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?