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The way we weren’t

It’s tempting, but wrong, to think we are cleverer than previous generations

In the second decade of the 21st century, the 20th century has already become a strange land, ripe to be looked back on through television fiction. If you were there, the result often taste wrong, especially if they look right. A mental flavour is hard to re-create; but never mind, because you won’t be around long to object. Trying to be generous as I bow out, I personally am careful to give points for any attempt at fidelity to the way we were, although all too often the flashback shows strike me as adding up to a startling registration of the way we weren’t. What are these young people trying to achieve, when they pour so much money, talent and effort into telling us what they think our lives used to be like? Well, if the first thing they strive for is a financial return on investment, they’re certainly achieving that. And anyway, they’d do the same for Henry VIII: The Tudors and Wolf Hall between them must already have made more money than the dissolution of the monasteries. We should never forget that we’re watching a market at work, even if the market is making the market the subject: self-reference is no guarantee of objectivity. It’s more likely that objectivity had been made part of the pitch.

Among the growing worldwide audience for box sets of American television serials, the quiet but insidious craze for Mad Men spread at a highly sophisticated level. People latched on who would never buy a box set of Entourage (too silly) or Californication (too dirty) or Band of Brothers (too noisy) or The Sopranos (too grisly) or The Wire (too druggy) or even The West Wing (too witty). But a box of Mad Men they had to have, even if they hadn’t seen a single episode on television. Transmissions of Mad Men on mainstream channels, in fact, drew a notably restricted audience. In its land of origin the show was a hit for the cable channel (AMC) that developed it, but a big cable audience is a small percentage of a network audience, and in other countries the show was usually a minor event when it went to air. Even if it didn’t rate on a terrestrial channel, however, the distributors of the box set were likely to get happy, because there was an upmarket consumer stratum out there whose hunger for the product seemed to be made all the sharper by the fact that hardly anybody else knew about it. It was like a taste for some homemade ice cream that gets taken up by a big manufacturer: the marketing will depend on the message that somehow the product is still home-made by Ben & Jerry, even though it’s rolling out of a factory by the truckload.

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In Prospect’s September issue: Paul Johnson argues that there is no getting away from the fact our economic prospects have got worse post-Brexit. Paul Wallace attempts to outline how the government will try and deal with that situation, while Nicolas Véron suggests that The City of London will decline outside the European Union. On a brighter note, Clive James explores what we can learn from the television show Mad Men. Also in this issue: Patience Wheatcroft, the Conservative peer, suggests that Brexit might not be a done deal with a rebellion in the Lords possible. Thomas Chatterton Williams explores the work and Beyoncé and argues that black artists are failing to say anything profound and James Dyson outlines how he would rule the world.