Katherine Clements picks the best costume drama to watch over the festive season.
The Crown (Netflix, from 8th December)
When The Crown first aired last year it was much hyped as the most expensive TV series ever made. I doubted whether a show about our current royals would live up to such grand claims. I was pleased to be proved wrong. Despite a couple of missteps in early episodes The Crown was compelling viewing with solid performances and occasional emotional weight. Anyone interested in vintage fashion should watch for the costumes alone. It returned to Netflix on 8th December. This will be Clare Foy and Matt Smith’s last outing as Elizabeth and Phillip – next season will see them replaced by more mature actors as we move forward in time. But for now, we pick up pretty much where we left off. This season covers the years up to 1964, taking in the Suez crisis, the Queen’s relationship with prime ministers Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan, rumours of Phillip’s bad behaviour and Princess Margaret’s famously tempestuous love life. I like to imagine our Liz settling down with a glass of sweet sherry for a Netflix binge and a good laugh at the inaccuracies. For the rest of us, it should be an enjoyable watch with a palatable history lesson or two along the way.
Howard’s End (BBC iplayer, Amazon Video)
This remake of E.M. Forster’s novel aired in November in the traditional Sunday 9pm slot and is typical BBC adaptation fare. You might remember the excellent 1992 Merchant Ivory production starring Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter as the independent, unconventional Schlegel sisters, which won 3 Oscars. What more could a new version bring? But with a screenplay by Kenneth Lonergan (of Manchester by the Sea and Gangs of New York fame) the story feels modern and relevant. Lonergan admits that much is owed to the book that Forster described as “my best novel, and approaching a good novel”. “Most of the dialogue is right out of the book,” Lonergan says. ”So the style and freshness is a tribute to Forster”. With extended screen time (4 hours as opposed to Merchant Ivory’s 2.5) we get more depth of character, and a slightly more faithful retelling. There have been rumblings in the press about the inclusion of black characters (were there really black people in Edwardian London? Erm…yes) and an overbearing score (which I didn’t notice at all) but ignore the naysayers. With gorgeous production design and great performances from Hayley Atwell, Philippa Coulthard and Matthew Macfadyen, this one is a satisfying slow burner.
Knightfall (The History Channel, from 6th December)
The History Channel follow up their success with Vikings (season 5 of which is currently on air) with this new series about the Knights Templar. Set in the 14th century, it deals with the downfall and last days of this powerful and ever intriguing organisation. “Knightfall goes deep into the clandestine world of this legendary brotherhood of warrior monks,” claims the puff from the History Channel. “From their battles in the Holy Land, to their complex relationship with the King of France, to the betrayal that would ultimately lead to their tragic dissolution, the story of the Knights Templar has never been fully told until now.” I know a few historians, and a few novelists, that might argue with that, but a fresh take is always welcome. With the big budget polish, gut-churning violence and gripping storytelling we’ve come to expect in Vikings, it should be worth a watch. For the nerds, there’s quite a bit of historical information on the show’s official website too, suggesting we might get some real history among the blood and gore.
The Miniaturist (BBC1, 9pm, 26th December)
No historical fiction fan will be unaware of the phenomenal success of The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton’s million-selling debut novel. So far, details about the TV adaptation have been swathed in almost as much mystery as the 17th century world she created, but it’s now confirmed for a prime spot on Boxing Day. Set in Amsterdam in 1686, The Miniaturist (pictured top) tells the story of 18-year-old Nella, newly married to merchant Johannes. Gifted a dollhouse replica of her new home, Nella soon notices a mysterious connection between the miniature figures who inhabit the dollhouse and their real-life counterparts, gradually uncovering a world of secrets and betrayal. I always welcome more drama set in this relatively underserved period and this one stars Anya Taylor-Joy, who was so good in recent 17th century horror film, The Witch, and the supremely talented Romola Garai. Produced by the team behind National Treasure and The Last Post, it should be a highlight of the BBC’s festive offering.
Little Women (BBC1, from 26th December)
Another Masterpiece co-production for the BBC’s Christmas schedule is this new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a classic that needs no introduction. Adapted by Call the Midwife’s Heidi Thomas and produced by Playground – a company with a slate of high quality period pieces in their back catalogue (Wolf Hall, Dancing on the Edge and the above mentioned Howard’s End) it’ll air on BBC1 in the UK and PBS in the US. A promising cast includes some big names: Angela Lansbury, Michael Gambon and Emily Watson. Thomas said: “Little Women is one of the most loved novels in the English language, and with good reason. Its humanity, humour and tenderness never date, and as a study of love, grief and growing up it has no equal. There could be no better time to revisit the story of a family striving for happiness in an uncertain world, and I am thrilled to be bringing the March girls to a new generation of viewers.” She has a point. The last big adaptation was in 1994 (can you believe it?). It will air in three episodes from 26th December, you could do worse than spend a duvet day getting cosy with the March sisters. And you’ll probably get to use your Christmas hankie.
The Man Who Invented Christmas (at cinemas nationwide)
If you’re in festive mood, or need something to get you there, this movie about Charles Dickens might be your best bet. Based on the book by Les Standiford, it tells the story of the brief period in 1843 when Dickens, debt-ridden and desperate for book sales, wrote A Christmas Carol. The book famously became a sensation, forever cementing our collective cultural ideals about the holiday season and inventing a whole Christmas lexicon. Just don’t expect a gritty portrayal of Victorian London. Starring Dan Stephens as Dickens, supported by a venerable cast of acting nobility (Jonathan Pryce, Christopher Plummer, Simon Callow and Miriam Margolyes to name a few), this looks to be part rom-com, part morality tale and part health warning about the perils of authorship. Reviews are reasonably good, so if you want a heart-warming, feelgood option, or you’re looking for something to entertain the kids, this might tick the box.
Peaky Blinders (BBC iplayer, Netflix from 21st December)
Right at the other end of the spectrum is this superb series. If you’ve not spent the last few Wednesday evenings gripping the edge of your sofa in delighted horror (why not?), then you’re missing some of the best TV drama around. It’s no secret I’m a huge fan of this show, with a soft spot for the Shelby boys. If you like your costume drama with a serving of violence, a side of grit, and a glass of something hedonistic, this might be one for you too. I’m constantly amazed at writer Steven Knight’s ability to keep us guessing, aided by a stellar cast capable of carrying off the most ludicrous plotlines with glorious panache. If you’ve never indulged I suggest starting at the beginning – Seasons 1 and 2 are currently available on Netflix in the UK, with Season 3 expected at the end of December. US viewers can already access all 3, with Season 4 available on 21st December, just in time for your holiday hangovers.
Katherine Clements is the author of The Crimson Ribbon and The Silvered Heart and is editor of Historia Magazine. Her third novel, The Coffin Path, an eerie and compelling seventeenth-century ghost story set on the dark wilds of the Yorkshire moors, is published in February 2018.
- The Miniaturist © BBC/Lawrence Cendrowicz
- Little Women © BBC