Given the prominent place of poker and casino entertainment in British society today, the game is oddly absent in historical dramas. We see a poker scene occasionally, but it’s seldom significant or particularly memorable.
In Partners in Crime for instance, there is some poker action revolving around the character of Tommy Beresford. But for the most part, this action is used to further the portrayal of Beresford as a bit of a bumbling character (save for when he’s doing detective work). We’ve seen poker in Downton Abbey as well. And yet while the show is popular enough to inspire its own edition of the board game “Clue” and multiple jigsaw puzzles, there are few who would readily associate it with poker.
Beyond these occasional, fairly insignificant scenes, however, we really don’t see much in the way of poker content. But what if there were in fact a whole period drama that actually revolved around the game’s place in British history? For a few reasons, there’s a pretty god chance this would make for a brilliant show.
The Casino Royale Factor
It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years since Daniel Craig debuted as James Bond in Casino Royale, which more or less functioned as a series reboot. In the time since that release however, Casino Royale has come to be recognised as one of the best in the franchise — even taking the top spot in some 007 rankings. This has plenty to do with all of the normal elements of a great Bond film, but let’s also remember that some of this one’s best scenes take place around a poker table. In fact, the movie’s whole plot basically revolves around a high-stakes game. By extension we’d venture to say that if a poker theme can come to represent the best work concerning Britain’s biggest cinematic hero, there’s more good drama to be built around the game.
The Accessibility of Poker
Another point in favour of this idea is that poker has just become so accessible. In the past, people looked at poker scenes in film and on television as examples of what might go on in casinos. Today, the audience can look at the same content as something they themselves are able to engage with. Even beyond Britain (where brick-and-mortar casinos and poker rooms are fairly prevalent), people today can learn how to win at poker online, find apps and websites to play through, and start enjoying the game. It’s a reasonable everyday hobby, and this simple fact would go a long way toward making even a period poker drama relevant. It never hurts for an audience to have clear perspective on subject material.
A Curious Historical Figure
The question of what a British period drama concerning poker would be about is actually an interesting one, because the game’s history in Britain is not as long as one might assume. When you look into that history though, one towering figure emerges. Robert Schenck was an accomplished general in the United States Civil War, and eventually the Minister to Great Britain from 1871 to 1876. Schenck would go on to publish one of the first known guides to poker, but during his time as a foreign minister more or less brought the game to Britain. Now, Schenck was not a wholly admirable figure, and had some sketchy financial dealings to say the least. However, a dramatised version of an American war general bringing poker to Britain in the 1870s would make for an intriguing, outside-the-box series or film — with plenty of opportunity for fun depictions of a fascinating era in history.
The ’50s Emergence
As an alternative to the Schenck option, a British period poker drama could also be set in the 1950s — when poker actually began to gain popularity in the country. While Schenck spread the game and conveyed the rules to British officials, poker was largely viewed as a less-than-reputable game for the better part of the following century. Around the 1950s though, the game began to evolve into something more closely resembling what so many know and love today. There’s surely an interesting story to be told here, not to mention that the ‘50s are somewhat underserved in British period pieces.
With all of these factors considered, it’s fair to say there’s interesting potential for a British period drama based on poker. Such a series would be fresh, gripping, and relevant, and could explore a chapter of history we haven’t seen on screen yet.