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.

The Press - Your Weekend (The Press) - - Feature -

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.

Time trav­eller Claire strug­gles with her 20th cen­tury mar­riage to Frank in Out­lander. She may be torn be­tween two loves, but the pe­riod ref­er­ences are won­der­fully faith­ful.

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