Bodice-rippers! How period drama went from buttoned up to sexed up

In the decade that was simply the worst of eras, we extended from Downton Abbey dross to a prance masterwork about the first modern dyke. Costume drama has tightened its corset at last!

As a lens through which to contemplate the past, point theatre is the” obstinate, headstrong girl !” of British culture. If you want to get all Jane Austen about it, which of course you do. The category most indiscriminately beloved by the country has expended decades stubbornly shooing biography apart with a gloved hand in favour of a more manicured( read: ritzy, white-hot) account to seeing how we have lived. Backpedal to the comparatively pleasant uplands of the late Noughties, when New Labour was in its death throes and telephone hacking at News International crowned its president( OK , not so pleasant ). What were we saluting our slippers to on a Sunday night? Cranford! That confection filled with sugared dames force-feeding “cat-o-nine-tails” laxatives to retrieve lost Victorian lace. Not exactly representative of the times. More like hitching up its hems to escape them.

In contrast, the 2010 s- which to take a mallet to the Dickens quote was simply” the most difficult of durations”- were when period drama ultimately tightened its corset. When a category characterised by nostalgia cast open the Georgian shutters to the realities of hasten, class and sexuality that had always been there. Sort of. It was also the activities of the decade that propelled with Downton Abbey. Yet this, very, was in perfect keeping with the 2010 s’ ever-rising levels of polarisation. In what other 10 -year span might we have entered stage-right with Julian Fellowes’ handsome post-Edwardian drama, which loped for six buttoned-up seasons and culminated in the promise of a film simply Americans could love. Then departed stage-left with Gentleman Jack, a sly, swaggering and deep sincere masterpiece about a Yorkshire woman dubbed the first modern lesbian, directed by the Andrew Davies of the 2010 s. Our brand-new crown: Sally Wainwright.

It was in Wainwright’s skilled northern mitts that interval drama altered into the tanking present. Became raw, windy, true, incendiary, funny in the most off-kilter British sense. In To Walk Invisible, her stunning chronicle of the three pinched years in which the Bronte sisters wrote the tales that attained them prominent, we got a version of then that was viscerally now. There was privation, alcoholism and not a marriage in sight. Everyone gaped cold, all the time. In Gentleman Jack, Wainwright proved she could pull off a cavort while crafting cliffhangers out of the trials and tribulations of 19 th-century coal mining. Consider the high-pitched dreamy finale, tuned in to by millions, that realize Suranne Jones’ roguish Anne Lister and her beloved, Ann Walker, declaring their kindnes atop a windblown Yorkshire hill.” Don’t hurt me. I’m not as strong as you think I am ,” Lister said, before adding with a soft-butch stoicism never before seen in a primetime period drama slot,” Well, I am, clearly .” As an remedy to the badly-acted costume drama playing out in parliament, it was perfect.

A soft-butch stoicism never before seen in primetime period drama … Gentleman Jack. Photograph: Aimee Spinks/ BBC/ Lookout Point/ HBO

Most awkward, unsurprisingly, was the insertion of scoot into a genre that for half a century has been almost exclusively white-hot. In Vanity Fair, the Sedleys’ maid, Sam, was black and, though not fleshed out fairly, a great character: proud, dripping with disregard, endlessly discounted. His silent presence for such courses as” better than transmitting him back to India into the arms of some dusky maharani, better than a dozen mahogany grandchildren” foregrounded the everyday racism of the time without falling into the trap of anachronism. Howard’s End, the BBC’s simultaneously old-fashioned and highly timely change of EM Forster’s great romance about Englishness, just about ambled the line between representation and tokenism by making the Basts an interracial marry, and presenting the Schlegels a black girl. These were alterations so incremental they often find embarrassing. Nevertheless, they realized the Merchant Ivory version seem as long ago as the romance. The scoot problem in age drama, as it was period, was better addressed in series that focused on black and Asian autobiography from the start. Like The Long Song, a stellar adjustment of Andrea Levy’s Booker-shortlisted novel pitch during the last days of bondage in 19 th-century Jamaica. It was intelligent, ambitious, heartbreaking.

Intelligent, bold, heartbreaking … The Long Song. Photograph: Carlos Rodriguez/ Heyday Television

Turning to sex, which all period theatres must in due course, Harlots was a microcosm of 2010 s confusion. On the one pas, it was your average sauce-fest inspired by the sex trade in Georgian London and overflowing with ever more purple euphemisms for cockstands. On the other, a criminally ignored berth #MeToo feminist victory, are developed by and performing women and for formerly, focusing on the inhumanity of prostitution without achieve a reduction to a consignment of actually quite sexy sex. At goes it could be both at once, and I didn’t know whether to be incensed or experience myself, which was probably the pitch. A similar awkwardnes was induced by The Crown, which was so extravagant, eye-wateringly expensive, and viciou well done that you had to acclaim, even while an actual imperial was stepping down from all 230 of his patronages over his association with Jeffrey Epstein.

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