14 costume dramas that captured the nation's imagination

Farhana Gani

Period dramas have been a staple of entertainment through human history, at least as far back as the Ancient Greeks, as we seek to understand our humanity through a prism of what went before. The last few years have seen some notable triumphs in this broad genre both on TV and in cinema, whether based on the biographies of a single figure or the via the fictional evocation of an era. Here’s our pick of the crop (riding boots optional).

Poldark (2015)

Sultry Aidan Turner, sprightly Eleanor Tomlinson and the majestic Cornish clifftops star in this smouldering update of the historical family drama based on the novels of Winston Graham. It’s the late 1700s, and Cornwall’s tin and copper mines are in crisis as ore prices plummet and the cost of food and rent soars. Ross Poldark returns from a doomed campaign fighting for the British in the American War of Independence to find his true love Elizabeth is about to marry his cousin, and devotes his energies to keeping his loyal workforce above the breadline and his passions (mostly) in check.
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Indian Summers (2015)

This lavish original drama series focuses on a small group of British socialites in the foothills of Simla during the time of the Raj. Julie Walters is feisty matriarch Cynthia Coffin, doyenne of the whites-only British Club as it opens for a new season. As the natives grow restless and seek an end to British rule, the expats’ insular world is further disturbed by the mysterious arrival in India of Jemima West’s single mum Alice Whelan. Colourful Sunday evening viewing spiked with lively debate about race, class, caste, religion and Britain’s legacy across the subcontinent. Henry Lloyd-Jones, Amber Rose Revah, Aysha Kala, Nikesh Patel and Bollywood stalwarts Lillette Dubey and Roshan Seth also star.
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Mr Selfridge (2013–)

The story of the flamboyant American retail magnate who transformed the ‘dead end’ of Oxford Street into a beacon of innovation and fashion has been an enduring triumph in spite of Jeremy Piven’s horribly wooden acting. Yes, Jeremy, we get that Harry Selfridge was a showman, but that doesn’t mean you have to telegraph every mood and passion with extravagant hand gestures and facial tics that play to an invisible gallery. What holds the series together is not the main man or the often dubious historical events, but a well-drawn cast of underlings and connivers seeking to please or undermine the nation’s No.1 shopkeeper. The fourth series for 2016 promises the welcome return of foxy Lady Mae Loxley, who will doubtless wrap poor Harry around her little finger once again.
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The Imitation Game (2014)

Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of socially awkward genius codebreaker Alan Turing is a masterclass in truly inhabiting a character. Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Charles Dance and Mark Strong head a powerful supporting cast as Turing leads a raddled team of brilliant mathematicians in a nail-biting race to break the German Enigma Code during the darkest days of World War II. Turing’s blinkered logic presents as cold and detached to all around him except Knightley’s Joan Clarke, the only woman in the team, who gamely supports him through his professional and personal anguish. Poignancy is delivered not only through Turing’s repressed homosexuality, arrest for ‘gross indecency’ and probable suicide, but also via the devastating repercussions of breaking the code and planning for victory without alerting the enemy.
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Belle (2013)

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is mesemeric in her first major big-screen role as Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of an 18th-century Royal Navy captain raised at Hampstead’s Kenwood House by her aristocratic great-uncle and great-aunt Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson). This compelling historical fiction was inspired by a real-life painting of Dido and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) that appears to have been commissioned to denote that the two girls should be regarded as social equals. But English society was as yet ill-prepared to accord full privileges to a woman of colour. A sensitive and provocative exploration of love, honour and natural justice.
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Call the Midwife (2012–)


Vanessa Redgrave and Jenny Agutter star in this warmhearted BBC drama about a band of midwives in London’s East End in the years after the Second World War. Originally based on a trilogy of memoirs by Jennifer Worth, the stories have been expanded upon as the series progresses. A Christmas special at the end of 2015 will be followed by a fifth series in early 2016, bringing the action into the early 1960s. An excellent ensemble cast includes Miranda Hart as Chummy Browne, a clumsy and ungainly fish-out-of-water toff who hopes to do some good in the world, and Judy Parfitt and Pam Ferris as eccentric and crusty Sisters Monica Joan and Julienne, who make a fist of running the nursing convent where the women’s work is based.
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The Crimson Field (2014)

Oona Chaplin and Hermione Norris play the leads in Sarah Phelps’ one-off mini-series that was shown as part of the BBC’s World War I centenary season. Kitty Trevelyan (Chaplin), Flora Marshall (Alice St Clair) and Rosalie Berwick (Marianne Oldham) are volunteers at a tented field hospital on the northwest coast of France overseen by Matron Grace Carter (Norris), where they face a daily battle to patch up Allied soldiers to prepare them for a return to the front. Their scant training has done little to prepare them for the realities of war, but the Voluntary Aid Detatchments (or ‘Very Attractive Darlings’ in the eyes of one rakish army surgeon) muddle along with Best of British pluck and cheery endeavour.
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Downton Abbey (2010–2015)

