I just love costume dramas, and as a Brit, can honestly take pride in that British costume dramas rule the genre. I love the social history of period drama and love to lose myself in stories of yesteryear. Downton Abbey has done much to revive the genre and I think if you love DA, that’s great impetus to check out other British costume dramas that you might have missed.
To me, this is the one that sets the standards for British costume dramas. If you love Downton Abbey, you should check this one out too. The premise is the same. The story follows the lives of those who share the house upstairs and downstairs at 165 Eton Place in London. It ran for 5 seasons, first being aired in 1971. It covers the same period as Downton too and many people believe that Downton is nothing but a copy of this great original. I love them both so I just push those criticisms aside.
If you love fashion you’ll find plenty of reasons to watch The House of Eliott. As the epitome of British costume dramas, The House of Eliott follows the fortunes of sisters Beatrice and Evangeline who set up in business as couturiers after being left without an income after a life of upper middle class privilege. Set mainly in the 1920s, it portrays the lives and loves, and trials and tribulations of the sisters during one of the most exciting periods in fashion. (Incidentally, The House of Eliott was co-written by Jean Marsh, who played Rose the chief housemaid in Upstairs Downstairs – 54 episodes!)
What attracts me most to British costume dramas is actually not the costumes – that’s merely a name for this genre – but the history. The dramas cover any period that can be termed “historical,” but generally we think of them as being in the period up to the Second World War. That gives us a massive time period to dip in to. I love programs and movies about medieval times and one of the most excellent dramas of recent years is Pillars of the Earth. The 7 episodes (based on the novel by Ken Follett) crammed in a mass of action based on the lives of the citizens of Kingsbridge in the 12th century at a time of anarchy and religious and royal strife and when just surviving every day was tough.
Ask anyone to name some British kings and queens and I can pretty much guarantee that the answers will be Elizabeth II (cos she’s the current queen), Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria and Henry VIII. The world has long been fascinated with Henry VIII – after all, who wouldn’t be intrigued by a man who went to such means in the pursuit of a male heir? Henry VIII has been portrayed many times on the stage, big screen and television but my choice takes us back the BBC’s 1970s series, The Six Wives of Henry VIII. I like this one because it gives the wives a voice, unlike so many other productions which focus so much on the big man himself. It may not look like much these days, but it was considered a very lavish production back in the 1970s and I still prefer it to the rather sensationalist recent series, The Tudors.
Set in the fictional town of the same name, created by George Eliot, Middlemarch is the story of Dorothea Brooke. The period is early Victorian and England is right on the verge of the industrial revolution. Social historians love British costume dramas because of the learning opportunity they portray. In this series, we get insight into how disastrous marriages can be (in a time when women of certain social status had little or no say in their choice of husband), how new medical practices stir up and scandalize local hospitals and how the middle classes start to gain political power and financial clout.
For this one, we move from the green playing fields of Eton to the heaving, dusty streets of Mayapore, the fictional Indian city created by Paul Scott in his novels, the Raj Quartet. It is the 1940s and British rule in India is coming to an end as independence looms. Although it doesn’t exactly follow the Scott novels, the series tells the story of English woman Daphne Manners and the Indian man she becomes involved in, together with an English policeman who resents their relationship. It deals with prejudice and the disrespect the English had for the country they ruled and on the personal front, how thwarted men exact their revenge.
Would any nod to British costume dramas be complete without something by Charles Dickens? The novelist was the most magnificent portrayer of Victorian life – warts and all – and his novels make for great screenplays. In Bleak House, Dickens examines the injustices of the British legal system in the case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce. The plot is deliciously complicated by a complex set of relationships, and was brilliantly adapted for television in 15 episodes by Andrew Davies, who is recognized as one of the greatest British period drama writers.
More fight than fashion and more grit than polish, When the Boat Comes In is a must if you like your costume dramas to have a bit of edge. Unlike other dramas that portray the '20s and '30s as a Jazz age, a whirlwind of parties, flightiness and frivolity, this one hits home with the story of Jack Ford and how he grasps hold of life after returning from World War I to the poverty-stricken (fictional) north east town of Gallowshield. It is a fascinating story played out against the backdrop of a post-war England that is changing, where life will never be the same again.
How could I not include this? I have saved the best till last. I will never, ever tire of watching this. For sure, the scene of Colin Firth and the lake gets my blood racing as much as the next girl’s, but there is so much more to this that makes it a tour de force among British costume dramas. Jane Austen crafted a brilliant story of the lives and loves of the Bennet sisters and Andrew Davies adapted it to be as good as it gets when it comes to period drama. The BBC series is stunning to look at and wonderfully acted.
I hope you try some of these. You can find episodes on Netflix, Cable/satellite TV and YouTube. Do you have any favorite British costume dramas I haven’t included here?
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