Since I have made slightly disparaging remarks about Downton in my last two posts (counting this one), I thought I should explain why. As someone who has pretty much watched every series on Masterpiece Theatre since the 80’s I can easily say that there have been at least a hundred shows that were ten times better than Downton Abbey in just about every respect, yet Downton is the one that seems to get all the hoopla. Downton is like the Marcia, Marcia, Marcia of PBS and every other show is slighted middle child Jan who has to make up fake boyfriends to get attention when she shouldn’t have to because she is actually the superior sister like just about every other offering from PBS. Honestly, Downton is one of their weakest shows despite Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess and Isis the lab (her kidnapping scenes were heart-breaking) out actress-ing everyone else on the show, in particular former Oscar contender Elizabeth McGovern. (a best supporting actress nominee, really?) Without even taxing myself I can think of five other PBS mini-series that beat Downton by a mile, at least in my book.
North & South: no, not the cheesy one from the mid-80’s with Kirstie Alley (always the mark of a high quality production) and Patrick Swayze (RIP). Believe it or not there are other countries who also have their own version of the Mason/Dixon line and this one happens to be in England (although I am not sure where that imaginary line dividing north and south is), but no matter because this North & South is from the BBC based on the Elizabeth Gaskell novel of the same name and stars Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale, a woman originally from the more sophisticated south who moves to the not as chic industrial north because her reverend father left the Church of England and was essentially run out-of-town for being a nonconformist (i.e. heathen–how very American Bible Belt of them) and takes the family to a mill town in the north. Her father becomes a private tutor and starts book learning the local mill owner John Thornton, played by Richard Armitage.
Just like in Pride & Prejudice, Margaret and John get off to a bad start and it only goes downhill from there. Of course John Thornton isn’t really a bad guy (just a proud misunderstood man trying to improve both production and the lives of his mill workers), and Margaret Hale is really not that sweet even though she does charitable work and ends up being friends with a doomed dying girl (Anna Maxwell) and her father, the one and only Mr. Bates himself (Brendan Coyle) although in this series he is called Nicholas Higgins and he is the north of England’s own Norma Rae but in male attire.
When Ms.Denby-Ashe was on EastEnders her character Sarah was beyond annoying so initially I had a hard time letting go of that bias but by the end even I was rooting for Margaret and John to get it together. This show pretty much launched Richard Armitage’s career, but he really needs to go back to being a spy, he was dead sexy as Lucas North on MI-5** or even a love-sick jerk like Guy of Gisborne in the BBC version of Robin Hood. He looks way better with long hair and guyliner than as a singing dwarf in those Hobbit movies. (Netflix)
Persuasion: The 1995 Ciaran Hinds/Amanda Root version is the one I usually think when I think of filmed versions of this Jane Austen novel but PBS did a bang up job of it as well back in 2007 and since it stars Rupert Penry-Jones, (aka Adam Carter, the hottest Spook from MI-5 known to man, sorry Richard Armitage, you’re a close second though) and the theme of this post is PBS shows BETTER than Downton, we will stick to this one. That being said, the 1995 theatrical version is pretty swoon-worthy in and of itself so I recommend watching both.
The story is typical Jane Austen fare which is why it is so freaking fabulous. Anne Elliott (Sally Hawkins) is the lead female character who eight years prior broke her engagement to naval officer Frederick Wentworth (silly silly woman), because her snobby awful family thought he was socially inferior and a poor to boot so Anne foolishly dumped him. Eight years later their paths cross again and guess who shows up at the high school reunion (Bath, actually, but sort of the same thing) all rich and fabulous and on the prowl for a lady to call his own? Why if you guessed CAPTAIN (he got promoted in those eight years) Freddy Wentworth then you know exactly how Jane Austen novels work and how she handsomely rewards the previously snubbed/less wealthy on a regular basis. And now guess who is poor as a proverbial church mouse because their snobby awful father (Giles from Buffy) lost all their family money AND home? If you guess Anne and her snobby awful family then you probably have read an Austen novel or two. Austen bonus points if you also guessed that Captain Wentworth is now living in said lost home. (God, I love Jane Austen, she was such a righteous bitch to those who deserved it.)
Only Anne isn’t awful and snobby like her family and we the audience are left rooting for her to get her groove back before she turns thirty. Only Freddy is a bit of a grudge holder and is now the one holding all the love cards in this messed up deck of romance. Will Anne’s innate goodness and lack of bitterness win Freddy’s heart once again? Is there really any question? But watching that unfold is lovely. (Amazon for purchase only but shows up on PBS sporadically, the movie can be found on Amazon Instant)
Midlemarch: remember that brief time period back in the early 90’s when Rufus Sewell was seemingly everywhere and seemed destined for Hollywood heart-throb status? Well, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t because that never quite happened for him which is too bad because he is so very good in this adaptation of George Eliot’s novel. Dorothea Brooke (Juliet Aubrey) is an idealistic, wealthy, educated do-gooder in a time and place when women like her were supposed to just get married and start producing heirs. But instead of marrying the boy next door like everyone thought she would, Dorothea marries a much older man, Edward Casaubon, who considers himself a great intellect and aspiring author with whom she could share her deep thoughts with. After the honeymoon is over Dorothea finds out that shit ain’t gonna happen and like so many women before her realizes what a bitter disappointment marriage is for a lady with ambitions. Disappointing husband does have a younger, infinitely more attractive cousin named Will Ladislaw and that is where Mr. Sewell enters the picture. Old cranky pants husband notices their mutual attraction and before he dies makes a will that expressly forbids Dorothea from inheriting his fortune if she ever hooks up with cuter cousin. Bastard.
