The best British period dramas, from Downton Abbey to Pride and Prejudice


onnets, big houses and brooding heroes: a good period drama is the ultimate comfort watch, a lovely balm for our “poor nerves” – as Mrs Bennet from Pride and Prejudice would probably put it – that’s particularly soothing when the world seems uncertain and strange.

From compulsive Sunday night viewing like Downton Abbey and Poldark (and the new Pursuit of Love adaptation, starting on May 9) to Oscar-baiting classics like Sense and Sensibility and A Room With a View, these are our all-time favourites…

Pride and Prejudice

<p>The definitive adaptation of Austen’s classic</p>

The definitive adaptation of Austen’s classic


Send our apologies to Keira Knightley and Joe Wright: it’s a truth universally acknowledged that the 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s best-known work will never be surpassed. The six hour-long episodes give enough space for Austen’s comic creations to unfurl their idiosyncrasies at leisure (Mr Collins is a masterclass in skin-crawling awfulness; Alison Steadman is a brilliant Mrs Bennet) and enough time to ensure that Lizzie’s (Jennifer Ehle) slow-burn romance with Mr Darcy (Colin Firth) doesn’t feel rushed. And is there a more iconic scene in period drama than Firth emerging from the lake at Pemberley? We think not.  KR

Sense and Sensibility

Winslet and Thompson play two very different sisters

/ Film handout

In a roundabout way, we have Stephen Fry to thank for this superlative adaptation. Emma Thompson spent five years trying to perfect the script for her version of Jane Austen’s novel – then disaster struck when her computer crashed, taking the fruits of her labours with it. Thompson grabbed the offending PC and jumped in a cab (no mean feat when you remember how massive computers were in the early Nineties) to Fry’s house, where the polymath managed to retrieve the file. Thank God he did – Thompson’s take on Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee and also starring Hugh Grant (as a floppy haired Edward Ferrars), Kate Winslet (flighty Marianne Dashwood) and Alan Rickman (steadfast and dependable Colonel Brandon), is a real delight. Not only did Thompson rightly pick up a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for her efforts, in a lovely twist worthy of Austen herself, she also met her future husband Greg Wise on set. KR


A modern spin on Austen’s tale


Autumn de Wilde’s recent big screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma seems to have had its thunder stolen slightly by the fact it was in cinemas just before we first went into lockdown. There are immeasurable reasons to revisit it: Anya Taylor-Joy makes Emma Woodhouse cool rather than just a bit of a snob, Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton’s script is deliciously droll, and a supporting cast including Josh O’Connor, Bill Nighy and Callum Turner deliver great comic performances. Oh, and Johnny Flynn as Mr Knightley. We hardly noticed, of course. JT

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II

/ Netflix

It was an ambitious premise: a lavish drama charting the reign of Queen Elizabeth II from coronation to (almost) present day and spanning six series, with each season focusing on a decade or so of British history. Only Peter Morgan, the scribe behind The Queen and The Audience, combined with the mega-budget afforded by a streaming platform like Netflix, could pull it off. The first two series, featuring career-making turns by Claire Foy as Her Majesty, Matt Smith as her consort and Vanessa Kirby as her sister Princess Margaret, set a very high standard indeed – one that the third season (which swapped Foy and co for a new bunch of more appropriately middle-aged faux royals) didn’t always live up to. Thankfully round four, with all the gossipy thrills and genuine heartbreak of the Diana years, seems to have corrected the course of Morgan’s saga. Roll on the Nineties, we say. KR

Lark Rise to Candleford

A gentle period soap set in rural Oxfordshire


“A rural Victorian Eastenders”, one critic called this sunlit period soap that ran for four surprisingly successful series (audiences sat comfortably at around 7 million), though it was gentler and kinder than that. Based on Flora Thompson’s trilogy about a young woman growing up and apart from her rural Oxfordshire beginnings, it dealt sensitively with issues ranging from encroaching industrialisation to the effect on families of dementia. And it had Julia Sawalha as proto-feminist Postmistress Dorcas Lane, and Victoria Hamilton and Matilda Ziegler as the gloriously ridiculous Pratt sisters, the vicious bounce of whose tightly-wound ringlets could have powered any number of ingenious industrial contraptions. ND

Call the Midwife

Call The Midwife has been a surprise hit, pulling in millions of viewers

/ BBC/Neal Street Productions/Laurence Cendrowicz

Who would have thought that a series about prim midwives that packed in about three noisy labour scenes per episode would still be popping them out, nine seasons on? Well, anyone who witnessed the success of One Born Every Minute, which didn’t even have the charm of changing period outfits to recommend it (yes I did watch every episode), but Call the Midwife still surprised everyone by winning over millions of viewers with its grumpy nuns, budding young career girls and token comedy men-slash-love interests all living and loving in a rapidly changing East End. Covering medical and social developments from adoption and the treatment of unmarried mothers to the Thalidomide scandal, it manages to be both comforting and challenging. ND

