From Downton Abbey to military fetishism: Why British television is in love with its past

Phil Harrison
·9-min read
Television celebrating Britain’s military identity (ITV/BBC/Channel 4)
Television celebrating Britain’s military identity (ITV/BBC/Channel 4)

British TV has an uncanny knack of walking in lockstep with the wider times. Take David Cameron and Downton Abbey in 2010. Cameron was a very Downton Abbey sort of politician. Posh, earnest and insubstantial. There was nothing much to him. To many in his party, he simply seemed the right sort of chap and that was about it; he was a tabula rasa upon which any version of Conservatism could be written. He did his best to appear post-ideological: while his shrinking of the state was of a piece with right-wing doctrine, he gave the impression that his policies were essentially a fait accompli. It had fallen to him – and by extension, the Conservatives and the British upper class as a whole – to fix the mess we’d got ourselves into. To supporters, he was a symbol of continuity and of that most British archetype: the safe pair of hands.

Like Downton Abbey, David Cameron represented the timeless ability of the English aristocracy to bend but not break. As this process was taking place in politics, it was being dramatised in Downton. Like Cameron, Downton felt ersatz; faintly fake. There was a staccato quality to its narrative structure, a cosmetic friction – a problem would arise, seem intractable and then resolve itself, often within a single episode. These incidents (stolen silver, an illicit night of passion) were like stones causing ripples in a pond. A momentary turbulence would occur before the previous structure restored itself.

This is mirrored in the show’s treatment of larger events (the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War). The structure is rocked but absorbs the blow and incorporates the energy. During the Great War, Downton Abbey is opened up to recuperating soldiers. Initially, there’s chaos. Everything seems up for grabs. But eventually, the upheaval becomes beneficial. It adds to the myth; the narrative that the show has established. While at first, it might have seemed that nothing could ever be the same again, soon calm has returned. The potential for change has been neutralised by incorporation. This is why British people love period dramas, particularly during difficult times. They tell us we can rely on our history. If reality looked troubling, perhaps comfort could be found in myths. From 2010, David Cameron was the chief political beneficiary of that hope.

Central to this mythical British identity is war. In early 2019, Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski tweeted that Britain had received nothing from American post-war European reconstruction initiative, the Marshall Plan. Within a few minutes, Twitter users had ascertained that Britain actually received more aid than any other country and set him straight. And yet oddly, Kawczynski was right – just not in quite the way he imagined. Actually, Britain hadn’t been helped to recover from the Second World War. Imagine a psychic Marshall Plan in which humility and self-awareness were the currency. Other European countries did undertake such a cognitive audit. Britain has faced no such reckoning with itself, has engaged in no comparable mental reconstruction. Its myths are unchallenged.

Television celebrating Britain’s military identity has proliferated since 2010. The Spitfire: Britain’s Flying Past, Young Soldiers, Regimental Stories, The Bomb Squad, Our War, Entertaining The Troops, the list goes on. We’ve scrolled through endless minor variations on the theme of military training: from the BBC’s Special Forces Ultimate Hell week to Channel 4’s strikingly similar SAS: Who Dares Wins. Hardly any of this military fetishism is analytical – and that’s the point. This is television about the maintenance of national character.

What happens when television plucks up the courage to enter the void at the heart of this maniacal, khaki-clad boosterism? The two decades since the turn of the century have produced few more prescient dramas than Channel 4’s 2013 Southcliffe. Its creator, Tony Grisoni had previously adapted the first part of David Peace’s Red Riding trilogy – a narrative of closed loops, exploring isolation and the dysfunction that can result. Southcliffe transposed that process to a different English milieu.

The series began with a spree shooting in the fictional town of the title. The actions of the shooter, Stephen Morton (Sean Harris), spoke of an identity crisis writ catastrophically large. Morton was known locally as “The Commander” and presented himself as a former special forces soldier. He turned out to be simply a fantasist; an inadequate man drawn towards people who have lived the experiences he can only imagine. But you can’t pick a new identity in a small town. Reality will catch up with you. This was a drama about failing to outrun the truth.

Yet somehow, Morton’s breakdown and the carnage that ensued wasn’t the most horrific thing about Southcliffe. The stunned aftermath of Morton’s murders felt like a wider, deeper study of English neurosis. The ambience of small-town England was evoked to nightmarish effect. The visual grammar of Southcliffe suggested an anxiety dream. It was dingy, almost perpetually twilit. Cameras lingered uncomfortably on scenes of quotidian mundanity. A car parked on a muddy road. A deserted town square. Cookie-cutter suburban houses squatting under grey skies.

