Attention drama lovers! We don't know if you've noticed but the period dramas have been coming in thick and fast. As we patiently wait for the new adaptation of Vanity Fair to hit ITV this autumn, it's become increasingly obvious that remakes of classic tales of times gone by are showing no sign of slowing down. But the question is, are you into it?
Little Women, The Crown, Picnic At Hanging Rock, Poldark and The Woman In White are a mere few shows within this increasingly popular genre that have dominated our viewing time recently. Are the elaborate costumes and lavish escapism enough to keep you coming back for more, or are these persistent adaptations lazy excuses for "new" programming? We've been weighing it up at Refinery29 HQ; ahead, two staffers battle it out.
Do We Need More Period Dramas ?
YES: It is a truth universally acknowledged that every time another sumptuous period drama is announced (this time it’s ITV’s version of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair), someone will pipe up: "Why oh why must TV companies remake bestselling novels loved the world over, when they should be throwing all that budget behind getting my contemporary one-woman show about gluten intolerance (set in a cardboard box) made! It’s disgraceful!"
Fair cousins, such erroneous declamations cannot be countenanced! Let me tell you why (I promise to knock it off with all the olde time speak).
Firstly, costume dramas are great. I love the look, the feel, the very bones of them. Corsets, piercing looks, latent sexual tension, balls (the kind you dance at), greedy cousins, dowries, elopements, tangled martial plotlines, brooding antiheroes, revolting hairstyles, snivelling spinsters, stately homes, dashing officers, colds that can kill, moors and mud – I can’t get enough. If you don’t believe me, treat yourself to a night in with any one of these belters: War and Peace, North and South, Pride and Prejudice (all of them), Howards End, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Far From The Madding Crowd, Atonement, Birdsong, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, The Age Of Innocence, Phantom Thread (not to be confused with Phantom Menace), The House of Mirth, Wuthering Heights – but I beseech thee, do not even think about Downton Abbey. It is *employs the withering tone of Lady Catherine de Bourgh* very much the Coronation Street of period drama.
Seriously though, I think some of the arch snobbery around period drama boils down to sexism. Yes, you heard me. The same snobbery that I often hear directed at the authors of the classic novels (Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, the Brontë sisters, Louisa May Alcott…), the same sexism they endured in their own lifetimes, is the very same as the jibes levelled at the TV shows and movies based on those novels – namely that they are silly frippery, with no more substance than the petticoats they feature.
Look, I get it. If period drama isn’t your thing, I see that you might be on the brink; one more tricorn and you will be undone. I feel the same about movies with Jason Statham – seen one, seen 'em all. But would anyone say Daniel Day-Lewis is wasting all our bleeding time because of Lincoln or Phantom Thread? Would they heck. No one would DARE say we should stop putting on productions of Shakespeare’s plays either. But because period drama, like periods, is seen as being just for the laydees, people love to take a swing.
In Austen’s time, women were dismissed – unmarried ones over 21 were considered almost superfluous – yet they wrote, sometimes under pseudonyms to disguise their sex, and in a climate of adversity we can’t imagine today. And yet their novels, and the themes of love, money and class which they brought to life with such shrewd observation, wit and gifted storytelling, have not just lasted, but proved universal. So I say stuff the naysayers and keep on making them, because I’ll keep watching. Or to put it otherwise: Come now, my dearests, and let me look upon thee with affection. Shall we not all agree?
NO: It takes real determination to pursue a programme when, after just 20 minutes of not very much action, you realise that you and those uncomfortably costumed characters really aren't going to get on. There are only so many times I can feign interest in pretend nostalgia that I didn’t actually live through. Don’t hate me for saying it, but this shit isn’t exactly #relatable.
That’s not for want of trying to enjoy it. Like many of us, I muddled through secondary school and most of my English literature degree making sense of the classics and willing myself to fancy Mr Darcy as much as Austen intended us to. The difference between a book and (numerous) telly adaptations, though, is being able to claim a character for your own. I’ve since learned that my puzzling 'dad or shag?' fascination with Colin Firth is one shared by almost too many people. I prefer fantasising about awkward foreplay with older men in the billowing English countryside without the (normally male) heads of our terrestrial TV channels telling me what that should look like, thanks.
I can’t deny that some of the recurring period drama themes transcend time, though – love, loss, jealousy, the whims of the disgustingly rich and disgracefully poor never get old. But there are new ways to tell different stories about how these things affect us now. Today. In 2018 and beyond. God knows we've got enough material to inspire brilliantly terrifying stories. And isn't that what we need right now? We've finally got the means to learn about things beyond an obscure town in the arse end of the British Isles, so let's see it, please. Hit me with something gripping and current, something with momentum. Tell me about a modern life I've never experienced. For crying out loud, give me something funnier than an old maid's bonnet falling off in the wind!
Save for the disheartening reminder that this genre, a staple of British television, rarely has a narrative that includes or reflects the experiences of people of colour, there’s also the issue of guilt. Not the humble, martyr-friendly kind; the selfish, "I don't know what you're talking about but I probably should" type of guilt. With the onslaught of classical remakes, there’s an expectation to already know them. Heaven forbid you admit to never having picked up an Agatha Christie book, or that you didn’t immediately realise that Florence Pugh’s Lady Macbeth had nothing to do with Shakespeare. Forgive me, dear reader. My truth is out, let me live it.
Vanity Fair is on ITV on Sunday 2nd September at 9pm