Period dramas have always been stalwart performers in TV schedules, Roots, I Claudius and Brideshead Revisited were captivating audiences in the 1970s, But the last five years have seen a significant expansion in the volume of historical dramas and the range of topics they cover. The days when only Rome, The Bible, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens adaptations could attract investment are long gone, reports Andy Fry.
Projects like King Tut, Spartacus: Blood & Sand, Camelot, Pillars Of The Earth, The Tudors, The Borgias, The Magnificent Century, Hell On Wheels, Ripper Street, Downton Abbey, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, Pan Am and The Americans underline the resurgence of period drama with projects taking viewers from 1300BC up to the 1980s.
Inherent brand recognition has always been part of period drama’s appeal, but the resurgence of the genre is attributed to various additional factors. Michael Prupas, President and CEO of Muse Entertainment (Ben Hur, The Kennedys, Pillars of the Earth), says: “Historical subjects lend themselves well to coproduction, which is an increasingly important part of financing quality drama. Contemporary subjects are difficult to coproduce because they have to demonstrate authenticity of dialogue and location. But audiences suspend their disbelief once you set a production in a bygone era.”
Prupas adds that the number of networks needing stand-out, signature shows has grown, making history an obvious place to go for interesting stories. There’s no question, for example, that US cable channel AMC has been redefined by shows like Mad Men, while rival channel Reelz has raised its profile with The Kennedys, Pillars of The Earth and Pillars sequel World Without End.
BBC Worldwide’s Jane Tranter says Mad Men “took the curse off period drama”. She adds: “When I arrived in LA just over three years ago, everyone laughed sympathetically at the thought of period drama, but Mad Men changed networks’ attitudes to how audiences might respond to something not contemporary. That Mad Men is a piece of recent social history, rather than ‘deep period’ or ‘bonnets and bows’ was certainly helpful.”
Tranter believes this paved the way for Downton Abbey. “Apart from the soap operatic genius of the piece and the high-quality acting, Downton allows an audience to access period drama almost in the same way that they do fantasy: they can escape to a different world, but there they can meet characters and emotions which are reflections of the ones they meet every day themselves,” she says.
This point is echoed by Eric Welbers, managing director of sales and acquisitions at Beta Film, who says, producers and broadcasters have realised that “period” only needs to be a jumping off point: “History provides an interesting backdrop and some in-built brand awareness. But what has really changed is that period dramas no longer have to be like history books. The emphasis is on combining a fantastic world that audiences can immerse themselves in with a cast of characters that they want to relate to.”
A case in point is The Borgias, which has aired on channels such as Netflix, Canal+, ZDF, ORF2, Sky Italy and is distributed globally by Beta Film. “On the one hand it feels like a fantasy instead of history. On the other it deals with very relevant subject like power and wealth. In some ways it is more like Game Of Thrones than a period drama.”
Welbers adds another crucial point with regard to this emerging genre of action-packed period dramas. “Some of the titles in this recent wave have shown that you can develop long-running franchises, not just epic mini-series. That is more interesting from a commercial angle.”
The potential of getting involved with a long-runner was what tempted Beta Film to come on-board Copper, a 10-part Cineflix Studios production for BBC America and Shaw Media which is set in 1860s New York and centres on a tough Irish-American cop. “We read the scripts and loved them. It rated well in the US and has the kind of characters and storylines that could easily continue,” Welbers said.
While companies are willing to experiment with less well-known periods, it’s definitely easier to invest if there are also reassurance factors in the background, adds Welbers. Beta Film’s decision to back Copper was helped by the fact that the Martin Scorsese movie Gangs Of New York had already shone a light on this subject and that Tom Fontana (The Borgias) was the showrunner. “Great writers, experienced producers, some evidence that the period is interesting to audiences… it all helps when you are trying to raise finance or sell a show,” he explains.
In a similar vein to Copper is Ripper Street, an eight-part detective series set in Victorian London around the time of the Jack The Ripper murders. It was devised by Lookout Point CEO Simon Vaughan, a coproduction expert who has a development partnership with BBC Worldwide: “It was an idea I had some years ago but it took me a long time to get the concept right. The elements only really came into place once I discovered there was a police department called H Division located where the Jack The Ripper murders took place. That seemed to me a strong premise that could be developed into a returning series for the international market,” he says.
While Vaughan’s original idea came before the current wave of period series, he acknowledges that the fact it has now been made may be the result of various factors coming together in his favour. “The success that the BBC has had with Sherlock would have helped – as would Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies, which show how you can make a period story feel contemporary. And then there’s the overall realisation that period drama doesn’t have to work on specific networks and in specific slots. That certainly helped in raising finance on Ripper Street.”
Other recent and upcoming projects that Vaughan has been involved in are Titanic, Parade’s End, Les Miserables and Laurence of Arabia, all of which (except Parade’s End) carry massive in-built brand awareness. “With my commercial head on that makes sense,” says Vaughan, “but these projects only work if you are as uncynical as possible, if you focus on backing the creative talent.”
One era that has seen a lot of activity is the early 2oth century in the UK (Edwardian through to World War 1). Downton Abbey set the trend and was soon followed by Upstairs Downstairs, Titanic, Parade’s End, Birdsong and Mr Selfridge.
