Feature: A View from the Id

The Story of the Costume Drama: The Greatest Stories Ever Told Remembers 50 Years of British TV History

Author: Bob Etier
Published: February 28, 2012 at 10:46 am

Costume drama was long a staple of American television (particularly Westerns), when BBC Television adapted a series of novels by John Galsworthy and revolutionized the genre. The Forsyte Saga was introduced in 1967, ushering in a new age of lush, opulent costumes and sets, and dramatic, romantic soap operas that incorporated historical events into their storylines.

Beginning March 3, 2012 (check local listings), PBS offers special programming, including the broadcast of The Story of the Costume Drama: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, a documentary that illustrates changes within the genre over a half century. Clips from twenty-one different series are included and their impact on television and audiences is discussed. Don’t look for The First Churchills, somehow they didn’t make the cut. The absence of that memorable program is made up for by the inclusion of such greats (and audience favorites) as Brideshead Revisited; Upstairs, Downstairs; I, Claudius; Pride and Prejudice; and Bleak House.

Television journalists and critics, directors, screenwriters, location managers, and actors (Susan Hampshire, Timothy West, Derek Jacobi, John Hurt, Anthony Andrews, Alex Kingston, Art Malik ) contribute their on- and off- camera memories of the shows to The Story of the Costume Drama: The Greatest Stories Ever Told. Other series included in the retrospective are Vanity Fair, A Family at War, Poldark, Edward VII, Edward & Mrs. Simpson, Hard Times, Lillie, The Jewel in the Crown, Lost Empires, Piece of Cake, Tenko, Moll Flanders, Emma, Sense & Sensibility, and Cranford. All of these shows were terribly popular—many still are, as they are available in boxed sets on DVD.

Watch The Story of the Costume Drama | Preview on PBS. See more from pbs.

The Story of the Costume Drama, narrated by Keeley Hawes, reveals controversies various programs engendered, including complaints from the Royal Family and American censorship. It is a brief history of a genre that continues to thrive, and provides interesting glimpses of behind-the-scenes happenings, as well as events (fire, death, strikes) that affected production of some of the shows. The Story of the Costume Drama is an engaging scrapbook of television memories costume drama fans won’t want to miss.


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Article Author: Bob Etier

Two words describe Bob Etier: "female" and "weird." Like many freelance writers, there's something about her that isn't quite right. Read her stuff and find out what.

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