‘After I left England, they thought I was mad. But they taught me to use it – now it’s a gift’
Representations of mental illness in the period dramas of Steven Knight
in Diagnosing history
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One of the central functions of period drama as a genre is not only to represent and mythologise the past, but also to draw parallels between significant cultural issues past and present. Open dialogues about mental illness are increasingly prominent in the contemporary public sphere, but it was not always thus: those suffering from such maladies were routinely marginalised, excluded from civil society, and in some cases confined physically to primitive mental asylums such as the infamous Bedlam. In this chapter, I analyse the period dramas of Steven Knight, whose work is immersed in the dark underbelly of British history. Employing a framework that places significant emphasis on evolving discourses – both social and scientific – surrounding mental illness and its treatment, I seek to understand the real history informing Knight’s narratives, and how these representations resonate in the present day. Focusing specifically on the BBC series Peaky Blinders and Taboo, the essay examines discourses around PTSD, institutionalisation, hereditary mental disorders, and the cultural constitution of ‘madness’, and analyses how Knight’s characterisations help to demystify popular perception of the concept, in historical and contemporary terms.

Diagnosing history

Medicine in television period drama


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