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Downton Abbey: Why the bonnets 'n waistcoats period works

Feb 10, 2013 10:10 IST

#BBC   #Downton Abbey   #North and South   #Period Drama   #television media  

By Abhilasha Khaitan

There are no half-measures with the small screen. Any TV junkie would testify to that. Studios only have to sniff a wining proposition and it gets flogged till the point of exhaustion. I can’t keep track of the number of cop, lawyer and doctor dramas that are churned out with relentless determination. Those are the long-time constants in your TV guide. There was a post-West Wing spurt of political series’ but those are tougher to generate so tend to be more, well, under control. Then there is the paranormal – werewolves, vampires and all manners of the walking dead – that is now being saturated to money-spinning effect. Clearly, nothing works like assailing the viewers with a problem of plenty.

Now, if you’ve been keeping up with the times – or, in this case, turning back the clock a couple of centuries – you will find that there is a genre that we don’t discuss as much that has been holding firm with a certain section of TV watchers. And, with the mass success of Downton Abbey, the interest has gone beyond a niche to a wider audience. Even the Americans are adapting the show for their own audiences. The world can’t seem to get enough of a good Period drama.

But Julian Fellowes’ story of an Earl’s family battling through the transition from regency-style living to the less refined modern ways is only the most visible, popular manifestation of this surge in interest. Producers in the UK, and BBC in particular, have always been obliging and impeccable in their delivery of the Period drama duly injected with romance, intrigue, conspiracies, village politics and the oft-mandatory bloody murder.

Maggie Smith is announced as a nominee for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series for "Downton Abbey". Reuters

Maggie Smith is announced as a nominee for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series for "Downton Abbey". Reuters

The proliferation is such that British critics, true to their cynical stereotype, are questioning this ‘glut’. Mark Lawson, in his television blog for the Guardian, writes: “One defence of the glut of such stuff is that it's as misleading to lump together "period drama" in a single genre as to group cricket and tiddlywinks under "sport". The wave of retro-shows cover a wide range of decades and differ hugely in intention and execution.” But his defence is merely a precursor to his primary contention: “The cynical opinion – to which I tend myself – is that drama set in the past avoids many of the problems that make TV executives worry about their jobs and pensions. With a period piece, the only likely controversies are anachronism of language or possibly an objection that there was too much nudity or sex…”

But like the writer says, it is the cynical view. On my part, I wear rose-tinted glasses as far as the genre is concerned. Call it a remnant of the Raj or the tug of my Kolkata roots, my excitement at discovering yet another “bonnets and waistcoats” show usually equals that of a teenage girl learning that her braces are ready to come off. Yes, I just said that.

Unfortunately, in India, we have to adopt enterprise, fair or foul, to be able to access these shows. But the sufficiently curious among us trawl the net and find what we’re looking for. I’ve been just such a trawler. Recently, one has found a few delightful shows that made for a lovely change from the American pace that our English entertainment channels offer us. Here are some of them. I am not including any of the usual suspects – the Jane Austen adaptations or other older series’ – but just the contemporary Period dramas (an oxymoron, if there ever was one), that is those that have been created within the last ten years. Do add to the list in the interest of information sharing. Please.

North and South: Two words – Richard Armitage. I was obsessed, seriously obsessed, with this show for months after I saw it. Based on an Elizabeth Gaskell novel by the same name, it is a tale of inflamed passions painted in various shades of grey and showcasing the issues of class and gender as prevalent at the time. The female protagonist, Margaret Hale, is a rather self-righteous, opinionated woman from the genteel South who makes no bones of her disdain for the industry-driven North and its dark, brooding representative, John Thornton played by Armitage. The cotton mills of the North don’t do well by their workers, she believes, and is thus unable to accept the love professed by the wicked Thornton. Tears and trouble ensue. My only complaint: It gets over in just four one-hour-long episodes. The upside: It ends early but it ends well, as poignantly as any show you would have ever seen.

The Paradise: I just finished watching this 8-part series that premiered in the UK last September, and was happy to learn that there will be a second season. A romantic intrigue with a dash of criminal conspiracy set in a retail store in 19th century England – what’s not to love? John Moray, the proprietor, is an ambitious man who has risen up the ranks far enough to be offered entry into the highest echelons of society through marriage to a wealthy member of the gentility. Denise Lovett, a bright young shopgirl, enters the Paradise and unwittingly disrupts many plans and existing relationships with her innocence and intelligence – a heady mix as Mr Moray discovers. There are also mysterious circumstances surrounding dead wife, a conniving fiancé and a jealous co-worker. Enough said.

Mr Selfridge: Retail dramas seem to have become quite the thing in the UK. Not that I’m complaining. There is so much potential for crazy in a shop floor. As seems to be the case in my favourite glitzy London store, Selfridge’s. Charting the life and times of its proprietor, Harry Gordon Selfridge, the 10-part series based on the book Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge by Andrew Davies started airing in January this year. It is set in 1909 and is obviously similar to The Paradise in the general theme. I am not yet able to gauge the extent to which it has retained its own flavour having just watched the first two episodes of the five aired so far. So far, it does seem to have embraced the wave of modernity among women in keeping with the onset of the twentieth century. A new-age Period show, if you will.

Cranford: Set in a fictional village in the mid 1800s, this 5-part mini-series that aired in 2007 was adapted from three novellas by Elizabeth Gaskell published between 1849 and 1858. Move away from the high society of London to the trials and conflicts of a community dominated by single women, middle-aged widows and spinsters, and you won’t regret it. There is a bitter-sweet air to this show with poignant performances by a cast that includes no less than Madam Judi Dench. The series was followed by a two-part Christmas special called Return to Cranford. I didn’t enjoy the second installment quite as much as the first largely due to the major changes in the cast and storyline. The original teleplay, however, is beautifully embroidered with wise observations and human frailties. If you’re not in it just for the big romance, this tale won’t leave you untouched.

The author writes on popular culture, cricket and whatever else takes her fancy.