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The Evolution of the Period Drama Genre

Writing by Aria Tsvetanova. Illustration artist unknown - titled "Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies, English School" and dated to the 17th Century.

Period, or costume, dramas are emblematic and often synonymous with contemporary British culture. I first became enamoured with both the literature and the history of the UK through the consumption of Jane Austen adaptations. The image of the grand heritage property – be it Chatsworth House, Castle Howard or some other country estate – has been reproduced in such detail that it now stands as a monolith of its own. It is historical and yet entirely divorced from the period it seeks to represent. The visual perfectionism of the staple period dramas (usually with racist undertones in tow) creates an entirely different world: a perfect escape from the present, but also an often uncritical perfect mystification of the past.

However, the costume drama is evolving and beginning to question its own conventions. Far from claiming to be an accurate representation of past events and characters, the ‘new’ period drama (a paradoxical but much needed phrase) is becoming the forefront of critical approaches to history and undermining understandings of historical accuracy. Crucially, the period drama is no longer divorced from its audience through a myriad historical details and points of accuracy; rather, it seeks to convey messages about the present by actively employing inaccuracy and challenging conventional views of historical progress.

Race and Period Drama

A 2016 study by the British Film Institute found that between 2006 and 2016, 59% of UK films did not feature a single black actor in a named character role. The same study puts the percentage of black absence in period dramas at a staggering 80%. Elizabethan shows very occasionally dare to feature black servants; Georgian era dramas sometimes revel in the corruption of slavery but not in its subjects; Jane Austen adaptations are almost entirely white (with Sandition a recent exception); and Victorian pieces hardly mention the implications of ‘Empire’.

To explain the ways in which history is in no way as whitewashed as the period dramas of the old present, it would take a whole separate article. Suffice it to say, people of colour were present in Britain for the Tudor, Elizabethan, Georgian, Victorian and periods beyond – those being the eras most often depicted on screen – and not only in the capacity of servant or slave.

However, in recent years period drama has moved away from only casting persons of colour in biopics (biographical films dealing with the life of a historical figure) specifically dealing with race. Instead, colourblind and identity-conscious castings ⎼ ones which do not consider an actor's race, or cast based on what the actor’s identity can contribute to the character ⎼ are becoming increasingly common. The unspoken racist ideology of British period drama that people of colour cannot be cast in certain roles is giving way to a colourblind casting process, or more intriguingly, to the casting of BIPOC actors in traditionally white roles as a form of social commentary. An excellent example of the former is Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) which adapts the classic Victorian novel with Dev Patel as Copperfield and an ensemble of BIPOCs in various roles. When questioned on the subject, Iannucci told IndieWire: ‘I just thought, that’s how I must cast the whole film, cast who you think is the best person for that role.’ Adding that ‘[T]he whole point of making these films now is because we feel the story is relevant, and we should show that it’s relevant by how we go about making it’. In a similar vein, Channel 5’s miniseries Anne Boleyn cast Jodie Turner-Smith in the titular role. Opposed to the fictional character played by Dev Patel, extant records and portraits depict Anne Boleyn as white. The casting of a black actress divided critics and angered audiences with actor Laurence Fox ranting on Twitter that ‘Anne Boleyn was a straight white female’. However, Turner-Smith’s casting is not only revelatory of modern racist attitudes and misplaced selective loyalties to ‘historical accuracy’, it is also an ingenious commentary on the othering of Anne Boleyn in the Tudor court and the way her persecution and her historical legacy have been shaped by contemporary rumours and outright libel campaigns.

‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ Or do they?

An argument that always comes up when discussing costume drama is that of historical accuracy: what do we owe to history? Should these films be fictionalised accounts of human trepidation or should they perfectly recreate the historical past? And inevitably when one talks about historical accuracy, one also begins to discuss the past as foreign. Statements like ‘well they just didn’t do that back then’ or ‘this identity/definition/practice only became popular in the 20th century’. Or - my favourite - ‘this is just ruining history with leftist woke agendas’. ‘Historical accuracy’ becomes a handy defence for those resisting diversity and representation. Much like the idea that BIPOCs in historical pieces can only ever be servants and slaves, the idea that the past is entirely cisgender, entirely straight and entirely patriarchal is fundamentally flawed. Laurence Fox’s rantings about ‘straight white female[s]’ are revelatory in that the inclusion of one marginalised group in a traditional genre immediately sparks fears of others.

However, the period drama has been more and more successful in showcasing queer historical stories. Moreover, we are starting to get more sex-positive narratives as well. The lesbian period film is particularly on the rise: ever since Carol (2015) we have been roughly one major film about later sad queer ladies every year - think The Favourite (2018) or Ammonite (2020). And while really diverse queer experiences may yet be lacking, I am overjoyed to see more queer people on screen and behind the camera too. And I will gladly consume the next film about two women in period dress staring longingly at each other across a beach….and the next one….and the one after that….and the one after that.

