Monday, November 11, 2013

British Period Dramas

A few weeks ago, I got a panicked text from my friend Emily...


I know a lot of people are still watching Downton Abbey, but I started losing interest over the last season.  Don't get me wrong - you know I'm a history nerd so I was totally into that aspect of things, the locations and costumes were absolutely gorgeous, and I even enjoyed the soap opera plot twists over the first few years.  But the story lines became increasingly absurd and, after the 2012 Christmas special, I just didn't feel invested in the characters anymore.

But I can't get enough of British period dramas, so I've been working (and reworking, in some instances) my way through the genre since I stopped watching Downton.  We all know and love the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, but there are many more that aren't as familiar on this side of the Atlantic.  Here are my three favorites:


My parents got me into Foyle's War; they were on a British crime kick that had started with Midsomer Murders.  It's about the home front during World War II and it takes place in Hastings, a town on the south-east coast that was, due to its proximity to France, very active during the war.  But just because the main fighting was overseas didn't mean that all was calm in England, and the show follows Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle as he solves crimes, seeks justice, and keeps his superiors honest.  Starring Michael Kitchener - who, if my life is ever made into a movie, will play my father - as Foyle, Anthony Howell as Sergeant Milner, and Honeysuckle Weeks as Foyle's driver Sam, Foyle's War features a revolving door of the best of British acting talent throughout its eight seasons.  (You'll recognize a lot of the guest stars from other shows and movies including Peter Capaldi, David Tennant, Rosamund Pike, Emily Blunt, and James MacAvoy.  Julian Ovenden, who plays Foyle's son Andrew, is actually a new character on Downton this season!)  It's not as flashy as American police shows, but every 90 minute episode is packed with clever writing and a cracking history lesson - I absolutely love it.



Jumping back in time a few decades, we find Parade's End.  Jon's father mentioned that he and my mother-in-law had caught it when it aired in summer 2012, and, luckily, the whole show was offered on one of my flights back to the States earlier this year so I watched the entire thing in one sitting.  It's slow - I'll warn you about that now - but it's absolutely beautifully done.  Parade's End takes place in the dying days of the Edwardian Empire and through World War I and, while it's not as focused on history as Foyle's War, it's even more meticulously crafted.  The costumes and locations are breathtaking and Tom Stoppard's writing is, of course, pure poetry.  Benedict Cumberbatch plays the main character, the noble Christopher Tietjens, and Rebecca Hall is his manipulative socialite wife; again, almost everyone who's anyone appears at one point or another, like Rupert Everett, Miranda Richardson, and Rufus Sewell, to name just a few.  (Malcolm Sinclair is in both Parade's End and Foyle's War!  These guys really get around.)  It's hard to get into the show because of the pacing, but do stick with it!  It's sort of a cerebral version of Downton Abbey, so give it a try if you like that kind of thing.



I first heard about the Forsyte Saga in high school, long before Masterpiece Theater was cool, when a friend proudly proclaimed her nerdiness by explaining that she watched the show with her parents.  I've only started watching it myself, but I'm really liking it.  It chronicles the lives of three generations of an upper-middle class British family from the 1870s through the 1920s, and if you're a Damian Lewis fan, this is the show for you!  It's also got a host of recognizable faces - like Amanda Root, who will always be Anne Elliott from the 1995 Persuasion for me, and Rupert Graves and Ioan Gruffudd and Julian Ovenden, yes, again - and the story lines are absolutely engrossing.  Like I said, I've just started it, but I'm totally invested!  When I've finished, I want to read the novels that the show is based on.

When I mentioned the topic of this post to Jon, he insisted I add a fourth show to the list: Sharpe.  I've never seen it, but it played a major role in Jon's formative years and he turned out okay, so I feel like I owe it to both Jon and Sharpe to mention it here!  He's still got every one of the books lined up on the shelf in his childhood bedroom and he, like most other British boys of a certain age, learned what it meant to be a man from Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe.  The series begins in Portugal in 1809, with Sharpe serving as a sergeant in the 95th Rifles, and it continues all over Europe (and, later, India) as Sharpe fights for England, provokes personal enemies, wins bosom friends, and racks up romantic conquests over the first quarter of the 19th century.  Apparently it's all very exciting!


Any others, dear readers?  There are tons of British period dramas out there - tell us your favorites!  And I promise to give the new season of Downton Abbey a go if I get enough encouragement, okay?

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29 comments:

  1. I'm so not caught up on Downton, I don't think I can ever go back. Plus Thomas just made me want to punch a baby. I guess I'll just have to start over with one of these :)

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  2. Are you guys fans of David Suchet as Poirot? He should be an essential part of this list :)

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  3. I thought Downton wasn't on in the US yet - it's just airing in the UK/Europe right now. The season 4 finale was on last night.


