Friday, 12 April 2013

Is Britain still the home of Costume Drama?

When I was growing up, the BBC was unquestionably your one stop shop for period drama (or Frock Flicks as I like to call them). The air of respectability that surrounded those three hallowed letters, backed up by a catalogue of quality television mini-series based on classic literature, ensured that it was instantly recognised as a quality brand world wide. When costume dramas were on the verge of losing their mainstream appeal, 1995 brought 'Pride and Prejudice', which almost 20 years later, is still unsurpassed in popularity. For most people, particularly those old enough to have watched it first time round, there really is no competition between it and any other mini-series. But there were lots of other classic novel adaptations, a wonderful way of introducing us to lesser known works with complex themes, like 'The Barchester Chronicles' (1982), Tom Jones (1997) and 'Middlemarch (1994). But something happened to make producers believe that these miniseries lack the pace and gloss that modern audiences apparently expect.

Even then it wasn't without competition. The  excellent Canadian production of 'Anne of Green Gables' (1985) still stands the test of time. America and Australia were happily romanticising the early settlers with shows like 'Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993) and 'All The Rivers Run' (1993). But it was well accepted that we could not compete with Britain's intellectual heritage and Shakespearian trained actors.

In 2007 'Mad Men' crashed onto the scene, changing the way we look at period television making forever. It's not only unique for having a subject matter that was interesting to more than just the silly romantic females who are the perceived audience of BBC adaptations (although why TV and film versions of intelligent literature should have this stigma is baffling to me, especially considering the males in my family enjoy them equally as much as the females), but also raised the bar high in its attention to authentic detail. It was not the first period drama made in the USA, but it was certainly the first to affect the public consciousness internationally the way it did, especially the fashion world.

HBO has had great success with historical drama. First there was the WWII drama Band of Brothers (2001), followed by Deadwood (2004) set in the wild west, 'Rome' (2005), 'John Adams' (2008), 'The Pacific' (2010),  and my personal favourite 'Boardwalk Empire' (2010). These are largely set in 'boy's own' adventure scenarios: wars, westerns, gangsters, etc. They are making a conscious effort not to fall under the traditional period romance genre. Even their more traditional offerings, 'Mildred Pierce' (2011) and 'Parade's End' (2013) are challenging stories filled with largely unsympathetic characters, aimed at a highly intelligent and literate audience. Or at least those who wish to believe themselves thus.

Showtime is another American production company that has brought us successful productions such as 'The Tudors' (2007) and 'The Borgias' (2011), shows that play fast and loose with historical accuracy, but make up for it with sumptuous production values and a glossy filming style.

The Tudors

My biggest problem with a lot of these series (along with 'Game of Thrones' which although very much has the feel of the rest of these adaptations, is fantasy not historical), is that they seem to equate gritty entertainment and credibility, with lots of naked breasts (and the rest). Now I'm not at all prudish, I probably watch more risque art house films than most, but I get quite bored of being sold two dimensional sex object females alongside complicated and powerful male characters. Sex scenes in context are great, but a lot of the time it veers towards 'look here are some tits' rather than essential character driven plotlines. If you don't believe me, see how little airtime male nudie bits get on screen compared to their female counterparts.

These shows are determined to be a anathema to the new wave of British period dramas that have flooded the scene. I can only conclude that based on the popularity of Jane Austen, British television producers looked for more 'female friendly' period novels to adapt, and eventually created there own stories as well. I am obviously talking about the hugely popular 'Downton Abbey' (2010), which I think in spite of it's criticism is a really great show that doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: pretty, light and fluffy Sunday night entertainment. I'm the first to admit that if they got rid of Maggie Smith they wouldn't have a show, and the plot lines can verge on the ridiculous, but that makes it no different than a lot of TV except with the added advantage of having pretty scenery and costumes. And lets face it, there's nothing wrong with that. It is sumptuously beautiful with charming characters and has never pretended to be high art. 

When Benedict Cumberbatch was promoting 'Parade's End' he, in what I can only cynically presume was a well planned publicity stunt, called 'Downton Abbey' 'f**king atrocious'. I personally found 'Parade's End'  barely watchable, except for the fantastic Rebecca Hall (and it's kind of a problem when you find yourself rooting for the villianess), but Cumberbatch's remark was a very conscious attempt to distance one Edwardian set show from the other, to divide period television into high and low art. The logic is: if you don't like our show, then it's your fault for not being intelligent enough. But he is also giving American producers kudos for the adaptation of serious literature, as opposed to the British. That's quite a turn up for the books.

Along with 'Downton Abbey' you have less successful shows like 'Cranford' (2007), 'Lark Rise to Candleford' (2010), the new 'Upstairs Downstairs'(2010), 'The Paradise' (2012) and  'Mr Selfridge' (2013), series so sickly sweet and twee that I found myself getting rapidly bored with them.  In fact if I wasn't such a enormous 'Entourage' (and therefore Jeremy Piven) fan, I'm not sure I could have stuck with 'Mr Selfridge'. While the matched costuming of the Pratt sisters in 'Lark Rise' was one of my favourite aspects of the show, the latter two series seemed hugely inconsistent in the quality of their costuming. This seemed particularly apparent in the costuming of upper class ladies, who are usually the most fun, and therefore easiest, to costume.

