Select one of the keywords
Editorial August 2012: The Costume Drama
by Hilary Williamson

Those of us who love to read tend to enjoy viewing costume dramas as well. After all, most of them - from I, Claudius to Moll Flanders and Pride and Prejudice - are based on wonderful books that we have read and re-read over the years. I recently watched The Story of the Costume Drama: How the best of them were made by those who were there (Acorn, 2 discs, 5 episodes, 3 3/4 hours, 'As seen on Public Television'). I enjoyed this documentary series tremendously - for the nostalgia of revisiting old favorites and the pleasure of learning about those I had missed.

Episodes cover: the shows themselves (The Greatest Stories Ever Told); the actors (The Stars); the romances (Affairs of the Heart); the locations (Picture Perfect); and the action (A Call to Arms). They include many clips (though repeated rather often, especially Darcy's diving scene) and insider interviews with both actors and film critics. The first episode took me back in time to the first costume drama, the original Robin Hood, that my brothers and I watched every Saturday in the early 60s! Others of my favorites covered include Upstairs Downstairs, The Jewel in the Crown, A Piece of Cake, Horatio Hornblower, I, Claudius, Elizabeth I, and many Jane Austen series.

Regarding The Stars, who knew that Patrick Stewart ('Make it so' in Star Trek) also played in I, Claudius? Ioan Gruffudd starred in Horatio Hornblower and went on to play a stretchable superhero in Fantastic Four. I enjoyed Alex Kingston in ER, but hadn't realized she'd also starred in Moll Flanders and Boudica (one that I must see). Another I was unaware of is the remake of Doctor Zhivago with Hans Matheson replacing Omar Sharif and Julie Christie's original role replayed by Keira Knightley. And, of course, there's Daniel Radcliffe's magical transition from years of Harry Potter to My Boy Jack (about the tragic death of Rudyard Kipling's underage, myopic son in World War I).

I enjoyed many of the actors' own comments and insights in Affairs of the Heart (all about 'bodices ripped, hearts broken'), which addresses the evolution of the bodice ripper (from subtle to not at all so) down the years. Series covered include Edward VII, Lillie, Poldark (a Sunday show that was so popular that church services had to be moved to avoid its time slot), Brideshead Revisited, Jewel in the Crown, Fanny Hill, Cranford (reflecting an 'age of innocence'), and North and South. And I had no idea that the Pride and Prejudice leads had an off-screen relationship too.

It's all about 'location, location, location' in Picture Perfect, which will make you want to book a UK holiday right away to see some of Britain's finest historic homes and prettiest villages for yourself! In this episode I learned that I, Claudius was filmed entirely in the studio (and that removing Derek Jacobi's makeup was very painful); that Brideshead Revisited used Castle Howard for its location; that the actors in Poldark went down a real mine; and that the picturesque Wiltshire village of Lacock shown in Cranford has been used again and again on British television.

Finally we get into 'serious swashbuckling' in A Call to Arms with Ioan Gruffudd in Horatio Hornblower (where the cast was often queasy and grown men got to play with a full-sized three-masted ship); Alex Kingston in Boudica (this 'chick with weapon' was almost arrested for practicing with spear and chariot in a U.S. suburb); and Sean Bean who fought long and hard in India in Sharpe's Peril. I learned why The Monocled Mutineer (set in the WW I trenches) was so controversial; viewed the filming of a dangerous flying stunt in A Piece of Cake; and sampled scenes from Colditz, Secret Army and Testament of Youth.

If you enjoyed any of these great series when they came out, don't miss The Story of the Costume Drama - I really didn't expect a documentary to be so engaging. The back of the DVD box quotes the UK Daily Mail saying 'The costume drama remains the greatest of escapes.' So, if you're looking to get away from it all in the busy seasons ahead, take breaks to absorb this delightful series and imagine yourself (upstairs or downstairs) in different times, costumes, and lives. I'm off to add the series that I missed to my holiday wish list!
Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.