Take A Minute To Reflect

This week, Historica Canada dropped its latest Heritage Minute, featuring Canada’s liberation of the Netherlands at the end of World War II. What makes Heritage Minutes so iconic? Why are they engaging? What works and what doesn’t? And which ones do we like best? We’ve discussed all these questions and more in our latest dialogue post.

By Lilia Lockwood & Serena Ypelaar

LRL: “I can smell burnt toast.” To a generation of Canadians this phrase means one thing. No, not that our breakfast got away from us. It means that Dr. Penfield has made a breakthrough in seizure treatment. It means … Heritage Minutes!!! I’m among those who grew up watching Heritage Minutes, which first hit our TV screens in 1991 (read more about their history here). Each 60-second video presents an aspect of Canadian history, with topics ranging from scientific achievements to wartime efforts to social issues. Before we get too deep I’ve gotta be honest here: I’m a fan. My laptop bag displays a “But I need these baskets back” button, I own the complete collection on DVD, and I donated to Historica’s D-Day minute fundraiser in 2018. So I’m very excited to chat with you about these minutes that are sometimes cheesy, sometimes moving, but always educational.

Screencaps from Heritage Minutes. Photo: Historica Canada

SVY: Agreed! Heritage Minutes offer so much in the way of historical interpretation. Condensing a history into one minute – while providing the context we need to understand the significance – isn’t an easy task. Minutes range from sombre to funny to patriotic, each provoking a different reaction (for better or for worse, as in the 1992 Vikings minute where I could only say “WTF?”). While I don’t boast any cool Heritage Minute buttons (where did you get yours?) I also grew up seeing these spots on TV. I remember which ones stuck with me: I’ve always associated the Laura Secord minute most strongly with Heritage Minutes.

Something about the succinct narrative and memorable imagery of Secord trooping through the mud lodged itself in my memory. Interestingly, the War of 1812 later became one of my focus areas as a history major. Likewise, I often remember the Jacques Cartier minute, as silly as it is, when I reflect on my profound interest in New France history. I wonder if these minutes had anything to do with that – I love accessible storytelling, so “Canadian history in a nutshell” can be pretty effective. Are there any minutes you’d consider “classics” in the sense that you remember them from childhood?

LRL: For sure, those old minutes bring up a lot of nostalgia (that Vikings one might best be described as a … cinematic experience …). One that stayed with me was the Nitro minute, about Chinese labourers’ dangerous work on the Canadian Pacific Railway. It’s memorable for its dramatic explosion, and also because it ended with a grandfather telling his grandchildren about the experience, just the way my grandfather would tell us stories about his life. Suspenseful moments like Laura Secord running her mission and the Chinese workers setting explosives capture our attention. But it’s then the small, relatable details that make the minutes sink in.

Looking back on this Heritage Minute now, though, there’s a different aspect that makes it stand out. It’s one of only a few of the original minutes that presented the histories of ethnic minorities in Canada. Since Historica Canada started making a new series of minutes in 2012, the topics have been far more inclusive, reflecting broader contemporary trends in historical study and interpretation. The Vancouver Asahi and Kensington Market minutes are great examples of this. What are your thoughts on the older vs. the newer minutes?

SVY: I completely agree! Alongside more diverse content, perhaps the most widespread shift is in the newer minutes’ narrative voice. For instance, Heritage Minutes tended to present Indigenous histories from a European settler point of view, as seen in the minute on Sitting Bull. But then you have the Louis Riel minute from 1991, which despite being an earlier minute shares the story of the Métis leader in a much more active voice: Riel tells his own story directly to the viewer. Later, the Heritage Minutes “renaissance” reframed stories, finally tackling the trauma of residential schools in the 2012 Chanie Wenjack minute. Likewise, we see the Battle of Queenston Heights from the perspective of Mohawk warriors Teyoninhokarawen (John Norton) and Ahyonwaeghs (John Brant), though it’s worth noting that only their English names are used in the 2013 minute – the minutes still have a ways to go in terms of moving away from that colonial lens in favour of deepening ethical representation.

Nevertheless, the stylistic narrative developments join modern cinematography to create more polished minutes across the board. We learn about Lucy Maud Montgomery and the Acadian Deportation in a similar way – directly from the perspective of the people involved. Instead of “they did/experienced this”, the storytelling favours “I did/experienced/felt this”. This approach plays on our empathy, and I find it’s a key instrument of memory – I’m more likely to remember something that made me react emotionally (like the Terry Fox, Jim Egan and Winnipeg Falcons minutes). 

