The Nineteenth Century has never had it so good

By D. H. Morgan-Thomas

Modern life: it’s dangerous, fast-paced, and altogether pretty intense in the second decade of the twenty-first century, even for us happy-go-lucky student types. So what better escapism is there than to settle down in front of the TV (or laptop/iPad/catch-up viewable device) for some good old-fashioned costume drama? Viewers in this country seem to enjoy nothing more – even though it is doubly old-fashioned, having been popular as televisual fodder for decades; the older amongst you may remember The Forsyte Saga or even the original Upstairs Downstairs. Who could deny the seemingly unstoppable force of everybody’s favourite aristos and plebs soap Downton Abbey?

Yet all these seem to have been trumped by, or rather culminated in, a glorious manifestation on a Sunday night: BBC1’s War and Peace. Adapted from the infamously long novel by Leo Tolstoy set in the Napoleonic Wars (don’t try and think of how many dissertations you’d have to write to get to over 500,000 words), the BBC’s latest contribution to the genre has had appropriately epic levels of finance and press attention. The result is a mini-series of outstanding visual beauty. The sets, countryside and especially the actors themselves are gorgeous.

Not that aesthetics need be the only motivation for watching it if you’re not already; for the series features many of our finest character actors excelling in their roles: Jim Broadbent, Stephen Rea and Rebecca Front are particularly good, the latter tending to steal scenes in the first episode. Sure, the occasional student of history may query the odd detail of the set or scoff at the depiction of the battle of Austerlitz but these qualms must surely be brushed aside by the pacey narrative. The adapter Andrew Davies, also responsible for the excellent Bleak House and Little Dorrit in the last decade, has done a sterling job on his source material, much bolstered by the thousands of dollars contributed by Harvey Weinstein amongst other backers.

In a lighter vein, though still very much in the nineteenth century frock and petticoats genre is Dickensian (also BBC). Also featuring Stephen Rea (maybe don’t watch the two back to back, in case you start wondering why Prince Vassily has developed a mysterious Cockney accent) and another fine bunch of actors including Anton Lesser, Pauline Collins and Omid Djalili (who mercifully was not recast as Fagin from his time in Oliver! in the West End). What with its themes of murder – not exactly a spoiler, as it’s trailed from the start – poverty, drink and prostitution it’s hardly painting early Victorian England as sweetness and light; still, it gives plenty of excitement with variations of dramatic tempo as it is divided into more conveniently watchable half hour segments.

In fact, Dickensian provides another traditional facet of the costume drama: the misery and violence of the period complete with ragged urchins, counterpoised by light relief, very much in the spirt of Dickens himself. English Lit students will doubtless enjoy picking up the numerous references to the great author that litter the production. For the rest of us, it’s a fun, if less glamorous escape to the past – be it with cannon or child thieves, it looks like 2016 is bringing television forwards by glancing backwards.

Photograph: Wikipedia

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