caused unspeakable shame.

Yet unlike Life on Mars, Mad Men does not seem to feel the need to cover up the warts of its main characters. They are flawed human beings.

The cynical philandering and ultimately fraudulent Don Draper refuses to hit his children, recalling the abuse he suffered. This is despite the demands of his put-upon wife, who lives within a claustrophobic marriage, within a claustrophobic life, that she is tentatively trying to break free from.

Most of the lead characters are rich, ruthlessly ambitious and ultimately complacent. This is their world – their values unshakeable, their conformity complete.

It is a wonderful portrayal of the US less than a decade away from being torn apart by anti-war protests, student unrest, a militant black movement, and loud and determined women’s and gay movements.

As I say, there is a better class of drama coming out of the US. Time for the BBC to burn those damn costumes!


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