LRL: I had similar thoughts about the changing way Indigenous histories are presented in the minutes. It’s worth watching Inukshuk and Kenojuak Ashevak back-to-back to appreciate the difference. The Kenojuak Ashevak minute was also the first to be made in a language other than English and French (Inuktitut), which is an important step in making minutes more accessible for the communities they engage with. Another aspect that creates that emotional connection is for people to see their own stories shared in the minutes as part of a nationwide narrative. I’m happy you brought up the Winnipeg Falcons minute, because it accomplishes exactly that (and is one of my favourites). On the YouTube page for the Falcons video, viewers commented that this minute made them proud of their cultural heritage, whether Icelandic or Western Canadian.

One of the reasons I personally like this minute is the way it ties together so many threads of the Falcons’ story. It doesn’t just show them as the first Olympic ice hockey gold-medal-winning team, but also as members of an immigrant community and veterans of the First World War. The amount that people can learn (and retain) from a one-minute clip shouldn’t be underestimated, when it is done well. Also! This minute highlights one of the fun sides of Heritage Minutes: celebrity cameos! This one is a double-whammy, starring Jared Keeso and narrated by George Stroumboulopoulos. Other minutes feature Colm Feore, Joy Kogawa, Dan Aykroyd, Graham Greene, Adrienne Clarkson, Pierre Houde, Allan Hawco, and – I’m not kidding – Pierce Brosnan. In fact, you may recognize the narrator in the newest heritage minute as well …

SVY: Oh, I’m so glad you mentioned celebrity cameos, because I was trying to think of a way I could weave in the fact that Pierce Brosnan appeared in a heritage minute (as Grey Owl, if you’re wondering). And I am a big fan of Stratford legend Colm Feore, so to see him playing John McCrae is incredible. Including celebrities from Canada and elsewhere provides another great layer of engagement, sparking connections for people (fun fact/brag: I’ve attended a concert in George Stroumboulopoulos’ living room! haha). And as per your hint at the newest minute, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Peter Mansbridge narrates toward the end!

This minute, featuring the liberation of the Netherlands, is near and dear to my heart because I am a Dutch-Canadian. My Opa was ten years old and living in Holland during World War II – he experienced the Nazi occupation firsthand. Just over a decade later, he immigrated to Canada, met my Nana, and they married in 1961. For me, the emotional parallels in this Heritage Minute really highlight how powerful a condensed snapshot can be when it hits just right.

As Lilia pointed out, it’s amazing that the minutes allow us to see ourselves within them; to feel woven into Canadian history and unified by events that shaped our nation, whether they’re tragic like the Halifax Explosion minute, hopeful like the Boat People minute, inspiring like the Richard Pierpoint and Edmonton Grads minutes, or divisive like the Sir John A. Macdonald minute. We see, and hopefully will continue to see, our stories reflected back at us as Historica Canada continues producing Heritage Minutes that reflect the diversity of people that live here.

A Yorkshire Lady of Renown: Celebrating Anne Lister

Anne Lister’s lesbian relationships remained hidden for nearly 150 years after her death, but today the secrets of her life are openly embraced by contemporary audiences.

By Sadie MacDonald

We often describe certain historical figures as being “ahead of their time.” For those whose secrets survive to be acknowledged by modern scholarship, celebrating them can provide a second chance at validation and acceptance. This certainly is the case with Anne Lister.

Lister was born in 1791 to the landowning family of Shibden Hall in Halifax, England. Known as an eccentric figure during her lifetime, today Lister is called “the first modern lesbian.” Throughout her life she had relationships exclusively with women such as Mariana Lawton, Isabella Norcliffe, and Ann Walker. Lister considered herself married to Walker after they took communion together during mass.

This knowledge about Lister almost remained completely obscure.

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Portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner, ca. 1830. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout her adulthood, Lister kept a diary, portions of which were written in a code devised by Lister herself. Nearly sixty years after her death, her relative John Lister cracked the code with the assistance of Arthur Burrell. As Helena Whitbread writes, “What they found was, to them, so disturbing that Burrell thought they ought to burn the journals immediately.” John Lister hid the diaries behind a panel in Shibden Hall, which fell into the hands of the city of Halifax after his death in 1933. Few researchers read the journals over the next several decades, and those who did concealed what the writing revealed about Anne Lister’s sexuality. We can thank scholar Helena Whitbread for making the full extent of the diaries’ lesbian content widely known to the public in 1988.

