One of the safest bets in drama is to create a setting from the recent past. This allows the writers to pretend to be social historians, while the viewers get to sit and be nostalgic, remembering events through their own particular lens. Some of these dramas make greater claims to being a slice of history than others. Call the Midwife, for example, is highly praised for its ability to reflect the time it is set, showing both the joys of a previous Britain whilst also reminding us of its prejudices and dangers.

Others are fluffier. A good example of this is Brief Encounters. There was a lot of talk about this being the tale of the sexual revolution of the early 80’s through Ann Summers parties. And this era is ripe to tell stories for lots of reasons- Thatcherism biting down (setting the series in Sheffield makes this all the easier), the petty prejudices of the time, the fact so much is familiar yet alien. People still go to working men’s clubs and smoke indoors, for instance, whilst the vast majority of teas seem to be meat, gravy, potato, and some other random and uninspiring veg. Oh, and sexy women are all prostitutes.

This is clearly meant to be a show driven by its female cast. Dawn, the larger-than-life and sexually voracious young girl; Steph, the put-upon mum who acts like she exchanged her personality for a wedding ring; Nita, the rock hard but permanently impoverished mum of an ever-expanding brood; all headed up by Pauline, she of a secret past all so clumsily hinted at but never revealed.

Yet, bar Dawn, everything feels slightly 2-d about them all. Steph is still a void in many respects, no matter what role she takes on. She still seems a little frozen, even though she has a sexy policeman and a closet lesbian after her. With all these people throwing themselves at her, you thought she would know how to crack a smile, but we are still seeing her doing ‘startled bunny’ for now.

The other downside of this is that the male half of the cast are underwritten, which is as big a crime as underwriting women in male-dominated dramas. We have the bullying dad of Dawn and her lazy brothers, Nita’s criminally stupid husband, the loving but oblivious husband of Pauline and Steph’s possessive yet feckless husband. All cavemen bar policeman Johnny, who seems so lovely, sweet and (most shockingly compared to the others) intelligent that there must be something wrong with him somewhere. I predict either secret wife or being corrupt.

Of course, all of this is par for the course in a drama like this. It has ‘safe to watch’ written all over it. Don’t think about the plot, don’t try to puzzle anything out, let the writers flash up in big letters the next plot development for you. Not that this is a bad thing in some respects, it will have its audience. I just can’t help feeling there are more interesting stories to tell. This is Call the Midwife or This is England for those who like their social history served up tidily. But history isn’t tidy, and nor should dramas that are mining it.

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