Ten Things Better Than Downton Abbey
10. FLAMBARDS 1979 miniseries based on the first three Flambards novels by K. M. Peyton tells the story of orphaned heiress Christina who is pretty much shanghaied by her crippled fox-hunting obsessed uncle and whisked away to his crumbling country estate in the hopes that she will eventually marry one of his two sons who will in turn use her money to restore the estate. But of course, Christina falls in love with the wrong brother, who is more interested in early airplanes than horses. Christina is caught between the changing worlds of the landed gentry and the developing independent classes. The television series may look a little dated now and many people find the music either haunting or supremely annoying, but it's worth a watch if only because Steven Grives was damned hot. The fourth book, which was never developed for television, kind of weirdly undoes the whole anti-classism thing of the first three, but still. Better than Downton Abbey.
9. LILLIE 1978 miniseries, true story of famed actress Lillie Langtry, who began as a "professional beauty" in London society, was the mistress of the Prince of Wales and had an illegitimate child with Prince Louis Battenberg. Eminent Victorians traipse through this production. Again, production values may seem dated to modern eyes and it gets off to a slow start, but costumes are beautiful, some lovely performances and the highlight being Peter Egan's entirely wonderful portrayal of Oscar Wilde.
8. POLDARK Oh my! Super soapy miniseries from 1975, based on the novels of Winston Graham. Ross Poldark returns to the west country from his service in that unfortunate war with the former American colonies to find that his fiance has married his cousin. Ross beds and then marries gypsy servant girl, Demelza, while pining for Elizabeth the whole while. Lots of lusting and longing and smuggling and that sort of thing.
7. THE BUCCANEERS 1995 miniseries based on the unfinished novel by Edith Wharton Four wealthy young American girls set out to conquer England and buy themselves titled husbands. You get to see Cora's side of the story except that these girls have a whole lot more fighting spirit and colonial vigor than Cora.
6. I, CLAUDIUS 1976 miniseries based on the novel by Robert Graves. Okay, I know, it's Rome but still! Political machinations and plotting and sex and togas and Sir Derek Jacobi!
5. HOWARD'S END 1992 movie based on the novel by E. M. Forster, transcendently lovely Merchant/Ivory production starring Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham-Carter. Do I really need to tell you more? The progressive bluestocking Schlegels encounter the hidebound Wilcox family and many pretensions are exposed and shattered.
4. CRANFORD 2007 miniseries based on a brilliantly adapted combination of novellas by Elizabeth Gaskell. This is my absolute favorite British period production ever of all time, the end. Starring Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and the fabulous Imelda Staunton. It's 1837 and the town of Cranford is ruled by its women and they are smart and warm and elegantly economical and hysterically funny. They don't much like changing with the times, but if they're going to do it, it's going to be on their terms. And you want tragic deaths, it's got those, too. (And yes, that's "Carson" as the clueless Captain Brown.)
3. BRIDESHEAD REVISITED 1981 miniseries based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh, not the godawful 2008 film. Jaded army Captain Charles Ryder is stationed in a deserted great house during WWII, a house he knows well from his youth, where he was captivated by the wealthy, titled Flytes. First by beautiful eccentric alcoholic Sebastian Flyte and then by his sister Julia. The project that made Jeremy Irons famous. Also starring Lord Laurence Olivier!
2. UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS The granddaddy of them all, miniseries that ran from 1971 to 1975 and comprised 68 episodes chronicling both family and servants at 165 Eaton Place from 1910 until 1930. Created by the brilliant Jean Marsh who very seriously needs to sue Julian Fellowes who cribbed a number of storylines from this production for the first season of the wretched Downton Abbey. Marsh plays housemaid Rose Buck, who is the heart, soul and observer of the goings on at Eaton Place. Upstairs, the wealthy titled Bellamys adapt to a changing world while downstairs, Hudson the butler and Mrs. Bridges the cook keep a turbulent household running smoothly. Every trope Downton trotted out was done here first and with a great deal more heart.
1. THE EDWARDIANS Novel by Vita Sackville-West which has shockingly never been filmed. You want the inside dope on growing up in the upper of upper classes in Edwardian England then Vita is your girl. She knew whereof she wrote and this book--admittedly flawed--is packed with insider details. The story of 19-year-old duke Sebastian who begins the novel literally teetering on the edge. Once again, the theme is the changing times and how to adapt to them, if you can. It seems as though Sebastian--much as he wants to--cannot escape the lifestyle that is his through birth. Through a series of sexual exploits, Sebastian struggles with the hypocritical morals of his own class and the bourgeois rigidity of the middle class to the ultimately distasteful Bohemians before he...well, read it and find out and then write to Masterpiece and tell them to adapt this novel, pronto!
NOTE: This is only a sampling of the very many wonderful period dramas that are a billion times better than Downton Abbey. Please feel free to add your favorites in the comments!