Why don’t you ever see people going to the toilet in period dramas? Or avoiding human faeces left in their ornately decorated corridors and expansive, finely-pruned gardens? I admit these are not your average film or TV pundit’s usual criticisms – let alone your average water researcher’s – but they’ve been on my mind of late and I’ll explain why.

Period dramas pop up with disheartening regularity on the schedules of the UK’s major TV channels. The BBC has recently shown us Lark Rise to Candleford, Sense & Sensibility (yet again), Miss Austen Regrets, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Cranford, Jane Eyre, The Tudors, among others. These period dramas often go on to secure praise and awards for accuracy and attention to detail in costume, sets and locations – or for being ‘daring’ new interpretations of classic texts.

Yet they never ‘dare’ so far as to show characters defecating in the open behind tall hedges that historically were deliberately planted in exquisite gardens precisely to obscure this common sight. People are never stepping over pools of urine and faecal matter in streets, courtyards, passageways and corridors. Fine wallpaper and ornamentations are never shown corroding due to halls being in constant contact with human waste. Cesspools never overflow into people’s basements or are emptied into ponds and rivers behind characters because poor people couldn’t afford the increasing costs of emptying them safely. But these are the real conditions of the times (and if you’re really interested in a full, graphic portrayal I’d recommend reading Rose George’s The Big Necessity).

At the best of times I find period dramas a creatively stagnant choice by commissioning editors but it’s this persistent inaccuracy about sanitation and water conditions that remains my real gripe. What’s so wrong with showing that progress has been made that improved how awful sanitation and water used to be? Wouldn’t showing people realistic historical conditions increase the public’s appreciation of modern clean water and safely treated waste? Couldn’t this help to educate people to reduce ever rising levels of water consumption and waste production? Besides isn’t it good to show these conditions to remind people that several billion people worldwide still endure very similar health hazards and indignities from such appalling sanitation and water ‘solutions’? Mightn’t such reminders help re-prioritise global public spending away from wasteful, so-called ‘priorities’ towards the immense public health benefits that are achievable via improved sanitation and water? More to the point, what do directors and producers have to hide by glossing over the real historical conditions? Assuming ignorance is not a factor can they seriously not think of any ways of weaving such long standing, universal, unavoidable and life-threatening human issues into a good drama?

Two interesting explanations on this issue have recently caught my attention. In Who Runs This Place? Anthony Sampson saw that just as the twenty-first century new rich began to live more luxurious (and incidentally less philanthropic) lifestyles it was mirrored by an upsurge in TV and film nostalgia for the Edwardian age of country houses, luxurious voyages and so on. Romanticised period dramas helped to assuage any niggles of social consciousness for the new rich and served to placate the masses’ sensitivity to inequality by offering up unchallenging eye-candy. Jeremy Paxman’s recent TV series The Victorians also revealed a similar agenda. Paxman detailed Victorian painters accurately capturing the horrors of workhouses only to glamorise them to produce far more palatable final versions to be hung on the walls of their delicate, rich clients.

So my question remains, in an age where there is an urgent need to be forthright and realistic about sanitation and water conditions worldwide, just whose interests are being served by this deliberate distortion of water history? My feeling is no one’s but I’ll still not be holding my breath waiting for the first pre-watershed open defecation scene in a period drama…

Update (16/11/2016): Featured image added from this source.

Duncan Thomas

3 comments

  1. As an unashamed lover of period costume dramas (sorry but I grew up devouring Jane Austen, George Elliot et al) I found this a fascinating take on this well loved television and film genre. It definitely raised some interesting questions about how we distort and glamourise the past, how we promote this idea of a ‘golden age’ that really bares no resemblance to the actual truth.

    I remember watching an Almodovar film in my early 20s and being somewhat shocked when one of the female leads went to the toilet during one scene although I think this is now more common in more modern drama. Remember ‘This Life’?

    However, I am afraid to say that I’m not sure that we Austen fans are really ready for Mr Darcy taking a dump on screen just yet!

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