Period movies are a monumental pain in the arse to make. In addition to having to obtain period clothes, props and locations that can be made to LOOK period, you have to worry about “out of time” artifacts appearing in shot – modern cars, cooling towers, TV aerials, vapour trails, digital watches and so on – although nowadays, CGI can come to the rescue in post-.
So why BOTHER? Well, period movies can explore issues in ways that movies set in contemporary times can not. And THAT is what this piece is REALLY about.
“The future is another country”. And so is the past. It’s about so much MORE than just funny clothes, hairstyles and lack of modern technology. It’s about attitudes, language, moral values, the way people related to each other – and the way they LOOKED.
In the movies, these things are generally ignored – or given scant attention – since modern audiences would be unable to RELATE to these differences. Thus period drama usually “simplifies” language, then just gets on with having fun with the period props and costumes.
But in the REAL World, the more subtle changes in humanity are far more interesting – and they happen quicker than most people realize. We all have a laugh at ourselves and others in old photograph albums – those clothes – that HAIR – what were we THINKING? But rarely do we consider the differences that DON’T show up in photos.
Firstly, there are the PHYSICAL differences. Recently, the British Royal Family were pictured next to the Obamas. And the striking thing was that, next to Liz and Phil, Michelle and Barack looked like GIANTS. And this despite the fact that in their day, Phil was considered tall and Liz was no shrimp either.
Of course, it’s generally KNOWN that people are getting taller. If you are young, you’re forever cracking your head on door-frames in old buildings. And if, like this writer, you were considered tall in your youth – you feel like a midget nowadays, when you visit a gym. Who the hell ARE these giants?
But SHAPES change too. Compare pictures of ordinary girls in bathing costumes in various decades – and the changes become apparent. And not just between modern women and Victorian women – between Fifties and Sixties, Sixties and Seventies, Seventies and Eighties, etc. Every TEN YEARS, the shapes change (and one assumes the changes are similar with the chaps, too – but this chronicler mostly just notices the women).
However, less obvious are the social changes. If a man jumped into a time machine and travelled back to the Fifties, he would find he had a tough time getting LAID. This is due to the fact that The Pill was still a decade off – and getting pregnant out of wedlock was DEATH in those days.
But if he then travelled further back to the Forties, thanks to the WAR, he would find things much looser. This is because in those days, women didn’t know whether they would be AROUND long enough to worry about being with child.
Although sex isn’t the HALF of it. People’s worries and concerns change from decade to decade as well. And their whole ATTITUDES. Racism was institutional in days past. And people actually believed politicians were honest and that The System always knew best.
Then there’s language. Those old enough are aware of the ebb and flow of slang, but the way words are used changes too. In fact, returning to period movies, if one actually DID travel back just a few centuries, one would have a hard time just UNDERSTANDING ones’ country-men. Their speech would sound FOREIGN – something the movies are forced to gloss over.
All of which is why it’s TOUGH being OLD. The only CONSTANT through these decadal changes (bet the SpellChecker rejects THAT one) is WE OURSELVES. Most people get to live through seven or eight decades – and find themselves becoming more and more DETACHED from society. “Oh, these young’uns today…”
So the next time you encounter someone considerably younger or older than yourself – make ALLOWANCES for them. They may not have been born far from you, but in reality – they come from ANOTHER COUNTRY.