It’s fortunate that the diaries survived. Through her journals, readers can understand Lister on a deeper level of intimacy. Lister wrote about her relationships with women such as Mariana Lawton, and described how she altered her clothes to be more masculine. Many historians hesitate to ascribe LGBTQ2S identities to historical figures. There is no such debate when it comes to Anne Lister, as her writing is explicitly clear that she had romantic, sexual relationships with women.

For example, Anne frequently writes of sharing a “kiss” with various women. She ascribes sexual meaning to this term, as she once wrote about how she had “A kiss of Tib [Isabella Norcliffe], both last night & this morning… but she cannot give me much pleasure… my heart is M––’s [Mariana Lawton] & I can only feel real pleasure with her.”

Passages such as these, which prove that Lister’s relationships with women were romantic and sexual, were written in code. Lister was aware that she was unusual for her time, and understood that aspects of herself must remain hidden.

Lister’s life certainly is not hidden now. Folk duo O’Hooley & Tidow released a song about her in 2012, and in 2019 the television series Gentleman Jack premiered on HBO. Created by Sally Wainwright and starring Suranne Jones, it focuses on Lister’s life in the 1830s and her relationship with Ann Walker. Check it out if you’re in need of a binge watch these days!

The series makes frequent use of fourth wall breaks, an unusual device to see in a period drama. Anne Lister addresses the audience directly and explains her thoughts, often quoting passages from her diary. She also glances at the audience knowingly in scenes where she is making progress in her relationship with Ann Walker. We as viewers are in on the joke, and her secrets.

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Anne knows we know what’s going on. Photo: thought-i-to-myself.tumblr.com

It’s impossible to know whether Lister would have approved of her inner life being exposed in this way. She wrote in code for a reason, and in Gentleman Jack her words are openly directed at an audience. I like to think of it as though the viewers themselves are acting as her diary. For contemporary audiences, there is no need to hide the truth of Anne Lister’s life anymore.

As Sappho, another historical lesbian, once said, “Someone will remember us I say, even in another time.” Gentleman Jack shows that Anne Lister can finally exist in a time where her true self can be embraced.

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A blue plaque with a rainbow border commemorating Anne Lister. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The Longest and Most Charming Love Letter in Literature

A love letter can be one of the most intimate ways to express love and affection to another. Thankfully for us, some of the greatest writers in English literature also wrote beautiful letters, which often take on new life after the deaths of their writers and recipients.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

In 1928, Virginia Woolf published Orlando, a novel about a poet who lives for centuries and changes from man to woman. The book was inspired by Vita Sackville-West, with whom Virginia had a decades-long romance and later friendship. Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, famously described Orlando as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” The book is really an ode to Vita in all her complexities and contradictions and a testament to the power of language and story to express the most complicated human experiences. Fitting, too, that Nicolson likened Orlando to a love letter, since Vita and Virginia wrote letters to one another from their first encounter in 1922 until Virginia’s death in 1941.

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Vita Sackville-West (left) and Virginia Woolf (right). Photo: Time

In the age of Internet dating, it’s easier than ever to stay connected, but convenience has in some ways come at the expense of creativity. Somewhere along the way, sliding into your crush’s DMs became the primary mode of expressing romantic interest. Love letters, by comparison, seem like a dying art form.

There’s something strangely fascinating about reading another person’s intimate letters, like peering behind a curtain you’re not supposed to. Letters, after all, are meant to be private. Yet, our inclination to uncover the private lives of public figures persists.

Writers like John Keats, Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson, and Woolf, among many others, were all exceptional diarists and letter-writers as well as poets and novelists. It’s a curious thing to read the most intimate writings of our favourite writers—like realizing your professors are human beings who have entire lives outside of the academy. The letters of writers continue to be published posthumously not only because they make for interesting historical documents, but also because they offer insight into the remarkable and mundane inner lives of often exalted figures.

The love letter, in particular, reflects exactly what makes the medium of letters so special. Call me a hopeless romantic, but reading the most intimate expressions of love and desire between two people is kind of swoon-worthy. The power of reading these love letters comes from the medium itself, which is at once private and public, immediate and remote, intimate and mundane, fleeting and permanent.

