Forever contemporary Cruella leaves Mary Poppins in ‘olden times’

Both films were originally made about 50 years after the period they recreate – and raise a curious question about the past in culture

Emma Stone in Cruella, the prequel to One Hundred and One Dalmatians, is set in a stylised version of the 1970s.

Emma Stone in Cruella, the prequel to One Hundred and One Dalmatians, is set in a stylised version of the 1970s.

 

Something has gone wrong with time. Relatively recent history seems more, well, recent than it did in the relatively recent past. 

This week Disney+ gives us the tolerably enjoyable Cruella. The prequel to One Hundred and One Dalmatians is set in a stylised version of the 1970s. Emma Stone dresses like a contestant in Drag Race. The music is familiar from contemporary drivetime radio. When have Queen or ELO ever been off the airwaves? This world still seems to be with us.

Compare that with the version of the 1910s represented in the same studio’s Mary Poppins. It is jarring to realise that both films were made about 50 years after the period they recreate – or pastiche or unpack. Whereas Cruella immerses younger viewers in a popular culture that is forever being rediscovered and is, thus, forever contemporary, Mary Poppins was defiantly set in “the olden times”. 

Is this just grey-geezer misremembering? I don’t think so. Nobody was seeking to flog a soundtrack album of hits from the post-Edwardian era to my generation of youngster. We had no such connection with (thanks, Dr Wikipedia) the Peerless Quartet and Bert Williams. We were too busy listening to the artists later highlighted in posts from the Cruella social media team: The Bee Gees, Blondie, The Doors. Virtually every cuff width and lapel shape in Cruella has been back in fashion over the last decade or so. You might now dress in celluloid collar, striped blazer and boater – remember Dick Van Dyke in the Jolly Holiday sequence from Poppins – but only if you were blocking up South Anne Street like a pillock on Bloomsday (remind me to write that column in a week or so). There would have been equally little chance of anybody under the age of 40 dressing thus in the years immediately after Mary Poppins’s release. Few young women were gathering themselves in yards of lace and twirling parasols behind grand hats.

There is nothing more tedious than hearing the generation that was then young talking us through their courageous struggles in liking The Byrds while growing hair a few centimetres over their collars.

Consider also Andrew Scott’s much-ballyhooed dance to T Rex in the BBC’s recent adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. The imposition of glam rock on aristocratic culture of the inter-war years is intended to jar and discombobulate. Audiences might notice if the music supervisor inserted, say, a Haim track into Cruella, but there would be no equivalent creative anachronism. That Californian band are, after all, descendants of Fleetwood Mac.

It is not unusual for commentators to bemoan the rise of cultural amnesia. Awful young people today have, it is argued, no connection with the past. This is clearly untrue. Nobody could have imagined that the music of The Beatles and Bob Dylan would still be resonating with emerging acts when the venerable pioneers were pottering towards their ninth decades. But this is not just about popular culture. The sounder connection we now have with the world of 50 years previously is as much to do with alterations in manners and social attitudes. Mary Poppins floated down to an era of firm hierarchies and constricting social etiquette. Recall that Mrs Banks, mother of the family, spent her free time campaigning for women’s suffrage. Young fans of Mary Poppins in the 1970s could be forgiven for thinking the characters’ behaviour as remote as that of the later Tudors.

The bloody 1960s

What happened, of course, was the bloody 1960s. There is nothing more tedious than hearing the generation that was then young talking us through their courageous struggles in liking The Byrds while growing hair a few centimetres over their collars. Those that fought in the second World War could, at least, boast the liberation of Europe and the defeat of Japanese militarism. The awareness that the 1960s really was a period of unprecedented social upheaval does nothing to make that characterisation less tiresome.

There were social advances that mattered. Civil Rights campaigns in Ireland and in the United States. Surges in the women’s movement. A long-overdue reappraisal of implied deference towards various establishments. The still scarcely plausible shift from everyday formality to informality is most strikingly demonstrated in footage of soccer crowds in 1960 (cloth caps, neat hair, suit jackets) and 1970 (shaggy curls on hatless heads, sideburns, lurid flares). And then there was the music. You know about the music. Nobody ever shuts up about the music.

To look back across that chasm – 50, 30, even just 20 years – was to glance into a recent past that had, in an apparent stroke, been flung into ancient history. Here’s the scary thing. Almost nobody saw it coming. There is no reason to believe such an unheralded revolution could not happen through the 2020s. In 10 years’ time you may look as decrepit to your children as the old squares do to the bikers in Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels.

“Just what is it that you want to do?” the crusty preacher asks.

 “We want to be free!” Peter Fonda famously replies. “And we want to get loaded. And we want to have a good time.”

Be warned. 

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