Why we shouldn’t rely on the ruling class for escapism TV

ruling class tv escapism candid orange

By Nikki Peach

Two of the most popular and highly rated Netflix SERIES since lockdown, Bridgerton and The Crown, have been fixated on the social economy of the ruling class. The former has recently been named the most successful Netflix series of all time. Whether it be our preferred form of mindless escapism – an opportunity to laugh at them, not with them – or not, we can and should divert our attention elsewhere.

Soirées from the sofa

For many of us, to say we watched season four of The Crown to interrogate Margaret Thatcher’s foreign policy would be to tell a lie. I enjoyed the series because of the fictional (I prefer ‘scripted reality’) presentation of the modern royals behind closed doors. What’s Camilla really like? What was that monogrammed bangle about? Why do they eat such bland meals? In a strange and deliberate way, it normalises them and their experiences. Yes, they wipe their arses with Mulberry silk, but they also experience jealousy, longing and loneliness, just like the rest of us.

In many ways, this is the problem. The British royal family are just ordinary people, collectively worth an estimated £72.5 billion, who have convinced the hoi polloi for centuries that they have been appointed by God. History books, literature and a sizeable corner of film and television have documented the trials and tribulations of their lifestyle in every form it could possibly take. 

A 19th Century Frenzy

It’s not just the Windsor-Cambridge-Yorks that we indulge in, it’s high society in general, fact or fiction, from any era that will have us. Bridgerton, a bizarre offering from a 21st century version of the Regency era, was released on Christmas Day and has become the most successful Netflix original series of all time – reaching 82 million households in the first month. I think this must have something to do with the intoxicating fumes of cinnamon and roasted meats that linger among silent relatives in the week between Christmas and New Year. But regardless, it’s objectively ‘a hit’.

Rather than adapting or investing in exciting new stories, we continue to hash out the same old ones; but with Bridgerton there is a crude and clumsy twist. As Ineye Komonibo and Kathleen Newman-Bremang put it in a piece for Refinery29: “Bridgerton’s elevator pitch goes something like this: Gossip Girl meets Downton Abbey or Jane Austen with some Black people”. Ineye Komonibo goes on to say, “I was initially excited to see that there were Black characters in the show, but then I realised that most of them had zero storylines”. It seems as though the ‘colour-blind casting’ may have been motivated by good optics rather than an honest bid to improve the representation of race on TV.

Despite a handful of cast members who are not white, the plot, culture, and historical period that the show is both celebrating and mocking still centres around whiteness, elitism and misogyny. I do not see the benefit of writing people of colour into a story where they have not been given any space beyond acting as a foil; it feels dishonest and tacky. And it’s not just the failed attempt at diverse casting that makes the show a disaster for me, it’s the weak script and unimpressive reliance on dramatising the toxic traditions that we already know about. I simply cannot stand to see another ruffled collar on a vanilla-looking white man who has no respect for women – Mr Darcy or otherwise. Much obliged, next!

Elite History: Part CXVI

Speaking of Jane Austen, at least 17 movies have been made of Pride and Prejudice since 1938, not including sequels. There have also been over 17 documentaries about the life and death of Princess Diana, and filming has just begun on Spencer, yet another drama about the Princess, starring Kristen Stewart. The only reason it’s not called ‘Diana’ is because that name was already taken by the last biopic, made less than 10 years ago. My point is that there are too many untold stories, unexplored ideas, and forgotten periods of history for us to keep drinking from an ancient chalice, expecting it to quench our thirst.

Perhaps there is an allure and mystique surrounding high society, fed by our ever-growing access to the personal lives of celebrities and public figures. Exacerbated by social media and influencer culture, the benchmark for audience entitlement has been set so high that we expect to know the Amazon passwords of our favourite celebrities. It is easy to create a work of fiction about people who are never going to offer their own candid version of events, either because they are royal, because the issues were already addressed in the last Hollywood film, or because they are dead.

Fortunately, this genre of binge-worthy television is not necessarily governing like its subjects, nor is it our only form of escapism. The most-watched lockdown TV show by UK audiences in almost all major cities is Peaky Blinders, based on an urban youth gang in the aftermath of the First World War. This proves an audience demand for ‘period dramas’ outside of the petty politics of the ruling class.

Play your chips elsewhere

It is naïve to think our views are meaningless when our attention is a form of currency. By watching, discussing, and adoring fiction about the landed gentry, we are telling commissioners, producers and directors that this is the entertainment we have an appetite for. Season four of The Crown got more views than Prince Charles and Diana’s actual wedding (probably because of the focus on the heartbreak bestowed upon young Diana’s shoulders), and those figures do not go unnoticed.

While it is in no one’s interest to be fanatical about our lockdown TV choices, the frenzy around the fictionalized domestic affairs of the ruling class, and our incessant resolve to fan the flames of this genre is sending a direct message to Silicon Valley. Perhaps it’s time we realised the power of our choices and rather than saying we want to see more diverse, thought-provoking and important stories on screen, we demand them with our resistance.