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Edwardians In Colour review: 2 stars out of 5

Last night – during a lull in domestic proceedings that coincided with my early evening gin & tonic and a dearth of anything remotely watchable on the box, I managed to negotiate my cable television complexities and thereby play for myself the first episode of a Channel 5 documentary series entitled Edwardian Britain In Colour that I had ‘recorded’ a few days previously.

For all the undoubted welcome novelty of beholding ‘coloured’ authentic film footage of the era 1901 to 1914 – this series is a poor-relation imitation of last year’s brilliant but very expensive Peter Jackson-produced They Shall Not Grow Old collaborative project with the Imperial War Museum – rightly or wrongly I found it a deeply disappointing experience for one specific reason.

In contrast to They Shall Not Grow Old, which perhaps understandably for the most part because of its WW1 subject matter not only let the majesty of the painstakingly restored and enhanced images speak for themselves but restricted its commentary to ‘neutral’ explanatory comments, the producers of Edwardian Britain in Colour had opted instead to go down the route of hiring a range of social historians and personalities  – together members of a North-West community group interested in the era – as ‘talking heads’ to explain and comment upon the footage in question.

And therein – for me – lay the primary problem.

[There was another, technical, issue which also detracted from the overall effect. This first episode had access to a relatively limited amount of footage: as a result, each extract of a minute or so’s duration had to be replayed again and again as each of the contributors said their piece. After a while this aspect of the hour-long programme had become first boring and then irritating.]

As has been mentioned previously ad nauseam on this website, the fashionable politically-correct and ‘rentacrowd’ liberal-left activist campaigning that both characterises and bedevils 21st Century Britain never fails to view the past through the prism of the present.

We have seen it in the constant ‘positive action’ moves to advance the cause of every disadvantaged minority by giving it equal – some might say overbearing – prominence in comparison to everybody else on every subject that takes its place upon the political and social agenda.

Some would no doubt see this as no more than a justifiable, proper and long overdue realignment of the nation’s priorities.

Others might see it as a sign of Big Brother, Nanny State propaganda-driven intended social engineering, an indulgent luxury afforded only to those who are lucky enough to live in the civilised and wealthy modern Western world when – de facto everywhere else – human life, like everything else, is not only “nasty, brutish and short” but a constant struggle.

To get to my point.

The episode of Edwardian Britain In Colour that I watched last night did make reference to the fact that during the Edwardian era Britain was the wealthiest country in the world, possessed of an Empire of 450 million souls and stood as a veritable powerhouse of global manufacturing industry, powered by its hundreds of coal mines and cotton mills in the North-west of England.

But from thereon in, the footage of Edwardians standing around and/or fooling for the camera, or going about their business, or at work, or emerging from their factories, or even promenading along Blackpool Pier at their leisure was used as a backdrop for a broadside of polemical bile directed at everyone but the poor, downtrodden, rickets-suffering, overworked, underpaid and unappreciated working class.

I kid you not.

If this programme was to be believed the position of Britain in the world in 1910 was entirely achieved by the efforts and on the backs of the oppressed masses. The coal miners risking their lives in filthy and dangerous conditions to provide the energy by which the mine owners made their vast profits and the mill owners were able to make their fortunes from the raw cotton brought from every corner of the world.

The working class were deliberately underpaid and their kids left school aged about thirteen in order to work in factories and provide the family with additional incomes. Their life chances – except to work in low paid jobs – were nil. Particular those of women.

Or so the argument ran, at least.

Nothing much, if anything, was said about the sheer scale of Britain’s achievement to that point in time.

Nothing about the ingenuity, inventiveness, seamanship, administrative brilliance, adventurous spirit, determination, hard work, diplomacy, financial acumen, quality of its military forces, integrity and sheer inner strength of the nation and all those others who might have contributed something to the cause.

No – according to the lefty liberal academics given free air time in this programme – everything was down to the working class, who gained scant reward whilst all those in the middle, entrepreneurial and landed classes kept the profits to themselves and strolled about in luxury a la Downtown Abbey.

The irony of the piece was that in much of the footage our supposedly ‘downtrodden ordinary Edwardian folk’ looked not a hundred miles away from their later counterparts in the 1950s, 1970s or even 1990s.

They were wearing Edwardian clothes, of course, but they looked relatively happy, cheerful, healthy, cheeky and full of energy. The narrative the viewer was getting was of twelve hour working days, six day working weeks, poor diets and drudge, drudge, drudge.

But, as my own limited experience of researching Edwardian times testifies, even the most privileged of young men in those days worked six and a half (twelve-hour) days per week and still had time to study in the evenings and play sport on Saturday afternoons.

Only in those days they (and their working class equivalents, of course) found and/or developed their enthusiasms, hobbies, obsessions and enjoyments – and managed to pursue  them as avidly in their time as any of today’s ‘snowflake’ Millennials, floundering in the “#MeToo” era, follow theirs by spending six hours per day staring blankly at their smartphones whilst locked permanently in their bedrooms – without complaining about it all and/or resorting to social services support networks, counsellors, government hand-outs, ‘special needs’ assistance or other PC-driven paraphernalia.

They just ‘got in with it’ – because in those days you did.

About Henry Elkins

A keen researcher of family ancestors, Henry will be reporting on the centenary of World War One. More Posts