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Vita and Virginia and dogs! Photo: Charleston

Vita and Virginia wrote letters to each other throughout the entirety of their complex and shifting relationship, and through those letters, we get a glimpse of just how much the two meant to each other, how much impact each left on the other’s life and art. Their letters to each other are a chronicle of human connection, captured across space and time.

In perhaps my favourite love letter of all time, Vita writes to Virginia:

I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it should lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is really just a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.

January 1926

That’s the beauty of a letter: it’s there and then it’s gone. Here, Vita puts her feelings in the starkest of terms: simple, honest, vulnerable. But the “little gap” she talks about is present also in the form of the letter. There is always a gap in what we can know from these missives. We get only a glimpse but are unable to fully grasp all that remains unspoken and what happens between the acts. But that’s also what makes reading these letters such a unique experience: we’re only getting a part of the story. Some of it will be forever unavailable to us. And maybe that’s exactly as it should be.

Mannerisms Maketh Man

Casting choices can define the outcome of historical adaptations. When it comes to issues of appearance and performance, there’s a fine balance in achieving a convincing performance – which factors should be prioritized for authenticity?

By Daniel Rose & Serena Ypelaar

The Mindful Rambler was always going to feature dialogue posts – it was just a matter of time. And now here we are! This article was born halfway into a deep discussion the two of us were having about historical casting choices. Do actors need to look like their historical counterparts to convince an audience, or is it the performance that matters most? We each had some interesting – and mostly opposing – views, and you can read our discussion below. 

SVY: To get straight into our standpoints on this issue, I’ll come right out and say that while performance obviously matters to me, appearance matters just as much, if not more. I’m a very visual learner and I like to be fully absorbed into an adaptation – if an actor doesn’t really look like the person they’re meant to be portraying, I have trouble buying in. It places a bit of a barrier between myself and the film/show. But I know you have a fascinating and absolutely valid perspective on this topic too. 

DR: For the longest time, I shared the belief that actors should physically resemble the historic figures they have been cast to play. This changed with Frank Langella’s fantastic performance as former President Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon (2008). Even though Langella did not particularly look like Nixon, his uncanny portrayal of Nixon’s mannerisms and way of speaking was astonishingly accurate. As a viewer, I felt transported to 1977, with Langella’s performance pulling back the curtain on a person and period that I did not live through. To me, an actor’s ability to convey the intricacies of a figure’s mindset and historical context is just as important as “looking” the part when it comes to selling the viewer on an historic piece.  

Frank Langella (left) as Richard Nixon (right) in Frost/Nixon. Photo: Pinterest

SVY: For sure, I agree that without mannerisms and attention to detail, so much of the person’s essence is lost. I think it’s a fine balance – if an actor doesn’t already look like their subject, makeup is now so sophisticated that a lack of resemblance can be easily remedied. For instance, Christian Bale was transformed completely into Dick Cheney in VICE (2018). Some say heavy prosthetics hamper performance, and the same can be said for screenwriting: if a screenplay does a feeble job of interpreting a real-life person’s temperament, it might not always translate on-screen depending on what the actor has to work with. For instance, I previously wrote about Zac Efron’s uncanny casting as serial killer Ted Bundy; Efron’s performance was excellent but the script was weak. With many variables in historical adaptation and the complexity of human personalities, it’s challenging to get right. But viewing is a passive activity, so it can help when much of the interpretive work is done for me. How do you look past outward appearances when you’re watching things? 

Amy Adams and Christian Bale as Lynne and Dick Cheney in VICE. Photo: Through the Silver Screen

DR: I think you raise some good points – Bale’s transformation in VICE was astonishing, I’ll admit. That said, when I watch a movie about a real-life figure, or even any old period piece, I consider more than just how one character looks. Ideally, the setting and costumes paint a picture (pun intended) of the aesthetic of a time period. By including tiny details such as fashion choices and products that have since been discontinued, films draw on memories and shared experiences on a subconscious level. By creating an environment that “feels” familiar, the viewer is transported into a world that does not reflect the current era. A great example is the film First Man (2018), starring Ryan Gosling. The camera spends a great deal of time showcasing “space age” technology, including analog dials on flat steel machines, alongside more mainstream 1960’s design choices, such as wood panelling and garish wallpaper. I could almost feel some of the costumes through the screen, as actors eschewed polyester blend for scratchy wool and one-hundred percent cotton. I honestly could not tell you if any of the actors resembled the real-life Apollo 11 crew – but I was utterly convinced by how the film framed them. 

