I’ve decided to present to you my favourite period drama series of the last years, starting with the one which is set in the earliest of the depicted periods. I will give you some basic information and, more importantly, a personal opinion and recommendation. Since I adore all of them, the criticism shouldn’t put you off, but make it easier to decide which series you might want to have a look at – if you haven’t already done that. Finally, there are 6 ♥s to be awarded for maximum lovability in the old-fashioned sweet and cosy sense. Feel free to tell me which series is your favourite or which one you’d like to watch. And now – get ready to pick a period!
2009, miniseries, 4 episodes
Based on: Jane Austen’s novel of the same name
Starring: Romola Garai, Jonny Lee Miller, Jodhi May, Michael Gambon
Plot: When her governess and closest friend marries and leaves the household, avid match-maker Emma has to face adulthood on her own for the first time. Though she’s pretty, rich and fairly vain, Emma almost forgets about her own heart whilst trying to find the perfect match for all of her friends.
Pro: Romola Garai as a fresh-faced, open-minded Emma, lovely and fairly modern. The costumes and scenery only add to that, appearing unusually natural – you’re able to dive into a world that feels almost like it could be your own. And Jonny Lee Miller convinces as the most reliable, rational, and adorable Mr Knightley of all time.
Con: If you haven’t read the book, Emma might appear superficial and annoying at first, yet that’s the way she’s described. Take your time to become aquainted with her inner, kind-hearted self.
When to watch: You want to know what Jane Austen meant us to see when she wrote her novel.
2007 and 2009, 2 series, 7 episodes
Based on: Eliabeth Gaskell’s novels Cranford, My Lady Ludlow, Mr Harrison’s Confessions
Starring: Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Imelda Staunton, Jim Carter (and so many more, there’s hardly enough space!)
Plot: In a village of widows and spinsters, men are a much welcome spectaculum. And since pairing everyone off properly requires such diverse resources, the ladies never fail to entertain. Not to forget the modern monstrosity that is the railway menacing to change their quiet lives forever!
Pro: The loveliest, most talented British actresses have gathered to give you a heart-warming welcome. And they’re definitely up to something you won’t expect!
Con: There’s drama, too, and a good measure of misery. If you look for an ensemble cast that’s always just one big happy family, take into account that this is cosy, but not a fairytale.
When to watch: You want a feelgood series with a brilliant female-led cast that isn’t too long but will definitely stay with you as an all-time favourite.
Based on: Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel of the same name
Starring: Daniela Denby-Ashe, Richard Armitage, Sinéad Cusack, Brendan Coyle
Plot: Due to her father’s worries of conscience, vicar’s daughter Margaret Hale has to leave her quiet life in southern England to move to Milton, an industrial town in the north. There, she soon gets aquainted with a tough way of life – and Mr Thornton, her father’s student, a stern mill-owner.
Pro: Richard Armitage as Mr Thornton. Dashingly acted, very much according to the book’s gentle description. Brendan Coyle is as bolshy as ever, but shows depth and is far from one-sided. Also, the subtle colours create a rough, somehow soft and dream-like atmosphere, leaving a lasting impression on the audience.
Con: If you’re loving a huge community of adorable characters, you’ll have difficulties to find them. Despite the setting of a working-class background and peoples’ daily struggles, you come especially close to Margaret and Mr Thornton.
When to watch: You’re looking for a period love story without all the fluff. Well, as long as cotton doesn’t count.
2012-2013, 2 series, 16 episodes
Based on: Émile Zola’s novel Au Bonheur des Dames
Starring: Joanna Vanderham, Emun Elliot, Sarah Lancashire, Elaine Cassidy
Plot: Country girl Denise Lovett starts to work in England’s first department story, The Paradise. As Denise proves her star qualities as a shopgirl, John Moray, owner of The Paradise, soon takes a shine to the hard-working girl. But Denise’s blossoming feelings do not go undetected by Katherine Glendenning, daughter of Moray’s main sponsor …
Pro: There are many strong female characters to admire and just as many gorgeous gowns to look at. A true look behind the scenes of those newfangled department stores!
Con: I found it hard to truly sympathise with most of the characters. Sarah Lancashire is brilliant as always, but you don’t just fall in love with whoever pops up in this programme.
When to watch: You want robes, rivalry, and rosy cheeks and don’t mind if you don’t get to love every single character of the ensemble cast.
Based on: Flora Thompson’s trilogy of the same name
Starring: Olivia Hallinan, Julia Sawalha, Claudie Bleakley, Brendan Coyle
Plot: Laura Timmins, a young girl from the hamlet Lark Rise, leaves her home to become an apprentice in her cousin Dorcas Lane’s post office in the market town of Candleford. But soon issues of taking sides appear – and that’s not the only difficulty needing to be solved.