Yes, ITV have announced that the long-running series will bid a fond farewell after 2015’s fifth season and doubtless explosive Christmas special. Creator Julian Fellowes admits he had no idea where his reboot of Upstairs Downstairs/Gosford Park was heading when he started out on the journey. And to be honest it often felt that way as the series got sidetracked putting Lady Mary among the pigs, introducing ever more calamitous breaks in etiquette, putting inexcusably strained bon-mots in the mouth of the Dowager Countess, and failing to give self-satisfied Bates the hanging he so fulsomely deserves. But it’s been a juggernaut of an enterprise that will doubtless be missed terribly – until Fellowes dusts of the Debrett’s and finds a new way to cunningly dissect how Britain’s distinct social classes rubbed along in the not so distant past.
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Effie Gray (2014)

A labour of love for writer and co-star Emma Thompson, this is a heartfelt study of the mismatched marriage between painter John Ruskin (Greg Wise) and his unworldly young bride Effie (Dakota Fanning). The constraints of Victorian society’s high-minded moral code are chipped away by Thompson’s liberal-minded Lady Eastlake, who takes Effie under her wing and encourages her to break free from a loveless existence and become the first British woman to sue for divorce – leaving her free to fall for the charms of Ruskin’s flamboyant protégé John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge). Julie Walters and Claudia Cardinale also star.
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Father Brown (2013–)


Tucked away in the BBC’s daytime schedules, this fond adaptation of a slew of well-loved stories by G.K. Chesterton about a crime-solving priest was missed by many when first broadcast, but established a strong following on catch-up TV. A fourth series is in production that will finally exhaust Chesterton’s original stories – although many liberties have already been taken in modifying (some may say dumbing down) his dry humour for a popular audience. Meanwhile viewers can enjoy the 35 episodes of series 1 to 3 on DVD. Mark Williams stars as Father Brown, assisted and aggravated by Sorcha Cusack’s gossipy parish secretary Mrs McCarthy and overseen by Nancy Carroll’s snooty Lady Felicia.
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Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)

A digitally restored edition of John Schlesinger’s masterful adaptation was recently released in cinemas and will be out on DVD and Blu-ray on 1 June. This is on the back of Thomas Vinterberg’s reworking of the Thomas Hardy classic which hits the screens in May, scripted by David Nicholls and starring Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Martin Sheen and Tom Sturridge. The glorious earlier version, featuring the stunning cinematography of Nicolas Roeg, will take some beating, with a sultry Julie Christie in a career-defining role as headstrong Bathsheba Everdene, whose heart is tugged in three directions by men who barely deserve her: the dashing Sergeant Troy (Terence Stamp), moneyed landowner William Boldwood (Peter Finch) and frugal farmer Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates).
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The Musketeers (2014–)

The latest reworking of Alexandre Dumas’ historical adventure novel, in the spirit of the original, has plenty to say about contemporary society in between the swordplay. Tom Burke is Athos, Santiago Cabrera is Aramis, Howard Charles is Porthos, and Luke Pasqualino D'Artagnan, with Peter Capaldi as Louis XIII’s sly chief minister Cardinal Richelieu and Marc Warren as loose cannon le Comte de Rochefort in series 1 and 2 respectively (Capaldi having ducked out when Doctor Who beckoned). A third series will be filming in historic buildings and lavish sets outside Prague, standing in for 17th-century Paris, in the coming months.
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Testament of Youth (2014)

James Kent’s moving adaptation of Vera Brittain’s much-loved memoir stars Alicia Vikander as free-spirited Vera, whose brutally shattered hopes during World War I determined her lifelong conviction as a peace activist. Dominic West and Emily Watson play Vera’s parents, and rising stars Kit Harington, Taron Egerton and Colin Morgan represent the ordinary heroes of the Great War. A timely retelling of a story that helped define a generation, with a woman’s view on the futility and horrors of war having the power to turn conventional patriotism on its head.
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Wolf Hall (2015)


An intoxicating adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies, chronicling the rise of Thomas Cromwell from a humble blacksmith to the principal adviser to Henry VIII. Mark Rylance as Cromwell is an irresistible force, navigating the corridors of power with Machiavellian wit and ruthlessness, and a superb supporting cast includes Damian Lewis as Henry, Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Wolsey and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn. Fans awaiting a further installment will need patience, as Mantel is yet to complete the final book in her planned trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, which will cover (spoiler alert) the brief reign of Jane Seymour and the birth of a male heir, an uprising in northern England against the dissolution of the monasteries, the search for wives 4 and 5 of 6, and the death of Cromwell at the behest of the increasingly erratic king.
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Read our review of A Little Chaos, starring Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman. 

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