Period Dramas: Back in Abundance

The magnificent Highclere Castle, home of Downton Abbey

As an unashamed fanatic, no period drama graces the British small screen without my knowledge and nothing, not even my trans-Atlantic move, could have prevented my watching the latest offerings from ITV and the BBC.

With Spooks having finished and Silent Witness yet to start again for the year, my regular dose of British drama was somewhat lacking until one of my friends asked me whether I had yet seen any of Downton Abbey. I had only missed one episode at this point and with the help of the ever-useful YouTube I soon caught up. In fact, I was very nearly late back to work after a lunch hour of engrossed viewing. A television series penned by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), set in the early 20th century, and starring such British talent as Dame Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville and (my particular favourite) Brendan Coyle, this drama always had the makings of a classic. Fortunately it did not disappoint, with ratings that confirmed it the most popular British period drama since Brideshead Revisited.

Set in the fictional Downton Abbey (a stunning Highclere Castle, Berkshire, which is as central a character as the lead roles themselves) the first series follows the aristocratic Crawley family in the two years between the sinking of the Titanic and the declaration of the First World War. As the series progresses they face problems both great and small ranging from a dead Turkish seducer to the constant underlying inconvenience posed by three unmarried daughters and a lack of male heir. As the most expensive British drama ever made (I am extremely glad to be spared the assumedly large number of advertisements) the costumes and sets were unsurprisingly lavish and there was not a single episode when I did not lust after the ladies’ wardrobes, accepting all the while that if they were mine I might receive a few strange looks whilst walking down Streatham High Road.

It is fair to say that despite the collectively impressive cast Maggie Smith stole every scene she was in. She delivered her dry, extremely well-written humour with an earnestness that never failed to have me laughing out loud. Her reaction to a swivel chair was unforgettable and on hearing that it was invented by Thomas Jefferson she resignedly replied “Why does every day involve a fight with an American?” Needless to say her reaction to electricity had not been much warmer.

Renewed for a second series I cannot wait to see what changes the War will bring to the Crawley family and, on a universally smaller scale, to watch the burgeoning romance between Sybil, the Lord’s youngest daughter, and Tom, the lowly chauffeur.

Following in ITV’s period footsteps, the BBC’s eagerly awaited revival of Upstairs Downstairs aired in late December. Having never seen the original (ironically ITV) series, I had no preconceptions and when my friend (the same who suggested Downton Abbey) told me “it’s worth watching but really only because it’s a period drama” (both she and I are quite easy to please on this score…) I was prepared to enjoy it for that reason alone and not look for the dazzling wit or British acting nobility present in Downton Abbey.

This series begins in 1936 with Sir Hallam and Lady Holland (Ed Stoppard and Keeley Hawes) moving into 165 Eaton Place, shortly followed by his domineering mother Maud, Lady Hallam, portrayed by Dame Eileen Atkins. Covering some heavy topics, from the British Union of Fascists to the treatment of the mentally disabled, it packed an extraordinary amount of social and political commentary into just three one-hour episodes. Whether this was a positive or negative aspect of the drama I still cannot decide as, whilst truly interesting and educational in parts, I believe it suffered in the same way as many film adaptations of a novel; requiring more screen time to properly develop the plot. I would also have liked to have seen one slightly less flawed female character, at least “upstairs”, as I just could not warm to the three ladies of the house and found myself wondering what on earth had made Sir Hallam, a principled and sensible young man, marry his wife in the first place. Not that I was in any way jealous of a fictional character…

On the whole I did enjoy watching the goings on at Eaton Place and learnt a surprising amount about British history (Edward VIII’s abdication losing a great deal of its romanticism). I feel as though any flaws in Upstairs Downstairs were (probably unfairly) highlighted by Downton Abbey’s success and whilst ITV did outstrip the BBC in this particular battle of the dramas the former contained a good deal of moving performances, particularly by its male cast: Ed Stoppard, Art Malik (as Maud Hallam’s secretary), Adrian Scarborough (as the butler), and Blake Ritson (as George, Duke of Kent), to rival those of its ITV counterpart.

Last, but by no means least, came the triumphant return of Lark Rise to Candleford. The BBC’s popular comedy drama is back for its fourth and final series and, in my opinion, back to the standards set by its first. Julia Sawalha continues the role of her career as Dorcas Lane, the kindly post office mistress of Candleford who watches over and advises all those on her patch. Amongst a collectively wonderful cast Mark Heap is a particular favourite, playing Thomas Brown, the perennially devout postman. He never fails to amuse and was even the source of inspiration for his wife’s epic poetry entry in episode 2: “Zeus hurls rain and hail from the heavens down, but Thomas forges forward on his postal rounds!”

The lack of a weak link in the casting almost makes me forgive the (hopefully temporary) disappearance of Brendan Coyle’s character – no doubt while he was off filming Downton Abbey – as well as Laura Timmins’ decision at the end of the last series to choose the sensible suitor over the clock-maker oozing with Irish charm, thus preventing the latter from making a reappearance. These pedantic qualms perhaps highlight the difficulty I have in finding fault with this programme which I look forward to each week when I curl up with my Mancunian housemate and revel in its British charm.

There is something so wonderfully and quintessentially British about a homemade period drama which converts even the most sceptical viewer; I defy anyone to watch Lark Rise to Candleford without laughing at least once. I must admit however that many friends describe me as having been born in the wrong era so perhaps not everyone shares my views on this subject. At any rate, as I continue to watch the latest series of Lark Rise and any more British period dramas to come my way I will unashamedly and unapologetically continue to dream of a bygone era and all the home-cooking and good old-fashioned British humour that it brought with it.

Buy the DVDs on Amazon:

Downton Abbey

Upstairs Downstairs, The Complete Original Series

Lark Rise to Candleford, The Complete Season One

Lark Rise to Candleford, The Complete Season Two

Lark Rise to Candleford, The Complete Season Three

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