We continue our look back at the best British period dramas set in each decade of the 20th Century.
Howards End (1910)
Set before World War I, Howards End explores class divisions in Britain. It focuses on the aristocratic Wilcoxes, the bohemian Schlegals, and the working class Basts.
When the matriarch of the Wilcoxes passes away, she leaves her estate, Howards End, to one of the Schlegal sisters. The girls are torn between the Wilcoxes and the Basts, as love blooms despite class differences, and prejudices are strengthened in spite of a changing class structure.
E. M. Forster’s novel was adapted as an Academy Award-winning movie in 1992, starring Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter and Anthony Hopkins.
It was later remade as a BBC mini-series in 2017, featuring Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter) and Matthew Macfadyen (Ripper Street) .
Howards End is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.
Parade’s End (1908-1918)
Though the first episode is set in 1908, this BBC/HBO mini-series based on Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy of novels focuses on the effects of World War I on society.
Discussion revolves around one’s love and hate of country, duty to one’s country and one’s personal feelings on war, and the transition from an old way of thinking to a new one.
Christopher (Benedict Cumberbatch) struggles with all of these things in addition to his emotions for the multiple women in his life.
The 2012 adaptation’s all-star cast includes Rebecca Hall, Roger Allam and Adelaide Clemens.
Parade’s End is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.
Private Peaceful (1909-1916)
Based on the book by Michael Morpurgo, who wrote War Horse, this 2012 movie stars Jack O’Connell, George MacKay, Richard Griffiths and Alexandra Roach.
Focusing on the working class, Private Peaceful explores the bonds between brothers, community, and tradition. Charlie and Tommo Peaceful work for an old, landed-gentry man who stays in England while the lads go to war. They’re conflicted by their personal feelings toward the war as well as their feelings toward a girl back home.
Private Peaceful is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.
Downton Abbey – Seasons 1-2 (1912-1918)
You knew this one was going to show up! The ultimate British period drama, ITV’s Downton Abbey starts the day after the Titanic sank, taking two of the family’s heirs along with it.
The first season ends after the assassination of the archduke and goes straight into World War I. While the war does influence the characters and what they do, the plots are more character driven.
Downton Abbey: The Complete Collection box set is available on DVD on Amazon.
Upstairs Downstairs, Seasons 3-4 (1912-1918)
Unlike the first two seasons, the third and fourth seasons of Upstairs Downstairs involve more external plot lines.
The season opens with three characters dying on the Titanic (sound familiar?!). A plot involving Richard was based on real-life Marconi scandal of 1912.
Season 3 ends with Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in 1914, while Season 4 focuses on the war’s impact on the characters, with most of them becoming involved in the war effort. Hazel dies from influenza in the 1918 epidemic. Overall, the series starts to look outside of itself to further the story in these seasons.
Upstairs Downstairs is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.
Focusing on a different sort of war, Suffragette details the lengths women took to gain the right to vote.
Maud (Carey Mulligan) is caught up in the tactics of Emmaline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) and takes to bombing mailboxes and cutting telegraph wires. She loses her son, and her freedom as well as her friends. Their sacrifices paved the way for women’s rights today.
Written by The Hour creator Abi Morgan, this 2015 movie also stars Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham-Carter, Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson.
Suffragette is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.
Mr Selfridge – Seasons 2-3 (1914, 1918-1919)
The second season of ITV’s series picks up four years after Season 1. The war, while part of the story, does little more than influence the plot. For example, women are hired to work in the loading dock of the store, but little is done than to comment on how fashion needed to change.
Selfridge (Jeremy Piven) is hired by the government to travel to Germany, but it’s never explored on screen. The plot lines are mostly character driven, with outside events taking a back seat.
Mr Selfridge is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.
Peaky Blinders (1919-)
In a decade defined by violence, the BBC’s Peaky Blinders embraces it even more in post-war Birmingham.
Cillian Murphy is Tommy Shelby, the leader of the titular lethal gang. Charged with suppressing them is Chief Inspector Major Chester Campbell (Sam Neill).
The hit series has influences in real-life politics, like communism and the IRA.
Peaky Blinders is available on DVD on Amazon.