If, like us, you are experiencing serious Downton Abbey withdrawal, here are a few period pieces that you may want to check out. Some aren’t quite on the level of Downton, but if you’re craving the costumes, the class struggles, the accents… they’ll do the trick. You should be able to find them on iTunes and/or Netflix:
Upstairs Downstairs–If you haven’t watched this fantastic series set in a large Belgravian townhouse in Edwardian, First World War and Interbellum London, you should. It’s the mothership of a certain type of period drama and it depicts the lives of the servants “downstairs” and those they serve “upstairs” and their expected and not so expected interactions. With 68 episodes spanning five seasons, it will definitely tide you over to the next season of Downton Abbey. Warning: it was shot in the 1970s and feels a bit clunky (and surprisingly groovy) at times. I think that funding must have come in around episode three, because everything gets markedly better thereafter. Stick with it. There is also a 2010 BBC Revival of Upstairs Downstairs. New family, same house, with one of the original servants, Rose Buck, bridging the gap. A second series of the revival has been filmed and should be out in the U.S. sometime this year.
Cranford–Set in a small village in North West England during the Victorian era, Cranford was broadcast in the U.S. in 2008 on PBS as part of its Masterpiece Theatre series. Cranford focuses on the village’s single and widowed middle class women who are satisfied with their way of life and reluctant to accept the changes that are sweeping England. It’s a little G-rated, but good, and, in addition to Dame Judi Dench, you’ll recognize a number of actors like Claudie Blakey, Eileen Atkins and Julia Sawalha from other BBC productions (there seems to be a terrific number of cast crossovers in period pieces). Naturally, there is a two-part Christmas follow-up special, Return to Cranford.
Lark Rise to Candleford–This series was adapted by the BBC from Flora Thompson’s novels about the English countryside. It reminds me of a British Little House on the Prairie. Lark Rise ran for four seasons and aired on the BBC and PBS between 2008 and 2011. It’s set in the small farming hamlet of Lark Rise and the nearby wealthier, more sophisticated market town of Candleford towards the end of the 19th century. The series chronicles the daily lives of farm workers, merchants, and gentry through the eyes of the Laura Timmins, a teenage girl who leaves Lark Rise to start a new life under the watch of her eccentric cousin in Candleford. Again, not as steamy as Downton Abby and occasionally it can be bit of a snoozer, but the acting is good and it’s very sweet–there’s usually a moral or lesson to be had. It’s a good pick to watch with the (older) kids. Also, Brendan Coyle, who plays John Bates on Downton, stars in Lark Rise as an equally brooding yet upright character.
Casualty 1900s/London Hospital–This series seems to have been called Casualty 1900s in England (a spin off of the popular British Casualty set in a modern day fictional hospital) and London Hospital in the States. While Casualty 1900s/London Hospital differs from the above series in that it’s less about the daily lives of its protagonists and more about historical events and groundbreaking medical developments, it still focuses on the sharp class divide that existed and the sense that the old ways of life were changing. It has the quick pace of today’s medical dramas but it’s set in 1906-1909. Every medical case and character is based on cases, characters and events taken from actual London Hospital records, nurses’ Ward Diaries and memoirs. It’s intense, gritty and perhaps a more realistic or unromanticized depiction of what life was like in the early 1900s in London.
And, should a series seem too much of a commitment, here are a few excellent period mini-series that you might have have missed: The Forsyte Saga; He Knew He Was Right; and The Way We Live Now. Let us know what we left out!