The simple life isn’t a good life

BBC2’s new family-history documentary reminds us that the Downton Abbey era wasn’t a bed of roses.

Amanpreet Kaur Paul

Topics Culture

It would seem that I am not alone in feeling nostalgic for simpler times. A time before the fast-paced technology-driven world of the twenty-first century, when machines did not rule and when human contact with strangers was not uncommon. But as a new history programme shows, it would be wrong simply to see the past as idyllic.

BBC2’s new series, Turn Back Time, focuses on the journey of three families as they are transported back 100 years in British history, then taken through different eras in the twentieth century to experience how family life and society changed. The first episode concentrates on the Edwardian era, when – according to the programme – rigid family values were first introduced.

By exploring family dynamics, both in the past and today, the show highlights important and enduring issues in human nature: differences in material wealth and gender roles, social hierarchy and mobility and family philosophy. One interesting twist in the show is that whatever their current social standing, each family must live according to its ancestral past. The polo-playing ‘privileged’ Meadows family were catapulted to humble, impoverished beginnings while the Taylors were welcomed to a luxurious upper-class home with servants at their beck and call. These two extremes were set against the middle-class Golding family, which concentrated on the upkeep of Edwardian values and appearances. What was most encouraging about the show was its use of real people, making it easy to understand historical circumstances through people you could relate to.

The show concentrated largely on the immense class division and disparity of wealth in early twentieth-century Britain with restricted contact between the classes. The Meadows struggled to earn the money needed to meet their rent while, in stark contrast, the Taylors entertained guests with an eight-course meal. The families all commented on the value of material wealth. A life of opulence didn’t necessarily mean one of purpose. For example, Mr Taylor noted how the initial sense of grandeur of an upper-class life quickly wore off, as he felt increasingly lonely in his role as the father disconnected from family life. By contrast, the Meadows found that although they lived in modest circumstances, there was a sense of shared purpose and togetherness among the family. These are not exactly revolutionary discoveries, however, and something tells me that the experience wouldn’t deter the families from quickly returning to their rat-race lifestyles when they go back to their twenty-first century lives.

To no one’s surprise, the role of women in the Edwardian household was predominantly domestic, except for Mrs Taylor. It may have initially seemed that her being fated to live a wealthy life was fortunate, but it became evident how much the perception of the strong and powerful upper-class woman was illusory. She instead rather felt like a prisoner in her own home. There was little to do, and next to no contact with her children, her only saviour being rides on her bicycle. This mode of transport, which is ubiquitous today but was considered a luxury in Edwardian times, created independence for women at a time when they had limited contact with the world beyond their own household.

As for the children, the Edwardian family philosophy was clear: they were to be seen and not heard. This seemed to be the hardest challenge the twenty-first-century parents faced. Whether it was watching their child work their fingers to the bone in order to contribute to the family’s living or bidding them farewell as they formed relationships with their nanny, the Edwardian era showed no sympathy for the formation of loving bonds between parent and child. As the show progresses, it may be interesting to see at which point in history the more familiar family dynamic developed, where adults began to see children as individuals, respecting their thoughts and insights.

The show gets to grips with the idea that we are conditioned by society. Edwardian society was clearly restrictive as a result of gender, race and class distinction. It may be suggested that Britain has come some way since the 1900s, but, for me, delving into the past can highlight just how far we’ve yet to progress towards the creation of a more integrated and equal social, political and economic structure.

Turn Back Time may not be the most gripping programme on offer, but sometimes it is better to showcase something stripped down, with few special effects other than a corset and top hat. For those interested in British history, nostalgic for the past or simply those who wish they lived in the romanticised era of Downton Abbey, Turn Back Time is worth a watch. Next time, it’s the roaring 1920s and the depressed 1930s. I might revisit – even if it is just for the flapper fashion and feathers.

Amanpreet Kaur Paul is a spiked intern and a graduate of the Young Journalists’ Academy.

David Bowden is away.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


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