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Representations of mental illness in the period dramas of Steven Knight
Ward Dan

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.

in Diagnosing history
Meyer Jessica

This afterword considers the significance of medical history in period dramas in the current context of the COVID-19 global pandemic. It considers the popularity of period drama as a source of entertainment and escapism, examining the extent to which such dramas include medical storylines. It then goes on to explore the significance of particular themes in medical history, such as gender, patient/practitioner power relationships, and patient voice, particularly as they relate to the chapters in this collection. In doing so it demonstrates how such analyses bridge the gap between academic histories of medicine and popular public discourse, furthering effective public communication and dissemination of scholarship. The afterword then goes on to examine the particularities of the small screen as a medium for engaging with the history of medicine, considering the advantages and disadvantages in relation to films and written fiction. It explores the limitations of dramatising or fictionalising the past, particularly as it pertains to histories of health and medicine. Locating this debate in the current pandemic context, it argues that medicine and caregiving in period television dramas root escapist fictional narratives in the embodied reality of lived experience.

in Diagnosing history
The professionalisation of medicine in Poldark
Sadler Barbara

The BBC television series Poldark (2015–2019) is an adaptation of Winston Graham’s novels about a Cornish family that begins as the main character, Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner), returns from the American Revolutionary War. Set between 1783 and 1802, the narrative occurs at a time when the medical profession was beginning to establish itself. The Mammoth Screen production of Poldark is adapted for television by Debbie Horsfield, who combines several medical storylines and physicians into the character of Dr Dwight Enys (Luke Norris).

This chapter begins by outlining the dominant health care practices and beliefs of the time, then considers significant medical stories over the five seasons of Poldark which indicate that Enys is at the vanguard of change in the medical profession of the period. The medical and other issues Enys encounters illustrate the class, gender, and social concerns of the era. He compares favourably with contemporary doctors in his search for medical knowledge, his extensive skills and experience, his good bedside manner, upstanding character, teaching role, and subject specialism. By analysing the storylines, it is apparent that Enys is represented as a metonymic sign for the professionalisation of medicine and the emergence of the consultant.

in Diagnosing history
Fanning Sarah E. and O’Callaghan Claire

Our chapter investigates the notoriously maligned figure Branwell Brontë, the little-known brother of the Brontë sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, as depicted in the BBC’s To Walk Invisible (2016). Written and directed by Sally Wainwright, the series validates the longstanding myth that Branwell was not simply the family failure, but a reprobate bent on wreaking havoc and misery on everything and everyone he touched. For many Brontë fans and scholars, Branwell was little more than a nuisance who left a black mark on the Brontës’ otherwise legendary reputation. In highlighting the domestic turmoil that plagued the Brontës’ lives throughout the 1840s, and shrewdly communicating the devastating impacts his destructive behaviour had on the Brontë household, To Walk Invisible brings into sharp focus Branwell’s ills, addictions, problematic behaviours, and psychological torment. Despite its popular and critical success, one of the more underappreciated features of the series is its strong evocation of the cultural politics of mental health in both the mid-nineteenth century and contemporary society. Victorian physicians’ understanding of Branwell’s symptoms, including substance abuse, behavioural inconsistencies, and emotional outbursts, were apt to be diagnosed under the umbrella of ‘madness’ or ‘insanity’, terms loaded with connotations of moral failings rather than any accepted medical disorder. Our chapter looks at the political ambivalence Wainwright evokes around the Brontë brother. We argue that the implied medicalisation of Branwell’s behaviour generates a long-overdue discussion about the extent to which history has unduly maligned him and the way that the drama’s informed retrospect generates an important debate about Victorian medical narratives more broadly.

in Diagnosing history
Melodramatic and moral readings of gay conversion therapy in A Place to Call Home
Alley-Young Gordon R.

A Place to Call Home is a televised serial family drama set in post-WWII Australia (1950s–1960s) that chronicles the lives of the Bligh family from the fictional rural town of Inverness, New South Wales, Australia. A key storyline of the series is that of eldest son James who has returned from England with his new bride while hiding his homosexuality. James ultimately attempts to change his sexual orientation, also called sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE), at a private clinic. This chapter critically examines the televisual depiction of James’s SOCE through several lenses that draw upon critical scholarship about melodrama and period drama as media genres for depicting LGBTQ+ histories, studies of post-WWII family and society (e.g., the rise of science/medicine as a cure-all for perceived social ills), and postcolonial theories of race and sexuality (e.g., the propagation of the white European heteronormative family). Depictions of James’s SOCE experience are read through historical accounts of individuals who have survived SOCE to address issues of realism and how televisual frames change how we understand SOCE, specifically how the elements of melodrama are used to accentuate affective and psychological aspects of James’s experience to elicit audience empathy/sympathy and thus social acceptance of homosexuality. The chapter considers the impact that the series could have had on Australia’s same-sex marriage debate and plebiscite that were occurring as James’s storyline was playing out on Australian television.

in Diagnosing history
African American physicians in television period dramas
Kevin McQueeney

This chapter looks at American period dramas’ portrayal of Black physicians on five shows: CBS’s M*A*S*H*; BBC America’s Copper; Showtime’s Masters of Sex; Cinemax’s The Knick; and PBS’s Mercy Street. It examines how these shows have depicted African American doctors: whether these characters are historically accurate; whether they are nuanced or stereotypical; and how they have contributed to or helped to challenge entrenched historical myths and misconceptions of Black doctors.