Gentleman Jack

Jones shines as the mercurial landowner Anne Lister

/ BBC/Lookout Point/Jay Brooks

Basically an excuse to watch Suranne Jones stalking about an unusually dry West Yorkshire in a top hat and frock coat, outwitting arrogant men and charming beautiful women, this is a highly enjoyable romp based on the real (coded) diaries of the proud 19th century lesbian landowner Anne Lister. Jones shines as the mercurial yet down-to-earth Lister, who just wants to be allowed to love freely and make a shedload of cash from the coal under her own land. I’m slightly concerned that season two, recently confirmed, will have an awful lot about the black stuff, but I’m far too anxious to find out what happens when Lister’s loyal steward Samuel Washington finally twigs that his sweet new son-in-law’s father didn’t actually run away to America to let that bother me. ND

Downton Abbey

Soapy and scandalous, Downton had us hooked from the off

“What is a weekend?” In its heyday, Julian Fellowes’ upstairs-downstairs saga was essential Sunday night viewing, and not just because we got to see Maggie Smith dishing out razor-sharp one liners as the Dowager Countess. The storylines were unashamedly soapy and scandalous (RIP to the Turkish diplomat who inconveniently died of a heart attack after sleeping with Lady Mary in series one) and managed to make us weep too (poor Lady Sybil – how cruel to kill off the only nice Crawley sister in childbirth). The wheels came off the Downton juggernaut towards the end (though the 2019 spin-off film managed to make a killing at the box office, despite being hysterically bad) but at that point, we were too hooked to care. KR

Jane Eyre

This performance made a star of Ruth Wilson


It was a real star is born moment: Ruth Wilson, at just 24 and fresh out of drama school, took on the title role of this flagship BBC adaptation as a relative unknown, and won the nation’s hearts. She portrays Jane as a strong-willed young woman full of complexity, and found a crackling chemistry with her Mr Rochester, played by Toby Stephens. The story may be spread over four hour-long episodes, but it always feels perfectly paced, full of moments of yearning. JT

The Darling Buds of May

A sunkissed comedy drama based on H. E. Bates’s novels


A smash hit for ITV in the 90s (all six episodes of its first series hit number one in the ratings, this being the olden days of terrestrial telly), this sunkissed comedy drama based on the once-popular novels of H.E Bates painted a nostalgic picture of post-war Britain, centred around the rackety, ramshackle family of Pop (David Jason, in a role seemingly tailor-made for one of Britain’s greatest character actors), his unmarried partner Ma (Pam Ferris) and their six children. It seems bizarre now but this adorable show provided the big break for the Welsh Hollywood star Catherine Zeta Jones, as eldest daughter (and budding sexpot) Mariette, who falls for the man from the Inland Revenue (Philip Franks) in the first episode and never lets him go. ND


Romance, scything and Cornish scenes – what more could we want?

/ PA

Remember the halcyon days of spring 2015, when the nation lost its collective cool over that scene involving Aidan Turner scything with no shirt on? Simpler times (“Could Aidan Turner spark a resurgence in scything?” read one very enthusiastic headline). Poldark was the perfect Sunday night period drama, filling the gap in the schedule left by Downton’s departure. Based on Winston Graham’s novels and following in the footsteps of another wildly successful adaptation that aired in the Seventies, it followed dashing Captain Ross Poldark (Turner) as he returned from fighting in the American War of Independence to his childhood home in Cornwall – only to discover that his former sweetheart Elizabeth is engaged to his insipid cousin Francis, and that he’s in tonnes of debt. Buzz kill. Enter Eleanor Tomlinson’s Demelza, the spirited servant who he ends up romancing instead. Later instalments involved a bit too much interminable chatter about tin mining and not enough scything for our liking, but Poldark remained heaps of fun until it bowed out after five series in 2019. KR


The best dress in costume drama history? Probably


Period dramas sometimes have a reputation for being a bit buttoned up, but not Atonement. In Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s best novel, every encounter between doomed lovers Robbie and Cecilia is an opportunity for some kind of unbearable erotic frisson. From an antique vase breaking to a type-written letter going into the wrong envelope, it all eventually gets a bit much for the pair, played by James McAvoy and Keira Knightley, who end up spreadeagled into a library (which doesn’t look especially comfy for Keira, but she does get to wear a magnificent green dress.) Of course, their passion for one another goes awry for various reasons, including meddling brat Briony (a very young Saoirse Ronan), the Second World War and… the British class system, probably. JT