Such media is slowly but surely breaking down the idea that the past is a foreign country that can only be penetrated by discarding all modern ideas of race, class, sex and gender. A particular standout in that regard is Harlots – an underappreciated gem of a historical drama focusing on 18th century sex work. The show takes the statistic that one in five women in London worked in the sex trade in the 1760s and runs with it, showcasing not only women of all classes struggling to exist in a patriarchal society, but also queer and disabled characters. And it doesn’t kinkshame to boot. It is a show packed with sex, which never shies away from discomforting its audience and confronting the messiness and brutality of sex work. However, it never feels salacious or pornographic. Sex is presented as a means to an end, and not shown unless plot-relevant; a result of its female-centred gaze which saves it from falling into the trap of objectification and stereotype.

Bridgerton: a case study

You can’t talk about the evolution of period dramas without mentioning Netflix’s Bridgerton. In many ways what makes Bridgerton so successful is the same as any other costume drama – the escapism, opulence and drama. What set Bridgerton apart was the combination of a frivolously modern tone à la Gossip Girl, a colour-blind or identity-conscious casting, and unbridled sexuality in place of timid restraint. How well it delivers on these promises is another matter…

Airy, dramatic and frivolous it undoubtedly is. Costumes, sets and the plot itself are exaggerated, taking everything we already love about costume drama and drowning it in Swarovski crystals to make a perfect piece of visual escapism. It is fundamentally a modern story dressed in a Regency gown. It abounds in modern feminist sentiments about female education and empowerment; it critiques cancel culture and our obsession with reputation and social (or in this case, printed) media; and ultimately it can be read as a story about the fragility of masculinity as a social construct. Based on a bodice-ripper novel, the show is inevitably teeming with pre-marital, marital and throw-a-ladder-in-the-mix-just-for-fun sex. However, while decidedly steamy, the sex scenes are not fundamentally relevant to the plot unlike those in Harlots. While a romance novel is written specifically to facilitate the protagonist’s sexual escapades and any situation, however contrived, is set up to culminate in some kind of sex, the show sprinkles its sex scenes rather too gratuitously while trying to keep up the appearance of having a more important plot it needs to get back to.

Racial representation is where the show really and truly loses its head. While I have nothing but praise for the diversity of the cast, I am less than pleased with how this diversity is handled in the show itself. To begin with, Bridgerton seems hellbent on satinising history and removing any nuance from historical events. If it were simply a fantasy, as the aesthetic lets us believe, that would not be a problem. However, showrunners have insisted that race was carefully considered when casting: the show is set loosely in 1813 with actual historical figures appearing alongside our fictional protagonists, most notably Queen Charlotte and King George III. History is thus framed as less egregious: a monarch who historically benefitted from the slave trade instead falls in love with a BIPOC queen and ends racism, and erases the trauma of slavery, and it is never brought up again…ever. The end. One white man’s actions ends inequality, seemably forever.

Does this rewriting of historical events help us learn anything from history? It undoubtedly allows for depictions which BIPOCs have long been denied: they are figures of wealth and opulence and get to act in a genre in which they are severely underrepresented. Is that enough though? Is shoehorning BIPOCs into traditionally white roles a positive move when no nuance is added? The show has been accused of colourism with most of the ‘upstanding’ BIPOC members of society being mixed race, while one of the villains is the person with the darkest skin out of the whole cast. Other problems arise when one compares the treatment of BIPOC characters by the writers to that of white ones: Marina (comparable to Daphne) spends most of the season being punished, locked away, almost forced into marriage and threatened with poverty. Meanwhile, protagonist Daphne, who makes more than a few blunders, ends up being rewarded. Similarly, Queen Charlotte – whose love marriage is ostensibly the reason for this newly equal society – suffers from living with a mentally ill and abusive husband. While his mental illness is historically correct, a show which erases George III’s pro-slavery/anti-abolition sentiments, but chooses to use his illness to create BIPOC trauma, is at best shortsighted and at worst actively malicious towards its BIPOC cast. After a conversation which has had to justify the existence of a mixed race society, the Duke is advised that ‘Love, your grace, conquers all’. This comes off as particularly hollow against the backdrop of underutilised or mistreated BIPOC characters. Having to invent a justification for the state of society makes it seem like it is a notion so far-fetched that it requires more than suspension of disbelief – an infodump and a metahistory lecture. That is the moment we are taken out of the fantasy and brought back into the real world….the one and only moment. The diversity of Bridgerton is thus, much like its bright glittering gowns, a spectacle of purely visual progress without nuance or thoughtful core. While it is sumptuous and fun and incredibly addictive, Bridgerton fails to commit to either the social commentary showrunners have insisted was included or to the pure fantasy the aesthetic promises.

Period drama is quickly becoming more open to innovation and change, with outdated ideas of historical accuracy giving way to increased creativity. If the project of the new evolved costume drama is to represent the present state of society as much as the historical past, then it is undoubtedly succeeding for the most part. However, as the case of Bridgerton demonstrates, the genre still needs to evolve if it doesn’t want to be stuck in the past.

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