Don't believe me? Look below. You could argue that these are not sympathetic characters, and so are meant to look a bit jarring to the eye, but they are also characters renowned for being fashion leaders in their society, and so if not tastefully dressed, should at least be immaculately tailored.

The Paradise: Katherine Glendenning. One of my friends suggested there was a last minute cast change because none of her dresses sat well around the bust. I also couldn't get past the fact it looked like a lot of the costumes looked like well made calico toiles with trim added

Mr Selfridge: Lady May (left). It may be the fault of her terrible wig or her very tiny frame, but all of her dresses seemed to hang strangely off her body, making her look like a child dressed up in her mother's clothes. The fabric on the waistband does not sit well and those side sleeves stick out rather than drape around her arm, making this look like something they grabbed off a hire rail. Mrs Selfridge (right) looks well dressed and well costumed.

As a foreigner living in England, I appreciate the romance and glamour of Britain's history and upper classes much more than my British friends. It's the romance of the exotic and foreign. However even I have to admit that most of the period films and television that is produced in Britain seem to be aimed at a starry eyed American audience, starring Hollywood actors putting on poor British accents, and gentle, dumbed down scripts. Is this really what American's want though? The more intelligent shows that are being produced in America would suggest otherwise.

It's possible ITV is to blame who, although have made wonderful series like 'Brideshead Revisited' (1981), have lacked the BBCs pedigree. In 2002 they followed in the BBC's footsteps by remaking 'The Forsythe Sage' (2002) and successfully made adaptations (although not necessarily always making successful adaptations) of Jane Austen in 2007, but it was in 2010 that they achieved enormous international success with 'Downton Abbey'. This may have caused the BBC to act in kind. The BBC have made excellent adaptations of 'Sense and Sensibility' and 'Jane Eyre' in the past decade, but their choice of books shows they are playing it extremely safe. No more for them the obscure literature classics when you can rehash a popular book for the umpteenth time. Then there was the brilliant 'Dancing on the Edge' (2013) which was relegated to BBC2. It's slow moving, complex storyline filled with interesting characters and beautiful costumes was excellent, and yet like with most of Stephen Poliakoff's work, I felt strangely restrained and disconnected watching it. It's like he is trying to keep the audience firmly at arm's length, determined for them not to get involved with any of the characters.

I started writing the post because I have been ill for the past few weeks, and so have caught up on many episodes of 'Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries', an Australian show that my Mum gave me on DVD for Christmas (although I believe it is currently screening on Alibi in the UK). It's about a lady detective in the 1920s, and as I have already mentioned in a previous post, is not faultless. The wonderful lead actress Essie Davis is a good decade to old to be playing a Bright Young Thing, and yet the more you watch it the less it matters. This series is everything you want in a 1920s period drama: sparkling characters, sumptuous costumes, sassy dialogue and sizzling sexual chemistry. It has taken the British idea of fun, light hearted, period entertainment and knocked it out of the ballpark. There's enough of the Australian brashness and 'calling a spade a spade' mentality that allows this series to unashamedly be exactly what it is. And it's all the better for it.

(I promise to devote an entire post to it's wonderful costumes soon)

But I want shows that fall somewhere in between. Classic Miniseries like 'The Buccaneers'(1995), 'North and South' (2004) and 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall' (1996) (and I've just realised that completely coincidentally these were all books written by women) took less popular classic novels with complicated characters, relationships and themes and adapted them into beautifully made TV shows. Even the biggest intellectual snob could not call these 'f**king atrocious', and yet they were undoubtedly accessible entertainment for the masses. They had strong male and female characters who were both likeable AND flawed at the same time. The costumes were absolutely stunning but (almost) never stole the show. There was love, romance and happy endings, as well as dark and complicated themes.

Is that really too much to ask?


  1. I could only stomach one episode of The Paradise, but I agree with you entirely about Katherine Glendenning's costumes, they were really odd. I also thought Katherine Kelly just didn't look right in Mr Selfridge - I had thought it was because she was just too thin for the ideal Edwardian shape, but then Mrs Selfridge was pretty skinny too (don't get me started on that one) and she looked much better.

    I think the BBC has dumbed-down rather too much with its more recent primetime dramas - I thought The Paradise was truly appalling, as was the revamped Upstairs, Downstairs (guttingly, as I loved the original ITV version) and all but the first series of Lark Rise to Candleford. I thought Parade's End was fantastic, though, and other things that have been on BBC2/3/4 - it's like they think BBC1 has to be the equivalent of Cadbury's milk chocolate, but the other channels can have slightly more unusual/challenging chocolate such as 70% dark or salted caramel!

    I also loved the House of Eliott (1980s) and have recently watched Edward the Seventh (1970s), which is surprisingly good. That was on ITV - and for the sake of accuracy in your post, I feel obliged to point out that Brideshead Revisited and the 2002 version of The Forsyte Saga were both ITV dramas, not BBC ones. The original 1967 Forsyte Saga was on the BBC though!


    1. Thanks Kate.

      You are absolutely right about ITV. I shall fix that immediately. My bad.

      I adore House of Elliot too. I have mentioned it in other posts and I suspect it's largely responsible for my going into costume in the first place. I also love the 1980 version of Pride and Prejudice, which was probably my first introduction to BBC miniseries, even though it's almost forgotton about these days.