Currently, Costume Dramas

I’ve written here before – many times – about my love of costume dramas, specifically of the British variety. I got hooked my senior year of college, in the early days of my Netflix subscription, when I returned hungover as fuck from spring break and burned through Cranford in the 24 hours before my roommates returned, crying my eyes out while watching little old ladies stir up mischief in an English market town on the brink of the industrial era. After that, I watched basically every other costume drama that was available on DVD or through Netflix’s streaming service. I now believe that I have watched…everything that falls into the costume drama category? Or most things, probably. I draw the line at some shittier or older productions. (For example, the 1995 miniseries event The Buccaneers, based on the Edith Wharton novel. I have tried and failed several times to make it past the first twenty minutes.)

Anyway, because I feel like I’ve watched everything, I am always happy when some new production based on classic literature or just set at some point in history is on TV. Right now, I’m watching Wolf Hall (a miniseries) and Call the Midwife (a series in its fourth season), both of which are airing on Sunday nights on PBS. (They are nothing at all alike, so I won’t try to compare them much, but they do share one actress. Jessica Raine, who plays Jane Rochford in Wolf Hall, starred in the first three seasons of Call the Midwife.)
Wolf Hall is based on two of my favorite novels of the past several years: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the first two installments of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy based on the rise and fall of Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell. The miniseries has already aired in the UK, so if you’re interested in binge watching it, I’m certain there are ways to do this. I, however, am watching Sunday nights on Masterpiece Theater because I prefer watching things as they air if I can and also, I love the little commercials for Viking River Cruises that they always show. My impression three episodes into Wolf Hall is that…it’s good! I enjoy watching it. The acting is great. (Mark Rylance especially.) The sets are great. The costumes are great. But I do not enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed reading the books. There’s something that was lost in translation, which is probably not anyone’s fault. I don’t think any adaptation would do Mantel’s prose justice. I will continue watch it because I’m still drawn in by the drama – I’ve loved anything to do with the Tudor period since I was young – and also because I don’t totally remember everything that happened in the books. When Wolf Hall is over in a few weeks, I just may start a reread.
Call the Midwife is set in a different England entirely, that of 1950s and 1960s London. The show, based on the popular memoirs of Jennifer Worth, centers on the nuns and young midwives who live in Nonnatus House, a convent in a poor area on the outskirts of the city. Together they provide the district with nursing services and prenatal care. Then there are the actual births, which are constant. (I would not recommend this show if you’re bothered by childbirth scenes.) Each week, there is usually a dangerous birth and one that’s meant to highlight some sort of social issue at the time. But sometimes, a dangerous birth can also highlight a social issue! For instance, last week, a poor Irish woman forced to live in a really filthy boarding house because no one would rent to her family gave birth prematurely because she had contracted dysentery. The show can be preachy at times and isn’t exactly subtle when it comes to making points about how difficult life was and is for women, the poor, immigrants, the elderly, and any other disenfranchised or minority population. But I don’t mind so much, because it isn’t trying to be anything other than itself, a sentimental window into the past. Not unlike many of my favorite costume drama series, Call the Midwife is a comfort, which is sometimes all I need a television show to be.
I watch a lot of TV in groups or at least discuss shows with my friends, but these two are pretty much solitary experiences for me. So, tiny but loyal audience, are you watching Wolf Hall or Call the Midwife? And do you have any other historical/costumey shows you’re watching?

Four Favorite Costume Drama Miniseries That Aren’t Pride & Prejudice

This is the time of year when, inevitably, I get sick and end up spending a weekend or two on the couch, with only a pile of dirty tissues for company. When I’m under the weather, there’s nothing more comforting than revisiting some of my favorite (British) costume drama miniseries. (Those of you who read this blog on the regular know that I’m a little obsessed.) So, in honor of the cold I’m nursing today, here are four of my favorites (that aren’t Pride & Prejudice – the 1995 version – because everyone has seen and love that). All of them are pretty recent and easy to find on Netflix and/or Amazon Instant Video.



Bleak House (2005)

Based on my favorite Dickens novel, this eight-episode series follows the many individuals involved in a decades-long case called Jarndyce v Jarndyce, in which the legality of several wills are being contested. Sound boring? I promise it’s not. This is Dickens’ most complex and impressive story. There are enough murders, orphans, sword fights, creepy old houses, and disfiguring illnesses to keep anyone entertained. The cast in this one is great – Gillian Anderson, Charles Dance, Anna Maxwell Martin and Carey Mulligan are a few of the wonderful actors – and I think that the dark mood of the series perfectly captures that of the novel.



Cranford (2007)

This five-episode miniseries is based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel and takes place in the mid-nineteenth century and follows the residents of Cranford as the modern world approaches their rural village on all fronts, most obviously in the form of the railway. You’ll probably recognize at least seven of the cast members – more if you frequently watch British films and television. Cranford is certainly sentimental, but it hits all of the right notes in terms of humor and drama.



Emma (2009)

There have been about a million versions of Jane Austen’s Emma at this point. I’m not saying this is the best one. I just like it a lot. Romola Garai stars as silly, scheming Emma Woodhouse. Opposite her is Jonny Lee Miller, who plays Mr. Knightley very nicely. For whatever reason, I’ve been happy to revisit the four episodes of this one a few times since it premiered in the US in 2010.



North & South (2004)

Another miniseries based on an Elizabeth Gaskell novel. This one is about a smart, serious daughter of a country parson from the south of England who moves to a northern city (modeled after Manchester) and butts heads with her father’s student, a textile manufacturer. Angst, longing, cotton mill union strikes, and a makeout scene that will bring you to tears ensue.