When it comes to big budget extravaganzas and shoot ’em up flicks Hollywood has no equal. But , after a while , one gets tired of all the car chases and the explosions and the serial killers and the computer graphics . Perhaps it’s just that I’m growing older but, more and more , I yearn for feelings , for characters who are true to life and who stir the emotions . That is why I find myself drawn to British TV shows particularly the dramas set in the past.
What I like most about them is that they are about characters I can identify with in locales that I’m familiar with through my reading . They are not about the rich and the beautiful or the weird . The storylines engage my interest because I am interested in finding out what happens next , not just to the lead characters but to all the others who people the story. In the period dramas, little bits of history are woven into the story ; not only do they make the story more authentic to my eyes but they create a little frisson of excitement when I recognize them . What sets these shows apart is the excellence of the acting and the wealth of detail lavished on even the lesser characters , something very unusual in American TV.
At one time I used to be turned off by all the British imports on PBS, especially Masterpiece Theater ; now I seek them out . Luckily , all of them are available on Netflix , many of them online streaming , and I’m avidly enjoying them one by one . Some of those I’ve enjoyed, with their ratings , are as under. Ratings are on a scale from 1 to 5 stars, with 5 stars being excellent and 3 stars worth watching I don’t think I’ve watched anything in this genre that merited less than three stars .
1. Downton Abbey. ( *****)Set in the years just before the outbreak of World War I , this series debuted in 2010 to huge critical acclaim . As the show begins , the Crawley family is thrown into turmoil because the putative heir to Downton Abbey goes down with the Titanic. Since the estate can only pass on to a male heir , the futures of the family’s three daughters ( one of whom was about to be engaged to him ) are suddenly up in the air.Petty jealousies and ambitions grow among the family and the staff, and scheming and secrets — both delicious and dangerous — threaten to derail the scramble to preserve Downton Abbey. I’m eagerly awaiting the second season .
2. The Duchess of Duke Street ( *****) tells the story of Louisa Trotter , who rose from poverty to become the owner of the Bentick Hotel and hobnobbed with the rich and famous of London Society.She begins her career as an assistant cook , catches the eye of the Prince of Wales and is practically forced into becoming his paramour. She parlays this connection into fame and riches as she proceeds with steely determination to achieve her ambition of becoming the best cook in England . Along the way , she finds love and heartbreak in equal measure. Her character is loosely based on the real life Rosa Lewis ( née Ovenden ) who overcame her modest beginnings to become the proprietress of the Cavendish Hotel. Set in the period spanning 1900 to 1935 , this series first aired in the mid-1970’s and the production values are understandably not as good . No matter , because Gemma Jones is riveting as Louisa Trotter and there is a host of other characters that command our interest and affection .
3. The House of Elliot ( *****) Its three seasons aired from 1991 to 19993 before the series came to an abrupt end , Currently I’ve watched all but the last of 12 Netflix disks and I’m completely in thrall. Until I started watching this series, The Duchess of Duke Street was my favorite , but no longer. Beatrice and Evangeline Elliot are the daughters of a parsimonious London doctor . He dies suddenly leaving them destitute as it transpires that his money has been spent secretly supporting a secret second family. Totally unprepared to earn their own living , Bea and Evie nevertheless struggle to build their own high fashion couture business , The House of Elliot. It is no easy task in the male dominated society of the era ( circa 1915). With pluck and skill they battle their way to the top , overcoming a series unfortunate love affairs , male prejudices , cheats , arson etc. Excellent acting by Stella Gonet as Bea and Louise Lombard as Evie , a wealth of historical detail , beautiful costumes and a compelling storyline make this series a delight to watch . Too bad it ends abruptly.
4. Lark Rise to Candleford ( ****) . These are the names of two villages eight miles apart geographically but worlds apart in every other way . Lark Rise is a farming village and most of its proud but poor inhabitants live a hardscrabble existence . Candleford , a neighboring market town , is more prosperous and its dwellers consider themselves a cut above the ir Lark Rise cousins. The series begins with young Laura moving from Lark Rise to Candleford to take up a job in the post office , the postmistress Dorcas Lane being her relative . The series is set in the late 19th century and is loosely based on a trilogy of novels by Flora Thompson. It lasted for four seasons between 2008 and 2011 but I’ve only watched the first two seasons which are all that are available on Netflix . What I saw was superior : a host of engaging characters , absorbing storylines which focussed in turn on different characters and a marvelous attention to detail though the picture of village life is somewhat idealized . The English countryside is lovingly photographed and has never looked more beautiful.
5. Cranford ( ****) based on the novels of Mrs . ( Elizabeth) Gaskell and is set in the early 1840’s. The story focuses primarily on the town’s female inhabitants who are comfortable with their traditional way of life and place great store in propriety and maintaining an appearance of gentility. Among them are the spinster Jenkyns sisters, Matty and Deborah; their houseguest , Mary Smith; Octavia Pole, the town’s leading gossip; the Tomkinson sisters, Augusta and Caroline; Mrs Rose, the housekeeper for Dr Harrison; Jessie Brown, who rejects Major Gordon’s marriage proposal twice despite her feelings for him; Sophy Hutton, the vicar’s’s eldest daughter and surrogate mother to her three younger siblings, who is courted by Dr Harrison; and the aristocratic Lady Ludlow, who lives in splendour and perceives change as a peril to the natural order of things.
The principal male characters are new arrival Dr Frank Harrison, who is smitten with Sophy but unwittingly becomes the romantic target of both Mrs Rose and Caroline Tomkinson, who often feigns illness to hold his attention; Dr Morgan, an old-fashioned practitioner who finds himself challenged by the modern ideas of his young partner; Captain Brown, a military man whose common sense earns him a place of authority among the women; Edmund Carter, Lady Ludlow’s land agent, a reformer who strongly advocates free education for the working class; Reverend Hutton, a widower with four children whose religious conviction is sometimes at odds with his instincts as a father and Sir Charles Maulver, the local magistrate and director of the railway company. I found Cranford not quite as interesting as the others and its sequel , Return to Cranford is , apparently , a disappointment.
There are other series that I’ve watched and enjoyed but this post has already gone on too long so I’ll write about them another day.