Article by Janna Wong Healy
I just finished watching POLDARK for the 8th or 9th or 10th time. I’ve lost count because I’m watching episodes on my DVR, on the Blu-ray I bought and from my iTunes, where I purchased a season pass so I could take it with me to the gym.
I am enraptured by this series and it’s not simply because of the tall, dark and handsome Aidan Turner who portrays the titular role. Yes, of course, he is a delightful sight and his performance is nonpareil as he perfectly captures the intense, brooding, concerned and smart Ross Poldark. But, there are many other reasons why the show captures my heart. I love the strong central female character, Demelza; I am entranced by the stunning locations; the economic situation confronting the county of Cornwall is compelling; the business elements keep me engaged…the list goes on.
Because of my affection for this show, it got me thinking about all the other British Costume Dramas (movies and television series) I have fallen in love with, from Joe Wright’s PRIDE & PREJUDICE to NORTH & SOUTH to DOWNTON ABBEY. Over the years, I have invested countless hours watching these shows (many of them, multiple times) and have spent a small fortune on the DVDs and Blu-rays of these movies and series. I began to wonder why British Costume Dramas are so engaging.
In thinking about this for several weeks and comparing similarities between various productions, I managed to devise a list of the 20 main elements that create the allure. Once I had those elements down, I listed 50 of the British Costume Dramas that I have seen (I know there are many more but I had to stop somewhere!). In the case of multiple versions (for example, Sense & Sensibility and Persuasion), I only listed that title once. (You’ll find the list of titles at the end of this article.) Once I had the elements and the films, I created a spreadsheet and checked the elements contained in each show. This enabled me to see which British Costume Dramas had the most allure. So, without further ado, let’s get to it!
Listing the Elements
First, here are the elements I considered, in order of importance (to me!):
- Handsome Leading Man. What woman doesn’t love to feast her eyes on a good-looking man? It’s even better when that good-looking leading man is wearing beautiful, tailored clothes, knee-high boots and a good hat. (A plus from me personally is a man with long hair…Jamie Fraser and Ross Poldark, I’m looking at you!) A Handsome Leading Man who is also intelligent and brooding is an added attraction, for this makes him all the more mysterious and therefore more romantic. Mr. Darcy, Mr. Rochester, John Thornton, Ross Poldark…to me, these men are the perfect prototype for the Handsome Leading Man.
- Strong Central Female. The Handsome Leading Man must have an equal partner and who better than a female with a strong will, who is also ethically correct, feisty, clever and smart. It’s even better if she knows and speaks her own mind and doesn’t let others boss her around, especially and including the Handsome Leading Man. Think: Elizabeth Bennet, Claire Fraser, Margaret Hale, Demelza Carne…these, to me, represent the strongest women to play opposite the Handsome Leading Man.
- Enduring Love Story. Tastes change and eyes wander but one of the allures of the British Costume Drama is a steadfast love story between two principal characters; a love story that never wavers and is never in serious doubt. The love between them might be shaken or threatened but, ultimately, it stands the test of time. The best example of this, to me, is Outlander’s Claire and Jamie. I mean, they even endure different centuries! Sigh.
- Beautiful Costumes. Who wants to watch a period drama without beautiful period costumes? How entrancing is it to watch Lady Mary float down the stairs at Downton Abbey in all her silky, satiny and jeweled glory. Period costumes represent clothing that modern times will never see again. Except for special events like, say, the Oscar or Emmy Awards, most of us regular folk will never have occasion to buy or wear such a beautiful gown. So, get your fill of these gorgeous fashions while you watch a British Costume Drama because these are the clothes that are not only strikingly beautiful but sadly out of our milieu.
- Class Differences. Just because we are rightfully fighting for equality during these modern times, it doesn’t mean we have to abandon class differences in our British Costume Dramas. Who doesn’t love seeing Ross Poldark caring for the miners who live on his land; who can’t get enough of Thomas’ scheming in the kitchen of Downton Abbey to bring down the wealthy Crawleys; who doesn’t dream of marrying the wealthy patriarch after beginning a job as governess to his child. Class differences are the stuff of drama and they make the British Costume Drama all the more alluring.
- Stunning Locations. OUTLANDER, anyone? Just watching the Scottish Highlands in all their glory in this Starz series has sent tourists scrambling to Scotland. In fact, the 2015 “Outlander Tours” sold out and, checking into next year’s tours, there are (currently) only three seats available. There are daily tours of Highclere Castle (where DOWNTON ABBEY was shot) and Cornwall (where POLDARK is set) is enjoying a resurgence in tourism. In addition, there are Jane Austen tours as well as Pride & Prejudice tours. Stunning locations are a must in British Costume Dramas. As I write this from my home in Los Angeles, I love our beaches and mountains, but the modern society of a major urban city is nothing compared to the fertile lands of the English or Scottish countryside.