Pro: The villagers of Lark Rise (especially Laura’s parents and Queenie) simply deliver. There’s a lot of everyday work going on and the characters become lovable very soon. Also, Mark Heap and Dawn French provide that portion of well-dosed humour.
Con: Laura Timmins isn’t exactly what you would call a smashing protagonist, so Dorcas quite steals the show.
When to watch: You’re looking for a lively, wonderfully heart-warming community to become part of and yearn to indulge in sun-lit scenes of the English countryside.
2013-2016, 4 series, 40 episodes
Based on: Harry Gordon Selfridge’s actual department store, Selfridge & Co, in London
Starring: Jeremy Piven, Amanda Abbington, Tom Goodman-Hill, Katherine Kelly
Plot: When flamboyant American Harry Selfridge opens a his department store in London, both his new employees and customers experience a wholly new approach to shopping – not least because of its charming, charismatic owner who has brought all his family along from the USA to start a new life in Britain.
Pro: This show is lavish, and Jeremy Piven is loud – the perfect Mr Selfridge (although he looks nothing like the original)! There’s a lot going on in Selfridge’s, and every detail is a joy to behold.
Con: It takes some time to fall in love with certain characters who are intended as the show’s main focus whilst others, like Miss Mardle, played by the fabulous Amanda Abbington, stay in the background for too long.
When to watch: You want a feast for the eyes, hunky men, and don’t feel too anxious about needing favourite characters right from the first episode.
2010-2015, 6 series, 52 episodes
Based on: Julian Fellowes’ colourful imagination
Starring: Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Phyllis Logan, Brendan Coyle, Jim Carter, Laura Carmichael, Rob James-Collier AND TOO MANY MORE
Plot: The Titanic tragedy is the first incident that allows us an insight into the lives of the wealthy Grantham family and their servants, living together in the venerable Downton (not Downtown) Abbey. Love, intrigues, and countless dinner parties make for an endless eye-feast.
Pro: The huge ensemble cast is expeptional. Every single actor delivers. The costumes are simply gorgeous and the set simply couldn’t be better. Downton, its detailed design and intricate storylines are surely not over-hyped.
Con: Not every series is as good as the first, but the last is definitely worth watching the whole thing. There. I said it.
When to watch: You want beautiful surroundings and favourite characters. Lots of them. Of all ages and sexes. Best served with a nicely moist Victoria sponge and a cuppa, MIF.
2012-present, 3 series, 34 episodes (and more to come?)
Based on: Kerry Greenwood’s novels about lady detective Phryne Fisher
Starring: Essie Davis, Nathan Page, Ashleigh Cummings, Hugo Johnstone-Burt
Plot: The Hon Phryne Fisher, an allround ladylike, independent and throughly professional private detective, buys an abode in Melbourne and quickly starts to meddle in every single crime that DI Jack Robinson is in charge of – much to his initial dismay.
Pro: Finally a female lead to love! Phryne is clever, fashionable, refreshingly sexually active, and capable of literally anything.
Con: Although I haven’t read the books, some fans argue that the series lacks much of the novels’ original spirit.
When to watch: You want girl power, 1920s glam and a forever simmering shipper’s dream romance – and all that quick-paced, colourful and very stylishly sexy.
2012-present, 5 series, 42 episodes (and more to come?)
Based on: Jennifer Worth’s memoirs about the life as a London midwife
Starring: Jenny Agutter, Jessica Raine, Laura Main, Pam Ferris, Miranda Hart, Helen George, Judy Parfitt, Stephen McGann, Ben Caplan, Bryone Hannah and many, many more
Plot: Young midwife Jenny Lee starts her new job at Nonnatus House, a nursing convent in the East End district of Poplar, London. As she gets used to the hard life, she quickly makes friends with the sisters and nurses whilst learning to love the poor but hearty people of Poplar.
Pro: The cast is wonderful. Both younger, unknown actresses and older, experienced stars create a wonderful familiar atmosphere that you can easily fall in love with. The series tackles many difficult topics related to childbirth and has a fabulous retro soundtrack.
Con: Again, I’m not a great fan of Jessica Raine’s performance as the main character Jenny. Sadly, she seems the least lovable of all the nurses, sisters, and young mothers.
When to watch: You don’t mind a baby being born each episode. Sometimes more than one. Otherwise, you’re looking for a lovable ensemble cast and lots of warmth and cosiness without an ugly sugary aftertaste.