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10 best period dramas

Benjie Goodhart / 16 April 2021

We take a look at some of the best TV costume dramas of all time.

Lyme Park, the filming location of BBC's Pride and Prejudice
Lyme Park, used as Pemberley in BBC's Pride and Prejudice

The problem with most ‘top ten’ lists is that they tend to engender division and disagreement. It is hardly empirical, after all, it’s more a matter of taste. But with this list, there’s another problem to factor in: What exactly constitutes a costume drama? Doesn’t every drama involve costumes? (Apart from a few of the more, ahem, esoteric European dramas from the 1970s which tended to involve an extravagantly moustachioed German plumber coming round to fix the heating, and where everyone seemed to be entirely devoid of costumes).

Technically, a costume (or period) drama is set in a specific historical period. Well, that doesn’t help much. EastEnders is set in a specific historical period – the current one. If we accept, though, that a costume drama must be set in the past, how far back are we allowed to go? You might consider Mad Men, set in the 1960s, to be a costume drama. But you’d never suggest that Band of Brothers was a costume drama, even though it’s set 20 years earlier.

In the end, I went on gut feeling. If it feels like a costume drama, it is. If it doesn’t, it’s not. So pour yourself a light sherry, adjourn to the drawing room, and sit delicately on the sofa’s edge so as not to rumple your petticoat. Here then, in no particular order, is my own take on the top ten costume dramas ever to grace the small screen.

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Of course. It’s an obvious choice, but it’s obvious for a reason. Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic tale of love, manners, gossip and propriety was so successful that one almost began to wonder if the book might come to be known simply as the forerunner to a rather excellent TV series. In essence, like so many costume dramas, it is simply a tale of will-they, won’t-they, yes-of-course-they-will, but this production was handled so deftly, filmed so beautifully, and filled with such exquisite, pitch-perfect performances, that you couldn’t take your eyes off it.

Jennifer Ehle was brilliant as the spirited, independent Elizabeth Bennett, and Colin Firth was born to portray Mr Darcy’s smouldering, repressed emotion. The supporting cast included Alison Steadman, Susannah Harker, Julia Sawalha, Anna Chancellor and Emilia Fox. Not to mention a white silk shirt, which co-starred in one of the most talked-about scenes in British TV history. Nice swim, Darcy?

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Brideshead Revisited (1981)

“Here, at the age of 39, I began to feel old.” Hmm. If you can overlook the rather infuriating first line of the series, you are in for a sumptuous treat. This epic retelling of Evelyn Waugh’s book is told over 13 hours, spanning 11 episodes, in one if the most visually arresting, atmospheric dramas ever made.

The story follows Charles Ryder, an Oxford undergraduate who becomes infatuated with a tragic aristocratic Catholic family. The series made stars of young Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, and also boasted both John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. But the real stars were the locations – Castle Howard, Oxford University and Venice had never looked so beautiful, and Geoffrey Burgon’s mournful score added to the aesthetic.

I, Claudius (1976)

If you think costume dramas are largely genteel affairs where people flirt chastely and have tea parties in the garden, you clearly haven’t seen I, Claudius. This adaptation of Robert Graves’ two 1930s novels about Emperor Claudius and the early days of the Roman Empire is full of intrigue, political machinations, lust for power, and brutal savagery. At its centre is a marvellously sympathetic performance from Derek Jacobi, although it subsequently emerged that the role had previously been offered to both Charlton Heston and (believe it or not) Ronnie Barker.

A huge supporting cast includes the likes of Brian Blessed, Ian Ogilvy, Patrick Stewart, Christopher Biggins, and John Hurt as a particularly sinister Caligula. But it is Sian Phillips, as the scheming Livia, who steals the show, with a performance of utter villainy. If she’d had a moustache, she would doubtless have twirled it.

Downton Abbey (2010-2015)

This one might prove controversial. There are those who would say that Downton Abbey was little more than a soapy confection dressed up to look like a classic drama: Coronation Street in black tie. But nobody ever said that a costume drama had to be based on a classic novel, and Julian Fellowes’ look at life above and below the rather magnificent stairs of this palatial seat of the Earl of Grantham was nothing if not rollicking good fun.

Set in the early part of the 20th century, the series covered some of the most significant issues of the time, but never lost sight of the (many, many) viewers’ hunger for glamour and romance. A wonderful ensemble cast included Hugh Bonneville, Penelope Wilton, Jim Carter and Elizabeth McGovern, but anyone who doesn’t recognise the show being completely and utterly stolen by Maggie Smith’s dowager countess has been watching a different programme.