Colin Firth (left) and Jared Harris (right) respectively, both as King George VI. Photo: Slate

SVY: That’s worth noting too. Our familiarity with the figure being portrayed will influence our convictions in terms of whether the likeness and portrayal seems authentic. I’ll now bring in an example of a key struggle I face when I’ve seen a lot of pictures and/or constructed an aura of a historical figure in my mind. There have been a couple of portrayals of King George VI lately, in The King’s Speech (2010) and television series The Crown (2016-). Both actors, Colin Firth and Jared Harris respectively, look nothing like the late British monarch. Both conveyed aspects of his character through their performance, but to me their visual appearance separates me from complete absorption in the portrayal because I know irrevocably how Bertie actually looked. Similarly, I’ve delved so far into Jane Austen’s biography and world that seeing Anne Hathaway play her in Becoming Jane (2007) seemed a bit beyond belief. I can definitely still enjoy a production on these occasions, but I just can’t fully embrace the actor as a true embodiment of the figure. Perhaps it’s because I’m a highly visual learner, but something holds me back!

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in Becoming Jane. Photo: Film Affinity

DR: I think we’ve identified some ways in which an actor looking or not looking like an historic figure can either help or hinder an audience member’s engagement with the subject matter. Regarding my stance, I want to echo the sentiments of Chernobyl (2019) stars Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård. Flummoxed that they were cast to play figures they bore no resemblance to, both actors concluded that stripping the focus away from physical similarities allowed director Johan Renck to hire performers whose talents could help construct a portrait of life as it was in the Soviet Union. The success of the series changed my entire perspective, and allowed me to re-evaluate how other historic films draw the viewer into the paradigm on display. All that said, as someone who agreed with you until recently, Serena, I respect your position!

SVY: Same to you, Dan! It’s been fun bandying about, and I can definitely say that while I’m attached to the idea of resemblance, I do agree that poor acting is by no means a satisfactory trade-off for the elusive goal of physical likeness. In terms of historical interpretation, I’m looking forward to seeing what Hollywood does next so we can keep discussing these principles.

You Just Know When a Song is ‘Peaky’

Soundtracks are integral to the overall feel of a television series. The music in BBC’s Peaky Blinders has left such an impression on viewers that it even spawned a music festival earlier this year, demonstrating how stylistic details convey mood in storytelling.

By Serena Ypelaar

Warning: this article contains minor plot details from Seasons 1 to 4 of Peaky Blinders. However, it does not include spoilers from the recently aired Season 5.

“They’re still not playing it,” I grumble as the opening credits take up the screen.

It’s a Sunday night and I’m watching the Season 5 finale of Peaky Blinders with my siblings. In this case, the “it” refers to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ brooding “Red Right Hand”, the theme song for the BBC television show starring Cillian Murphy and Helen McCrory.

An example of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand” in the opening sequence of Peaky Blinders.

It seems my indignation is here to stay, as the show producers seem to have abandoned the use of “Red Right Hand” altogether in the later seasons. In Season 1, I could always depend on the track’s clipped tones to signal my absorption back into early 20th century Birmingham. By Season 3, however, we started getting covers of the song instead of the original. And now in Season 5, we’ve lost the Red Right Hand altogether. It’s become so strongly associated with the show that it feels disorienting not to hear it at the start of each episode, which is a testament to one aspect of Peaky Blinders I can never stop thinking about: the music.

The curation of a soundtrack, especially during montages and in the opening and closing credits of a television show, can drastically transform how a story comes across. Through music we receive guidance on how to feel when watching: the selected songs convey emotion, which in turn sets the tone for a scene. I’m sure I’m biased because my music taste consists primarily of rock music, but I’ve always felt that Peaky Blinders nails it on the music front. Tracks are hard-hitting when they need to be in order to illustrate the gritty underbelly of Birmingham in the 1910s, 20s, and now 30s.

Take this scene, for example, in which Tommy Shelby (played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy) attempts to carry out a murder, set to “Bad Habits” by The Last Shadow Puppets.

It’s almost like someone plugged my Spotify into the show, as so many scenes feature my favourite bands and artists!

