The British don’t have a monopoly on costume drama TV, or what I prefer to call heritage television – they just produce it by the tonne and then sell it internationally with the kind of born-to-rule instinct that once led to the colonisation of half the world.
Even where the production is American, like Netflix’s The Crown, British creatives from executive producers down to the smallest supporting players are usually crucial in getting the tone and details right.
Regardless of whether this type of programming appeals to a viewer’s particular taste, it’s usually of a high production standard, including excellent acting from both established names and talented newcomers, plus time-proven source material adapted by the highly skilled.
The main trap is that afflicting all genre fiction: a sense that, if the filmmakers aren’t supremely careful, the usual storytelling conventions can easily take over and make everything seem overly familiar and unsurprising.
It’s extraordinary that when you look closely, a huge amount of today’s heritage TV comes from the pens of only two prolific and highly competent writers – the BBC’s king of adaptation, Andrew Davies (House of Cards through Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace and countless others), and Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, Downton Abbey etc). If either had the misfortune to collide with a runaway bus, British TV would surely be hurled into existential crisis.
A major heritage sub-genre, of course, is linked to the Regency period and the literary works of a certain Ms J. Austen. So much so that it’s hard to believe there was a time when that beloved author was frequently overlooked as a source for screen work. After Pride and Prejudice was given a handsome 1940 Hollywood makeover starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, it was half a century of quickly forgotten, low-budget TV versions before Davies’s lavish, internationally popular BBC series starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle spectacularly put Austen back on the global map. After this, the deluge.
Right now there are no less than three entirely or partially Austen-inspired teleseries screening on ABC and Netflix. First up came the similarly titled but quite different in tone Bridgerton (Netflix) and Sanditon (ABC iView), the former a sexed-up, postmodern romp, inspired by Julia Quinn’s bestselling novels, that virtually winks at the viewer, while the latter is a more conventional production inspired by the dozen or so chapters of Austen’s unfinished final novel of the same name – expanded freely for TV by – who else? – Davies.
Meanwhile, unfolding in weekly episodes on ABC free-to-air as well as available on the network’s streaming channel as a bingeable complete series is Belgravia, adapted by Fellowes from his own novel set against the 19th-century development of the high-class London district of that name.
At least this series gets away from the by-now wrung dry plot device of ‘which handsome but uptight wealthy gentleman is to marry my daughters, forsooth’.
The plot revolves around a couple with a secret – an apparently illegitimate grandson whose good favour in certain society circles forms a mystery to be solved by various unsavoury or desperate characters. Alfred Hitchcock believed a story is only as good as its villain is bad, so he’d doubtless applaud the characterisation of the story’s cad in chief, a smirking, strutting peacock with a heart of sheer darkness – a deliciously authentic performance by an actor I don’t recall seeing before, Adam James.
Other casting pleasures include the lead players, successfully cast against type: Tamsin Greig, best known for the comedy series Black Books, and Philip Glenister, unforgettable as a brusquely racist and sexist 1970s detective in the hit series Life on Mars, and here allowed to flourish as an essentially benign gentleman builder. Bouquets also to the magnificent Tom Wilkinson, whose presence in any cast is always a promising sign that we’re unlikely to be about to entirely waste our time.