- Horseback Riding. As Aidan Turner, who portrays Poldark in the current iteration, said in an interview, “You can’t do bad acting on a horse, you look too cool. There’s an energy when you deliver dialogue on a horse, it’s empowering – especially for Ross, he thrives on these kinds of situations. So anytime I could get on the horse I would do it.” And, judging from the legions of fans Mr. Turner has acquired since Season 1 of POLDARK aired, there are plenty of people who appreciate horseback riding scenes. I’m one of them! Tally ho!
- Love Triangle. This is a staple of romantic dramas because it always heightens anxiety and stress for the characters involved and therefore for the audience. How would I CAPTURE THE CASTLE fare without Simon coming between sisters Cassandra and Rose? OUTLANDER would cease to exist without Claire’s confusion over which man she loves more: Jamie or Frank. The list goes on and on…because the Love Triangle is so alluring.
- Love Between Classes. There’s something inherently dramatic and tense about two people from different classes who fall in love. Will the love be allowed to continue? Will the two lovers have the strength to fight familial and societal pressures to continue their love? It’s an old story trope, but it works. Just look at the problems brought to DOWNTON ABBEY by Sybil’s love affair with the chauffeur Tom, or the stress that impoverished Fannie Price must secretly endure when she falls in love with her wealthy cousin Edmund.
- Business Elements. To me, a British Period Drama takes a step up from the romance genre when business is involved. Would NORTH & SOUTH be as compelling without the plot concerning the workers who want to unionize? Would POLDARK be as engaging without its story of Cornwall’s problems and the miners who are suffering from the lack of work? To some, business elements take away from the romance and the costumes but, to me, they add depth.
- War. Talk about stress. Men going to war (see: DOWNTOWN ABBEY, ISLAND AT WAR, OUTLANDER), men coming back from war (POLDARK, MR. SELFRIDGE, PARADE’S END) or men fighting (TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, ATONEMENT) offer the British Costume Drama an added level of seriousness that keeps frivolity at bay. It brings natural stress and anxiety and creates problems between young lovers.
- Adapted from a Novel. Oh, yes, classic novels always provide a superb foundation for any movie or television series. And, if the novel is by a favored British author, like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, a Bronte sister or Thomas Hardy, all the better because, well, they are the best at what they do. A good author is a master of creating a great story with intriguing characters.
- High Escapism Value. Let’s face it, the British Costume Drama is supposed to be a source of escapism…we watch these period dramas so we can be pulled into a different time and place and forget about our own problems. Are we worried about money? Why not jump into UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS or BRIDESHEAD REVISITED so we don’t have to think about that unpaid bill. Are we having a problem with our significant other? Why not feast upon SENSE & SENSIBILITY so we can forget our own troubles and worry instead about whether or not Elinor Dashwood will ever get together with Edward Ferrars. Everybody needs an escape and the British Costume Drama provides this much-needed release to daily stress.
- Ball/Dance. Yes, the group dance has come back into vogue with the current EDM craze, which necessitates lots of jumping and hopping around to major bass beats. But, why not add a touch of class to your group dance and go back in time to a period when men and women stepped lightly, actually touched each other politely and women danced in ball gowns and men wore muslin ties. Instead of hopping around without purpose, these dances showcased proper steps, done in unison, and began and ended with a bow or curtsy. How civilized!
- Economic Hardship. While we’re diving into a different place and time, we are also looking for a diversion from our own problems, so why not watch someone else dealing with economic hardship. It gets in the way of love (BECOMING JANE, THE FORSYTE SAGA) and sometimes becomes the focus of the story (POLDARK, I CAPTURE THE CASTLE). This element works because it’s happening to them and not to us.
- Catastrophic Misunderstanding. This is a common plot point in drama because it works to heighten the conflict. When there is confusion, we want to scream at the television because we know how to solve said confusion, even if the main characters do not. But, the fun comes when we watch the characters negotiate the misunderstanding and finally find happiness (John Thornton, how sweet is your smile when you realize that the man you spotted Margaret kissing at the train station in NORTH & SOUTH was actually her brother). If done correctly, the Catastrophic Misunderstanding will lead to love. Sometimes (see AN EDUCATION), it brings unimaginable sorrow but character growth. Either way, it’s an important and alluring dramatic element.
- Villain. Not all British Costume Dramas have a villain but the ones that do are always engaging. Where would the drama come in OUTLANDER without Black Jack Randall? How does Elizabeth Bennet end up with Mr. Darcy if not for Lady Catherine insinuating herself into the couple’s future? Who but his own uncle loves George Warleggan?
