'Bridgerton': Why we're a nation obsessed with period dramas
Watch a trailer for Netflix hit Bridgerton
Maybe it’s all Colin Firth’s fault.
Of course there’d been period drama before he started parading round in a wet shirt in Pride and Prejudice (checks phone, wow) 25 years ago, because we’re British and there’s nothing we like doing more than reminiscing non-judgmentally about our totally fine, not at all dodgy past and watching posh people through rose-tinted spectacles.
But Andrew Davies’ iconic Austen adaptation (incidentally it was Davies who shocked people with his take on the author’s unfinished novel Sanditon in 2019) feels like the catalyst.
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It was broadcast in 1995, not long before the birth of shows like The Sopranos and The Wire which changed the course of television. And while it may not be a straight line, it’s not that difficult to see how Firth’s puffy shirt, via Tony and Stringer and Walter and Don and the rest, evolved to become Bridgerton’s anti-hero – Regé-Jean Page’s Duke of Hastings – doing rude things to a girl he kinda likes but treats like dirt on an easel.
Because period drama has moved with the times. What makes Bridgerton so appealing (63 million Netflix streams and counting) is not just the clothes and the cut-glass accents and the fancy dancing, it’s the fact that the writers have made it feel utterly modern.
That and people – though they’ll deny it forever – remain obsessed with class, which sits at the heart of all these shows. Indeed, the best of these stories still feel totally contemporary, even 200, 300, 500 years later. But the colourblind casting and all that sex means that a genre which has previously felt staid, aimed at a white, older audience who don’t understand what YouTube is, now feels invigoratingly youthful and current.
Quiz: Can you name these period dramas from just two character names?
Shonda Rhimes understands that Jane Austen was the Shonda Rhimes of her time. Gossip, tears, emotionally stunted men and complex, flawed women – the only difference between Sense and Sensibility and Grey’s Anatomy is that Austen didn’t think to nickname one of her characters Sir Dreamy.
And now there are a host of new authors, who grew up on Colin and the rest who are thinking up new and interesting ways to take afternoon tea with someone, or have some sort of banquet (often before shagging each other senseless).
Claire Randall does it in Outlander by going all sci-fi and travelling back in time. Gentleman Jack puts a brilliant LGBTQ spin on it. The Great aims for full satirical comedy while the upcoming Becoming Elizabeth will apparently delve into the legendary monarch’s teenage years (that’s the first one, not our current queen). Period YA if you will.
And what’s so great about it is while there is still plenty of space for Julian Fellowes’ more austere, Sunday night idea on things in shows like Downton Abbey or his long-awaited prequel/sequel The Gilded Age which will finally debut (apparently) later this year, period drama remains rife with possibilities.
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Just like Shakespeare has lent himself to single-gender casts, or versions set in modern day, so do period dramas offer ambitious and imaginative screenwriters the chance to play thrillingly with the form.
Which is why everyone should be excited about Jodie Turner-Smith’s casting as Anne Boleyn in a new Channel 5 interpretation of the doomed queen, which may have infuriated certain columnists and keyboard warriors on social media (“But…but…that means the next actor to play Martin Luther King should be white!”), but offers a chance to explore a whole new perspective of Anne, her life and death.
Yes, it’s about a real person, but it’s a fictional show, people, listen to yourselves.
Which brings us back to Bridgerton. There’s no doubt it’s captured the zeitgeist. Netflix has said it’s one of their most-streamed hits and while no-one is able to actually stand around a watercooler at the moment, it’s doing its job as far as the virtual one is concerned. The series is one giant hot take.
Yet Shonda Rhimes and her team haven’t reinvented TV. Armando Iannucci already did colourblind period casting brilliantly in last year’s The Personal History of David Copperfield. But what Shonda has always been phenomenal at – undoubtedly helping to make her one of our most important and successful creators – is story. Soap. Melodrama. Character. Sexual tension.
And all those things are embedded in period drama. Hell, people in contemporary shows don’t even know what real emotional repression is compared to one of those dudes standing around a country house in the 1800s pining for the sister who’s got her heart set on that lord who owns lots of fields but treats everyone like they’re not fit to touch his cape.
Bridgerton is exciting, erotic, hilarious, moving and ridiculous. Bring on more of the same.
Watch: Dev Patel praises the colourblind casting of David Copperfield