Tuesday 11 October 2016

Historical Drama for Autumn Nights by Katherine Clements

For as long as I can remember I’ve loved watching anything with a period setting. Escaping into the past has always been one of my favourite ways to unwind. Watching history – whether original drama or literary adaptation – allows me to witness someone else’s version, and someone else’s vision of history. It’s influenced my writing too. My novels have been described as ‘cinematic’ and ‘visual’. When I write, I see the scene unfolding in my mind’s eye, exactly as if I were watching onscreen.

One of the compensations for October’s colder days and darker evenings is that autumn has become synonymous with the roll out of new big budget costume dramas (BBC’s Poldark and ITV’s Victoria are the best examples this year). There have been some fantastic series over the last few years, such as Wolf Hall, Peaky Blinders and Ripper Street, but when it comes to comfort telly, nothing beats the old favourites. I’ve decided to share mine with you this month – those that still make it into the DVD player whenever I need a fix. So, turn up the heating, settle down with a cup of something hot and escape…

Jane Eyre (BBC TV series, 2006)
There have been many adaptations of this Brontë classic, with many merits, but this is my favourite. The two leads, Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens, bring Jane and Rochester to life with wit, chemistry and just enough menacing darkness to capture the gothic mood of the book without sliding into clichéd melodrama.

A Room with a View (Film, 1985)
This is the film that got me hooked on costume drama and I’ve watched it countless times. The acting is occasionally questionable, but that doesn’t matter. There’s something spellbinding about this adaptation of the E.M Forster novel. Twenty years ago I travelled to Florence, alone and by train, because of this film. I couldn’t afford a room with a view – that one is still on my bucket list.

Pride and Prejudice (BBC TV series, 1995)
Because it rightly deserves its place on just about every ‘best costume drama’ list you’ll find on the Internet. This classic, with Colin Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett, stands repeated watching and I go back to it regularly, like an old comfort blanket. The definitive adaptation.

The Devil’s Whore (Channel 4 TV series 2008)
This stunning whirlwind tour of the English Civil War has a special place in my heart. The impressive cast is what puts this above others – Peter Capaldi’s Charles I is my favorite portrayal ever – along with dark, gritty production design that suits the story. It’s rich in depth and detail and, for me, improved on second watching. An entertaining romp through the complicated politics of the period.

Sense and Sensibility (Film, 1995)
1995 was clearly the year for Austen adaptations. Emma Thompson’s Oscar winning script and star turns from Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman and others result in a perfectly pitched adaptation. This one wins when I need cheering up. While the BBC series penned by Andrew Davies (2008) is also extremely good, and probably more true to the book, this movie version pips it at the post, but only just.

Brideshead Revisited (Granada TV series, 1981)
Back in the days when TV producers were allowed to make long, meandering series this was a huge ratings hit, and rightly so. With time and space to do justice to Waugh’s languid, sweeping novel, this is one to get lost in.

North and South (BBC TV series, 2004)
Brooding Northern mills. Brooding Richard Armitage. There’s plenty of brooding going on in this adaptation of the Gaskell classic. A forerunner of more recent ‘it’s grim up North’ series like The Village and The Mill, this adaptation is notable for understated performances and strikes a good balance between gritty realism and sentiment.

Bleak House (BBC TV series, 2005)
Another BBC adaptation and another Andrew Davies script. I don’t always get on with Dickens but this one is pure class. An impressive cast makes light work of great dialogue, with memorable performances from the leads (this is where I fell for Gillian Anderson). And the whole is lifted further by stunning production design.

Remains of the Day (Film, 1993)
Another Merchant Ivory classic, based on the Ishiguro novel, it’s the performances from Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson that make this. One for melancholy days under the duvet with a mug of hot chocolate. Pure, heartbreaking quality.

Gosford Park (Film, 2001)
Before Downton Abbey, there was Gosford Park. This sumptuous murder mystery has multi-layered depth, plenty of heart, and a clever, dry wit that Downton lacks. And it looks stunning too. Julian Fellows at his best.


Catherine Johnson said...

Great post! The Devil's Whore is one of my favourites too. LOVE costume drama. BBC 70s family drama - often Leon Garfield adaptations turned me into a reader.

Susan Price said...

I clicked on comments so I could say, 'Ooh, I loved The Devil's Whore'!

I enjoy costume drama generally, though not the 'Big House' stuff so much.

The Devil's Whore had feminism, 17th Century politics (and Parliament is best), revolution of all kinds spilling out all over and its very own Malcontent with a scarred face, coming out with cynical lines at every breath. Can't beat that stuff.

Ruan Peat said...

Brideshead Revisited kindled my own love of period drama, and I have many of these on DVD to wallow in on cold days when I fancy being in another place, this and the jewel in the crown had a big influence on my childhood, oh and a man for all seasons! do love the Tudor era!

Katherine Clements said...

Thanks all. Glad to see some other fans of The Devil's Whore here! That series aired as I was writing my English Civil War set novel, The Crimson Ribbon, and I still think it's one of the best set in the era. I had the pleasure of meeting the screenwriters last year (Martine Brant and Peter Flannery) and they were both delightful and so passionate about the period.