Television costume drama Downton Abbey, which returns for its second series next week, was a big hit last autumn, drawing 12.8m viewers for the climax to its first run. It was ITV’s biggest success in the genre since Brideshead Revisited in 1981. Unlike Brideshead, Downton Abbey is a contemporary series by a successful living writer, not a dramatisation of a classic book, and as such is a barometer of Britain’s attitude to history, heritage and, perhaps, nostalgia.
Britain is in the grip of heritage mania again – not since the 1980s has fascination with the lives and ways of our ancestors been so intense. In 1980, the National Trust recruited its millionth member and, the following year, Laura Ashley launched her first home furnishings catalogue, enabling people to recreate their own slice of country house living. In 1983, the UK government created English Heritage, a body charged with opening 400 historic sites and protecting hundreds of thousands of others. On the big screen there was Chariots of Fire (1981) and a series of successful films made by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. In 1988, Margaret Thatcher appointed Quinlan Terry, the classicising architect, to remodel the interiors of 10 Downing Street to make them more like an 18th-century country house.
In 1992, John Major created a new department of state, the Department of National Heritage, as a way of organising the government’s cultural responsibilities more efficiently and celebrating them more publicly. For Major, history was important but his vision of England was more romantic than Thatcher’s.
In a speech on St George’s day 1993, Major spoke of his image of England: “The long shadows falling across the county ground, the warm beer, the invincible green suburbs, dog lovers ... old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist.” By 1993 this was far from many people’s experience of England: few old maids would have felt safe cycling anywhere, especially in the mist.
Tony Blair, unlike his two immediate predecessors, was not interested in history let alone heritage. One of his key aides, Peter Mandelson, speaking at the launch of the Dome, centrepiece of the country’s millennium celebrations, articulated the ambition of the Labour government in this respect. He said: “The shift we need to make is from defining ourselves by our past to defining ourselves by our future.” This is exactly what the Dome set out to do with its single-minded concentration on the future and little mention of Britain’s history. In fact, part of the essence of New Labour was a rejection of the national obsession with aged aristocrats, country houses and, of course, fox hunting, which the government went on to outlaw.
Yet, in some ways, it could be argued that this was not only a political fad, it was part of a zeitgeist, for the huge interest in heritage from the late 1970s to the early 1990s had markedly declined by 1997, when Labour came to power. As the millennium neared, there was a forward-looking feeling in Britain: we threw out our chintz, replaced our chandeliers with recessed spots and worried about the millennium bug. Laura Ashley, the standard bearer of homely heritage-based Englishness, nearly went under and from 1997 the number of visitors to heritage sites fell sharply, hitting its lowest point for a decade in 2001.
In fairness there were other factors that contributed to this decline, particularly the restrictions following an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001 that led to large parts of the countryside being closed, driving tourists away. At the same time, the rise of budget airlines made it cheaper to fly to Malaga than to catch a train to Penzance. As a result, 1997 was a high-water mark for the heritage industry. After a steep decline in visits to heritage sites, numbers stagnated until 2008.
In the wake of the economic crisis, things have markedly changed and heritage and history have returned with a vengeance. In 2009, visitor attractions rose 10.9 per cent over the previous year. National Trust attendances were up 16.2 per cent and English Heritage saw a 13 per cent increase, with membership of the two organisations also booming. On a like-for-like basis, the National Trust has nearly 4m members and English Heritage just over 1m.
So it seems that just as the downturn of the 1980s fired an interest in heritage, a similar thing has happened today. The revival has partly been driven by shifts in tourism, some of it the so-called staycation effect, which has resulted in 25 per cent of UK residents changing their holiday habits and staying at home in the hope of a cheaper holiday. Inbound tourism has been important too with the Americans, closely followed by the French and the Germans, capitalising on a weaker pound, coming to the UK to enjoy its heritage.
The economic crisis has necessitated a revival of simple pleasures. Sales of bicycles have rocketed, camping is a popular holiday choice once more and people want to take their children to castles and abbeys. Britain’s history and heritage seem secure and safe, a reassuring antidote to a world where economic uncertainly prevails. So it does seem that there is an inverse relationship between prosperity and heritage – economic bust means heritage boom.
Simon Thurley is a historian and head of English Heritage