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Hold your horses! We're too quick to criticise costume dramas

All the commentary around a series like War and Peace can threaten to overshadow the show itself, says David Butcher

Published: Sunday, 17th January 2016 at 1:00 pm

So, how are you liking War and Peace? Are you finding it too “racy” and “sexed up”? Can you cope with the actors “mumbling”? Have you noticed how the actresses are “flat-chested”? Can you handle the “distracting double vision” of seeing two of the cast who are also in Dickensian? Did that dying horse in episode one “steal the show” for you?


Or – and I hesitate to suggest this – are you quite enjoying it, with none of the above causing much of a problem? I thought so. Same here. But the dust storm of hype and overreaction and tabloid stories (see above) and “Ohh, that James Norton...” and Twitter flurries and comment threads threaten to overshadow what is, under the fuss, a thoroughly enjoyable slab of TV.

This is what happens now when a big series arrives: the waves it makes get so big they almost swamp our experience of the thing itself. Remember when the first series of Broadchurch came to a head and no ending could possibly have satisfied the feeding frenzy that had gone on for weeks? Remember when Aidan Turner in Poldark... yes of course you do.

Plus, there are always the refuseniks, the killjoys who say it’s all silly and we shouldn’t be losing ourselves in cooked-up, escapist costume drama when there are more important things going on in the present, like austerity and Syria (I’m not joking, people write this stuff).

Yes, period dramas are sticky confections, and steeped in the era in which they were made. Nobody would pretend that BBC1 is bringing us an exact recreation of real life in Romanov Russia, but that doesn’t make it just a dancing-with-the-tsars fantasy. When Tolstoy wrote his mega-novel, he too was reimagining history, the Russia of 60 years previously, before he was born – it was always an escape to the past.

I remember years ago arguing with a producer who said period dramas were done for. This was in the early 1990s, when the wave of Merchant Ivory films had passed and costume drama on TV was at a low ebb. But sure enough, not long afterwards it was “once more into the breeches” with Pride and Prejudice, and the Austen-mania boom.

There’s always another wave coming. The last BBC drama boss vowed only to do costume dramas with an artful twist, like Peaky Blinders and Dickensian. But, sensibly, he and the BBC realised there was room for the occasional big, blousy classic like War and Peace too, with no radical rethink involved. And in the process, not accidentally, they delivered a subtle message to the Government, because when the BBC spreads its wings this well, clipping them doesn’t look such a good idea.


War & Peace continues on BBC1 tonight (Sunday 17th January) at 9.00pm


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