From Darcy to ‘Downton’: The appeal of the costume drama

With tales of scandal and romance, fabulous frocks, some Regency-era lessons on good morals, and themes of grace and forgiveness, the costume drama has revolutionized television and captured the hearts of millions of viewers worldwide

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The Crawley sisters from "Downton Abbey" Credit: Courtesy of MASTERPIECE
The cast of the original “Upstairs, Downstairs” Credit: Courtesy of ITV Studios
Cast from "Return to Cranford" Credit: Courtesy of ©2009 Laurence Cendrowicz/BBC for MASTERPIECE

By Julie Rattey


“It really does boil down to one moment writ large…” says British TV critic Kathryn Flett. “Man steps out of lake, world changes. Television is never the same again.”

 

The man stepping out of the lake, of course, is Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the beloved 1995 BBC miniseries of “Pride and Prejudice.” The moment — where Darcy, fresh from a dip in the family lake, embarrassingly encounters the woman who spurned his offer of marriage — is now so iconic that it coined the nickname “Colin ‘Wet Shirt’ Firth.” The miniseries — whose website, amusingly, includes a video clip entitled “How did writer Andrew Davies persuade Colin Firth to smoulder?” (apparently only accessible to those in the UK; thanks a lot, BBC) — launched the 1990s’ “romantic revolution” of the costume drama.

 

Discussion of this pivotal moment in the history of the costume drama is one element of “The Story of the Costume Drama: The Greatest Stories Ever Told,” which airs beginning March 3 on PBS stations (click here to check local listings). Narrated by Keeley Hawes (Lady Agnes in the new “Upstairs Downstairs”), the one-hour program is a quick take on the history of the genre, from the enormous popularity of “The Forstye Saga” to the controversial sexual and/or political implications of programs like “Brideshead Revisited,” “I, Claudius,” and “The Jewel in the Crown,” to the romantic revolution of the ‘90s and more recent programs like “Cranford,” featuring such grande dames as Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins.

 

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The airing of the PBS program is a good opportunity to examine the appeal of the costume drama, which stems from many directions. For the British especially, a peek into the sometimes scandalous private lives of their own monarchs (in programs such as “Edward VII,” for instance) has been one draw. For those both within and beyond Britain’s borders, the lure of romance, lush settings, intriguing characters, engaging plots, and, of course, fabulous clothes, have all played their role in drawing in viewers. The audience is wide-ranging, from American single women pining for their own Mr. Darcy to the royal family of England. “Apparently on a Sunday night at 9 p.m.,” says Susannah Buxton, costume designer for the miniseries “Downton Abbey,” “nothing happens at Buckingham Palace because the top of the house is watching ‘Downton.’”

 

But does it all come down to fluff and fantasy? Or are there themes and messages in some of these dramas that also contribute to their appeal? Just as Dickens’ novels served to shed light on and arouse indignation at social injustices of 19th-century England, some costume dramas serve a social and political function — such as “The Jewel in the Crown,” described in “The Story of the Costume Drama” as an apology to a nation (India) for colonialism. The interracial romance in the series, which pulled heartstrings, no doubt served to both ruffle feathers and question prejudices.

 

Then there are more universal themes like grace and forgiveness that enhance any good story. In their podcast “A Catholic Look at ‘Downton,’” America magazine editors Jim Martin, SJ and Tim Reidy discussed these and other themes in connection with the show, from the characters’ handling of betrayals and forgiveness to the ways that showing the characters’ feelings and weaknesses helps us find humanity even in devious characters like the first footman Thomas and the lady’s maid, O’Brien. (Interesting factoid: the creator and writer of the show, Julian Fellowes of “Gosford Park” fame, is Catholic.)

 

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There’s even the possibility that viewers are swallowing some social and sexual ethics with their spoonful of sartorial sugar — and, perhaps, liking it. In today’s oversexed, less codified, “anything goes” society, perhaps the world of costume dramas — at least, those that feature more meaningful glances than ripped bodices — affords an escape to a more morally restrained and polite world when romance was more subtle and sexual virtue more valued. Today, when the most explicit of pornography is available at the click of a mouse, women are still replaying “Pride and Prejudice” to catch a hint of Colin Firth’s chest beneath a wet Regency shirt, and tuning in to PBS to sigh over stolen glances in “Downton Abbey.” Perhaps, then, the less chivalrous and ultra-permissive side of our modern western culture is not providing women with the kind of respect and romance they desire (an argument that has also been made to explain part of the appeal of the Twilight series, featuring a handsome, chivalrous vampire hero from the Edwardian era who saves sex for marriage). Writers continue to churn out Austen-inspired works (Austenland and Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, among others) in which modern-day Austen-obsessed women, disillusioned with two-timing, uncouth, or noncommittal men, one-night stands, and a lack of genuine love and respect from the opposite sex, ultimately learn to ditch the Wickhams in their lives and find Darcys instead. These men, like Austen’s, show their love not primarily through passionate trysts, but through kindness, compassion, honorable behavior, and rescuing the heroines from duplicitous cads.

 

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After all, in Pride & Prejudice, it’s not Darcy’s good looks that turn Elizabeth’s head, but the fact that he is kind to her and her relatives, rescues her wayward sister from ruin, and works on his character flaws. In Austen’s novel, the anticipated happiness of the modest and restrained Elizabeth and Darcy contrasts widely with that of the rakish George Wickham and flirty, flighty Lydia (insightfully updated in the Bollywood “Bride and Prejudice” as a belly-baring, boy-texting teen). “How little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue, [Elizabeth] could easily conjecture,” Austen wrote.

 

Austen’s insights into character, virtue, and honorable behavior are still relevant today, which may be one reason for the ongoing popularity of her novels and the costume pieces that dramatize them. Austen, points out the author of the blog PhilosophersBeard.com, was “a brilliant moral philosopher who analyzed and taught a virtue ethics for middle-class life that is surprisingly contemporary… Her novels analyze and teach a virtue ethics for bourgeois life, the kind of life that most of us live today.” He describes the happy resolution of “Pride and Prejudice,” so dependent upon the living out of middle-class propriety, as “a moral happy ending even more than it is a romantic one.”

 

Whatever the cause of their appeal, thanks to “Pride and Prejudice” and its small-screen comrades, costume dramas aren’t going away anytime soon. And those of us who love them have cause to rejoice. CD

 

“The Story of the Costume Drama: The Greatest Stories Ever Told” begins airing March 3 on PBS stations. Click here to check local listings. The program includes clips from and discussion about shows including “The Forstye Saga,” “Vanity Fair,” “Brideshead Revisited,” “Upstairs, Downstairs,” “Edward VII,” “I, Claudius,” “The Jewel in the Crown,” “Tenko,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Moll Flanders,” “Cranford,” and more. It also includes interviews with actors including Susan Hampshire, Derek Jacobi, John Hurt, Alex Kingston, and Art Malik.

 

Editor’s note: Parental discretion advised for this program. The documentary touches on some adult-oriented topics, such as the sexual implications of programs like “Brideshead Revisited,” censorship issues related to scenes in “I, Claudius,” and some steamy clips from “Moll Flanders.”

 

Julie Rattey [jrattey@catholicdigest.com] is the managing editor of Catholic Digest. In 2008, she fulfilled a longtime dream by playing Elizabeth Bennet in a stage adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice.”


Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.