Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Downton Abbey: an anorak writes...

The portrayal of politics in soap operas is a strange thing!

Older readers who also listen to Radio 4 will remember how Mark Hebden, first husband of Shula Lloyd (née Archer) was elected in the 1980s as an SDP councillor without ever having to put out Focus leaflets or attend meetings. Viewers of Coronation Street with political interests might puzzle over how an inner city ward in Greater Manchester seemed to elect a succession of independent councillors Alf then Audrey Roberts, then Curly Watts) when contests in such an area would certainly have been party political.

Similarly, the depiction of a by-election in Downton Abbey (last Sunday's episode) had a couple of faux pas. In the first place the returning officer is heard to read out the number of votes for a socialist candidate. But it is highly unlikely that either Labour or other socialist organisation would have stood a candidate in rural Yorkshire (the supposed constituency is clearly centred on Ripon) before the first world war. Nearby, Bradford West had a Labour MP from 1906 and the more overtly socialist Social Democratic Party (a different one from the 1980s Alliance days) contested Bradford East in the January 1910 election. But those were industrial constituencies and Labour had not by then reached out into rural England.

Later in the episode, the eldest daughter of the house later proclaims that although she is interested in politics, it is hard to get excited about by-elections when there is a hung parliament. However, no one really regarded the political situation in 1914 as a hung parliament. True, the ruling Liberal party, led by H.H. Asquith, lacked an overall majority. But it could pretty much depend on the support of the Irish parliamentary party and Labour, neither of which would be likely to ally themselves with the Conservatives. And if the term 'hung parliament' had been coined by 1914, it was not widely in use. Searching the online archive of The Times for the period, I can't find a single use of the phrase. More than this, a by-election is likely to be more interesting rather than less so if there is a hung parliament with delicate parliamentary arithmetic, so Lady Mary's dismissal of them is rather odd. Or maybe that bit of dialogue was a subtle way of showing the character's political ignorance.

Possibly I am being rather petty-minded in getting exercised by such things. But if so I am in good company. Consider the following lyric by Nigel Blackwell from Half Man Half Biscuit's song Surging out of convalescence, off their Achtung Bono album:

Darts in soap operas
Oh so wrong oh so wrong
No one scoring and there's
Too much chat between each throw

Worse than this though is when
Cheers are raised up for a bull
Granted, bull's a double and an out
But I know that they don't know
Therefore I propose no soap darts

For my part I propose no politics in soaps or serial dramas.

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