Keeping it real
A time portal between two husbands, two centuries apart? Sure! Suspending your disbelief is easy when the everyday details are spot on, writes James Belfield.
When the crux of a show’s plot is an ancient stone circle that doubles as a time portal between the 18th and 20th centuries, it might seem strange to focus on reality and historical accuracy.
But compared to the current crop of binge-watch drama dominated by dragons, undead warriors and a host of futuristic, fantasy or sci-fi characters, Outlander’s third season is effectively an authentic documentary on family life and feminism from the 1940s through the 70s, and Scottish nationalism after the 1746 Battle of Culloden – albeit through the eyes and exploits of tartan time-traveller Claire Fraser.
Sure, there’s the familiar sumptuous, lingering sex; lush, vivid production values; and a great deal of marital angst (and why wouldn’t there be when Claire’s torn between two marriages, two centuries apart, and the rugged, ginger handsomeness of rebel fighter Jamie as opposed to the suave bookishness of Harvard professor Frank), but by fastening both eras to a framework of hard-wired history, Outlander’s creators ensure their adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s novels has more depth and empathy than your typical bodice-ripping romance.
Period dramas always run the risk of a backlash against anachronisms and inaccuracy – in Outlander’s case people usually seem to take umbrage at 18th century chunky-knit shawls and dour tartans – but the script revels in its time-related references and nuances.
For example, Claire’s description of the post-war US as “young, eager, constantly looking to the future” might be a nice play on her own character but Frank’s defence of his academia with “Hastings, Magna Carta, the Duke of Marlborough, Tudors, Stuarts, Plantagenets – these are the things I fought a war for” acts as a rallying cry for the show’s writers, who like to pepper scenes with timely signposts such as a headline declaring President Truman’s appointment of Georgia Neese Clark as the first female treasurer in 1949.
Time is Outlander’s great plaything. But by skipping between eras, jumping years even in the same timeline with little fanfare, and nodding sagely to history fans via well-placed temporal signatures and a faithful adherence to fact, it creates a world (magical stone circle aside) the viewer can truly trust. And when you have a firm foundation of reality, then it’s easier to dwell on the characters and relationships – something that’s earned the show a deserved and dedicated army of fans.
Philippa Gregory – whose novels also rely on British history and have been turned into films and series including The White Princess currently screening on Prime – told me once that Game of Thrones was ruining historical dramas because people now expected the Middle Ages to be full of talking wolves and an ice wall somewhere north of Newcastle upon Tyne.
What Outlander proves, though, is that this battle can be fought head-on. Even with a little magic.
Ironically, a genre where fact, truth and accuracy have become pretty murky in recent years is reality television – especially when mixed with celebrity stars. Which is why Nuts & Bolts is such a surprising hit.
Starring rapper Tyler the Creator, and featuring his efforts to invent, design or construct things as varied as stop-motion animation, a new pair of sneakers or a new menu item for breakfast, this could be car-crash television – just watch Snoop Dogg’s appalling Potluck Dinner Party with Martha Stewart if you want to see how wrong rap and reality can be.
But Tyler has a genuine passion as, ahem, a Creator and really knuckles down to his tasks – even getting hold of geniuses such as astrophysicist Neil degrasse Tyson and James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas stop motion director Henry Selick to help with his experiments.
Yes, the rapping can be R-rated but the rapport is genuine and the viewer learns a great deal about the honest and affable Tyler and some of his strangely absorbing creations.
There should be an extra spring in every woman’s step as we head to the polling booths next Saturday, just days after we celebrate 124 years of women’s suffrage on Tuesday. September 19 is not a statutory holiday or anything – the ladies wouldn’t expect that much fuss. Still, of all the things we can be proud of as a nation, being the first self-governing country in the world where women won the universal right to vote is a big one. Not worth a parade or any of that palaver – girls don’t get parades, don’t be crazy. Just think about it quietly to yourself on Tuesday and feel the contentment.
I know girls aren’t good at maths, but my best guess is that next year will mark 125 years of Suffrage. The Ministries for Women and Arts, Culture & Heritage is doing a shout-out for the ladies to have a bit of a think about what they might like to do to mark that. There’s no government funding going into it – just register what you were going to be doing anyway, they suggest, and they’ll stick it on a website.
To critics whining about the absence of investment, the Ministry for Women reminds us that the government did put up some dollars for the 100th year commemoration and it would be profligate, surely, to chuck around more money a mere (hope my adding up is right here) 25 years later.
Not funding “Suffrage 125” is an inspired move, honouring as it does the fact that women have been doing shit for free for their families and communities for decades. The only way the government could have made it more symbolic would have been to announce funding and then subtract 12 per cent from it as a homage to the current wage gap. The icing on the cake would have been to establish a board to oversee it, and make sure there were more people on it called “John” than people who were women, thereby accurately reflecting representation in business.
One of the highlights already planned is an exhibition to celebrate the 21 men who voted in favour of a woman’s right to participate in elections back in 1893. I am beyond thrilled. Men never get enough attention, so it will be great to give them their moment in the spotlight.
My great-grandmother Edith was proud to cast her first vote in the 1914 general election – she had arrived that year from England where women were still fighting hard and giving their lives for that right.
As I write this, my daughter has texted me a photo of her Easy Vote Card with the caption: “Yay!” We vote hard around here. And no worries, we’ll bake ourselves our own cake. important to remember that women’s rights are not just a women’s issue, in the same way that gay rights require the support of straight people (you hear me, Australia?) and indigenous rights are also the responsibility of those who arrived later (yes, Australia, I’m still talking to you).
But why stop there? Why not take the chance for all of us to learn more names than just Kate? Why not remind those aforementioned voters of where their equality came from, and how hard the fight to get it was fought?
I’d like September 19 to be a holiday, and not only because a day off at this time of year would be good. In lieu of that happening, let’s just get together and tell a few stories, raise a glass to the women (and men) that they’re about, and pat ourselves on the back for being ahead of the rest of the world for once in our history.
And if the Government won’t help pay for it, let’s just do it anyway.
Of course, it may not be the same Government by then. We won’t know that for another week, at least. But when we do find out, we should remind ourselves that whoever has been voted in, they are there by the power of more than one gender. That sounds to me like a pretty good reason to celebrate.