Stuck in the Past?: The BBC’s Obsession With Period Dramas

Period dramas are somewhat timeless. They’re snapshots of characters confined to certain periods of time sometimes facing issues that affect us today and other issues that are now confined to the annals of history. Period dramas are as popular today when adapted for the screen as they were in book form. That is perhaps why the BBC, in particular, is quite keen to make period dramas repeatedly, including remakes. At the same time, fictional shows that focus on contemporary issues that go beyond a white, heterosexual, cisgender, middle-class, able-bodied caricature seem to be few and far between.

Now, I know what some folks reading this might think: “Jen, the BBC can’t possibly be making that many period dramas?” I did some research period dramas made by the BBC between 1995 and the present day not including anything that is currently in some stage of production. I managed to find 48 period drama films and tv shows that involved the BBC in that time period. Fourteen of them, including Bleak House, Tipping the Velvet and the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, were made and released between 1995 – 2005. Twenty-seven of them, including Call the Midwife, Lark Rise to Candleford and the 2006 version of Jane Eyre, were made and released between 2006 – 2016. Since 2017 there have been six period dramas including a remake of Howard’s End, The Woman in White and Taboo. Three of the 27 productions started between 2006 – 2016 have continued into 2017: Peaky Blinders, Ripper Street and Poldark. That is a whole lot of period dramas! Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre were made twice in that 23-year time frame. Considering how some people criticise period dramas for being very similar to each other in content, it would perhaps behoove some producers at the BBC to explore more original stories set in the modern times looking at issues that affect the population today.

BBC’s Taboo

The demographics of who watches television create an interesting angle on both sides of the argument. The BBC Trust released figures about their viewing demographics in 2017. The average age of BBC One viewers is 61, whilst the average age for BBC Two is 62. Only 66% of 16 – 34-year-olds watch the BBC on television. In contrast, the average age of an ITV viewer is 60, Channel 4’s viewers have the average age of 55, Channel Five viewers have an average age of 58 and the “yoof” oriented E4 have an average viewer age of 42. This all indicates that the baby boomers and Generation X make up the majority of viewers of BBC content. BBC content is only available on the television and through BBC iPlayer, both only available with a TV licence. Considering that a TV licence costs between £150 – £420, BBC content isn’t always accessible for those not within the middle-class. With all these facts in mind, it can be argued that baby boomers and Gen X would rather watch period dramas that provide a sense of nostalgia for “the good old days”, where more civility supposedly existed. As a generally more conservative viewer group than generations that came after them, they may not be as interested in watching issues that affect the younger generations.

There is a more controversial point that is worth exploring. The BBC is publicly funded via TV licence fees set out by the government regardless of who is in power at that time. There is an argument that due to this, the BBC is more biased in favour of the government side than any opposing view. Commissioning dramas that look at the issues facing society today may involve looking at the damage caused by the ruling party, not looking good for the establishment. Period dramas work two-fold: not only does it avoid contemporary issues but it also reinforces a class structure and reverence for the wealthy. The wealthy aren’t depicted as the most flawless folk in these pieces but they are routinely romanticised and made as goals for ideal marriages and ideal lives.

If on the absolute off chance that a BBC decision maker, executive or producer reads this article they may be keen to point out that they do try to appeal to the modern times and younger adult audiences. How? By hiring celebrities from our favourite shows such as Game of Thrones and Doctor Who to appear in them. This in of itself isn’t a totally terrible idea: a well-liked, bankable actor is bound to bring more financial success to a project and get viewers to tune in. The problem with that logic is that ultimately folks aren’t going to sit through a show or film they’re bored by just because their favourite actor is in it unless they’re a die-hard fan. Millennials, in particular, are statistically less well off now than their parents were at their age. They’re not going to fork out up to £420 for a TV licence just to see their favourite celebrity when they already have access to them via much cheaper online streaming services and social media.

Keeley Hawes and Game of Thrones actor Richard Madden star in the hugely successful The Bodyguard

I don’t write these words as someone who is against period dramas. I do enjoy them to the point that I’m subjecting my partner to watching all the ones I own so he can join in on something I enjoy. That doesn’t mean I don’t yearn for change. I don’t want to see another Jane Eyre when four versions have been made in the last 22 years. I don’t want to see another adaptation of Sense and Sensibility when the 1995 film version can’t be beaten. I feel it would greatly benefit the BBC and other broadcasters to start selecting programmes and films that focus on the genuine issues that are facing marginalised and vulnerable groups in the UK today from those who belong to them. A production exploring the lives of disabled folk would be something I’d love to see a group like Bristol’s Stepping Out be a part of. A show exploring LGBTQ+ stories without resorting to tired, cliched tropes produced by those in the community would be a complete joy. A film that highlights the true devastation faced by those who’ve had services taken away since 2010 due to budget cuts a la I, Daniel Blake is something I’d get really excited for. All I’m asking for is original and inclusive programming from one of the greatest broadcasters in the world.