As a devoted fan of period films and series set in England, it warms my heart to see just how popular Downton Abbey (Masterpiece Classic, 8 p.m. Sundays on NPT-Channel 8) has become in the U.S. If you’re one of the millions who has found yourself sucked into the melodrama of the Crawley family and their staff, it would behoove you to take time and explore similar adaptations (period films and miniseries set in England are usually adaptations rather than original stories), just to see if your newfound love for Downton is a fluke, or indicative of superior taste.
Gosford Park (2001)
I’ll say this for Julian Fellowes, once he finds a premise he likes, he sticks with it. The writer and creator of Downton Abbey also wrote this Robert Altman murder mystery that takes place 1) in a beautiful country manor with an uncertain future where 2) the goings-on of masters and servants alike propel the action and 3) Maggie Smith, Downton’s delightfully bitchy Dowager Countess, plays the similarly acerbic Countess of Trentham. The whole cast, really, is just out of control with talent: Helen Mirren, Derek Jacobi, Kristin Scott Thomas, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Gambon, Stephen Fry — and that’s only about a quarter of the characters.
Jeeves and Wooster (1990-1993)
Speaking of Stephen Fry! He and Hugh Laurie (best known as Dr. House) are the eponymous characters in this series adaptation of the “Jeeves” stories by P.G. Wodehouse. Fry is Jeeves, the stoic secret genius valet who must extract Laurie’s Bertie Wooster from social disasters of Bertie’s own making, like accidental engagements, stolen manuscripts, and assorted arrests. And the character names! Gussie Fink-Nottle. Tuppy Glossop. Bingo Little. Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps. And! And! Highclere Castle’s exterior was used as Totleigh Towers, the countryside base for much of the duo’s hijinks. Guess what else Highclere Castle is? Downton Abbey, boom. Trust me, it’s very funny, but gently so: here are assorted clips of Jeeves taking offense at Bertie’s wardrobe.
Brideshead Revisited (1981)
Like Downton, this is another costume drama about the goings-on of an aristocratic family transitioning into the modern age. But unlike the soapy fun of Downton, Brideshead Revisited (adapted from Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel) likes to make you FEEL FEELINGS about SERIOUS STUFF like being gay or being Catholic or being an alcoholic or being abandoned by a parent and how all of that affects poor Jeremy Irons, at his most beautiful. That said, there is a prominently featured teddy bear named Aloysius, and that is a wonderful thing.
Daniel Deronda (2002)
Hugh Bonneville, now familiar to you as the Earl of Grantham, walking talking noblesse oblige, plays an entirely different sort of character in this adaptation of George Eliot’s Deronda — the entirely atrocious Henleigh Grandcourt. Handsome Hugh Dancy is the title character, pretty Romola Garai is the tragic manipulator Gwendolyn, and, fun fact, David Bamber, best known (to me) as the insufferable Mr. Collins in the classic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, plays Grandcourt’s toady, Lush.
Pride and Prejudice (1995)
You know what, if you’ve never seen it, start with the ’95 P&P. It’s the absolute pinnacle of the genre, and was the catalyst for the Jane Austen renaissance pop culture has been churning through for more than a decade. As an amateur trend-watcher, I think Downton is finally the thing that will push Regency fetishism aside for the more serious Edwardian era and WWI, but that’s no excuse not to know why every woman you’ve ever met is in love with Mr. Darcy.
I could write a dictionary of my favorites, but time and space are limited while blogging — though not in the comments. Do you have any particular favorites? Why was the second series of Cranford so inferior? Did you notice that Brendan Coyle (Downton’s Bates) was in Lark Rise to Candleford? Keira Knightley — why so gross? Benedict Cumberbatch! Discuss.