Age of StaticMelville House
Age of StaticMelville House

One masterstroke was Grisoni’s use of the shipping forecast at the bleakest moment, as the shooting began. Somehow, this daily report on coastal weather conditions is embedded in British consciousness. It speaks of the empty early hours and also of our sense of scope, of Britain as an island, hemmed in by storms, self-absorbed and isolated. It can, at certain moments, feel like it’s arrived from the subconscious, as if it’s living within us all. It’s a sad and beautiful abstract national poem; hymning our maritime past; our national sense of loss, our collective nostalgia.

Southcliffe was a town full of nostalgics. It’s a common English condition. But what does our military identity really mean now? The veneration of “Our Boys” has increased in direct proportion to the moral ambiguity of Britain’s military entanglements. That isn’t, of course, the fault of the soldiers themselves. But Southcliffe dramatised what can happen to British warrior identity when it runs out of meaningful places to go. It becomes simply a feeling, in and of itself. Southcliffe addressed the lengths we go to in order to bridge the gulf between the valorisation of military life and the harsh realpolitik of its underpinnings. It dramatises what can happen when these obfuscations become unsustainable and the identity they engender becomes poisonous. In Southcliffe, the shootings expose this dangerous territory.

Rory Kinnear’s character David Whitehead had escaped and become a news reporter in London. As a former local, he’s sent to cover the aftermath of the killings. It’s an acute study in grief but it’s existentially resonant on a national scale too. What emerged was a prophetically discordant meeting of two different Englands; a snapshot of a country that has lost the ability to understand and manage its own myths and internal divisions. Suddenly, Whitehead understood misgivings he’d had all his life. No one would talk because they had nothing to say. This identity was guarded jealously precisely because of its fragility. It wasn’t sturdy enough to bear any weight. Infuriated at the town’s closing of ranks, Whitehead went rogue. “How come ‘good folk’ didn’t put two and two together?” he railed at a pub full of furious locals. “Perhaps, because ‘good folk’ don’t give a shit. You asked for it. I’d have pulled the trigger myself.”

Sean Harris as Stephen Morton in ‘Southcliffe’Channel 4
Sean Harris as Stephen Morton in ‘Southcliffe’Channel 4

This was one of the era’s most convincing depictions of the divide that would, three years later, be politically quantified by the EU referendum. Two incompatible viewpoints meeting, both with grievances, both with certain justifications, neither quite sure who they are or what they’re for. The two sides refuse to listen to each other; perhaps, because neither is quite sure it can handle what the other is going to say. It’s emotional austerity.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, Britain has been unable to resist imposing a wartime narrative. It reached its zenith in BBC1’s series Our Finest Hours, with its Churchillian title and opening sequence in which scenes of heroism from the pandemic were intercut with images of the Blitz. “Now, as we did in World War Two” boomed the voiceover, “we’re uniting in a common endeavour… once again, we can be proud to be British”. There seemed almost no point to Our Finest Hours besides conflating our modern battle against viral matter with previous wars against less faceless adversaries.

Perhaps this offered a hint as to why Britain was so reluctant to involve itself in pan-European schemes for sourcing PPE or ventilators. This was a battle that, for some obscure reason of national psychology, we felt the need to fight alone. It would, after all, be entirely consistent with the recent direction of British politics, British identity and British television. Indeed, this exceptionalism might offer a clue about the underpinnings of Britain’s inadequate response: as Italy suffered at the hands of the virus in early March, the UK carried on with live music and sport. It was possible to discern a certain arrogance; a confidence that it couldn’t happen here. Sadly, coronaviruses seem to have little respect for British pluck.

Britain is in love with its past. But its past isn’t helping anymore. Its past is a myth. Downton Abbey wasn’t an acknowledged literary classic; this country house was a new build. It didn’t explore paradoxes or ask difficult questions. Unlike, say, a Jane Austen adaptation, it didn’t carry the distracting weight of time-earned artistic merit to anchor it. It was as light as a feather and as comfortable as a pillow. It was a simulacrum, not just of an idealised rural community of the early 20th century but of the costume drama itself. This absence of heft told us everything about its role in modern Britain. If David Cameron was our vague, entitled Robert Crawley facing the austerity of 2010, Boris Johnson is now our Covid, cosplay Churchill. Neither are suited to the reality we face. But TV helps us to understand how we ended up with them.

Phil Harrison's book The Age of Static: How TV Explains Modern Britain is out now through Melville House

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