TV and Film

Costume Drama

Last night my local PBS station aired a special hailing the origin and rise of the costume drama, as done by British television and introduced to American audiences as Masterpiece Theater or Great Performances. The documentary was aired as a special during the fund-raising, so your own PBS station might not have it, and I haven’t checked to see if it is on Netflix. (The Baltimore PBS station aired an Albert Hall concert version of Phantom of the Opera that I missed except for the end, but that is another story…)

The documentary lists the 1967 black and white version of The Forsythe Saga as the beginning of costume drama on TV. I confess, I did not watch this show. I didn’t catch up until I, Claudius and the Poldark Series.

I, Claudius was a ground-breaker in the subject matter that was part of the story, the violence (shown off-stage) and incest (suggested in the BBC version but cut from the American version). I remember being totally hooked on that series.

Poldark actually led to naming our daughter, except we didn’t go through with it. My husband and I really liked the name Morwenna, but we feared it was too strange for an American little girl. Instead we picked a name we heard on Rockford Files, which turned out to be one of the most popular girls names of the year. My daughter wishes we’d named her Morwenna, because then she could have been called “Mo.” (I would have called her “Wenna.”)

Another ground-breaker was Brideshead Revisited, for its depiction of a homosexual relationship between two men. I confess, I did not realize that part of the story. I thought it was just a friendship. Somehow now it becomes even more poignant. It was also ground-breaking in that it was entirely filmed on location.

Moll Flanders was mentioned as a daring sexual romp, another one I missed.

Cranford had the distinction of showing a town where most of the inhabitants were women. Jewel in the Crown showed a part of British history that needed apology.

But one costume drama “changed everything.” The seminal scene depicted one muslin-shirted man who dove into a pond to cool off after a hard day’s ride. Colin Firth striding across the lawn in a wet, semi-transparent shirt, in the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice was a moment none of us will ever forget!

What is your favorite costume drama? Is there a sleeper that you remember fondly?

Thursday at Diane’s Blog I’ll talk about my writers weekend at Inn Boonsboro.

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Beth Elliott
10 years ago

Oh thank you for such a feast of Mr Darcy. He is so easy on both eyes and ears, you’ve just made my evening a whole lot brighter.

Louisa Cornell
10 years ago

I think I, Claudius was the first of those I saw and it fascinated me and gave me a love of Roman history I still hold to this day.

I didn’t see Cranford until a year or so ago when a dear friend sent me the DVD’s for Christmas. I absolutely LOVE Cranford in no small part due to the portrayal of village life which wasn’t all that different from village life in the early 1960’s and early 1970’s when I lived in Kelsale.

North and South is another costume drama I watch again and again. In addition to a fascinating portrayal of the birth of Industrial England it also has Richard Armitage. SIGH

Diane Gaston
10 years ago

You are very welcome, Beth!!

Louisa, I totally agree about I, Claudius! And Cranford. And North and South.

I forgot to mention Upstairs, Downstairs!!!

10 years ago

I’ll have to say that PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is my favorite. I haven’t been able to see many of the others. It seems there is always something else the family wants to watch. If it is serialized, I usually see only a few segments. Agatha Christie’s various series that were done for Master Piece Theater seem to have bee the only “period-type” shows we all enjoyed.

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