Are you feeling those Downton Abbey withdrawals as keenly as I am? If you are ready to explore and or revisit some late Victorian, Edwardian and WWI era drama, here are a few of my favorite movies and mini-series to tide you over until season three of Downton Abbey next January:
Upstairs Downtstairs (1971-1975)
Well…this series is a given, but I just had to sing its praises once again; it is 57 hours of pure bliss for any period drama lover. For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure: follow the wealthy, aristocratic Bellamy’s, who make up the upstairs family, and their loyal and lively servants downstairs. From 1903 to 1930 they share a fashionable London townhouse at 165 Eaton Place, surviving social change, scandals, and the horrors of the First World War. The most popular British drama series in TV history, Upstairs Downstairs won 7 Emmys®, a Golden Globe, and a Peabody. Seen on Masterpiece Theatre from 1971 to 1975 this is must see Edwardian and World War I drama at its finest. Downton Abbey tie-in? It is great view of the social classes in Britain as the lives of both upstairs and downstairs inhabitants of the household are closely observed.
The Buccaneers (1995)
Based on Edith Wharton’s unfinished novel of the same name, set in the 1890’s this adaptation was written and completed by Maggie Wadey (Mansfield Park 2007) and stars Carla Gugino, Mira Sorvino and Greg Wise. Four young, beautiful, and totally American heiress’ travel to London for the Season in hopes of marrying titled husbands. The great men they meet and fall in love with are not always what they appear to be. Downton Abbey tie-in? Cora, the current Countess of Grantham, was herself a buccaneer. In 1888, at the age of twenty, she and her mother arrived in London. By the end of her first Season she was betrothed to Robert, Viscount Downton, an heir to a great estate.
Waterloo Bridge (1940)
Winston Churchill’s favorite film, we are rather fond of it too. Staring Vivian Leigh at her most vibrant and beautiful, it is indeed a tear jerker. Get your lace hankies at the ready. On the eve of World War II, a British officer Roy Cronin revisits Waterloo Bridge in London and recalls the young man he was at the beginning of World War I and the young ballerina Myra who he met just before he left for the front. They fell in love. He proposed before he departed and they were blissfully happy for about an instant. Later, she thinks he is killed and turns to street walking in hard times, only to have him return oblivious to what she has been doing to earn her bread. He introduces her to his family at their country estate. It all goes terribly wrong, but makes for great melodrama. Downton Abbey tie-in? Myra gives Roy a good luck charm before he departs for the war, just like Lady Mary gives her lucky stuffed plush toy to Matthew.
Here we go with another spirited, rich, and beautiful American crossing the pond and marrying an English peer. This time she hooks a big fish; Lord Randolph Churchill, third son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough and gets to live at Blenheim Palace. This award winning mini-series stars Lee Remick as the luminous and captivating Jennie Churchill, the mother of statesman Sir Winston Churchill, all-around socialite and political advisor extraordinaire. Filmed on location in family homes including Blenheim Palace, the series also stars Warren Clarke as Winston, and Jeremy Brett as Count Kinsky, Lady Jennie’s great love. Even though Jennie is considered a generation before the American buccaneers hit British soil, she certainly opened the path for Cora and other Americans. Downton Abbey tie-in? Men behaving badly; women being witty and strong in beautiful country manor houses and London.
Gosford Park (2001)
We might say that screenwriter Julian Fellowes got his feet wet with this Oscar winning screenplay of Gosford Park before he created Downton Abbey, but it is really a whole other kettle of fish. Set a little later in the 1930’s, it still an observant look at the British class system involving the upstairs and downstairs inhabitants and their guests during a weekend of pheasant shooting at a county manor house. This time it involves a murder, so you could say that it is Agatha Christy meets the Grantham’s if one was really stretching the comparison. Downton Abbey tie-in? Apart from the direct Fellowes connection, Dame Maggie Smith excels as the toffee-nosed Constance, Dowager Countess of Trentham. This role is only a warm up to Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, we suspect, whose biting wit is even more razor sharp and hilarious than her predecessor.
The Grand (1997-1998)
This mini-series never aired on Masterpiece Theatre, but it should have. Set in an opulent Manchester, England hotel at the end of WWI through the Roaring 1920’s, it is full of upstairs/downstairs dissipation and vice. This 15 hour drama has enough scandal, romance, and intrigue to keep even Downton’s evil lady’s maid O’Brien’s bangs curled for years. The story sags a bit in the middle, lacking the heart of characters in Downton, but three-time Emmy®-winner Susan Hampshire (The Pallisers & The Three Lives of Thomasina) is superb as the retired professional woman Esme Harkness, who really keeps this rocky ship from sinking. Downton Abbey tie-in? Of course the class comparisons to the upstairs and downstairs are plainly evident, but money and romance is the heart of both dramas.
Downton Abbey image courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE; text Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose.com