Back in the 1990’s it was popular to have a programme on the television where the newspapers could describe it as a “bodice ripper”, ie; it was set in the 17th/18th century and involved delicate ladies with heaving bosoms and manly men with white shirts and tight trousers. There was something for both mum and dad to watch essentially. The 2000s saw more popularity with present day action programmes and dramas. Fast forward to the twenty teens and it struck me the other day that there seems to be a lot of television shows and films that are set in the late 19th century at the moment. It made me wonder why it could be and there are a few theories I have mulling around inside my head.
I decided to list a few samples of late 19th century/early 20th century shows and what I found interesting was that shows filmed in the last decade – although well made with clearly a large budget – weren’t given the same treatment as they are today. It seems that these days no matter what the subject matter, from vampires to autopsies, the brutal realism is given to us in spades. For example, take a look at earlier productions such as The Forsyte Saga and Deadwood. Both very good shows in their day, yet now seemingly tinged with melodrama and an “across the board” cleanliness none of us would expect from that era. Could someone living in the Old West really go a whole day without getting a scrap of dirt on them?
This could be down to viewer expectations. As we grow more knowledgeable about the past we know that it didn’t have white teeth, clean streets and tidy clothes. Look at scenes of Deadwood and yes the town is rife with crime, mud and manure but interior shots have clean walls and shining floors. This was simply how set production was done then and it was so that the focus remained on the subject. These days we want more grime, we want to see how they actually lived back then; even the poorest communities. From the rubble strewn streets of the Peaky Blinders to the decaying London pubs in Penny Dreadful and incredibly realistic props of The Knick, we want to see it all.
Maybe it makes us all feel better about ourselves to see how far we’ve come? Maybe we just have a morbid fascination with seeing how the poorest people in recent history had to live and what they went through? Looking at the pictures below, there’s an obvious change in how scenery is used in the programs. It seems that in the past it was made minimal in order to keep out of the way of the actors so that we could focus on them. These days the background is just as important as the foreground and actors as it adds to the ambience and increases tension of a dark, forbidding cellar or revulsion of the sick, homeless and infirm. Contrastingly we are temporarily transported into the homes of the well to do so that we can also enjoy the indulgence and opulence that they took for granted.
But why are they suddenly so popular? Is it indeed because of the reasons above? That we want to see how the poorest people lived and relive it ourselves? To make us feel better about ourselves? To remind ourselves to never get in that situation? To make us feel humble that we’re not in that situation?
Is it because steampunk didn’t catch on yet people still want a taste of the past and, in particular, the Victorian era/late 19th century? Has the interest moved on to Victoriana? Is it just generally the past that we’re obsessed with and the late 19th century is the easiest to reproduce for the television companies? Vikings is also very popular, though Camelot fell flat on it’s face. Camelot was also badly acted, but The Knick is a success even despite having emotionless monotone voiced Clive Owen in prime listing.
In the UK, we’re stuffed up to the eyeballs with Penny Dreadful’s delicious dark tales of murder and gore but we also get Ripper Street, The Frankenstein Chronicles and The Knick. I’ve compiled a short list featuring a selection of programmes and films that have been made recently. Some are for the UK audience and some for the US but there’s no reason in this day and age of Difference Engines and transatlantic transportation why you can’t find a copy wherever you are.
Synopsis: Set in the Five Points neighborhood of New York City in the 1860s, focusing on a rugged young Irish cop who is forced to navigate his unruly and dangerous immigrant neighborhood while interacting with the uptown Manhattan crowd and the black community.
Period: Late 1800s
Released: 2004 – 2006
Synopsis: A show set in the late 1800s, revolving around the characters of Deadwood, South Dakota; a town of deep corruption and crime.
Period: Late 19th century
Released: 2013 – 2014
Synopsis: Dracula arrives in London, posing as an American entrepreneur who maintains that he wants to bring modern science to Victorian society. In reality, he hopes to wreak revenge on the people who ruined his life centuries earlier. There’s only one circumstance that can potentially thwart his plan: Dracula falls hopelessly in love with a woman who seems to be a reincarnation of his dead wife.
The Forsyte Saga
Period: 1870 – 1920s
Released: 2002 – 2003
Synopsis: Chronicles the lives of three generations of the upper-middle-class British family, the Forsytes, from the 1870s to 1920.
Released: 2011 – 2013
Synopsis: 1905. Julio, a young man, arrives at the Grand Hotel, an idyllic place in the middle of the countryside, to investigate the disappearance of his sister. He gets a job as a waiter and comes across the sexy wealthy daughter of the owner. He falls in love with her and starts a dangerous affair while she becomes the only person who will help him to discover the truth about his sister’s disappearance. Find out all the secrets and mysteries hidden in the wonderful Grand Hotel.
Period: 1860s (assumingly the same as the release of the book)
Synopsis: The orphan Pip becomes a gentleman when his life is transformed by a mystery benefactor.
Hatfields & McCoys
Period: After 1865
Synopsis: Dramatization of the bitter blood feud between the two families on the West Virginia/Kentucky border in the years after the Civil War.
Period: Early 20th century
Synopsis: Follow the man behind the magic as he finds fame, engages in espionage, battles spiritualists and encounters the greatest names of the era, from U.S. presidents to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Grigori Rasputin.
Period: Late 1890s
Synopsis: The lives of two childhood best friends, Bill and Epstein, in the late 1890s as they flock to the gold rush capital in the untamed Yukon Territory. This man-versus-nature tale places our heroes in a land full of undiscovered wealth, but ravaged by harsh conditions, unpredictable weather and desperate, dangerous characters including greedy businessmen, seductive courtesans and native tribes witnessing the destruction of their people and land by opportunistic entrepreneurs.
Period: Early 20th century
Released: 2014 –
Synopsis: A look at the professional and personal lives of the staff at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital during the early part of the twentieth century.
Lark Rise to Candleford
Period: 19th century
Released: 2008 – 2011
Synopsis: An adaptation of Flora Thompson’s autobiographical novel “Lark Rise To Candleford”, set in 19 century Oxfordshire, in which a young girl moves to the local market town to begin an apprenticeship as a postmistress.
Released: 2014 –
Synopsis: Explorer Sir Malcolm Murray, American gunslinger Ethan Chandler, scientist Victor Frankenstein and medium Vanessa Ives unite to combat supernatural threats in Victorian London.
Released: 2011 –
Synopsis: The streets of Whitechapel are the haunt of Detective Inspector Edmund Reid and his team of officers, who aim to maintain law and order in a place once terrorized by Jack the Ripper.