Analysis reveals the characters are largely complex and historically accurate. Through these characters, based on real-life figures, viewers can learn about obstacles that African Americans faced in becoming doctors, including rejection by white peers and patients and everyday racism and violence. The shows also detail the courage that was required to challenge these limitations and hints at their roles as community leaders and activists. However, there are problems with some of the portrayals. The characters follow some of the tropes of the Black professional seen in contemporary medical dramas: the exceptional, brilliant, ambitious individual achieving success through personal dedication and hard work. The characters are all men, reflective of the continued underrepresentation of Black women in television shows. Additionally, the characters are primarily significant individuals in an ensemble, but not the main characters in the shows, who are all white; The Knick is the sole exception. Finally, the roles of Black doctors as leaders in the Black freedom movement is largely absent, and instead, the shows focus primarily on the characters’ singular struggles against oppression.

in Diagnosing history
Abstract only
Medicine in television period drama

This collection examines the representation of medicine and medical practices in period drama on television. It explores the fascination that the genre has with the history of illness and the medical profession, which is apparent in the huge number of shows which have medicine as either their narrative focus or as important subplots. Chapter topics are interdisciplinary in nature and range from the professionalisation of medicine in Poldark to the representation of mental illness in Peaky Blinders. This volume reflects on the ways popular culture has constructed and considered the frailty of the human body, the progress – or otherwise – of science, the intersection of medicine, race, class, and gender, and the provision of public healthcare. These dramas do not only reveal much about how we view our corporeal past, however. All these issues are still pertinent today, and frequently they also function as a commentary on, and often a critique of, the issues surrounding medicine in the present day – in particular debates around public health provision, the politics of reproduction, genetic testing and research, and global pandemics.

The lady physician in the American western
Antonovich Jacqueline D.

Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman became must-see TV for many families in 1990s America. The show featured a woman physician practising medicine in the American West, while simultaneously bringing ‘civility’ to the frontier. Dr. Quinn followed in the footsteps of several novels, plays, TV shows, and films produced throughout the twentieth century that used the figure of the western woman physician to explore shifting sex and gender norms. This chapter examines fictionalised women physicians in three distinct periods. The Progressive Era (1900–1920) explores how feminist writers and silent filmmakers created contrasting depictions of women physicians in the American West. While feminists characterised them as guiding lights of morality and modernity, filmmakers depicted them as comically subverting traditional gender and sexual mores. The second period, mid-century (1950s–1970s), examines women physicians during the heyday of the television western. Amid the Cold War, westerns became a new vehicle for exploring masculinity, violence, and shifting political climates, with women physicians relegated to background characters. Finally, this chapter traces the re-emergence of the western woman physician as a feminist symbol in the closing decades of the twentieth century (1980s–1990s). Following the rise of women’s history, female physicians underwent a reappraisal from both feminist scholars and popular culture, culminating in the television show, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. In emphasising maternalism and progressive politics, the show embodied the goals of first-wave feminism, while also embracing a distinct 1990s multiculturalism that elided the racial politics of actual women physicians in the region at the turn of the century.

in Diagnosing history
Portraying medicine, poverty, and the bubonic plague in La Peste
Ragas José, Palma Patricia, and González-Donoso Guillermo

With a ten-million-euro budget and 400 extras on set, La Peste (The Plague) – a ten-episode TV show produced by Spanish communication conglomerate Movistar and aired in January 2018 – became not only the most ambitious production in Spanish television history but also an overnight sensation among viewers and critics. This chapter examines how La Peste combines historical accuracy and fiction to portray the role of medicine, health agents, and population around a late sixteenth-century epidemic outbreak. Its release coincided with the centennial of the Spanish flu that killed twenty to fifty million people around the globe. In placing the epidemic at the core of the narrative, the show unveils the multiple yet contradictory ways people from various social groups and backgrounds reacted to the pandemic: either to save their own lives, procure a cure for others, or to take advantage of the crisis.

The chapter highlights what makes La Peste a relevant case to study. As part of its marketing campaign, the production team deliberately sought to trespass the screen and insert the narrative into people’s daily lives. This team designed in advance of the TV series an interactive website with digital resources on the history of medicine and historical sites. Furthermore, in the days prior to the launch, several golden rats appeared in the streets of Seville to announce the show. While some viewers expressed their discomfort with the crude scenes depicting poor living conditions, others engaged with the campaign. As a result of this, La Peste constitutes a fascinating example of the possibilities offered by TV shows as vehicles for disseminating historical medical knowledge to a vast audience.

in Diagnosing history
Katherine Byrne

Call the Midwife is one of the BBC’s most popular and most long-running series. It sets out to construct the NHS as part of British heritage, reminding the modern viewer of the importance of free healthcare at a time when it has been under attack by austerity politics. In doing so, however, it has courted controversy, inviting debates about the politics of fertility through contraception and abortion plots which have received mixed reviews from feminists and conservatives alike. In addition, as this chapter will discuss, with its emphasis on the ‘heroic’ natural birth and the courageous ‘labour’ of women, it reflects the position of the midwifery profession in regard to their championing of vaginal delivery (Takeshita, 2017). Birth has long been a much-contested area (Mander and Murphy-Lawless, 2013) and the Royal College of Midwives in Britain has been at the centre of controversy in the last few years concerning the relationship between their anti-intervention position and birth complications and mortality. The show does appear to have done much to redeem a profession that has historically been vilified or side-lined, partly because it is female-dominated, and it reminds the audience of the value and importance of its contribution to society. The problem remains, however, that it is largely unwilling to challenge midwifery’s continuing assertion that natural is best, even if that means long-term physical or emotional implications for mothers who do not manage to – or even wish to – achieve a ‘heroic’ birth.

in Diagnosing history