The Jewel in the Crown (1984)

It’s easy to forget, with its focus these days so overwhelmingly on detective dramas, that four decades ago, ITV was turning out some of the best dramas in television history. Granada, fresh from the success of Brideshead in 1981, followed it up with a lavish adaptation of Paul Scott’s sweeping Raj quartet novels.

The story, told across 14 episodes (the first one feature length) is an epic tale of love, politics, race, religion, class, war, sex and death, all played out in the last days of the Raj, with the independence movement gaining unstoppable momentum. The series made superstars of two of its young leads, Art Malik and Charles Dance, while between them Geraldine James, Peggy Ashcroft, Susan Wooldridge and Judy Parfitt shared all four Best Actress nominations at the BAFTAs. The series was filmed in Udaipur, Shimla, Mysore and Kashmir (as well as the slightly less exotic Manchester).

Roots (1977)

Just as not all costume dramas need involve tea on the lawn, so too they don’t necessarily need to be filled with people wearing monocles saying “What ho!” Indeed, this one actually has an American accent. Imagine! Based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, this series, shown on American TV over eight consecutive nights in January 1977, drew an extraordinary audience of 100 million for the finale.

An epic tale, spanning several generations of slaves descended from Levar Burton’s Kunta Kinte, this was the moment when American audiences were forced to confront some unsavoury truths about their country’s history. The huge cast included luminaries such as Louis Gossett Jnr, Edward Asner, Robert Reed, Lloyd Bridges, Lorne Greene, George Hamilton, Maya Angelou and… Ian McShane!

Bleak House (2005)

You’ve gotta have a bit of Dickens in there, right? And if so, you’d be hard-pushed not to have this spectacular, star-studded adaptation, a second listing for the incomparable Andrew Davies. (He’s unlucky that War and Peace didn’t make the list, too…) What’s extremely unusual about this series, aside from the sheer number of familiar faces in the enormous cast – is that it consisted of half-hour episodes, as opposed to the traditional full hour.

Then story follows multiple characters in their search for money, love, fulfilment and happiness and, as ever with Dickens, it all moves along at a cracking pace, a literary soap opera. The cast included Gillian Anderson, Timothy West, Charles Dance, Alun Armstrong, Carey Mulligan, Pauline Collins, Sheila Hancock, Anne Reid and Johnny Vegas, to name just a few, and the whole thing is shot with a delightfully gothic view of Victorian England.

Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75)

Before Downton, there was Upstairs, Downstairs, another tale following the lives of humble staff and super-posh employers in the early 20th Century, this time set in the baronial splendour of Belgravia. The series was originally conceived as a comedy, an idea cooked up by actors Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, who would play two housemaids in a Victorian country house.

As the scripts took shape, the comic element was abandoned, the action was moved to London, and the focus widened to include those ‘upstairs’ as well as downstairs. By the time filming began. Atkins had other commitments, but Marsh was joined by a cast including Pauline Collins, Lesley-Anne Down, Hannah Gordon and Simon Williams. And, of course, Gordon Jackson, who played the strict but loyal butler Mr Hudson, a role that would come to define his long and glittering career.

Wolf Hall (2015)

Without doubt the most cerebral addition to this list, the six-part drama set in the court of Henry VIII was based on Hilary Mantel’s vast and hugely complex historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Mark Rylance played Thomas Cromwell, a man who overcame humble beginnings to become Henry VIII’s (Damian Lewis) most trusted courtier.

The plot is notably short of people in lace gloves falling in love at tea dances, and long on Machiavellian scheming and political intrigue, a sort of Tudor I, Claudius, with a slightly lower body count. The wonderful cast includes Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, as well as Bernard Hill, Mark Gatiss, Anton Lesser, Joanne Whalley, Jonathan Pryce and Jessica Raine. In the capable hands of esteemed director Peter Kosminsky, the series won the best drama BAFTA, and Rylance walked off with the Best Actor award as well.

The Great (2020)

From the most cerebral, we move on to the most vulgar, crass, gratuitous, depraved and coarse of the lot. If you like your costume dramas politely effete, this one is most definitely not for you. If you have a high shock-threshold, it’s marvellous – and hilarious. Tony McNamara, writer of The Favourite, tells the story of Catherine the Great’s rise to power with barely a nod to historical reality.

Elle Fanning plays Catherine, new bride to the grotesque Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), who presides over a court of debauched extravagance and careless brutality. The idealistic Catherine quickly decides that Russia deserves better, and sets about trying to ensure that she, rather than Peter, holds the reins of power. The two leads are utterly fabulous, ably supported by a cast including Sacha Dhawan, Phoebe Fox, Douglas Hodge, Adam Godley and Charity Wakefield. But it’s worth stressing, this is not one for those who might take offense at swearing. Or sex. Or violence. Or all three at once.

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