Like an Adored Elderly Relative You Visit: ‘The Story of the Costume Drama’

“I think costume dramas are like the grand old ladies of English television. They’re like an elderly relative you go and visit on a Sunday night who tell you all the best stories. Sometimes they tell you the same stories over and over again. But you don’t mind because they’re such good stories.” – Simon Woods (Cranford)

With the current success of Downton Abbey bringing about a resurgence in interest for British period dramas, The Story of the Costume Drama is particularly timely. A five-part series, this documentary focuses on the history of the period piece in British television programming, including varied subject matters, as well as the importance of casting, location, and action.

The earliest television period drama to really find a wide audience in Britain was The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-1959) and its impact is obvious by the amount of documentary contributors who can still easily quote from the series. But it wasn’t until The Forsyte Saga (1967) and Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-1975) that British period dramas really took off in a global way. These are the series that are most recognizably the templates for more modern costume dramas.

The introduction of color television also served as a boost o the costume drama, in particular because the elaborate sets and dress were now seen in a new light. Soon after color added more dimension to period dramas, historical figures began to take precedence as subject matter, such as Edward VII (1975), completed with royal cooperation, and the controversial I, Claudius (1976). I, Claudius is especially noteworthy in that it stands as one of the most successful television miniseries, and it pushed censorship standards of the time to the limit.

However, it wasn’t until the ’80s that the golden age of British costume dramas really came about. The documentary focuses quite a bit on Brideshead Revisited (1981) as a watershed series for British television. It was shot entirely on location and offered up a great deal of homoerotic subtext in the story of lifelong friends Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte. It was culturally relevant, and even influential in the fashion of the time. Another dramas in the 1980s tackled interracial relationships, such as the forbidden romance between a British white woman and an Indian man in 1984’s The Jewel in the Crown. In addition, a neglected piece of British history was the subject of Tenko (1984-1985), a series on women held in a Japanese war internment camp in the ’40s.

Another turning point for British costume dramas is 1995’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It’s a series that became an international phenomenon and launched Colin Firth’s career into the stratosphere. Written by Andrew Davies, his adaption was intent on loosening up the stuffy period pieces that many associate with the genre and instead, he injected more humor, sex, and an overall more modern sensibility. Indeed, it is Davies who is responsible for many of the more popular recent costume dramas and his interviews in the documentary are especially lively.

Much is also made of the impact a well-received costume drama can have on an actor’s career. Many then unknowns have gone on to very successful and long-running careers. Helen Mirren discusses the appeal of the costume drama in that it allows the actor the opportunity to the find the humanity and flaws of historical figures, such as in her portrayal of the titular Elizabeth I (2005). Actors as diverse as Judi Dench, Sean Bean, Keira Knightley, Daniel Radcliffe, and Gillian Anderson have all taken part in British costume dramas and for some, they often serve as a way to show different sides of their acting ability and break out of better know roles.

The documentary includes interviews with writers, directors, producers, actors, television executives, and critics. They all emphasize the importance of many of these period dramas in bringing attention to issues and historical events and figures. However, they are also enormously engaging when done right. As these dramas are such an established part of British television, they attract a wide range of talent that only serves to enrich the stories beyond a small group of historically interested viewers. They are often relatable, funny, and addictive, but what makes these costume dramas so successful is the great care that is obviously taken in telling these stories.

For fans of the British costume drama, this documentary will point to many of their favorites and will undoubtedly serve as a reminder of all the things they already love about them. For others, The Story of the Costume Drama is a great introduction to the genre and one that will surely have viewers interested in seeking out many of the period pieces featured.

The DVD release comes with one bonus feature and a photo gallery — hardly noteworthy.

RATING 7 / 10