Seven Period Pieces to Get You Through the Downton Drought

Warning: Contains spoilers up through the Series Three Christmas Special of Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey‘s fourth season has begun across the pond, and is set to hit this side of the Atlantic in January. (Pretending, of course, there aren’t ways to find the show online before then.)

I can’t stop watching Downton Abbey, no matter how much I may want to. Most people pinpoint the start of the show’s sharp decline in quality to its portrayal of the Great War at Downton. For me, the third episode where Mr. Pamuk dies in bed with Lady Mary was kind of a stretch, but I agree Season Two was where it took a turn to truly groan-worthy. Season Three just made me mad: the cast ballooned with a bunch of forgettable characters (clearly writer/creator Julian Fellowes hasn’t seen and /or learned from Season 2 of Twin Peaks), plots completed their arcs at a rapid-fire pace, and it just wasn’t as good. Every week I would watch Downton and throw up my hands and be like, “Stop trying to pull my heart strings with your weak attempts and just make a better show and slow it the fuck down! If you add one more maid or aristocrat, I’m walking!” (I never did.)

One thing that bothers me a lot is the show’s hurray-for-jolly-old-England tone, which is as annoying as it is inconsistent. Granted, at this point more than eight years have passed on the show, and we’ve seen a fair amount of social change. But at the beginning of the show, Lord Grantham is this like eccentric dude who hires a valet with a bad leg to the complete horror of the other servants (I’m pretty sure Cora calls him “eccentric” at intervals). So Lord Grantham is like a progressive-minded dude who just loves his estate, right? Maybe it’s the War that changes him (I’ll have to re-watch, even though the thought makes me shudder), but that’s not him anymore. Somewhere a shift happened and now he’s all about propriety and fighting change. Like, Julian Fellowes can be a Tory, whatever, but the way the show engages with massive societal upheaval is so weird and it’s not done very well. They might as well give Lord Grantham a Union Jack cape. Except when it’s convenient, like when his own damn son-in-law participates in the fire-bombing of an Anglo-Irish Earl. No bigs.

And that’s another thing. Branson is an Irish Republican and the period during which Downton takes place is one of the most important historical moments in Irish history (here’s a primer to get you started). I went to Ireland just before the premiere of Downton Series Three. In preparation for my trip, I read a couple of short histories of Ireland. I’m by no means a scholar of Irish history, but Julian Fellowes barely addresses the so-called “Irish question” at all. Instead, Branson almost gets in trouble for participating in a fire-bombing, but he doesn’t, and when he sees the nobleman’s family out in the cold he feels really bad about it. I’m not saying he has to blow up Downton, but Jesus Christ, the English were killing his countrymen in the streets at that exact point in time. You think Branson might be a little conflicted marrying into the English aristocracy while his countrymen are fighting a war with the English? A gray area?! Horrors!  I’m not even saying that Branson doesn’t have to change his mind and become Lord Grantham’s BFF, but every time his radical politics come up, they end up just fading away and I’m wondering why Fellowes even bothered with the character.

Also, THEY KILLED OFF SYBIL. (I know, I know, the actress didn’t want to renew her contract, but could they have written her a better send off even if she had to die?)

Sybil was my favorite character. For one thing, Irish revolutionary chauffeurs are sexy as hell (see Entry #4 below). For another thing, Sybil was one of the few characters who live at Downton Abbey that actually engages with the wider world, particularly in the political spheres. When the War was on, Mary just angsted over getting married, and Edith helped kind of (and like drove a truck for a farmer and presided over the plot line with the worst prosthetic burn-victim makeup ever?), but Sybil learned how to boil some damn water and went to damn nursing school. If they had to kill her off, it should have at least been in a better way than “her father doesn’t want to offend the visitor by taking her to a hospital” or something. Like, it was pretty okay for the episode where Cora blamed Lord Grantham, but they reconciled pretty quickly. Again, your being a windbag contributed to the death of our youngest child? Well as long as you feel bad about it I guess it’s okay. Back to normal!

Alright, now that the rant is over, the point is this: whether you’re pining for the return of Downton or watch it on mute just to see the outfits, I’ve constructed a list of quality costume dramas to either get you through or set you free.

Before the list, I’ll note one strange omission: I haven’t seen Upstairs, Downstairs (the original or the purportedly awful remake) despite my love of upstairs-downstairs dramas.

1. If you want Downton-grade melodrama, watch The Grand

Another series about England in the 1920s, The Grand follows the lives of the staff and guests of a hotel in Machester. Like Berkeley SquareThe Grand is an urban drama, so there’s a lot less fox-hunting but a lot more intrigue. There’s also no aristocracy to speak of: John Bannerman has poured his whole life (and life-savings) into restoring his father’s pride and joy after World War I: The Grand Hotel. On the eve of its reopening, John and his wife, Sarah, are suddenly forced to ask John’s shady businessman brother, Marcus, to use his money and influence to save their hotel. Other plot lines include a maid becoming a protégé of the resident prostitute with disastrous results, the Bannermans’ son dealing with the after-effects of what he saw on the battlefield, and Marcus’s pursuit of his sister-in-law.

