By Kimberley Bond
Period dramas have always been a mainstay of British television, and likely always will be. As one of our biggest and best-loved exports, people the world over are fascinated with the rich (and certainly highly controversial and often problematic) tapestry of British history, including us Brits ourselves.
From Colin Firth’s saucy sopping wet shirt in the nineties to the warm, comforting world of Downton Abbey – the televisual equivalent of soaking in a bubble bath – period shows have always been winning escapism for broadcasters, with their soothing Sunday night slots ideal at gently lulling you into hectic Monday mornings. Their unique mix of giving audiences the opportunity to peek into the past, coupled with the familiarity of usual tropes and stories wrapped up in britches and bonnets, is in part responsible for their vast popularity.
Bar a few notable nods (e.g. the seductive yet silly The Tudors), period dramas have steered clear from anything remotely edgy, ground-breaking or innovative – but recent iterations have turned traditions on its head, grabbing bodice rippers by the lace of its corsets and tugging them into the 21st century.
Period’s most recent runaway hit is Bridgerton, watched by a reported 63 million households since it first launched on Netflix on Christmas Day. On the surface, it seems to pedal the usual period drama fare; based on books written by Julia Quinn, a well-to-do young woman is forced to navigate the marriage market of Regency London.
What makes Bridgerton so different is the way it playfully toys with the historical setting that is its home, like a cat pulling apart yarn. The marriage balls play out like the 19th century’s answer to Tinder, with women swiping left and between suitors until the early hours. The dances are soundtracked to modern pop songs, with Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams being played by a string quartet as Julie Andrew’s faceless narrator Lady Whistledown dishes out b***hy snipes like a technophobic Gossip Girl. The heady mix of modern and period, sharp dialogue and antiquated settings makes for intoxicating viewing – it’s little wonder the series has been renewed for a second season, with the potential to run for eight in total.
Putting the marriage market under a contemporary lens was a deliberate choice by Bridgerton showrunner Chris Van Dusen. As a stalwart of Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland, which produced the drama, he explains that he wanted Bridgerton to feel fresh and new to audiences as the company’s previous hit shows.
“Period pieces are always thought of as being a little traditional and a little conservative. And that was never the way I wanted Bridgerton to be. I knew it could be so much more than that,” he told press. “It had to be so much more than that.
“I really set out to make the period show I wanted to see, one that turns this traditional genre on its head and presents something new and fresh and relatable and topical. The regency period was a crazy time and it was full of decadence and excess and glamour. And with Bridgerton we sought to reimagine that time period in a way it hasn’t been seen before.”
One of the ways Bridgerton stands apart from the period shows that came before it is in the diversity of its cast. While Britain as a country is a proudly multicultural hub, its historical drama exports tend to present almost an exclusively posh, white look at the past. More recent films and series have tried to readdress this lack of diversity, such as Dev Patel taking the leading role in The Personal History of David Copperfield, but that is merely a small step along remedying a typically white, staid setting.
It’s something Regé-Jean Page, who plays lusted-after Lord Hastings, praised about the Bridgerton series. “It’s not colour blind casting because I don’t think it’s helpful to put brown skin in the show without putting brown people in the show,” he previously told The Guardian. “This show is a glamorous, ambitious Cinderella fantasy of love and romance – I don’t know why you wouldn’t invite everyone to come and play in it, especially since we’re serving a global audience on Netflix. It takes so little imagination to include people, as opposed to how much thought and effort it takes to keep people out of these stories.”
As well as observing race, newer period dramas are more willing to toy with the interplay between feminist themes with more archaic power structures of times past. While the women in Bridgerton are at the mercy of the men around them, they are critical about how their femininity places them lower down in the societal hierarchy – Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) chastises older brother Jonathan for his meddling efforts in finding her a suitable union, while fan favourite Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jesssie) staunchly asserts she does not want to marry at all, and would rather go to university.
It’s 2018’s The Favourite that deserves the highest of praise for its historic female characters rightfully reclaiming their narratives away from the men that shaped them. With little really widely known about Queen Anne, writer Tony McNamara was given the space and license to push boundaries – with the lesbian sex, pitch-black comedy and use of modern language in a court setting complemented further by Yorgos Lanthimos’s experimental direction.
It’s little wonder then that McNamara went on to pen Channel 4’s latest foray into period drama with The Great, another modern-day re-examining of a royally inveigled woman. With Elle Fanning starring as a young version of Catherine the Great, the series sees the Empress as bold, brave and brainy, surrounded by the idiotic and incompetent (played to perfection by Nicholas Hoult).
The Great has been described as “anti-historical”, using rumours and stories around Catherine as stabilisers while McNamara endeavours more of his efforts into the show’s entertainment value – think of it less of a period drama, and more like historical fan-fic. Speaking to The Independent, McNamara explains: “If you’re a slave to the detail it destroys the drama and eats away at the essence, so I stripped all that out to make the women’s stories very central and get to that core kernel of truth.”
These fresh and new iterations of period dramas fundamentally show that very little of human nature has changed after several hundred years. While our characters may be dressed in historical finery and adhering to antiquated norms, their scenarios are still relevant to society in the 21st century.
“Underneath the beautiful escapist world, we have this running modern commentary on things like class and gender and sex and sexuality and race. They are issues that audiences can relate to today,” Bridgerton’s Van Dusen explains. “We rely on the history but we’re not beholden to it.
“Everything on this show is really filtered through this unique modern lens. It’s for a modern audience. Even though we’re set in the 19th century, we wanted things to feel relatable, we wanted the audience to see themselves in these characters.
“Underneath all the glamour and the lavishness, we have this running commentary about how in the last 200 years everything has changed but nothing has changed.”
So if you’re looking to lift back the velvet curtain and see a faithful retelling of a slice of history, the likes of Bridgerton and The Great are not quite that. But when it boils down to it, does it even really matter? When the new dramas are this engaging and entertaining, there’s no reason not to add a little 21st century polish to timeless stories.