It probably comes as no surprise that we at To the Lamp Post are period drama aficionados. While you’re waiting for the new season of Downton Abbey to hit our shores, here are ten period dramas to tide you over.
1. North and South (2004) – Margaret Hale leaves her idyllic home in the south of England to live in the northern industrial town of Milton, where she meets gruff industrialist John Thornton. They hate each other, long for each other, and end up together. The plot isn’t ridiculously surprising, but it is gorgeously filmed, designed, and acted. And it famously ends with an insanely romantic scene in a train station in which Margaret is wearing a truly gorgeous pinstripe dress and John Thornton has somehow managed to lose his cravat.
2. Sense and Sensibility (2008) – One of the best things about this adaptation is the way that it truly allows for the melancholy that exists in the text. Edward (played by Downton-famous Dan Stevens) is melancholy, Marianne (Charity Wakefield) is performatively melancholy, Elinor (Hattie Morahan) is really melancholy, and the seaside setting is really really melancholy. Throw in a dash of Dominic Cooper as Willoughby, though, and no one can stay melancholy for too long (at least for the first half?). The 180 minutes allows for the quiet moments to really shine.
3. Bleak House (2005) – Based on Charles Dickens’s sprawling novel indicting the English legal system, Bleak House features tragically star-crossed lovers, mysterious upper-class women, heinously awful barristers, and – surprisingly – a man who spontaneously combusts. Anna Maxwell Martin is fabulous in as Esther Summerson, and the cast is rounded out by such luminaries as Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), Charles Dance (Game of Thrones), and Carey Mulligan (An Education).
4. The Bletchley Circle (2012-2013) – Four women, who met as code breakers during World War II, reunite in 1952 to track down a serial killer who targets young women. The four make an excellent team: one is exceptional with patterns and puzzles, one has a photographic memory, one is a reference librarian, and one has her fingers in the black market. What could be better than a miniseries that address sexism and misogyny head-on and features ladies saving ladies from the patriarchy? Warning: it’s definitely creepy.
5. Emma (2009) – Romola Garai gives a stunningly nuanced performance as Emma Woodhouse, adding layers of complexity and humanity to a difficult character unseen in other adaptations. Beautiful lighting, design, and costumes add to the richness of the adaptation – plus, Garai’s chemistry with Jonny Lee Miller’s Mr. Knightley doesn’t hurt.
6. Persuasion (2007) – An adaptation of Austen’s perhaps most romantic novel, about a young woman who finds love again with her estranged former fiance, Persuasion is gorgeous. We know, we know, the ending is painful: heavy mouth breathing, incorrect geography, and so much running, all undermining Wentworth’s beautiful letter. But the shyness that Rupert Penry-Jones portrays and the longing Sally Hawkins shows, combined with their chemistry, makes the whole thing worth it.
7. The Hour (2011-2012) – A twelve-episode-long story about a BBC news program in the 1950s, The Hour features the always wonderful Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, and Dominic West as a brilliant – and romantically entangled – investigative news team breaking stories about both Britain’s foreign scuffles in the Cold War and governmental corruption on the domestic front. It’s very much a high-class soap opera – but isn’t that why we watch period dramas in the first place?
8. Little Dorrit (2008) – Based on a lesser-known Dickens novel, Little Dorrit centers on Amy “Little” Dorrit (Claire Foy), the daughter of a Marshalsea prisoner (Tom Courtenay), who begins to work for a bitter Mrs. Clenham (Judy Parfitt) and befriends her son Arthur (Matthew Macfadyen). Arthur and Amy’s will-they-won’t-they maybe-romance is very Austen-esque, but the rest of the miniseries is filled with all the money/family/business drama, blackmail (executed superbly by a French ex-convict played by Andy Serkis), and quirky characters one can expect from a Dickens story. Bonus: Doctor Who alums Freema Agyeman, Arthur Darvill, Russell Tovey, and Eve Myles all pop up in the ensemble.
9. Northanger Abbey (2007) – An adaptation of Austen’s earliest (although posthumously published) novel, Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine Morland, a voracious reader of gothic novels who becomes convinced that she is the heroine of her own romantic horror story. Felicity Jones is delightful as Catherine and J.J. Feild is perfect as the flirtatious gentleman who catches her eye.
10. Pride and Prejudice (1995) – Colin Firth going for a swim in his shirtsleeves? Jennifer Ehle being ridiculously charming as the witty Elizabeth Bennet who first hates – then slowly falls in love with – the introverted, rich Mr. Darcy? Chances are you’ve already seen at least the highlight reel from this six-episode BBC series, but there’s always something wonderful about watching Mrs. Bennet twitter around about her daughters’ marriage prospects in the gorgeous English countryside. (Also, Ehle here has THE BEST hat and shrug combos from any period drama miniseries.)