December 28, 2019
In the decade that was simply ‘the worst of times’, we went from Downton Abbey dross to a swaggering masterwork about the first modern lesbian. Costume drama has loosened its corset at last!
Bodice-rippers! How period drama went from buttoned up to sexed up
As a lens through which to view the past, period drama is the “obstinate, headstrong girl!” of British culture. If you want to get all Jane Austen about it, which of course you do. The genre most blindly beloved by the country has spent decades stubbornly shooing history away with a gloved hand in favour of a more manicured (read: posh, white) version of how we used to live. Backpedal to the comparatively sunny uplands of the late Noughties, when New Labour was in its death throes and phone hacking at News International crowned its head (OK, not so sunny). What were we saluting our slippers to on a Sunday night? Cranford! That confection filled with candied dames force-feeding cats laxatives to retrieve lost Victorian lace. Not exactly representative of the times. More like hitching up its skirts to escape them.
In contrast, the 2010s – which to take a hammer to the Dickens quote was simply “the worst of times” – were when period drama finally loosened its corset. When a genre characterised by nostalgia cast open the Georgian shutters to the realities of race, class and sexuality that had always been there. Sort of. It was also the decade that launched with Downton Abbey. Yet this, too, was in perfect keeping with the 2010s’ ever-rising levels of polarisation. In what other 10-year span might we have entered stage-right with Julian Fellowes’ elegant post-Edwardian drama, which ran for six buttoned-up seasons and culminated in the promise of a film only Americans could love. Then exited stage-left with Gentleman Jack, a sly, swaggering and deeply sincere masterpiece about a Yorkshire woman dubbed the first modern lesbian, directed by the Andrew Davies of the 2010s. Our new crown: Sally Wainwright.
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