More moustaches and God-bothering needed

09Oct11

God, Downton Abbey’s great, though, isn’t it!? Well-rounded complex characters given the time and space to develop; clever plotting; Dame Maggie being imperious! I tell ya, we never miss it round at Byrne Towers. Though obviously in recorded form, not when it’s being broadcast with those endless ad breaks. Apparently some of the commercials cut into Downton include some sort of continuing story of their own, but I wouldn’t know as they go by in a fast-forward blur. All I know is that they’re advertising something that’s yellow. (Insurance? Lockjaw?)

Anyway, Downton Abbey. Brilliant, or what?

I expect it’s now fashionable in some circles to sneer at it, and at author Julian Fellowes’ egregious snobbery, and at how it depicts a somewhat over-idealised vision of noble nobility and servants who knew their place. Well maybe, but it’s more accurate than not in that it makes a halfway reasonable fist of depicting the attitudes and values both above and below stairs.

But only up to a point.

It’s probably a bit of a spectator sport to spot the inaccuracies and anomalies in it. Maybe there are TV aerials in some shots, or the contrail of a jet airliner in the sky.

Being a historical pedant, I’ve spotted a few. You really don’t want me to go on about the errors regarding WW1 military dress in the latest series. Let’s focus on a couple of other things instead.

1. Moustaches, lack of. In the early 20th century, around 50% of the adult male population of Britain had a ‘tache. Growing one was a manly man-type thing for a man to do. No evidence of this in Downton, or indeed any British-made costume drama set in that period made in the last two decades. The British moustache is now almost extinct whereas beards are merely on the endangered list. There should be whole academic papers on this, but I think it’s that somewhere along the line we started to associate moustaches with people being devious or untrustworthy. More research needed here.

2. Religion, lack of. It’s all well and fine to dress actors in period costume, but if you care about historical accuracy you have to dress them in period mindset as well.

(NB: There is no reason whatsoever why anyone *should* care about historical accuracy; costume drama’s just a bit of fun. Just don’t kid yourself it was “really like that”, is all.)

Period mindset means an overwhelming consensus for conventional Protestant Christian belief and observance. Most people attended church services regularly, almost all professed religious faith and for a very sizeable minority of the population religion was very important indeed, informing their everyday actions. There were also deep and very real divisions between individuals and groups along sectarian lines, the most basic being Anglican vs. Nonconformist. This stuff mattered a great deal to most people until really quite recently.

Costume drama scripts avoid this stuff, and with good reason. Modern audiences can’t relate to religious characters. Many of ’em don’t even understand some of the basics of Christianity.

The erosion of religion in British public life is, as far as most of us would be concerned, a blessed and welcome thing, one of the great unspoken achievements of postwar society. But it wasn’t always like that and if Downton was really striving for accuracy, there’d be a shedload more God-bothering in it. And moustaches.

But there aren’t. But it really doesn’t matter.

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6 Responses to “More moustaches and God-bothering needed”

  1. Those of us who are not God-botherers find it hard to understand why the Victorians were worried about the differences between denominations – it all seems so irrelevant nowadays. Once Sunday shopping came in, it was the death knell of the churches, wasn’t it. We would rather worry about denominations of curtains or cushions.
    I remember Jonathan Ross telling me once that you can talk about (sorry) ‘love juice’ on the television but you aren’t allowed to say there’s no Santa Claus. Also you can’t talk about the Church of England, unless it’s in the context of a mild and fond, anachronistic joke, like the Vicar of Dibley. Bristol, of course, is at the centre of the bid to put the churches back in some kind of driving seat with Gary McFarlane taking his case against Relate to the European Human Rights Court. I don’t know which I dislike more, organised religion or shopping.

  2. 2 Art of the Impossible

    Curious to know, is this Julian Fellowes related to the Earls of Portsmouth, Fellowes and Wallops all?

    If only we were more enlightened nowadays, Barbara. But perhaps you’ve never been to Ulster in the Marching Season? Or Pakistan where Shias, Ahmadis and Sufis regularly get bombed for being the wrong sort of Muslim.

    On the other hand, 19thC disputes between CofE and Non-conformists probably owed more to socio-economic and political divisions than doctrinal ones per se, with Anglicans being notoriously ‘the Tory Party at prayer’ and still stubbornly demanding tithes for their church off the Dissenters – who wickedly went on to become the backbone of the Labour Party.

    Still, at least people aren’t getting killed for wearing / not wearing moustaches.

    Or are they?

  3. 3 Campbell

    I think the moustache era came to an end with the rise of Hitler, A.

    • 4 Art of the Impossible

      And not forgetting Comrade Stalin also. Now that was a real moustache.

  4. I think I read somewhere that up until 1916 not shaving the upper lip was compulsory according to King’s Regulations, mass conscription and gas masks probably put an end to that.

    • Interesting point, Cap’n, though there were still plenty about after WW1. There’s a story that Hitler ended up with his Hitler moustache during the war to make putting his gas mask on easier, but not sure how true it is.


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