    I've really tried to get into Parade's End but I'm struggling - the wife drives me insane. I'll try to go back to it later on and give it another shot. I also tried Call the Midwife but I had just read the book and the series is so different so I'm giving it some space too.

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  4. I recently discovered Call The Midwife and I love it. I don't know if it's up your alley or not but worth checking out!

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  5. I recently started The Hours and like it so far but feel I have to be entirely focused on it unlike some other shows, I also just finished the Upstairs, Downstairs modern follow up and loved it so much.

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  6. I LOVE Call the Midwife! I can't think of a single episode that hasn't made me cry :)

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  7. I think people might watch it... *illegally*

    yeah, Rebecca Hall's character is HORRIBLE but I do think she makes her more multi-dimensional than other actors might?

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  8. okay, no more Downton for you. no punching babies! (speaking of babies, try Call the Midwife as Kate suggests!)

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  9. Jon's mother LOVES Poirot and I watched one at their house but I sort of fell asleep in the middle :/

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  10. Illegally - of course - I just went by the texting above with PBS & what time.

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  11. Ooh, thanks for the tips - I love British period dramas too, and I think these are all on Netflix instant, which is perfect for all the hours I sit around nursing these days!

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  12. My mom's obsessed with Call the Midwife. I haven't started watching it yet because I don't have time to devote to another show right now. But, it's next on the list. :) And, I am gonna keep it up with Downton.... for now. :)

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  13. just to warn you: half the time during Call the Midwife I'm thinking OH MY GOD THE MIRACLE OF LIFE THIS IS SO BEAUTIFUL I WANT BABIES and the other half the time I'm thinking OH MY GOD THIS LOOKS LIKE THE WORST THING ANYONE COULD ENDURE I NEVER WANT TO BEAR CHILDREN. just to warn you :)

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  14. oh PERECT! I know Foyle is but I wasn't sure about the others - good to know so I can finish Forsyte!

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  15. I couldn't get into The Hours, which was weird because I was so excited about it before it started! maybe I should try again :)

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  16. I watched North and South this summer and I am hooked. Peter got me the audiobook for my birthday and it was totally engrossing! The love story is easily one of my favorites.

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  17. Parade's End? You had me at Benedict Cumberbatch.

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  18. I started watching Parade's End but I couldn't get into it, I might give it another go.
    And I wasn't impressed with the Downton Christmas special at all either, but I've been watching the new series and it's definitely improved. Lots going on with Edith that's making things interesting and the Countess is as feisty as ever x

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  19. I did the EXACT same things with Downton. I just lost interest. Last season it lost the magic it used to have so I didn't bother with this one. However, I do always watch any time there's going to be dance on the show because I know the choreographer. And the Forsyte Saga is excellent! x

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  20. Please these ones: Cranford and Return to Cranford: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0974077/

    Judi Dench is one of my favourite actress!
    María

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  21. Much like Sharpe, husband and wife can enjoy "Hornblower" together: all the action at sea, plus Ioan Gruffudd in period costume. *hold me back*

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  22. Ewww… I would say if you're a Damian Lewis fan then The Forsyte Saga is NOT for you. Because he does Soames so well that I can't watch him in anything else without thinking he's a **SPOILER** **SPOILER** **SPOILER**. So I will never see Homeland.
    And… you know how I felt about Parade's End. snore. It is pretty, but the (lack of) storyline and entirely unlikeable characters did not leave me feeling nostalgic and satisfied.


    I could watch Brideshead Revisited (the Jeremy Irons one, duh, be still my quaking loins) over and over the way most people could watch Pride and Prejudice.


    And I liked North and South, too! Predictable, but enjoyable. And of course you have to mention Call the Midwife, although I'm regularly grossed out by the baby-having parts of the show (yes, I know they're integral… just not my boat!). And, if someone is desperate, Land Girls isn't bad, but the Canadian show Bomb Girls is better.

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  23. I've only made it through season 3 of Downton, and I was so upset over the finale I haven't looked into watching anymore. I am definitely interested in watching more period dramas, however, and will have to see if any of these are on Netflix!

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  24. Thanks for sharing! I haven't been watching Downton Abbey either. Mostly because I can't ever remember when it's on. Ha!

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  25. I read Call the Midwife earlier this year. I really enjoyed it!

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  26. Happyeverafter_BrideNovember 16, 2013 at 5:12 AM

    I haven't minded the new season a few episodes into it. The dramas continue and they speak so elegantly, I feel bogan everytime I open my mouth to speak after watching an episode.

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  27. Foyle's War is one of my very favourites!


    I also love Call the Midwife, Cranford, and Wives & Daughters.


    The Paradise is good too -- I think it's playing on PBS right now.


    And I definitely recommend series 4 of Downton! It's had more viewers (in England) than any other season. xx

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