We’ve been here once before, Ladies and Gentlesirs: yea, and verily so. But a spate of reading historical fiction lately, the lightning wrap-up of Poldark on BBC and the forthcoming ice-cream headache that is the Downton Abbey movie have caused me to ruminate on the differences between historical novels, which tend to plod along quite nicely for a thousand pages, and historical TV dramas, which after about one and a half episodes of character-settling soft focus, tend to hurtle along like a steam engine which just discovered rocket fuel.
So without further ado, here is the latest instalment in the blog series which was once said by nobody at all to be ‘like a wolf in stereotype’s clothing’.
It’s dusk. Light is failing, like the health of an urchin with a persistent cough. Shadows lurk in corners, on walls, and on the jawlines of swarthy young swains in ragged trousers; still, there is suspiciously enough light to conduct the glow of the comeliest maidens and the swashbuckliest gents. A creak sounds. It might be a door, a floorboard, or the last rattle of a dying patriarch with a posthumous fortune which would tear apart the morals of the most sanctimonious clergyman.
You peer into the gloom. Suddenly, nineteen more candles which are somehow deemed unnoticeable to anybody watching cast a dancing beam onto the faces of HISTORICAL TV DRAMA GENTLEMAN and HISTORICAL TV DRAMA LADY.
HTVD Gentleman: Hello? Hello? Who goes there?
You: [looking up from your phone] What? It’s me. I’m not going anywhere.
HTVD Gentleman: Speak, Sir, and state your business! We have just come from the most terrible carriage accident, in which we both almost lost our blessed lives.
You: Would you ever give over? I live here, remember? I’m your landlord. I rented the room to you a year ago?
HTVD Lady: But a twelvemonth.
HTVD Gentleman: ‘Tis true. ‘Tis important to get the dialogue most rightly. The cadence of speech, and the bloom of ye olden days dialecticals.
You: But it’s fine to leave 20th century props lying around the place and have the place lit up like a Christmas tree by only two candles and a clearly fake fire in the hearth? You guys are a continuity nightmare.
HTVD Lady: Oooh, my stars!
HTVD Gentleman: My dear! Whatever is the matter?
HTVD Lady: I’ve suddenly come over most peculiar.
HTVD Gentleman: Fetch the smelling salts!
You: I don’t have any. I don’t think anyone ever had that many smelling salts to hand, truth be told.
HTVD Lady: [Draping herself, with the help of HTVD Gentleman, over a conveniently located settle] ‘Tis like the turn I had yesterday, my Lord.
HTVD Gentleman: God’s bones! When you saw that villain from your past, the one who stole your father’s fortune and threw you, your mother and sisters onto the mercy of your beastly cousin, who promptly schemed to marry you, only for me to save you at the last moment and simultaneously discover that you were in fact a missing Russian princess who had been forced to murder your father’s assassin?
HTVD Lady: The very one, yes.
You: Sorry, but is this not an awful lot of info dumping, even for you?
HTVD Gentleman: Prithee, Sir! We have three more pages of backstory to race through before we may get to the glorious setpiece that is the strangely long swordplay scene with my lady’s beastly cousin!
HTVD Lady: And you are rather delaying things.
You: What? I only said one line!
HTVD Lady: But even one line can slow the action to a crawl! This scene was supposed to end two minutes ago.
You: But that would have been only twelve seconds after it started!
HTVD Gentleman: Precisely! Your dilly-dallying has cost us the setup for two whole plotlines!
HTVD Lady: [weeping prettily] And I had been so eagerly anticipating the story of the poor-but-happy farmhand rescuing the lonely rich heir who got trapped by rioting peasants…
HTVD Gentleman: Let alone the agonising setpiece of the vicious old grande dame who begets her comeuppance through the strangely modern socialist views of her newest housemaid.
You: Stop! We’ve already had enough plot for an entire series in the last half hour alone. I’m exhausted.
HTVD Gentleman: PLOT!! PLOT!! THERE MUST BE MORE PLOT!!
You: But this is intolerable, don’t you see? We don’t even know who you are! How can we care about you if you haven’t fleshed out your character?
HTVD Lady: I beg your pardon? How dare you! We simply cannot conceive of such a thing. We are historical TV drama characters! We exist only for the plot!
You: I’m not sure that’s actually how it works. Actually.
HTVD Gentleman: Well, I’d love to stay gasbagging all day, but I have four plot devices to cram into my next two lines, and I can’t see a damned thing by this candlelight.
[A pantomime servant with an unnecessary twitch whom you’ve never seen before arrives and hands a piece of period-inappropriate Egyptian parchment to HTVD Gentleman.]
You: Why are we getting post delivered to the door at eight P.M.?
HTVD Gentleman: Oh, my stars!
HTVD LADY: Oh, my Lord!
HTVD Lady: Pray tell, whatever does it say?
HTVD Gentleman: [white-faced] It’s my extensive business interest in something vaguely to do with ships. Something terrible has happened. We must immediately to London in the morning!
You: But that’s five days from here by carriage!
HTVD Lady: Not for us, it isn’t.
[Morning. Carriage rolls over London cobblestones.]
You: Oh, for Christ’s sake. I blame Julian Fellowes for this nonsense. I’m off to watch something about cops.