BBC has been providing a steady stream of dramatic and compelling entertainment since its beginning in the 1920's, but it was the 50's that saw its distinguished creation of costume dramas and parlor room mysteries. The 70's is widely regarded as the "golden age" of such content, when the BBC began exporting it to American audiences via the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and Masterpiece Theater, before finally starting its own American broadcasting channel altogether with BBC America.
Their most popular period pieces center on socio-political disruptions across high and low society, as well as the trials and tribulations of romances set against a backdrop of historical events. Whether you like the witty and poignant social commentary of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen adaptations, the pomp and circumstance of the Royal Navy, the attention to detail in the costumes, or just the fine acting on display, there's a period piece for everyone.
10 BLEAK HOUSE (2005)
Charles Dickens was known for his gritty tales of life spent in Victorian London, but nowhere are the depths of depravity and the heights of ambition revealed so candidly than in Bleak House, BBC's 2005 adaptation of his famous novel starring Gillian Anderson (The X-Files, Hannibal), and Charles Dance (Game of Thrones).
This adaptation received 10 Emmy nominations, and it chronicles a dubious inheritance claim that languishes for generations in the courts, highlighting the convoluted nature of the 19th century legal system that seems as relevant then as it does now. Nowhere is the decay of Victorian London more prominent than in this series of betrayal and corruption.
9 PERSUASION (1995)
Before Ciaran Hinds gave tour-de force performances in Game of Thrones and The Terror, he played the dashing Wentworth to Amanda Root's Anne, two star-crossed lovers torn apart by the brutal rules of British society. They are separated for nearly a decade, and in that time, Wentworth becomes a model seaman in the British Navy and Anne's once wealthy family loses everything.
When they're reunited and Anne is considered an old maid, they are forced to discover if their love is deeper than the early passion of their youth, and stronger than the societal forces that conspire to destroy it. Their hearts persuade them to defy the stipulations of society, their families, and convention itself in order to find their version of happiness.
8 PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1995)
Pride & Prejudice may be the most renowned of Jane Austen's novels, but the 1995 BBC adaptation is the most renowned version on the big or small screen. Other versions have tried and failed to capture the electric chemistry of Colin Firth in a career-defining role as the aloof Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as the fiery Elizabeth Bennet.
Screenwriter Andrew Davies specifically wanted to make dialogue that crackled, pulling his leads out of the stuffy parlors and drawing rooms of previous costume dramas and into the English countryside. Brimming with Austen's typical commentary on societal expectations, it's a well-crafted drama that provides poignant insight into the trials and tribulations of finding true love amidst scandal, vanity, pride, and prejudice.
7 NORTH AND SOUTH (2004)
When the daughter of a middle-class clergyman leaves her comfortable life in the South of England for the industrial North, she doesn't expect to find anything alluring among its smokestacks and cotton mills. Once pulled into the frenetic pace of the northern city of Milton, she encounters John Thornton, whom she perceives as a ruthless mill owner.
Over the first few months she realizes his iron hand is for his employee's own benefit, and he realizes her proud ways are not born from condescension but ignorance. They are both naive about each other's ways of life, but soon their misconceptions melt away as does their animosity into blatant attraction. Many recognizable character actors appear throughout the series, including Brendan Coyle of Downton Abbey fame.
6 THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES (1982)
When the widower Reverend Harding, who both serves the people of Barchester as a clergyman and as the warden of the hospital, is accused of cheating pensioners, he's almost run out of his parish. When a young surgeon takes it upon himself to expose the Reverend, matters are only made worse by the fact that he's also fallen in love with the Reverend's youngest daughter.
Donald Pleasence (of the Halloween franchise) must review the lawsuit aimed at the church, while his son-in-law (an egotistical archdeacon) fights off interference from a newly arrived bishop, his imperious wife, and his oleaginous chaplain (played by Alan Rickman of the Die Hard, the Harry Potter films in his first television role). The scheming of the the citizens and the church make this a power struggle of epic proportions set in the backdrop of a small English town.
5 PEAKY BLINDERS (2013)
Somewhere amidst the whimsical Austen and dreary Dickens sits Peaky Blinders, a no-holds barred gritty period drama set in Birmingham, England shortly before the first World War. It focuses on rivalries between several gangster families, foremost among them the Shelbys.
The real Peaky Blinders was an urban youth gang in the late 19th century that terrorized the city led by Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy in the series), and became enmeshed in the plight of working class British citizens. The series is projected to last a total of seven seasons, no doubt winning further BAFTA TV Awards for best Drama Series thanks to its authentic portrayal of inner city life.
4 THE WAY WE LIVE NOW (2001)
Augustus Melmotte, a Jewish financier from Austria, arrives in London determined to make himself a proper English gentleman. He upends the current financial markets and all of London society in his pursuit, and his lofty ascent and downward spiral is set against the backdrop of avarice and corruption.
Melmotte (David Suchet) is a character that is larger than life, making his every triumph and defeat in the House of Commons a theatrical event. Based on the Anthony Trollope novel exposing the greed of London in the Victorian era, it takes on a Dickensian tome for its ensemble cast of colorful characters and commentary on societal degradation.
3 UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS (2010)
Before there was Downton Abbey and the dramatic chronicles of the Crawley family and their servant staff in the English countryside, there was Upstairs, Downstairs, a deft look at the goings on of the Bellamy family upstairs along with their downstairs staff at 165 Eaton Place.
Amidst the socio-political and historical events of the Edwardian Era, the lives and fortunes of the Bellamy family ascend and descend with the whim of London society, while the staff downstairs provide pithy commentary as they serve every Bellamy generation, from 1903 until 1930. It's a sprawling investigation of the struggles of the working class, as well as their triumphs, through WWI and the Great Depression.
2 GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1999)
One of Charles Dickens most famous novels, Great Expectations comes to vivid life in this masterful BBC adaptation about a young orphan boy named Pip (Ioan Gruffudd, Fantastic Four, Horatio Hornblower) achieves great fortune under mysterious circumstances.
In love with his childhood playmate Estella, the ward of Miss Havisham, he knows he must be better than a blacksmith apprentice to win her approval. A mysterious stranger gives him a large sum of money to be educated as a gentleman, but only under the strictest sense of anonymity. Will his new good fortune be enough to release Estella from Miss Havisham's grasp, or will the "great expectations" of his new life transformation prove too much for Pip to shoulder?
1 MADAME BOVARY (2000)
Britain's most famous adulteress comes to sensual life by Frances O'Connor in Madame Bovary. The classic novel by Gustave Flaubert was salacious enough to be banned from the French Court in 1857 for obscenity, earning it a scandalous reputation much like its heroine.
Featuring the talents of some of Britain's greatest thespians, Greg Wise (Sense and Sensibility), Hugh Bonneville (Mansfield Park, Downton Abbey), and Hugh Dancy (Hannibal), they all play the men surrounding Emma Bovary, an imaginative woman living in rural Normandy who longs for experiences more exciting than her location can provide. Her desire to live the stories that she finds in books makes her a perfect target for those that prey upon dreamers.