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From Nicola Coughlan’s hunks in landscaped gardens to Cillian Murphy’s gripping gangster romp: Patrick Freyne’s costume drama guide

With the return of Bridgerton, here’s a guide to costume drama

Bridgerton, aka Hunks in Landscaped Gardens

It’s season three, and that means it’s the excellent Nicola Coughlan’s time to come into her own as a romantic heroine while running a small- to medium-sized Regency influencing business. (She’s secretly the gossip-mongering pamphleteer Lady Whistledown.) From the 18th century on, fiction frequently focused on the need for respectable ladies to produce an heir. These books didn’t spend much time on the actual process of producing an heir, however. Shonda Rhimes, Bridgerton’s executive producer, addresses this balance here. Period dramas were once all about nice frocks. Bridgerton includes both nice frocks and a hunk-run frock-removal service.

Upstairs, Downstairs

The mother of them all. A long-running series, created by Eileen Atkins and Jean Marsh in 1971, that lays bare the complicated class politics of a fancy London town house at the turn of the last century. As both of their mothers were actually servants, Atkins and Marsh did not shrink from depicting upper-class complacency about poverty and the abject nature of the class system. However, to paraphrase Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, “That’s, like, just their opinion, man.”

Downton Abbey/Belgravia/The Gilded Age

Baron Fellowes of West Stafford had a very different perspective on all this for reasons you may be able to deduce from this sentence. Fellowes watched Upstairs, Downstairs and thought to himself, Counterpoint: What if being posh was really lovely and posh people were nice and poor people often like being servants, actually? He pursues this fascinating idea through Downton Abbey and successive shows such as Belgravia and The Gilded Age, in which the tragedies of war, colonialism and poverty are useful backdrops for stories about people in nice frocks purchasing new spoons with which to trick the middle class. In these Fellowpian dramas, characters have a tendency to comment on the changing world with high irony. “I expect it will be a very pleasant voyage, Mr Hindenburg,” they’ll say in 1937. “Well, this ‘internet’ is certainly not going to catch on!” they’ll say in 1993. Julian Fellowes’ shows are a good reminder that adjacent to most historical disasters is a posh person having a nice time.

Star Wars

The whole franchise is essentially a period drama, given that it’s set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I like to rewatch it, placing the fastidious C-3PO in the role of a Carson-like butler, the Ewoks as the scrappy working class and Chewbacca as the waspish lady dowager commenting sarcastically on the tasteless bourgeoisie. “Raar!” says Chewbacca, waspishly, noticing how Han Solo, a self-made businessman, is using the wrong spoon.

Colin Firth’s Olden Days Sexy Time, aka Pride and Prejudice

A short film in which Colin Firth emerges from a pond in a clinging white smock. This was actually part of a longer BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but it has largely been reduced to this image in people’s memory. And that’s fine, to be honest. Historically this show was important because it was the first programme that suggested people in the olden days had sex. Previously it was thought that 19th-century people reproduced asexually, like some wasps (hence “waspishly” above).

Poldark

One of several programmes here featuring Irish people masquerading as English people (probably in revenge for the Famine). In this instance the ersatz Briton is Aidan Turner as a brooding and windswept Cornwallian tin merchant having all manner of sexy affairs while engaged in an eternal battle with his ancient enemy, shirts.

Call the Midwife

The BBC’s ongoing television programme about how much trouble babies are continues to be moving and gritty. It makes the case for a national health service better than any politician or policy document. Also, the baby actors are 100 per cent believable as postwar 1950s babies, scrunching up their faces and wailing like young Laurence Oliviers.

Bambú Producciones shows

Netflix has a bunch of beautifully produced period dramas from the aforementioned Spanish production house, including Cable Girls, High Seas and Velvet. These shows deal, respectively, with the lives of phone operators, a high-seas luxury liner and a mid-century fashion house. They’re all soapily compelling but can cause side effects. In lockdown, after repeated exposure to Bambú Producciones, my wife began dressing like a mid-century career girl, drinking wine from a tumbler and speaking in impractically melodramatic Spanish. (Melodramatic Spanish won’t get you to the airport but can get you into an endless blood feud with a sworn enemy.)

Mad Men

Matthew Weiner’s brilliant seven-season epic unfolded as an interlocking collection of cool, Cheeveresque short stories set in and around a 1960s advertising firm. It was a programme about deeply unhappy alcoholics created by a cold-hearted ironist. Lots of critics were initially wowed by the glossy surfaces of the show (in fairness there probably should have been more stains) and missed the subtext of alienated consumption and imperial American ennui. This is why if you look up old articles about Mad Men they have headlines such as “When I drunkenly harass my secretary and disappoint my children even my divorce lawyer doesn’t think I’m cool. And that’s what’s wrong with the United States.”

Game of Thrones

Lots of young people watched this instead of paying attention in history class, so it might as well be the history of England. (George RR Martin did originally base it on the War of the Roses.) If the British royal family really want to hang on to relevance over the coming years, they should pretend they have a dragon.

The Crown

Peter Morgan’s fantasia about a rich lady who lives for a long time on the fringes of world events over which she exercises very little control but about which she is cooly judgmental. The pitch is, essentially, “A rich lady watches stuff.” The Crown is beautifully made and acted but needs more dragons.

Peaky Blinders

Steven Knight’s gripping gangster romp features an Oscar-winning Corkonian with a Brummie accent and a striking haircut. I thought it was set in the early 20th century, but, going by the haircuts of all teenage boys in Dublin right now, it’s possibly set contemporaneously. There’s arguably a gendered split among period dramas between frock-centric romances and hair-cut-centred ultraviolence. Yes, Women are from Bridgerton, Men are from Westeros, to quote my upcoming book of completely inaccurate pseudoscience.

’Allo ’Allo!

A programme about a middle-aged man who juggles a struggling cafe business, several extramarital affairs, an art-thieving scheme with some buffoonish Nazis, and an operation smuggling British airmen across the border. It should be very relatable to Irish Times readers. Talk about the squeezed middle! There are fewer sex comedies about the second World War than you’d imagine.

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