The Crawleys have taken their stunning clothes, ornate furniture, cultured ways and mysteries with them as the second season of “Downton Abbey” comes to a close.
Yes, the cast (well, many of them) is filming Season Three now, but what are we Yanks to do until “Masterpiece Theatre” brings them back to us?
Thank the Lord, PBS, BBC, A&E and other channels have provided culture-starved television watchers any number of British TV movies and mini-series to fill in the weeks and months until Carson (Jim Carter) and his staff reopen the Abbey.
One can find these shows on pay-per-view sites, streaming movie sites or buy them outright from any number of online entertainment sites.
Journey Upstairs, Downstairs
Heading that list is the venerable “Upstairs, Downstairs,” a sprawling series detailing the comings and goings at the Bellamy’s London townhouse at 165 Eaton Place. The show ran from 1971-75 and while the upper-class Bellamy’s family life ran the gamut from birth, marriages and deaths, the real drama was downstairs in the servants hall, where Hudson (the late Gordon Jackson) kept the maids, cooks, footmen and various other staff in line. The breakout star of the show was the housemaid Rose (Jean Marsh).
Miss Marsh returned to a more modern “Upstairs, Downstairs” in 2010. Set in 1936, the townhouse has a new owner, and Rose returns to the house to help hire new staff. The second-go-round ended with King Edward’s abdication, and the second season is due this year. Thank you ITV.
Too staid for you? Try out 1981’s “Brideshead Revisited”
Brideshead is a twisting tale of friendship, illicit romance, religion and sexual preference.
In World War II England, Capt. Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) is billeted at Brideshead. He first visited there 20 years earlier as a poor university student befriended by the troubled Lord Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Edwards). Ryder’s memories of the house and the Flyte family include love, marriage, anguish and the dissolute behavior of his troubled friend Sebastian.
Wonderful Costumes in “Lillie”
For sumptuous costumes and dazzling beauty, watch 1978’s fact-based mini-series “Lillie,” the story of Lillie Langtry, also known as “Jersey Lil.”
The beauty was a minister’s daughter who cashed in on her looks for fame, scandalous affairs with rich men and princes and a stage career during and after the reign of Queen Victoria.
Francesca Annis stars as the beauty, but viewers also should enjoy performances by Peter Egan as Oscar Wilde and Dennis Lill as Bertie, Prince of Wales.
American heiresses storm England in 1995’s “The Buccaneers”
Carla Gugino, Alison Elliott, Mira Sorvino and Rya Kihlstedt star as nouveaux riche young ladies who won’t be accepted into New York City’s high society. Misses Gugino and Elliott play Nan and Virginia St. George. Their mother hires an English governess for them and she wisely suggests the pair might enjoy a London season, because some landed gentry there could use the dowry of an American wife to replenish family fortunes.
Miss Sorvino plays the enchanting Brazilian beauty Conchita Closson and Miss Kihlstedt is Lizzy Elmsworth, the most grounded of the group. All four marry, and we watch their fortunes rise and fall in this highly entertaining tale.
If a fan of British politics, don’t miss “The Pallisers”
Based on the Anthony Trollope novels, this 1974 series begins with the arranged marriage of Glencora (Susan Hampshire) to Plantagenet Palliser, a rising liberal Member of Parliament. As we follow their life together, we again see unwise romantic entanglements, fundraising for elections, career triumphs and setbacks, culminating in Mr. Pallister becoming Prime Minister.
It’s a great story for an election year, showing politics have similarities on both sides of the pond.
Want more series based on novels? Consider “The Forsyte Saga”
For this series though, you may want to take some time to make a selection. The John Galsworthy novel has been made into three separate sagas, one black-and-white 26-episode season in 1967, and another stretching over two seasons of “Masterpiece Theatre” in 2002 and 2003.
The Internet Movie Data Base comments section highly recommends the 1967 series if one can find it, saying that it could probably be the reason “Masterpiece Theatre” was created in the first place.
The 2002-3 series features Damien Lewis (also seen in HBO’s “Band of Brothers”) as Soames Forsyte.
Both series are the story of three generations of Forsytes, from the 1870s to the 1920s and feature star-crossed lovers, illicit affairs, divorces, secrets and scandals enough for any lover of great British generational tales.