Tons of other characters with their own trials and tribulations also appear but let’s face it, the real story here is will Dorothea give up her inheritance for love? Hmm, loads of money or Rufus Sewell at his cuteness peak? I know what I would do in that situation and it is not what Dorothea does. You will have to watch to find out which is which. (Netflix)
Forsyte Saga: I loved this 2002 adaptation so much when the first part aired I had to read the book, no small undertaking since it is three John Galsworthy novels in one and about eleventy billion pages. You could probably just watch the mini series and call it a day, unless you like to read LONG stories like Bleak House or War and Peace which I normally don’t but I was that sucked in. Set out over the course of decades, the Forsyte Saga is the story of two cousins (again) Soames (Damian Lewis) and Jolyon Forsyte (Rupert Graves). Soames is a man of property and just wants to own things and people, in particular the lovely Irene (pronounced Irenie and played by Gina McKee) who does become his wife. Big mistake Irene, big mistake. Not only does Soames want to possess Irene, he wants to get her the hell out of London and isolate her from all her friends and family, which is never a good sign in a life partner. Because Soames is such an abysmal husband Irene falls for the architect building her new, not-in-London marital home, who also just happens to be a friend’s fiance and just when you think that things can’t get any worse for Irene they do, they really do.
I honestly have not been able to trust Damian Lewis in any other role (including real life) since this show aired. Someone that good at being an asshole is perhaps not that good at acting? In fact the minute I saw his face as Brody in Homeland I knew he was going to be trouble. Damian Lewis could play St. Francis, the best saint in all of sainthood (patron of the animals), and I still wouldn’t let him anywhere near my dog, ever. He is one scary ginger.
After one final showdown between the two of them Irene leaves but Soame’s refuses to give her a divorce and accuses her of having an affair with the already somewhat disgraced cousin Jolyon (who had ran off years before with his daughter’s nanny). This is not true initially but eventually becomes true which I am sure made family holidays more than a little trying. Soames continues to be a major pain in everyone’s backside until he meets a young French woman and finally agrees to a divorce. Irene goes on to marry Jolyon, they have a son Jon, while Soames marries the French woman and they have a daughter Fleur, and from there on you can pretty much guess what happens in the third series. It’s like Romeo and Juliette all over again. (Netflix)
Brideshead Revisited: Quite possibly the best mini series PBS ever aired (and it’s not just me saying that), this 1982 adaptation is the granddaddy of them all starring a slew of British actors from Jeremy Irons in his break-out role as Charles Ryder to Lawrence Olivier and Claire Bloom (the Doctor’s mother in The End of Time) as the estranged Lord and Lady Marchmain and John Gielgud as Charles’s sardonic scamp of a dad. Evelyn Waugh’s novel tells the story of the well and truly messed up aristocratic Flyte family as told by Charles. Mister Ryder first meets Lord Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews) at Oxford where both are students after a late night puking episode and just who hasn’t met a future BFF or two after a similar college experience? It’s a bonding thing not just reserved for girls. The teddy-bear-toting Sebastian (teddy is named Aloysius) brings Charles home to meet the family at the eponymously named Brideshead and once Charles sees all that glorious real estate and meets Sebastian’s family he pretty much gets sucked in to all their drama for life.
Lord and Lady Marchmain are married, but the Lord (that sounds all sorts of wrong) lives in exile in Italy with his much younger mistress and the Lady lives at the estate compete with her own church and therein lies the problem. The Lady is super uber Catholic and D-I-V-O-R-C-E is not an option, no way no how, so everyone suffers because of it. Also in the pious pile of the Flyte family is Bridey (Simon Jones, Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy–the original tv series, not the movie), Sebastian’s eldest brother and Cordelia (Phoebe Nicholls, Sienna Miller’s child’s paternal grandma, if you want to feel real OLD) who despite her religious zeal has been deemed the “worst” girl at her private school by her head mistress. However, it’s Julia (Diana Quick), Sebastian other sister who Charles falls head over heels in love with, not in the least because (according to the book), she looks a lot like Sebastian. (Diana Quick and Anthony Andrews look NOTHING alike, and there was some criticism of this at the time but it was a minor kerfuffle.) And while they never really come out and say it, the assumption is that Charles and Sebastian had a bit of a thing going on. Lady Marchmain and Sebastian do not get a long, and she is particularly hard on him. Hmm, wonder why???
The years go by, teddy-bear-toter Sebastian develops a drinking problem, love struck couple Charles and Julia marry other people, the war happens, Lord Marchmain returns to Britain to die at Brideshead and all throughout Catholicism plays a huge role in every characters development to one degree or another. Evelyn Waugh himself was a convert and is said to have based the story on the real life Lygon family and the parallels are dead obvious. Check out their story here, it is pretty fascinating and sad all at the same time, much like this series. (Amazon Instant)
* British spelling for British teevee shows and to not confuse anyone that this post was about a band, also British, but spelled the proper American way.
** In my last streaming post I noted that all British actors seem to have appeared on either Doctor Who or EastEnders or both at some point in their careers. I am amending that to include MI-5 since they killed off so many characters and ran for so many years lots of people cycled through that show as well