Today, an official Peaky Blinders soundtrack is being released, with music spanning the series’ five-season run so far. Musicians such as Queens of the Stone Age, Arctic Monkeys, Royal Blood, Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes, The White Stripes, David Bowie, Radiohead, Anna Calvi, and Black Sabbath have been featured on the show and likewise on the soundtrack. The series balances edgy hard rock with softer, more languid choices to illustrate vulnerability; the result is endearingly human.

“The Peaky Blinders story and the music we use are twins, born at the same time. It would be difficult to imagine most of the pivotal moments without the soundtrack.”

Steven Knight, Creator

In many instances, the music drives the action forward in Peaky Blinders. It’s often used to drown out the rest of the sound, building suspense and capturing the tone of any given scene. The tracks are well-selected as tools of characterization, such as Arthur Shelby’s attack on Luca Changretta’s men in Season 4. Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes’ “Devil Inside of Me” is overpoweringly apt, but we also know Arthur isn’t unilaterally bad – his internal struggles are laid bare with the help of the soundtrack.

Watford-based Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes pound out the showdown between Arthur Shelby and Luca Changretta’s men. Warning: scene contains profanity and violence.

As if that weren’t enough, this past September saw a music festival crop up as another means of hyping the new season: The Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival. A lineup of artists whose music was played in the television series was (flat)capped off with secret special guest Liam Gallagher of Oasis fame (or rather, notoriety). Fans dressed up in their best tweeds and three-piecers to attend the festival in none other than Birmingham.

“You just know when a song is ‘Peaky’. The artists are outsiders. They have resisted the tyranny of the mainstream, shall we say?”

Cillian Murphy

If you’d told me that a television series had enough weight behind it to justify an immersive music festival, I’d never have believed it, but it really did happen, with cast members present. The organizers even hired hundreds of actors to start brawls onsite amidst the live performances of musicians who had one thing in common – being on Peaky Blinders.

John Shelby (Joe Cole), Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) and Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson) are the Peaky Blinders triumvirate (with Polly Gray, not pictured, as their Queen, of course). Photo: Esquire

I’m not sure what this tells us about how people in the United Kingdom and beyond have adopted the Peaky Blinders as part of popular culture today. But I sure am glad that a real-life history has been reanimated and acknowledged with such vigor through artistic interpretation, and aided by a killer soundtrack. Yes, the Peaky Blinders were a real gang, and a terrifying one at that. Yet the television series and its corresponding music has put the story on the radar in a strangely favourable way – by order of the Peaky Blinders.

Those Spooky Victorians

When remembering an era associated with pomp and circumstance, one mustn’t forget that Victorians also had quite a deep-seated interest and fascination with the supernatural, the macabre, and anything mystical.

By Bretton Weir

Fall is officially upon us as we enter into the dawn of October. With Thanksgiving around the corner and then Halloween shortly after that, I, like many, tend to embrace the changing seasons by outfitting myself in the chunkiest of knitted wool sweaters and trading in the iced coffees for chai lattes. And while pumpkin spice everything fills the stores, I still like to take a few moments and appreciate the chilling air that always accompanies the changing of the seasons. 

An illustration of Victorians toying with their supernatural fascinations. Photo: Ranker

In my many years as an enthusiast of history, I have always had a fascination with Victorian sensibilities; and of those sensibilities, their fascinations with the macabre, the mystical, and the superstitious seem to have a particular poignancy this time of year. In the spirit of the season, a look at the supernatural and superstitious side of this era is in order.

Why Were Victorians So Superstitious?

In order to effectively answer this question, I think it is important to look at the context in which Victorians were living. The industrial revolution was booming and this brought on a period of rapid change and enlightenment; however, with all of this change going on, one could argue that there was a push-pull between existing staunch religious ideals and a new insidious curiosity for the truth. This combination, therefore, often resulted in the manifestation of superstitious beliefs as rationale and reasoning behind “unexplained” events.

Queen Victoria in mourning.
Photo: MySendOff

Also, death was a pretty major part of the life of a Victorian and one would be remiss to not mention that this likely had something to do with the sensibilities of the era. In many instances, the obsession with the macabre can be closely related to the Victorian’s treatment of death and the afterlife — post-mortem portrait photography, for instance, or even retaining locks of hair from the deceased were ways in which people could remember and mourn the passing of a loved one. Not to mention the number of post-death rituals that were to follow one’s passing, notably the wearing of black as a sign of mourning, made famously by Queen Victoria herself as she descended into a four decades-long period following the death of Prince Albert in 1861.

