It looks bad, I know – I announce with much pomp and circumstance my return to the blogosphere, and then take over a month to produce another post. I can only offer a thousand humble apologies, and explain that first, I was starting a new job, and then I came up against the monopolistic evil of internet provision in London and was cut off for the better part of a month, refusing to shell out for WiFi use in order to disseminate my Marxist-feminist dialectic from the hipster bars of Shoreditch.
The reconnection of my internet did, however, happily coincide with the advent of plenty of material for a new and angry post. This was provided in part by the return to the nation’s screens of the costumed soap opera/SVU mash-up Ripper Street, and in part by a conference on the topic organised as part of Birkbeck’s series of lectures and film showings as counterpart to the Victoriana exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery. I won’t lie – I am as much of an omnibus and crinoline geek as the next Victorian Studies graduate, and can’t help loving the research and creativity that goes into the steampunk genre. ‘Victoriana: The art of revival’ is a gorgeous exhibition and I got childishly excited about dressing up for the neo-Victorian ball in the gallery crypt. Nevertheless, as the (for that evening) consumptive factory worker who authors the Marxism, Desire, Ontology blog pointed out, steampunk, and the entirety of historical fiction as a genre, is inherently reactionary. Like fantasy and science fiction, which offer, through their world-building possibilities, tremendous scope for subversion and breaking down of dominant discourses but practically always end up reinforcing precisely those discourses and presenting them as inevitable and ‘natural’, it thrives on titillation through the depiction of highly problematic ideas and actions without apology or contextualisation, the excuse being a nostalgia for an invented tradition in which political correctness had not yet been invented.
These were the questions I had hoped to hear addressed at the conference on ‘re-writing the Victorians for TV and radio’. Unfortunately, the conclusion that Ripper Street used its historical setting to present itself as educational whilst incorporating cheap thrills appealing to its viewers’ latent brutality, and the acknowledgment of its frankly appalling gender, race and disability politics, were only stated outright at the very end of the afternoon, when time constraints no longer allowed for a fruitful (or even merely satisfyingly angry) discussion. What did emerge from between the lines of the papers and discussion, however, was a point that I think gives us considerably more cause for concern than merely the threat of rubbish television. This was the model referred to as ‘austerity BBC’. The speaker, Dr Benjamin Poore, used this to explain the decline of the golden era of the BBC adaptation of canonical texts as mini-series: the new model, he made clear, was responsible for the format heralded by Lark Rise to Candleford, which used the source text only as a springboard for a long-running soap opera-style programme. Since it requires only one custom-built set (and we find the BBC’s costume drama outfits regularly recycled) and has no fixed number of episodes, series on this model are cheaper to produce and have the potential to generate greater profits – as, for example, through the success of Downton Abbey.
I would argue, however, that there is a more dangerous implication to the workings of this kind of ‘austerity TV’ which is inextricably linked to the reactionary aspects of historical fiction. The third episode in the new series of Ripper Street, nauseatingly entitled ‘Become Man’, confirmed me in this suspicion. Many of the conference-goers pointed out the conspicuous absence of people of ethnic minorities in the first series, and the appearance, out of nowhere, of a substantial Chinese community in the first episode of the second – which promptly proceeded to demonise this community as poisoning the West with its narcotics. A similar argument may be made about the treatment of characters with disabilities in the second episode, which cast these stereotyped characters as completely disconnected from the wider community. In the third episode, a band of hysterical women kidnap the opponent of London’s first female City Councillor. Of course, sensible Councillor Cobden takes resolute distance from these ‘extremists’ whilst playfully embracing the image of herself as a breathily willing object of love and lust; meanwhile, the madam and the women’s ringleader form a mutually abusive and voyeuristically eroticised bond for no reason other than their shared femininity (and implied hysteria). Besides these grating facts, however, it struck me as extremely relevant that these female terrorists were former employees of the Bryant and May Match Factory who were not satisfied by the outcome of the 1888 Matchwomen’s Strike. Following this summer’s Matchwomen’s Festival to commemorate the Strike, and coming in a climate of industrial disputes in a crisis acknowledged to affect women disproportionately, it is impossible not to see this as a deliberate provocation and an undermining of the uniting and unionising of – particularly female – workers.
As I explored in my previous post in the context of modern-day recruitment techniques, the division of the workers along arbitrary lines of gender, race, disability, sexual orientation etc. etc. etc. is a well-worn capitalist tactic to undermine a united fightback. As in the Victorian period with the rise of its propagandist popular press, popular culture is a useful tool to spread these divisions in such a way as to make them seem embedded in ‘human nature’. Because of the reactionary nature of the genre, writers of historical fiction should always make extra efforts to guard against the uncritical adoption of modern-day stereotypes and prejudices in their pseudo-historical setting, but (and how consciously I cannot say with certainty) this brand of ‘austerity TV’ does precisely the opposite by cementing these stereotypes and prejudices – not because it is simply mindless and pretends to be no more, but in a setting that passes itself off as meticulously researched and educational, and thus does worse than excuse these attitudes.