For me, autumn always seems to be period drama season, and also, that means Sunday nights spent in front of the TV watching the drama unfold against the backdrop of different historical periods, whilst I drink either tea or wine and the weather gets colder. I love how period dramas can give you a feel (however fictionalised this may be – though increasingly the role of historical advisor has become really important, read this really interesting article by Dr Hannah Greig, historical advisor to Poldark) for a period and transport you to another time and place. This year has seen the arrival of Vanity Fair to ITV, which I’ve been really enjoying, and has had me thinking of my favourite period dramas of all time… which is difficult, because period dramas are probably my favourite genre of film and TV to watch, but here I go…
Pride and Prejudice (1995)
I couldn’t put anything but this first. I remember watching this on a double VHS tape as a really small child, not really sure what was going on but enthralled by the love story between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. It also enshrined Lyme Park as Pemberley for me, and I still get that excitement when I visit – Pride and Prejudice is my favourite book, Jane Austen my favourite author, and this my favourite adaptation of anything ever. There’s a reason that nothing else seems to compare to it – Andrew Davies did a fantastic job adapting the characters, the humour and the emotions. And, could anyone else be Mr Darcy but Colin Firth, or beat Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet? Their chemistry brings Austen to life in the most perfect way. Aside from this, every role seemed perfectly cast, but in particular, besides the two main characters, Alison Steadman and Benjamin Whitrow as Mrs and Mr Bennet were phenomenal. Their comic timing, Whitrow’s small smile as Steadman panics and fusses, is just brilliant.
War and Peace (2016)
This sumptuous adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel was adapted by Andrew Davies, of Pride and Prejudice genius. I’d never watched an adaptation of this before or read the book, and it was honestly magical, hard-hitting in so many places and again a work of perfect casting. Paul Dano steals the show as the sometimes bumbling, sometimes hapless, sometimes wonderful Pierre Bezukhov, almost as much as the explosive chemistry between Lily James and James Norton as Natasha Rostova and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky respectively. Midway through the series is an episode where they meet and fall in love, and they dance together at a ball. The scene of them dancing at the ball, with everyone dressed in white against a background of golden Imperial Russia opulence, is one of the most beautiful pieces of film I’ve ever seen. Every character is compelling and provided enough faces for the names in the book, making me read it afterwards. The tangle of Russian family drama before, during and after the Napoleonic Wars will have you glued from start to finish.
North and South (2004)
Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel is beautifully brought to life with Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe in the roles of John Thornton and Margaret Hale. Margaret, southern and not used to the harshness of northern industrial towns, and John, a mill owner who shows immense disdain for what he sees as naivety in Margaret, have an intense dislike but of course, eventually fall for each other. The train scene at the end is one of the most romantic moments in period drama history. I really enjoyed this because it takes on some of the grittier aspects of British history with its setting in a cotton mill town and all the hardship that comes with it, examining class, the Industrial Revolution, and the divide between north and south.
Poldark (2015 – present)
Based on the novels by Winston Graham, and following the successful 1970s series, here Aidan Turner takes on the titular role of Ross Poldark. Returning from fighting in the American Wars of Independence to his native Cornwall, Ross finds his father dead, his lands in a mess and his sweetheart Elizabeth engaged to his cousin Francis. He finds himself having to pick himself up, and taking in a kitchen maid, Demelza. Not only are the story lines, the romance and the drama brilliant, but one of the extra stars in this series is the rugged Cornish coastline, with sweeping camera angles highlighting its beauty every episode. My particular favourite character is the wizened old Aunt Agatha, who almost plays the Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey role of the cutting remarks and witty one-liners without really realising she’s doing it.
Another Jane Austen adaptation to make my list, and it is a truly wonderful one. Rupert Penry-Jones is the returning love interest Captain Wentworth, and Sally Hawkins makes a wonderful Anne Elliot. Anne has been under her family’s thumb, to the point that eight years ago, she gave up her romance with Wentworth, who has now returned a wealthy Captain. Persuasion contains one of my favourite passages in literature:
“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever.”
This moment is played out with such a depth of feeling in this adaptation – I love it and cannot stop watching it.
Anne with an E (2017 – present)
Anne with an E is the latest adaptation of L. M. Montgomery’s classic series of novels, Anne of Green Gables. This Netflix series is one of the most heartwarming television programmes, picking up lots of moments in the novel – memorably when Anne accidentally gets Diana drunk on currant wine, Anne’s theatrical apology to Rachel Lynde and Anne’s overactive imagination – whilst also adding in fitting moments that extend the story, though still perfectly capturing the spirit of the original novels. Amybeth McNulty is a fantastic Anne, full of life and enthusiasm for the world around her, with Lucas Jade Zumann as her nemesis-turned-friend-turned-more Gilbert Blythe, and they make a fantastic pair.
Outlander (2014 – present)
I had never heard of Outlander before a friend told me about it, and once I started watching it, I was hooked within about ten minutes. Claire was a nurse in World War Two, and following the end of the war, she and her husband Frank are holidaying in Scotland so that he can trace his ancestors. There, she walks through a stone circle and finds herself in 1743 Scotland, meets the handsome highlander Jamie Fraser and inevitably becomes part of the Jacobite risings. Diana Gabaldon’s novels are brought to life perfectly in this lavish drama, with Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan as Claire and Jamie, against the beautiful backdrop of Scotland. So far three series have been shown, a fourth to come to Amazon Prime (shown on Starz in the USA) this autumn, and a fifth and sixth series commissioned. Outlander has become a phenomenon, and once you watch it, you’ll realise why!
Endeavour (2012 – present)
I couldn’t write a list of my favourite period dramas without including Endeavour. Set in 1960s Oxford, Endeavour is the story of the young Inspector Morse, a stalwart of British detective drama, and based on the novels by Colin Dexter. Shaun Evans takes on the role and plays a wonderful young Morse: aloof, brooding, secretive yet likable. Roger Allam is Fred Thursday, Morse’s superior, and they make for a wonderful team. The mysteries are clever, and follow the 1960s through with contemporary events, engaging with racial tensions and the Cold War. Read historian Rebecca Rideal’s article on why Endeavour is so great, and an underrated period drama, here. Series Six will be back in 2019.
Morse’s world: to the left, Waddesdon Manor, shown in an episode, and on the right, the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford