Hugh Pearman: Post modern Victorian

The 1970s and all that belongs to them are old hat, while Victorian objects and ideas are definitely in

Time reversed itself as the old year turned to the new. It’s mostly the fault of television, and partly the fault of the National Lottery, but the essence of the phenomenon is this: Victorian ideas now seem brand new, whereas the 1970s are ancient history. This may seem to contradict my argument on this page a month ago about the triumph of Modernism, but hear me out. I have a nuanced position on this.

This is slightly more complex than the old truth that the recent past is the most past of all. On that basis, as scores of fashion designers demonstrate, it should be the 1980s, or the early 1990s, that are recycled. However, what I want to talk about is George Smiley.

It was a touch of brilliance by the BBC to re-run its late-1970s John Le Carré spy classic, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, as an antidote to the enforced jollity of Christmas and New Year. We wallowed in all those wonderfully ridiculous character names, such as Toby Esterhase, Ricky Tarr, Jim Prideaux, Percy Alleline. And Alec Guinness as Smiley in pursuit of the Mole in the Circus was even better than I remembered. He was a one-man masterclass in under-acting, capable of expressing great and compressed emotion in the simple gesture of removing his glasses, wiping them and putting them back on, along with his basilisk stare.

Smiley with his conservative, undertaker-like garb was timeless. His younger colleagues, in contrast, were ever so slightly influenced by the wide-lapel fashion of the early to mid-1970s. They were throwbacks, even at the time of first release, which was in the punk era, after all. That, as I recall, was the point. This was old England, even then. Hence the elegiac closing score, Geoffrey Burgon’s heart-tugging Nunc Dimittis, over a scene of Oxford where the spymasters were recruited. I discovered that Burgon’s car of choice is a Bristol. Enough said.

I’m not exactly sure whether the series was meant to be set in the (then) present day or the (then) recent past. It scarcely matters, and anyway there were all those flashbacks to confuse things. One surprise was the image quality, which had degraded hugely. It was so poor and coarse-grained, the colours so faded, it might have been 60 years old. That helped to give the drama even more of a period feel. But not nearly as much as the incidentals. When the series hit its fictive present moment, it was a world of Morris Marinas and Rover 2000s, of giant reel-to-reel tape recorders, big plumbed-in telephones, dark blue police cars, and a surprising number of black-and-white televisions. There were tall milk bottles, recognisably Victorian in origin. And at one point a red London bus drove into view, clearly sporting an advertisement along its flank: Shop at the Design Centre. I almost burst into tears. I myself once shopped at the Design Centre. The very idea is now absurd. Half of you reading this won’t know what it was anyway.

So that was Smiley. The Cold War might as well have been the Blitz. And then, I returned to the British Museum to take a closer look at the immaculate National Lottery-funded restoration of the Victorian colour scheme in the entrance hall. It’s only paint, but what paint! That and the equally restored Albert Memorial and the Foreign Office now all look brand spanking new. Contrast that with even the best 1970s buildings, most of which are tired and flaky. To drive home the point, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s engineering ideas, as presented at the Design Museum by Nicholas Grimshaw, are made to look fresher than the computer-generated schemes of today. When Brunel failed, he failed with more style.

To cap it all, the BBC screened programmes about the Victorian era, in which was a documentary of Queen Victoria at her Jubilee. There she was, in what looked like the same carriage used for royal events today. Dumpy, sour-faced, she looked oddly contemporary. The movie proved that the triumph of Victorian technology was absolute: Victorian historicism was merely a cloak for extreme Modernism. No wonder all the hi-tech exponents worship the Crystal Palace. No wonder social housing has reverted to the 1880s funding patterns. No wonder colour schemes previously held to be tasteless are making a comeback.

Thankfully, we no longer rule a quarter of the world and we don’t have the killer smogs and rampant cholera of Victorian England. Then again, perhaps we’d best not compare the railway timetables for January 2001 with those for January 1901.

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