A Room with a View

Daniel Day Lewis plays snobby Cecil Vyse opposite Helena Bonham Carter


A young Helena Bonham Carter absolutely glows in this fabulously lavish E.M Forster adaptation from Merchant Ivory, though you can’t quite believe that her Lucy Honeychurch – a proper young woman whose passions are ignited by a rather Me Too-ish snog from Julian Sands’s freethinking George on an Italian hillside, throwing her life into disarray – was ever quite as prim as she made out. The cut glass accents, strangled pauses and Daniel Day Lewis as the harmless but appallingly pretentious snob Cecil Vyse (as well as an enjoyably irritating turn from Maggie Smith as Lucy’s fussy cousin and chaperone) make this gem sparkle. ND

Bleak House

Gillian Anderson and Anna Maxwell Martin stand out in this star-studded adaptation


The genius of the BBC’s take on Dickens’ most ambitious novel lies in Andrew Davies’ decision to chop the series up into half-hour episodes, leaving viewers teetering on a cliffhanger just like Victorian readers, who were drip-fed Bleak House in serialised instalments. The cast list boasts so much star power, it risks spontaneous combustion: a pre-Hollywood Carey Mulligan plays Ada Clare, Anna Maxwell Martin manages to make sappy Esther Summerson interesting and Charles Dance does his dead-eyed villain routine as sinister lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn. Best of all, though, is Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, the beautiful, icy aristo hiding a tragic secret. KR

Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Nicholls’ adaptation captures moments of joyful young love amid the gloom

Oh, Tess. Oh, Angel Clare. No one has a nice time in a Thomas Hardy novel, where Tess Durbeyfield is sent to explore her family’s possible noble connections, but the outcome in Tess of the D’Urbervilles is very bleak. All the more impressive, then, that David Nicholl’s four-part adaptation for the BBC manages to capture so many moments of innocent, joyful young love between the pair. One of the most charming scenes sees Angel (played by a pre-Oscar winning Eddie Redmayne) chivalrously carry all of Tess’s friends across a lake, while Tess (Gemma Arterton) protests she can get across herself. Eventually, of course, she allows him – cue eye gazing galore.  JT

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit was Claire Foy’s breakout role


The Crown may have propelled her career into the stratosphere, but us Claire Foy diehards have been rooting for her ever since she took the starring role in this sprawling Dickens adaptation back in 2008. Poor old Amy Dorrit has been brought up in the Marshalsea prison (where the author’s father was briefly incarcerated)  after her dad (Tom Courtenay) was locked up for failing to pay off his debts. Enter the kind-hearted Arthur Clennam (Matthew Macfadyen), who believes the Dorrits might be tied up in a family mystery he is trying to unravel. Dickens being Dickens, there are countless random sub-plots (Illegitimate children! Andy Serkis as a villainous French bloke! Everyone decamps to Venice for some reason!) but Andrew Davies (him again) makes light work of knotting it all together. KR

The Forsyte Saga

Damien Lewis and Gina McKee play miserable married couple Soames and Irene


The BBC’s 1967 version of John Galsworthy’s weighty novel cycle set the bar for period drama on television; attempting to adapt it again might have seemed like a fool’s errand, but ITV managed to pull it off in 2002, buoyed by a brilliant cast. Damien Lewis is great as chilly, repressed posho Soames Forsyte, obsessed with his beautiful wife Irene (Gina McKee) who loathes the very sight of him, preferring to spend her days in the company of charming architect Philip Bosinney (Ioan Gruffudd). He’s designing Soames’ new country house, a Victorian Grand Design, and also happens to be engaged to June, the daughter of Irene’s cousin-in-law Jolyon Forsyte (who’s estranged from the snootier branches of the family after running off with the governess…) What could possibly go wrong? KR

Colman is an absurd but sympathetic Queen Anne 

/ AP

Olivia Colman has long been a queen in the eyes of anyone who’s paid more than passing notice to British telly over the past two decades, but this pitch-black period piece cemented her status as acting royalty. As an absurd but deeply sympathetic Queen Anne, Colman gets to play up to her comic talents, while Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are brilliant as the warring objects of her affections: Stone’s Abigail is a servant girl on the make, Weisz’s Lady Sarah is the monarch’s Machiavellian confidante. Costume dramas all too often present life in the past in swoony soft focus: The Favourite reminds us that the old days were smelly and sweary too. Brutal and brilliant fun. KR