The Costume Drama Classic Collection DVD Review: An Embarrassment of Riches

Besides music, one of the greatest British exports in the field of entertainment is the “costume drama.” Programs such as Upstairs, Downstairs, Lost Empires and Brideshead Revisited are just a few examples of this genre, and nobody does it better than the Brits. With this in mind, Acorn has just released an extraordinary 15-DVD box set, The Costume Drama Classic Collection. It is an embarrassment of riches, beginning with a two-disc documentary, The Story of the Costume Drama.

The Story of the Costume Drama (2008) is a five-episode documentary which aired on ITV in England and on PBS in the United States. In the series, narrator Keeley Hawes takes us through the long history of the genre. Prior to watching this history, I had always assumed that the costume drama as we have come to know it began back in 1971 with the first Upstairs, Downstairs series. Actually Hawes takes us all the way back to 1955, with The Adventures of Robin Hood to begin the saga.

It may be hard to relate to in this era of on-demand programming, but once upon a time, the airing of a popular series was a true cultural event. Hawes discusses the impact that programs such as Upstairs, Downstairs and Brideshead Revisited had in emptying pubs and “wrecking” social calendars. He even points out a famous instance of a vicar revising parish schedules in consideration of his (and those of his parish) wishes to watch a series.

Here in the U.S. we have had our share of “appointment TV,” programs which riveted the nation the way costume dramas did in England. Think back to Falcon Crest, Dynasty, and of course Dallas. Guilty pleasures to be sure, but pleasures they were. The Story of the Costume Drama features stars and scenes from a wide variety of shows, including I, Claudius; The Jewel in the Crown; Poldark; Horatio Hornblower; and Edward the King, among many others. It is an excellent overview of this uniquely British phenomenon.

The documentary is a nice appetizer, but the real fun begins with the 40th Anniversary Edition of the first Upstairs, Downstairs series, which originally aired in 1971. The 13-episode series is as great as I remember, and was deservedly praised around the world. The “real” world intruded on the production of the series though, by way of a union dispute over the cost of the newly introduced color equipment. This forced the producers to shoot the first six episodes in black and white, with the remaining seven in color. The first episode was later re-shot in color, and that is the one that is shown here.

These intrigues seemed to fit a program filled with intrigue. The title is well-chosen, as the series focuses on life “upstairs,” with the comings and goings of the wealthy Bellamy family, and “downstairs,” concerning the lives of their large servant staff. Forty-one years have not diminished the excellence of the various plotlines; for fans of costume dramas, this is one of the finest you will ever see.

This 40th Anniversary edition is a four-DVD set, with a generous amount of bonus material. One of the biggest of these extras is the inclusion of the alternate black and white pilot episode. There is also a 56-minute “The Making of Upstairs, Downstairs.” A small caveat emptor on the package warns of the less than hi-def quality of the audio and video. It may not be perfect, but who cares? This is a series that deserves all of the accolades it has received over the years. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself completely hooked, and picking up the remaining four installments of the series. Watching the lives of the Bellamy household (both upstairs and downstairs) can be addictive.

Chronologically, Lillie (1978) follows. The 13-episode series is presented here in a four-DVD set, and stars Francesca Annis as Lillie Langtry (1853-1929). She is fondly remembered as the Victorian “it” girl, and her life story is told in sumptuous detail in this series. And what a life it was. Her beauty inspired numerous paintings, and offered her entrée into the highest reaches of British society.

At the suggestion of her friend Oscar Wilde, Lillie embarked on a theatrical career in 1881, and performed in the United States as well. Her impact as a “liberated” woman was even more pronounced than her stage appearances. She pioneered the concept of celebrity endorsements, with her likeness and signature adorning Pear’s Soap print ads. Lillie’s dismissal of Victorian morals was even more controversial. She paid her first husband to keep his distance while she lived the life she wanted. This included affairs with the elite men of Europe, including the also married Prince of Wales. Amazingly enough, her charm was so irresistible that she won the respect and admiration of his wife in the process.

An example of the enormous impact of Lillie Langtry’s life can be had by perusing the many appearances she made in popular culture. A partial list includes Wilde’s play based on her, Lady Windermere’s Fan. Scholars claim that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventuress Irene Adler, the only woman to outwit Sherlock Holmes was based on Mrs. Langtree. In film, the character of Lillie was played by Lilian Bond beside Gary Cooper in The Westerner (1940). In The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), Paul Newman was obsessed with her. Lillie Langtry even holds a place in rock music history. Pete Townsend’s “Pictures of Lily” is reportedly about pictures of Lillie Langtry.

Lost Empires (1986) is another example of British costume drama at its finest. The seven-episode series is presented here in a three-DVD package. The series was based on the novel by J.B. Priestly, and stars Colin Firth, John Castle, and the one and only Laurence Olivier. The series was to be the second to last film appearance by Olivier.

As the best of these dramas do, Lost Empires tells a number of different stories. Young Richard Herncastle (Firth) joins a traveling show with his uncle. There, he sees the “whole wide world” from backstage. The year is 1914, and he is coming of age on the eve of World War I. Olivier’s character is Harry Burrard, a fading comedian who has long since lost his audience and his comic ability. His performance is brilliant, and even so late in his life, he makes it seem effortless. The fact that his character is such a sad clown is wonderfully expressed in the smallest moments. We are reminded once again of the reasons why the man was so revered by so many.

The final series in this collection is Doctor Zhivago (2002). The Acorn release is a two-DVD set, with a number of bonus materials included. The two-part show is based on the famous novel by Boris Pasternak, which was originally adapted by David Lean for his landmark 1965 film. I had not previously seen this ITV version, and quite honestly wondered what could possibly be added to Lean’s film.

As it turns out though, even at over three-hours in length, the movie left out a number of elements from Pasternak’s novel. This provided the producers a unique opportunity to bring something fresh to the story. Their casting certainly helped as well, with stars such as Hans Matheson, Keira Knightley, and Sam Neill in the lead roles, they had a very good start.

One of the key differences between the ITV production, and Lean’s film was the decision to highlight more of the relationship between Lara (Knightley) and Yuri (Matheson). This emphasis brought a deeper psychological element to the film, which in turn made the political aspects resonate in a more personal way.

The location filming took place in Slovakia, and the winter scenery is impressive. The producers saw Slovakia as a cost-effective place to film, but Mother Nature was not on their side. Even though there was a blizzard two days before they began filming, the snow quickly melted. They wound up having to use 1,000 bags of artificial snow to create the intended effect. This and many other anecdotes are relayed in the major bonus feature, a 70-minute segment of interviews with various cast and crew members.

There is something very special about these and so many other British costume dramas. For fans of the genre, I think this 15-DVD set is a must. Acorn has found a great niche in packaging these programs for the U.S. market, and they have really outdone themselves here. Bored with NBC’s wall to wall Olympics coverage? There are over 42 hours of material contained on The Costume Drama Classic Collection. Just sit back and enjoy.

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Greg Barbrick

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