Sarah Dempster on the British love of costume-drama

Ruffles, repression, Robert Hardy ... it must be costume-drama season again. Sarah Dempster celebrates with a guide to what we love about this very British genre

Let cravats be loosened and bustles be unconfined. Last night, the nation's remotes tingled with nostalgic glee as BBC1 debuted its lavish, 14-part production of Little Dorrit. Adapted from Dickens' novel by Andrew Davies, and stuffed to the ruffles with a characteristically diverse selection of actorly talent (Alun Armstrong, Bill Paterson and Ruth Jones, among others), it is to be broadcast - like Davies' wildly successful 2005 adaptation of Bleak House - in twice-weekly, half-hour instalments, the better to foster a lather of soapy intrigue.

The latest trinket to be tugged from TV's bottomless ottoman of expensive costume dramas, Little Dorrit follows in the slipper-steps of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Sense and Sensibility, Lark Rise to Candleford and Cranford. But what is it about the genre that enchants us? And what makes the perfect costume drama? Here are the ingredients vital to TV's most beloved genre.


Nothing screams "best actor in a mini-series or motion picture made for television" like a knight of the realm saying prithee in a barouche. It indicates nobility, patriotism and a healthy respect for tradition. Little wonder then that the costume drama has long been catnip to the sort of actor whose jowls tingle at the sight of INT. SCENE: Drawing room, morning. Disraeli enters, choking slightly on toast. Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Eileen Atkins, and now, in Little Dorrit, Sir Tom Courtenay and Robert Hardy CBE - they follow the costume drama's lavender vapour trail like the flat-capped urchins in the Bisto ad. Coincidentally, potential costume drama types might like to note that the flat cap is an invaluable aid in one's quest for accolades. As are parasols, neckerchiefs, proximity to gratuitous expanses of untamed rustic beauty and/or Bob Hoskins. Toss a pair of tights into the equation and you'll be sobbing your way through your TV Quick acceptance speech before Michaelmas.


One of the reasons costume dramas continue to draw vast audiences is because of their unfailing ability to reflect the "modern condition". Social snobbery? Have a slice of Vanity Fair. The interminable pursuit of status? Feel the width of this Austen. The costume drama's themes should be as universal as its corsets are boned.

"It's universal, isn't it?" you might have found yourself thinking last night during the bit when Jeremiah Flintwich (Alun Armstrong) cackled madly while dumping a bunch of Mrs Clennam's incriminating paperwork on the fire. All the debt and financial-guilt stuff offers a

startlingly prescient nod to our current financially hazardous state. And if you scrunch up your eyes, Mr Merdle (Anton Lesser) even looks a bit like Robert Peston. Be it roaring Georgian melodrama or quivering Victorian bonnet-tugger, the period drama should elicit the same exclamation: why, beneath all that lace and diction, "they" are just like "us"!


The ruffled blouse, the dainty lace glove, the buffed-to-a-dazzle monocle: these are instant visual signifiers for the nostalgia fan while simultaneously reminding the viewer that he/she is not watching Setanta Lunchtime Live.

Britches represent breeding, unyielding political views and, if excessively close-fitting, sexual subjugation. Shapeless smocks denote either virginity or social inferiority. Bonnets - from the Regency coal scuttle to the floppy Georgian numbers - are so intrinsically linked with the costume drama that the merest whiff of a floral brim is enough to send certain sections of the viewing public (men) dashing over to Channel Five. Size is everything: sweet-natured Amy Dorrit's (Claire Foy) bonnet is so enormous her face resembles a tiny, freckled train emerging from an imposing wicker tunnel. This signifies confusion, innocence and something clever about the Industrial Revolution, although we're not entirely sure what.

Andrew Davies

Since 1994 the scriptwriter has been responsible for no fewer than 13 period adaptations, including Emma, Vanity Fair, Bleak House and the definitive, "wet Firth" version of Pride and Prejudice. Having forged the modern costume drama template with his winking, light-footed Middlemarch, his influence has loosened the stays of a previously stuffy genre, jazzing it up by means of wit, lashings of sauce and the odd burst of distinctly un-vintage lingo. Last night, for instance, comedy French murderer Rigaud (Andy Serkis) sheltered in a bush while wrinkling his prosthetic nose at "zeez poxeee weatherrr". Would a 19th-century comedy French murderer really have said such a thing? Probably not. But Davies' talent is to make the incongruous accessible. It's not difficult to imagine him penning his adaptations in a drawing room in some stately townhouse, sipping brandy as he bashes out a gag involving a parson and a faulty bicycle seat before leaning over to pinch the bottom of a passing naif. Sadly, Davies lives in Kenilworth, just south of Coventry.

Heritage acting

Like the past, the costume drama is a foreign country: they act things differently there. Vocally, it's a minefield. Apostrophes evaporate. Vowels expand to fill the available space, and beyond. Consonants develop crisp, Arctic edges. Facial expressions, meanwhile, are traditionally confined to the eyebrows, where a complex series of tics and ripples can signify everything from minor vexation regarding a tipsy benefactor to the loss of a vital organ in the Crimea. This rule is waived, however, when it comes to the Character Performance (CP), where even reputable artistes replace normal acting with frantic hand gestures, gurning, scuttling/waddling, an enormous accent and/or an unusual wig, each of which is intended to signify eccentricity and hilarity as opposed to, say, bad acting. In Little Dorrit, the CP is legion, from Serkis's Rigaud and Sue Johnston's bird-like scullery grumbler Affery, to Eddie Marsan's beetling debt-collector Mr Pancks and Armstrong's Jeremiah/Ephraim Flintwinch, who barks like a dog and scrunches up his shoulders while using his eyebrows as a makeshift drawbridge. Generally speaking though, costume drama acting is about demonstrating supreme bonnet control in devastatingly posh circumstances. This is why it is known as Dench warfare.


It burbles beneath the surface of the costume drama. It is the molten sediment that underpins its every social machination. Of course, being British we prefer a vague, giggling, shortbready version of sex to actual sex, but even when the repression slips, there's something comfortingly cartoonish about the results. Fanny Hill? Benny Hill, more like, whooped viewers upon beholding BBC4s recent bumfest. And yet it is not only sexual repression that thrives within the costume drama's starched confines. For every cravat that throbs with concealed passion there are a dozen bustles twitching with aspirational yearning and a dozen more embittered spinsters clucking like battery hens in their social confinement. To wit, Little Dorrit's Mrs Clennam (Judy Parfitt), a poisonous, housebound, Havershammy widow, demanded her son not kiss her cheek but, instead, "Touch my hand!" This indicates her emotional frigidity, financial evasiveness and the fact that she hasn't had sex in ages.

Little Dorrit continues on Thursday, 8.30pm, BBC1


Sarah Dempster

The GuardianTramp

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