It’s a problem besetting any writer working in a period setting. How far do you go to recreate the past? Only a decade or two has to pass before the past becomes almost unrecognisable. Go a little further back and it becomes almost impossible to render accurately.
This problem is particularly pronounced in film. The TV series ‘Ripper Street’ is excellent but its East End ladies appear to have wandered out of Vogue (compared to the real thing, seen here). Obviously we need to make things palatable for viewers, but equally the past should feel alien.
If, for example, you really want to know how London looked in the so-called ‘Swinging Sixties’, don’t read about it in a book, watch the title sequence of ‘Steptoe & Son’, the saddest and most disturbing sitcom ever written. Beneath the titles and behind the jaunty Ron Grainer music, the misted streets look full of ghosts. Everything was grubby. If you leaned on a fence, you usually had to have your coat dry-cleaned. It was as if the spirits of the war dead had left their residue behind as a reminder for the next generation.
Go further back into the world of Sherlock Holmes and suddenly – particularly in old films – the world is full of brightly lit smoke-free pubs and rumply-tumpty whores in bodices. One of the worst evocations of the past comes from ‘Titanic’, which fussed about getting the napiery and silverware correct while getting all the social elements wrong.