The English. It’s rather an odd title for a western, isn’t it? I suppose it makes some sort of sense, given the BBC is behind it – albeit backed by Amazon’s American money, which this kind of sumptuously produced drama boasting A-list talent (Emily Blunt stars) demands these days.
It’s being promoted hard – and no wonder. Westerns have a decidedly spotty history with audiences, which makes Hollywood very nervous. It wouldn’t do for the national broadcaster to get egg all over its face with this story of “an aristocratic Englishwoman who journeys to the West seeking vengeance for her murdered son”.
It’s called The English, so of course it has to feature an aristocrat. Because this is Downton Abbey land, where everyone’s an aristocrat unless, that is, they spend their lives below the stairs, dutifully suppressing their personalities and humbly accepting their 16-hour (plus) work days wiping the arses of their betters.
Before you pillory me for being a spotty oik with a chip on his shoulder (true), stop and think for a minute. Imagine, if you will, a broadly similar elevator pitch, but trade Blunt for, say, Irish actress Saoirse Ronan.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest making the same drama but calling it The Irish, because the Irish were also prominent in the West during the period in question. But it’s highly unlikely that such a drama would feature an aristocrat. They’re not terribly popular on the Emerald Isle. It might have something to do with the malign role the English landed gentry played in some of the more painful episodes the country has endured.
How about Marion Cotillard in The French, another perfectly legitimate title for such a series, given they were out West, too? Of course, they had the good sense to get rid of their aristocrats.
Only in England do we still seem to give such a tiny, staggeringly privileged and parasitical subset of the population so prominent a place in our national myth that they dominate the stories we tell. Only here are we still expected to pay simpering homage to people who owe their positions to accidents of birth.
Switch across to Apple and find The Essex Serpent, another expensively produced period drama about a highly privileged English woman, which debuted to mixed reviews.
To my mind, the most interesting character in it is – ding, ding, ding – a servant: housekeeper Martha, played by the excellent Hayley Squires.
Martha is a committed socialist who aspires to become a social reformer. As I watched the somewhat underwhelming drama play out, I found myself wondering whether a miniseries focused on Martha might have done better. I also found myself asking why Martha’s stories were only ever told with reference to their orbit around her posh employers.
At least The Essex Serpent gave Martha a subplot. Most of these shows don’t bother. Squires once pointedly, and justifiably, raised the issue of a lack of parts for working-class women when she first shot to prominence as one of the stars of Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning film I, Daniel Blake.
She said: “You’re either playing the girlfriend of a drug dealer, a heroin addict, or a mother who can’t look after her kids.” Good point.
Women’s stories have for years been given too little heft by filmmakers, and the fact that the balance is being redressed is welcome. But why so often is this change only for the privileged?
Had I written this while I was growing up, of course, I’d have been complaining about Upstairs, Downstairs (a Downton Abbey precursor), Brideshead Revisited, and any number of other period pieces about posh blokes and their foibles.
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Why do we spend so much time bowing our metaphorical forelocks to these people while fantasising about their lives? Because we do. I suspect it is at least partly because the job of writing and commissioning these shows and films is still subject to the country’s social apartheid – the English class system – which reserves certain occupations for people from a privileged milieu. It is these people who think that working-class men are all shiftless, layabout drug dealers, and that working-class women are their addict girlfriends (and bad mothers to boot).
The best of it is, these people have now managed to sucker the Americans into sinking millions of dollars into productions that imply that the stories of aristocrats and posh folk from this country are the only ones worth telling.
I’d say the TV and film industry in this country is sorely in need of levelling up – were it not for the fact that the whole idea of levelling up is a con cooked up by a disgraced old Etonian (soon to be former) prime minister.
We, the English, really do need to change our narrative.