The BBC is currently running a series on the history of British post-war popular culture. It is presented by historian and writer, Dominic Sandbrook, and entitled Let Us Entertain You. The second episode (“In With the Old”) was devoted to the story of how popular culture, despite its identification with seemingly rebellious rock musicians and their like, had ironically embraced elements of Britain’s old order. The first case study Sandbrook cited was the country house. After noting how 1960s rock musicians such as Keith Richards, Roger Daltry and George Harrison had by the 1970s moved into their own palatial country houses, Sandbrook turned to the popularity of TV dramas featuring country house themes.
He starts with the arrival scene in Brideshead Revisited as illustrated from the 1981 Granada TV series. He describes Waugh’s novel as a “hymn to the aristocratic past written in 1945 at the very moment the nation was turning to social democracy.” According to Sandbrook, the film series offered a “window into an enchanted palace from which most people had always been shut out.” He is next filmed in the entrance hall at Castle Howard explaining that Granada could not have found a “more magnificent setting” for the film and that almost overnight millions of viewers were converted to “what Waugh himself called the cult of the country house.” He doesn’t mention, however, where Waugh may have used that phrase.
The program proceeds to consider other dramas in this genre, with discussions of Upstairs, Downstairs, Downton Abbey, and To the Manor Born. He concludes with the thought that these dramas go beyond obvious escapism to offer to “an anxious and individualistic society a realistic vision of a paternalistic social hierarchy–a vision of Britain as an extended family in which all have a role and everyone knows his place…” As evidence of this he notes that the popularity of these programs coincided with periods of social unrest and uncertainty such as the miners’ strikes and shortened work week of the 1970s, the recession of the 1980s, and the credit crunch following the market crash of 2008.
Other examples of popular culture embracing the past include the continuing popularity of themes such as the royal family (“the biggest country house drama of all”), the public school, and James Bond. He concludes with a reference to the political satire movement starting in the 1960s which seemed to be a kick against the establishment but, after affording an opportunity for a laugh, ends up by reinforcing the very thing it was kicking against.
This episode aired on 11 November and will be available for streaming on BBC iPlayer for 28 days from that date. A UK internet connection is required.