The Grand suffers from a similar affliction to that of Downton: a sharp decline in quality from the first to the second season. But while The Grand certainly ratchets up the drama in the second season, it’s certainly no worse than Downton Abbey. Also, be prepared for some casting changes between the two seasons: I’ll admit I never got used to them—maybe because of the decline in quality.

2. If your favorite Downton characters are the staff, watch Berkeley Square

This one-season series is everything I love about BBC Miniseries in the 1990s: a bit of melodrama, but strong enough writing to pull it off. The series follows three nannies who all work in Berkeley Square, London in 1902: the no-nonsense Matty, the struggling Hannah, and the boisterous Lydia. The series deals with the clash between Edwardian and Victorian ideas of things like masculinity, morality, and childhood.

I haven’t yet read Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs (although technically Powell was a kitchen maid, not a nanny), but if it’s anything like Berkeley Square, those women had a hard life. Beyond the generational clash of ideals, the nannies have to deal with things like being separated from their families, putting up with unwanted sexual advances from their employers, and even keeping their personal histories secret for fear that one bad reference will render them unemployable forever. Some of the plot points are a little silly, but the good outweighs the bad in this series.

3. If you think Downton was best before the Great War, watch The Shooting Party

I’ll show you below how Gosford is parent to Downton, but The Shooting Party is Downton‘s great-aunt. The movie is based on Isabel Colegate’s novel of the same name. The Penguin Modern Classics edition features an introduction by Julian Fellowes, so the similarities aren’t just coincidental. Set at a country estate in 1913, The Shooting Party is much leaner on servants than either Downton Abbey or Gosford Park. Even without much of the downstairs crowd, there’s still a palpable sense that the society these excessive Edwardians enjoy is starting to crumble at the edges.

4. If you wish Downton were bloodier, watch Boardwalk Empire

For some reason, Downton Abbey‘s version of the Roaring 20s doesn’t do it for me—they’re more like the Yawning 20s. I’m not the most knowledgeable person about interwar Britain, but I can tell you two things they didn’t have: Prohibition and a massive crime wave. Boardwalk Empire follows Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the treasurer of Atlantic County, NJ, as he moves through the underworld of organized crime. Atlantic City itself is a little small-time, but Nucky engages with hard-hitting gangsters of the time in New York, Chicago, and Cincinnati. Downton Abbey will have an appearance of Virginia Woolf, but Boardwalk Empire features Al Capone as a major character (the downside to this is historical spoilers). If Downton’s lack of brutal killing and nudity get you down, get thee to HBO! (There’s even a sexy Irish revolutionary chauffeur and he does not back down.)

5. If you want to see what Branson’s countrymen are going through, watch The Wind that Shakes the Barley

If you get as worked up about the veritable neutering of Branson as I do, and if you haven’t had a good cry in a while, I suggest this movie. The film follows the O’Donovan brothers (played by Cillian Murphy and Pádraic Delaney), who live in County Cork during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War that followed. At first, they disagree on whether or not to enter the guerilla warfare that engulfs the Irish countryside. They both join the IRA’s fight against the English, but after enduring some truly terrible things together the brothers find themselves divided again by the Anglo-Irish Treaty. There is some critical controversy over the film’s interpretation of Irish history, but as a film it’s heart-wrenching.

6. If you often roll your eyes during your Downton viewing, watch Cold Comfort Farm

Based on Stella Gibbons’s satirical novel of the same nameCold Comfort Farm is a parody of rural melodramas written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Flora Poste is orphaned at nineteen with an education, no fortune, an abundance of country relatives, and a love of meddling. She meets a challenge in her cousins, the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm. The Starkadders are a gloomy bunch who go through ridiculous motions: their fieldhand is pushing ninety and cleans dishes with a twig, the hired girl is impregnated every spring by the lusty young son, and the farm is in terrible repair. The family prefer to toil hard toward their grim fates, under the thumb of their purportedly mad matriarch: Ada Doom, who doesn’t take kindly to the changes Flora has in mind. Ian McKellan, Stephen Fry, and Eileen Atkins support Kate Beckinsale, along with a fantastic cast of others. It’s not as uproariously funny as the novel, but it’s a great adaptation.

7. If you keeping watching Downton but wish it were just better all around, watch Gosford Park

Gosford Park is like the parent of Downton Abbey. A murder mystery set at a country estate shooting party in 1932, Gosford Park won Julian Fellowes an Oscar for best screenplay and it really deserved it. In the first season of Downton, I described the TV drama to friends as “Gosford Park before the interwar cynicism.” There are stark similarities in Maggie Smith’s playing a judge-y old aristocrat and you can see shades of Thomas Barrow in George the footman’s sneer. The humor is dry, the characters are fabulous, and things are subtle. The case includes not just Maggie Smith, but Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen, Helen freaking Mirren, Michael Gambon, Ryan Phillipe, Bob Balaban, and scads and scads of others. I never tire of watching these two-and-a-half hours of perfection. I frequently re-watch this film and wonder: what happened, Julian Fellowes?

Readers, what are your favorite shows/films/miniseries that take place between 1900 and 1940? What have I missed? What should I get next? It’s a long time till January…


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