Explore More Politics in “Disraeli; Portrait of a Romantic”
Actor Ian McShane gives both a great performance and a history lesson in 1978’s “Disraeli; Portrait of a Romantic.” The four-part series begins with the young man trying, and failing, to get elected into Parliament. His luck changes with his marriage to wealthy widow Mary Anne Lewis and he begins his rise to fame, ending as Prime Minister under Queen Victoria and with his work to protect the Suez Canal and the Balkans.
Explore World War II in “A Town Like Alice”
Nevil Shute’s book “A Town Like Alice” was turned into a world-sprawling saga of love and honor set during and after World War II. “Masterpiece Theater” brought this poignant romance to PBS in 1981.
Several years after World War II ends, Jean Paget (Helen Morse) is contacted by a solicitor, Noel Strachan (Gordon Jackson again) about an inheritance from an elderly relative. It’s a trust fund controlled by Mr. Strachan who assures Miss Paget she has enough money now to never work again.
Surprised herself, Miss Paget in turn surprises Mr. Strachan by asking for a sum of money to settle a debt of honor.
She tells the kindly lawyer a horrifying story. She was in Malaysia when Japan attacked and all British were arrested. The men were separated from women and children and sent to prison camps. Nothing had been arranged for women and children, so the Japanese marched them all over Malaysia.
One day, the group found a pair of Australian prisoners-of-war who take one look at the ladies and offer to help. They smuggle food, medicine and soap to the group. Miss Paget, by then in charge of a small child, makes friends with one soldier, Joe Harmon (Bryan Brown).
Mr. Harmon is caught smuggling food and is crucified by the Japanese. The women finish the war in a Malaysian village working in rice fields.
Miss Paget wants to return to Malaysia to build a well for the women in the village and then travel to Australia to see the country her Joe described so well, to make his home town a bit more like the big city in his area, “Alice Springs.”
After she leaves England, Mr. Strachan gets a surprise visitor who causes the old man to consider different options for Miss Paget and what is the right thing to do.
The last few episodes of “A Town Like Alice” may be the most satisfying finales, period. There is a twinge of real heartache over the loss of one character, and it’s a loss shared by all.
Now, for the take-no-prisoners romantics, I’ve save the best for last.
Pride and Prejudice
“Pride and Prejudice” has been made into both TV movies and mini-series and the romantic hero on which so many romantic heroes have been based – Mr. Darcy – has been played by Peter Cushing in 1952, Academy-award winner Colin Firth in 1995 and Elliot Cowan in 2008. Firth’s Darcy is considered by many to be the consummate aristocrat, even after a good swim in his pond.
Cable channel A&E showed the BBC mini-series featuring Firth, Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and Julia Sawalha (Saffy on “Absolutely Fabulous”) as the high-spirited Lydia Bennet.
The production uses its six hours wisely, expanding the timeline so nothing in this series seems rushed. The Bennet sisters’ clothes are appropriately simple, while the aristrocracy’s costumes are appropriately luxurious. If you want to own a copy of “Pride and Prejudice” this is the one to buy.
Lost in Austen
Finally, take a trip to an alternate dimension in the totally delightful “Lost in Austen.” This 2008 ITV production begins with our introduction to Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper), a harried bank worker who clings to sanity by losing herself into the book “Pride and Prejudice” when life gets to be too much.
One evening, she hears a noise in her bathroom. Going inside, she is startled to find a funnily dressed woman standing there, delighted by the electric light. She admits her name is Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Arterton) and she’s just come from her father’s home, coming through a door that comes from the past to Amanda’s bathroom.
Of course, Elizabeth gets Amanda to come through the door to the past, and shuts it behind her, leaving Amanda to deal with Mr. Bennet (“Downton Abbey’s” Hugh Bonneville) and his wife, played almost viciously by the lovely Alex Kingston.
While Mr. Cowen is no Mr. Firth, neither is he a slouch. One of the best in-jokes in this mini-series is Amanda asking Mr. Darcy to jump in his pond so she can have her very own “Darcy” moment.
Amanda nearly ruins everything. No one winds up with the person they should, and only help from an unlikely source helps her set things mostly right.
Now, those are 10 suggestions to keep you occupied between “Downton Abbey” seasons. If it’s not enough, track down other classics like “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” “Elizabeth Rex,” “The Virgin Queen,” or the Indian drama based during the British occupation of the country, “The Jewel in the Crown.”
This article was written by Sandi Davis
What’s your favorite British Costume Drama? Let us know in the comments!