Have Downton Abbey Withdrawal? Try These Top 10 Classic British TV Series Instead

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.

Explore Upstairs Downstairs onAmazon

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.

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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.

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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.

The Buccaneers on Amazon

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.

Explore The Pallisers on Amazon

Want more series based on novels? Consider “The Forsythe 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 Forsythe.

Both series are the story of three generations of Forsythes, 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 the Forsyte Saga on Amazon

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 Disraeli on Amazon

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.

Explore A Town Like Alice on Amazon

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.

Explore Pride and Prejudice Options on Amazon

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.

Explore Lost in Austen on Amazon

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.”

Enjoy!

This article was written by Sandi Davis

What’s your favorite British Costume Drama? Let us know in the comments!


Comments

  1. avatardawgfighter says

    I also recommend adding to the list ‘North & South’ with Richard Armitage and Daniel Denby Ashe. I absolutely adore that four part series that debuted in 2004. It was a sleeper hit but steadily become very popular. If you have Netflix do check it out. Be sure you start early in the evening otherwise you’ll end up staying up in the wee hours trying to finish the story. It’s that good.

  2. avatarSusan Murphy says

    ” Wives and Daughters ”

    I also agree with ” The Duchess of Duke Street” and the ” House of Elliott” all three are available on Netflix

    Jane Eyre – with toby mcguire and ruth wilson

    Secret Garden

  3. avatarretnavybrat says

    The backstory of “A Town Like Alice” reminded me of “Tenko”. I don’t know if it would be considered a “costume drama”, but it is my favorite British historical TV drama.

  4. avatarMarian says

    You have listed my two favorites: “A Town Like Alice” and the Colin Firth version of “Pride and Prejudice”. “Alice” is unbelieveably captivating and very true to the book. And you’ll never find a better romantic couple than Firth and Ehle’s Darcy and Elizabeth.

    • avatarbj says

      I also loved Poldark, I purchased the series a few years back as I had watched it on PBS many years ago and found it just as good.

  5. avatarCynthia says

    It’s a different set of costumes, but the absolutely marvelous “I, Claudius” is another British-made drama with some well-known faces (Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart, Brian Blessed, Sian Phillips, and John Hurt) that should keep you busy. If you can find it, there’s also “Poldark” – lots of intrigue, smuggling and illicit affairs amidst the upper and lower classes of late 18th-century Cornwall.

  6. avatarSusan says

    Absolutely the Pride and Prejudice BBC mini-series. My favorite version by far. I’ve almost worn out my second copy!

  7. avatarLydia says

    Have Downton Abbey Withdrawal? Love it! And yes, I’m going through it now.

    I’m a great fan of the original Upstairs Downstairs and Jewel in the Crown. Didn’t like either version of the Forsyth Saga, IMO there’s not a sympathetic character in the bunch.

    If looking at the WW II period, then I highly recommend Foyles War and Piece of Cake. Foyles War is a great example of the British Mystery and Piece of Cake is a great ensemble production that looks at the lives of an RAF fighter squadron from the beginning of WW II in 1939 to the end of the Battle of Britain a year later.

    • avatarDeborah Cunningham says

      For WWII fly-boys (ours) in Britain, I loved “We’ll Meet Again”/ The SOE and English joining the French Underground, “Wish Me Luck” and for living on the occupied Guernsey Islands, “Island at War”. (All drama, not documentary.)

  8. avatarSarah says

    I enjoyed everything mentioned above. There is another excellent WW II series from BBC called “Danger, UXB” about a team of soldiers whose jobs were removing unexploded bombs during the German bombardment of London.

  9. avatarLinda says

    We also liked Family at War but we weren’t able to get Season 3 unless we bought it from Amazon.UK. Anyone know where we can get it?

  10. avatarjodgo says

    Some shows that I have watched this summer to help with my Downton withdrawal are “Cranford” which stars Judi Dench and a terrific serious. “Berkeley Square,” “The Aristocrats,” “Bleak House,” “Little Dorrit” all of these I rented from my local library so it didn’t cost me a penny. Great shows!

  11. avatarMorfydd says

    One of my favorites was “Shoulder to Shoulder” shown in 1976(?), the story of the British suffrage movement. I also enjoyed “Tenko” from the 1980′s.

  12. avatarTeresa says

    I loved most all of the shows other commenters have listed. Especially The Duchess of Duke Street! The Grand is also good as well as Lark Rise to Candleford. Berkeley Square was good but ended abruptly.

  13. avatarKasey says

    Not quite in the same genre, yet equally as entertaining is the James Herriot series All Creatures Great and Small. Lovely and light-hearted.

    Also found Wives & Daughters, Cranford, Foyle’s War, and Lark Rise to be fantastic british dramas.

    • avatarParker says

      All Creatures is still one of our all time favorites. We saw the series about 10 years ago. Monarch was also very good.
      The Royle Family is funny. Netflix has a pretty good inventory of Brit shows.

  14. avatarVeronica Erwin says

    How about “Monarch of the Glen”. It’s the modern end of Downton and is in Scotland. And Julian Fellows is in it. I’ve caught bits and pieces of it in the past on PBS. It was very addicting. Very good stuff. Very good.

  15. avatarDeborah Cunningham says

    More than Downton ‘withdrawal’! Gaaads. Another one dead? It’s getting too upsetting to watch. Feel as if another close friend died suddenly! And I so liked Matthew. Everyone did, now. Would really rather skip a lesson on the randomness of tragedy so soon after WWI devastation. No withdrawal. I’ll be in mourning until Season 4 airs!

  16. avatarJoan says

    Another endorsement for Foyle’s War–it’s not only historically accurate, but has romance of a sort as well. It is not overtly a love story, but the relationship between Foyle and his driver is UST at its best and you come to care very much for all the recurring characters. The acting is top-notch and the mysteries are fascinating–based on true wartime situations/ethical dilemmas that Anthony Horowitz weaves into engaging stories.

  17. avatarNicola says

    A very long time ago (sometime in the seventies) I got very into War and Peace starring a very young Anthony Hopkins as Pierre. It was excellent I seem to remember.

  18. avatarRIO says

    Wow, thanks everyone for all the suggestions, I now have a nice list of shows to watch of the British shows!!

  19. avatar says

    I love all of the British series, but I had a soft spot for Danger UXB because my Uncle was in the Royal Engineers during WWII and defused unexploded bombs in London. He was presented with the British Empire Medal after the war, and I have the letter he received from King George VI. His medal was lost and we’ve never been able to find it.

  20. avatar says

    I enjoyed The Pallisers so much that I bought almost all of Anthony Trollope’s books and absolutely loved them. I’ll add The Barchester Chronicles as a series to enjoy. My late mother and I both enjoyed Poldark, I, Claudius, The Duchess of Duke Street, and the original Upstairs Downstairs. I didn’t care for the new U D series.

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