The Style of Victorian Spookiness

Victorian superstitions and interest in the macabre provided not only a framework for explanations of the unexplained, but also a certain aesthetic to the era. For instance, if one were to examine some of the popular literature, e.g. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (published 1818) or Bram Stoker’s Dracula (published 1897), key gothic horror elements and tropes plague the narrative and themes of these two iconic novels.

Victorians Embracing the Macabre

A Victorian Seance. Photo: The Victorian Seance

While sadness and loss were the roots of many Victorian rituals, there was also an aspect of entertainment and curiosity, notably through the use of Ouija boards and partaking in Seances as a means to communicate with spirits beyond the grave.

While the accuracy and realness of these affairs is certainly up for debate, the essence of them are perfect zeitgeists into the era’s fascination with and passion toward the supernatural that can very easily transcend through time and beyond.

“Containing the Spread of Misinformation”: “Chernobyl” and Historic Truth

Fresh off the series’ Emmy win for Outstanding Limited Series, we take a look at how HBO’s Chernobyl makes us reconsider how we think about “The Truth”.

By Daniel Rose

Growing up in the shadow of American media has given me a stilted view of Russian and Soviet history.  From the patriotic cheese of “Rocky IV” to the tales of espionage and intrigue in “The Hunt for Red October”, we have been led to believe that Eastern Europe is the homeland of villains who are dastardly at best and incompetent at worst. Today, some people still believe that the fall of the Soviet Union was the inevitable victory of the “good guys” from the West over the “bad guys” from the East, a gross oversimplification that some media is still eager to support. The tenuous relationship that exists between Western depictions of the Soviet Union and the reality of life in Eastern Europe’s communist bloc is what makes HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries so refreshing.    

Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) coordinate cleanup at Chernobyl.
Photo: IndieWire

“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”

Jared Harris as Valery Legasov in “Chernobyl”

Set between April 26, 1986 and April 27, 1987, Chernobyl follows events set in motion immediately following the explosion of reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat (now in modern-day Ukraine). The disaster, which exposed hundreds of thousands of people in Eastern Europe to frightening levels of radiation, is framed in a way that balances the truth of the incident with the portrayal of the explosion in Soviet media. Rather than presenting the subject matter in a fully-realized, academic light, the series only provides viewers with as much information as characters on-screen have access to at any particular moment. When plant engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) remarks that the level of radiation in the aftermath of the explosion, 3.6 roentgen, is “not great, not terrible”, we are not immediately given context as to what roentgen measures (the exposure of x-rays and gamma rays) or what would constitute an alarming measurement. Even the soundtrack, which maintains a constant sense of unease throughout the six-episode miniseries, leaves the viewer in the dark as to when misfortune will appear on-screen.

The narrative structure adopted in Chernobyl mirrors the cultural climate in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. After decades of extreme government censorship of the press, the Soviet Union adopted a policy of openness or “glasnost” as part of a larger restructuring, collectively known as “perestroika”, aimed at maintaining parity with the West. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, however, Soviet media repeatedly under-reported the damage and risk of exposure to radiation, even as Western scientists as far away as Scandinavia reported alarming levels entering the atmosphere. In Chernobyl, viewers are reassured by characters that the situation is under control, contrary to the scenes of fire and destruction on display. It isn’t until later in the series, when expert scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) is introduced, that the scale and impact of damage becomes apparent to the viewer.

What sets Chernobyl apart from other historical dramas is the effort to capture the Soviet Union in this brief moment as accurately as possible. In particular, Chernobyl‘s cinematography does a masterful job at showcasing the cost of the cleanup in contrast to the measured takes of its characters. The portrayal of radiation poisoning turns the viewers’ stomachs, with the camera lingering long enough on victims to evoke sympathy as well as horror. The effort goes beyond the actual series, with the writers collaborating on a podcast that explores each scene in every episode to give viewers insight as to how some events are framed. The filmmakers are open about any inaccuracies in the series, including the fictional character Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a composite of the many scientists who contributed to the cleanup.

Chernobyl is an eerily accurate representation of a long-changed era. The miniseries does a phenomenal job of placing the viewer in the action, equipping those of us who grew up after the fall of the Berlin Wall with the tools to understand why people acted and thought the way they did in 1986. Outside of time travel, Chernobyl is the closest people can get to life in the Soviet Union.