Spectacle of Privilege in The Way We Live Now (2001)

Andrew Higson wrote in the 1980s of the centrality of the “spectacle of privilege” (125) to the English period drama of that time. Through the 90s, this was increasingly evident in BBC serials, heavily foregrounded in Pride and Prejudice (1996) and the like. In P&P what is introduced first is not the set of characters, but the setting: one of opulence, wide open country spaces and a country house of massive proportions. The spectacle of this domain of privilege is the focus of the opening scene of P&P.

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Somewhat similar is the opening of The Way We Live Now, the 2001 Trollope adaptation, also scripted by Andrew Davies. It is not the people of the story who are introduced, but their stuff. The viewer is invited to gorge him or herself on the sights of privilege, before he/she is initiated into the narrative. In this scene, a very large house is being furnished, and we watch as various movables are brought together to create a domain of privilege.

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This is quite standard for the genre at this time. The twist comes when all of this privilege is seen in connection with its owner. This is Augustus Melmotte, and he is introduced at the end of the scene. Before he is seen, he is heard: a voice coming from a carriage gruffly shouts, “Get out!” at two females who come scurrying from said carriage; left inside, we see only a thick cloud of cigar smoke (through the serial, Melmotte is rarely seen without a fat cigar). The camera tracks him from behind as he enters the domain of privilege (i.e. his house, which he has evidently just bought), and on the soundtrack is heard a heavy, bestial breathing, but still we don’t see his face. Finally, having reached the inner parts of the residence, he turns to the camera, briefly disengages his cigar from his mouth, and says in an accent markedly foreign, if unplaceable (it eventually appears he’s either German or Austrian): “Well, let us see what we can do here.”

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A closer look at the serial and Trollope’s source text would be necessary to reach any definite conclusions here, but certainly an important focus for the serial, alongside the obligatory romance between Hetta and Paul, is Melmotte’s attempted journey to the centre of English society, and the importance of the expulsion of this contaminative source. That the rejection of foreign degradation is assumed to be a theme of dramatic urgency for the audience by the makers of TWWLN is I think strongly suggested in the opening and throughout the serial and appears to support Higson’s reading of period adaptations, which can often seem to posit an idealized national identity, a real England belonging to the past but recoverable, at least temporarily in the medium of the period adaptation, in which Melmottian machinations may threaten to penetrate the surface and infect the heart of Englishness, but they are localized threats, and may be adequately counteracted from within the community.

  • Higson, Andrew, “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film”, in Fires were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism (London: Wallflower, 2006), pp. 109-129