- Mistaken Love. This can be comedic or dramatic but it’s always entertaining. Just look at the fun Beatrice and Benedick have in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING or the pain that occurs between Cassandra and Henry in I CAPTURE THE CASTLE when Henry confides his love to Cassandra but she rejects it. (Who rejects Henry Cavill anyway??!!)
- Forbidden Love. This is another oft-used dramatic trope…but it’s oft-used for a reason: it works. All we have to do is think of the sad story of star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet to know that, yes, forbidden love definitely adds depth and drama to any story.
- Wise Below-Stairs Individual. Characters in British Costume Dramas have to find their wisdom from someplace…what better place than a kindly below-stairs individual. Think of Mary’s sorrows being comforted by Carson and you’ll see precisely why this element works so well.
Analyzing the Results – The Movies
After I completed my spreadsheet, I looked at the overall results and I admit, I was somewhat surprised by them. For example, I thought all along that PRIDE & PREJUDICE or DOWNTON ABBEY would come out on top. While these were very high on the list, the one show that contained all 20 elements was POLDARK! But, OUTLANDER, at 90 percent, wasn’t far behind, and DOWNTON ABBEY (80 percent) was a close third. On second thought, these three shows didn’t surprise me because they also scored huge ratings when they aired, they all developed hugely popular fan bases and each one spawned fan sites and significant Twitter and Facebook followings.
The shows that didn’t fare as well were, not surprisingly, bereft of romance. For example, COPPER (30%) and RIPPER STREET (20%), which had minor romantic entanglements, were less alluring than the shows that were overtly romantic. On the other hand, some shows that emphasized the romantic angle, such as BECOMING JANE (35%) and FINDING NEVERLAND (30%) fared only slightly better than those without any romance at all. War was particularly unalluring, as could be expected, with ISLAND AT WAR and TESTAMENT OF YOUTH each scoring 45%, MASTER AND COMMANDER at 30% and BRAVEHEART doing even worse at 25%. Shakespeare was rather inconsistent: HAMLET scored 45%, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and ROMEO AND JULIET both scored 55%.
Some of my favorite movies were surprisingly unalluring, such as AN EDUCATION (25%), GOSFORD PARK (40%) and SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (50%), while others that I thought would score very high were only above average, such as NORTH & SOUTH (60%) and SENSE & SENSIBILITY (55%).
Here’s the list of the top-scoring films:
Analyzing the Results – The Elements
It may not come as a surprise that the one element that is most alluring about the British Costume Drama is the Handsome Leading Man. Clearly, many of us love to feast our eyes upon a good-looking man; the filmmakers know this and satisfy our lust by selecting stories involving handsome, moody, smart and unpredictable protagonists! In fact, it should come as no surprise that I, like many other women out there, swoon every time I look at Aidan Turner or Matthew Macfadyen or Sam Heughan. (You’d have to be made of stone not to smile with delight at these gorgeous men.) Similarly, I love the appeal of a strong, central female because such a woman is a perfect complement to the Handsome Leading Man. Who is Mr. Darcy without Lizzie Bennet to challenge him? What would Ross Poldark be without his Demelza or Jamie Fraser without his Claire? These women are not just beautiful window dressing; they are smart, feisty and not afraid to stand up to their male counterparts. Not surprisingly, the top-scoring shows boast both of these elements while the lowest scoring shows don’t.
Stunning Locations (78%) and Beautiful Costumes (76%) both fared exceedingly well, indicating that there is a need for viewers to witness beautiful faraway locations and feast their eyes upon gorgeous, out-of-this-reality clothing. But, oddly, High Escapism Value (which, it would seem to me to complement Stunning Locations) was down on the list at 28%.
Another high scorer on the list was Catastrophic Misunderstanding. The British Costume Drama seems to like this plot device as it is used in 70% of the films analyzed.
Half of the films featured Forbidden Love while, oddly, only 26% featured Mistaken Love. But, I was surprised by the lack of Love Triangles in the British Costume Drama. To me, this is an important way for writers to heighten conflict and drama…but, alas, less than 10% of the 50 shows featured this romantic difficulty.
Following is a table of how the various elements fared:
I had a great time thinking about the various elements that I found alluring about the British Costume Drama. And, I had even more fun analyzing the results. If I didn’t catch an element that you found most alluring, tell me what I missed! Meanwhile, it’s time to get back to POLDARK…!
About the Author – Janna Wong Healy
Janna has spent her entire life around the written word, editing books, writing magazine articles on a variety of topics and working in the film industry on such movies as “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and “The Day After.” She spent years as a story analyst for studios and production companies and has written more than 150 menu decks for movies and television series on DVD for Universal Studios Home Entertainment. She wrote about casual gaming for The Clik/Character Arcade, is a featured blogger on Mariana Wong’s Summer of Love” and “Let’s Get Lost,” are available on Kindle.and a professor of Business Communication in USC’s Marshall School of Business. Her novels, “