There’s no question that the success of Downton has played its part in this mini-wave, either by spawning similar series or giving financial backers the confidence to invest in existing projects that were already in development. But you would be making a big mistake if you based your decision-making purely on the success of another show, says ITV Studios Global Entertainment MD Maria Kyriacou: “We wouldn’t back something because it’s period or because another show from the same period has done well,” she says. “Mr Selfridge, which we’re bringing to MIPCOM, stands up on its own. It’s sexy, funny and refreshing with a great script by Andrew Davies.”
For Kyriacou, a key point about Mr Selfridge, which tells the story of the man who founded Selfridges department store on Oxford Street, is that it shines a light on the way we live today: “It’s about the birth of shopping and the emergence of London as a fashionable city. It’s relatable issues like these that will hopefully appeal to audiences.”
ITVSGE has a number of period dramas at present including Stephen Poliakoff-scripted Dancing On The Edge, Morse prequel Endeavour and Mrs Biggs, a quirky production about the wife of the infamous train robber. “They’re united,” says Kyriacou, “not by the fact they are period dramas, but by the fact they are great stories.”
BBCWW’s Tranter makes a similar point: “We look first and foremost for drama that holds a mirror up to aspects of the way we live now. And then we look at the period. But it’s helpful that having made so much period drama over the years, it doesn’t bear any stigma or stress for us in terms of story-telling or production. We love playing historical detective and uncovering different worlds.”
Relatability is a theme that comes up a lot when trying to make period dramas work for modern audiences. In Tranter’s opinion, “Relatability of characters is key, but relatability of situation is not necessary – it’s the conflict of character and situation that make period drama feel distinct and different. How the period is executed, how the tone of the overall drama feels, the visual style, the production design – all help to either draw an audience in, or to hold them at arms’ length. Some period dramas can almost feel ‘proscenium arch’ in their stateliness. But the ones that strike a chord are those which make an audience feel part of the world, rather than in awe of it.”
Having said this, relatability tends to mean different things depending on whether projects are heading for pay TV or free-to-air. In pay TV, period dramas like The Borgias and Spartacus: Blood and Sand have tried to deliver the X-rated elements that young audiences know from contemporary series, films and games. By contrast, free-to-air series have focused more on instilling values that modern audiences will want to empathise with.
A good example of the latter is Muse series Bomb Girls, which sees women taking on male roles in society during the Second World War while the men are away. In doing so, says Prupas, it provides an insight into the birth of gender equality and provides characters that modern audiences find appealing. There’s something similar at work in The Bletchley Circle, says Content Television president Greg Phillips, who is bringing the title to MIPCOM. “This is a show about four women who worked in the intelligence service during WW2, saving lives. Then afterwards, instead of being content with a return to old-fashioned domesticity, they get together to solve a murder using the skills they developed during the war.”
One of the remarkable things about the current wave of period drama is that it is allowing dead, forgotten and unfashionable eras to be revisited. Author Daphne Du Maurier, for example, is making a comeback. One of Content Media’s top titles at MIPCOM is based on her novel The Scapegoat, which sees two identical looking men switch identities: “It’s a fun, intriguing story with a great cast and a really nice script treatment,” says Content’s Phillips. “We didn’t go in thinking of it as a period piece, but we like the fact it takes place around the time of the Queen’s Coronation, which resonates now.”
Western series are also bouncing back, with Hell On Wheels and Hatfield & McCoys both producing superb ratings performances: “When we read the pilot script of Hell On Wheels, we were a bit nervous,” admits eOne director of television John Morayniss, “because westerns weren’t fashionable at the time. But the lesson from that show is that audiences are longing for good drama and it doesn’t really matter when it is set as long as the stories are relatable, universal and meaningful. What’s clever about Hell On Wheels is that it’s about how the US Civil War tore the country apart and the railway brought I back together. I think there are a lot of metaphors in there that are relevant to the US today.”
With Copper, Hell On Wheels, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, Magic City and the like, Morayniss says that “pretty much all of American history has now been covered”.
Backing that point is The Americans, a drama set in the 1980s, which will headline the slate for Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution at MIPCOM. Commissioned by FX in the US, The Americans is based around the marriage of two KGB spies posing as Americans in suburban Washington DC shortly after Ronald Reagan is elected President. Through this prism, it delves into the Cold War and the United States’ relationship with the Soviet Union.
Muse’s Michael Prupas also had to weather a huge PR storm surrounding The Kennedys, including the decision by History Channel US to pull out of the series. Two issues stand-out here. The first is that producers become open to criticism if their story is recent enough that it brings them into conflict with powerful vested interests. The second is that it is hard to gauge the international response to such stories: “We thought it would resonate well in Germany but it was a struggle,” says Prupas. “By contrast, I never thought we’d get a sale in Russia because it dealt with issues like the Cuba Missle Crisis. But we got a good licence from Channel One.”
For Vaughan, the real point about current trends in drama is that anything goes if you have a good story: “Period drama is benefiting in the same way as fantasy and futuristic drama. Demand from networks means creators can set their stories at any point in time. Past or future.”