History without the history

Lately I’ve been watching the Spanish soap opera Velvet, which is available (subtitled) on Netflix.  It’s set in the late 1950s in a prestigious Madrid fashion boutique, and it’s strongly reminiscent of shows like Mad Men or the BBC’s The Hour (sometimes I refer to it as Los Hombres Locos) in that it presents a sophisticated, elegant period backdrop against which the characters pursue their careers and love lives while dealing with what the viewer considers rather outdated social and moral standards.

Velvet’s main character is Ana, a seamstress at the Velvet fashion house.  Since adolescence, she’s been in love with Alberto, the son of Velvet’s owner.  But both Ana’s and Alberto’s families forbade the match as unsuitable, with Alberto’s father going so far as to exile his son to London to keep them apart.  Seven years* later, Alberto has returned, now the owner of Velvet after his father’s passing, and there’s nothing to keep him and Ana apart.  But the shop is nearly bankrupt, and Alberto has to ask for a loan from family friend Gerardo.  Gerardo agrees, but on one condition: Alberto must marry his daughter Cristina, who has always been in love with him.  Alberto is ready to stand by Ana, but Ana, who can’t stomach being responsible for the closing of Velvet and all her friends losing their jobs, breaks things off with him, instead telling him he must marry Cristina.

I was intrigued by Velvet because of the combination of its time and place–Madrid in the 1950s.  Postwar Spain was stable, prosperous, capitalist, Western European; but it was also a country governed by a right-wing authoritarian dictatorship.  That’s a unique opportunity for storytelling that you’re not really going to find anywhere else (well, I suppose except for postwar Portugal).

So it was jarring to find Velvet–unlike Mad Men or The Hour (or even those short-lived Mad Men clones the networks tried, like Pan-Am or The Playboy Club), which were shows that were always very much anchored in their historical context–presenting a weirdly de-historicised 1950s Spain.

It’s possible to determine that the first series of the show takes place in 1958.  (Alberto, prior to going away for seven years, was present at Velvet’s presentation of the 1951 collection; Real Madrid are pursuing their third European Cup, which they won in 1958.)  But:

  1. A flashback captioned “Twenty years earlier” shows Velvet as being open and prospering with business.  “Twenty years earlier” than 1958 would, of course, be 1938, so this flashback takes place at the height of the Siege of Madrid, when no one in Madrid spent their time shopping for luxury haute couture fashions, even if they’d had the inclination and the resources to.  (The same flashback shows someone riding a bus from the countryside into Madrid as if it were a simple, everyday occurrence.)
  2. A character says at one point that Velvet will open its doors tomorrow morning “as it has done every morning for the past thirty years”.  This, of course, means that the shop opened every day during the two and a half years of the Siege of Madrid.
  3. A closeup of the back page of a newspaper shows a picture of the Spanish league table, with one of the clubs being listed as “Athletic Club“.  Spain had no club named “Athletic” in the 1950s (or 1940s, or 1960s, or much of the 1970s); because of Franco’s edict that all clubs had to use only Spanish-language names, Athletic Bilbao were forced to use the name Atletico Bilbao during his regime.  (Similarly, FC Barcelona were forced to go by CF Barcelona, and they’re still bitter about it.)
  4. Another flashback, set fifteen years in the past, shows Alberto bringing back a hot new record he bought in Paris (which subsequently becomes Ana and Alberto’s song).  Now, you might object that there’s no way the hot new record in 1943 was set to the same tune as the Ronettes’ most famous hit (that’s the best link in the whole post.  Follow it.), but even before we get to that, I’d point out that there’s no way that the hot music coming out of Paris in 1943 was in English.

What it basically boils down to is that Velvet presents a version of “the fifties” that were extremely genericised and were the only decade to last for about twenty-five years.

Now, there’s a lot to recommend Velvet.  I’m definitely going to stick with it through the programme’s whole run.  (There are three series on Netflix right now; the fourth finished airing in Spain in December but hasn’t yet reached North America.)  There’s double crossing and secrets and sexy flirting and I laugh several times an episode.  It’s also full of beautiful people (these are Spaniards, after all) and some lively characters; Ana’s best friends Rita and Luisa are my favourites.  (I’d agree with this review that Alberto and Ana are basically the least interesting characters on the programme; I love Cristina and Raul and Mateo and Patricia as well.)  The show is full of music (all of it in English) that really does sound very 1950s, but maintains a wide variation in genre; the opening theme song is probably the best example.  And it’s a lovely touch, as you can see in the clip of Ana and Alberto’s song up above and in the screencap here, that the actors do such an exceptional job of dancing like actual white people from the fifties.

But to me it’s a shame that the show so deliberately erases exactly that part of its premise that would make it most interesting, and that Mad Men and The Hour did such a good job of embracing.  Maybe that makes it more marketable in Latin America or Europe, I don’t know; after all, I’m hardly the target audience for Castilian Spanish primetime soap operas.  There’s also that it never even considers criticising the old-fashioned morality and social mores that it shows us, as, for instance, when Alberto and Ana decide to keep secretly seeing each other while Alberto publicly becomes engaged to Cristina–essentially meaning that Alberto is having sex with the help while marrying someone from his own social class.  The show is quite open about how hard it is for Ana to watch Alberto and Cristina together, but it’s never touched upon that their plan actually makes both Ana and Alberto really horrible people for deceiving the sweet and friendly Cristina like this.  (For that matter, despite being an asshole, Cristina’s father never really comes in for any criticism for making his loan to Alberto contingent on a secret promise that Alberto will unwillingly wed his only daughter.)

Anyway.  Not what I expected, but I’m still watching.

I

*Those seven years are an interesting thing.  When Alberto is sent away, he and Ana are pretty clearly adolescents–say, eighteen years old, preparing to elope because their families disapprove of their love–and there are references later on to indicate that Alberto went to London instead of going to the same “school” the men in his family have attended in his family for generations.  Yet when Alberto returns to Spain seven years later, he’s just a month shy of his thirty-first birthday–meaning that the boy we saw preparing to run away from home with his girlfriend rather than go to “school” was meant to be almost twenty-four years old.

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