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?