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Tea Time on Hulu: Historical Dramas from the British Isles

February 8th, 2012 by Lee Foley Content Editor

When I showed up to work bleary eyed and feeling melodramatic a few days ago, I was embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t had any heartbreaking, deeply personal story to explain this away.

Because the truth is that I had stayed up all night powering through the entire first season of Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Theater.

I quickly learned that I was not alone, that my passion for voyeuristic period drama is not exclusive, that other young people are eager to discover the fate of Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley in season two.

And at that moment, some inner, self-consciously erudite part of my teenage soul was laid to rest. One Halloween, I dressed up as Hamlet’s Ophelia and tried to make it cool by moshing really hard, but I don’t think it worked. But the writer of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, seems to have spurred a movement. Why now do I have friends asking me if I have seen the three-part dramatization of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda? Forget Clueless. Have you seen Emma? With the economy at a low point, the class system in America seems more rigid than ever. Perhaps human stories based on historical events and literature have added meaning for anyone struggling to make change with an ounce of moral fiber.

These deeply stirring, slow paced dramas have surfaced as an untapped resource for those of us who enjoy pretty costumes and well-scripted love stories. So, take the high road. Here are some recommendations for the Victorian crowd from the Hulu library to set the mood.

Step one: Downton Abbey is now on Hulu. It’s the bellwether. Downton’s a drama centering on an expansive estate that runs like clockwork. The household hierarchy is fascinatingly archaic. Yet, as the story unfolds, we learn about this microcosm from a modern perspective. Everyone from the scullery maid to the Dowager Countess knows the constrictions of their societal roles. But to us as viewers, the maid is just as important as a member of the noble family. The opening scene takes you through the house, introducing the characters as they discover the shocking news of the sinking of the Titanic.

If you are a Downton Abbey fan and simply want more, take a chance on a mini-series with an even more British sounding title, The Chamomile Lawn, based on a novel by Mary Wesley. Set in August 1939, five young cousins gather on the chamomile lawn of their aunt’s Cornish home. The family faces imposing changes with the approach of World War II, and the drama follows their intersecting lives over a period of forty years. Look past the tepid title if you can, because this one gets steamy!

The 1996 film version of Jane Eyre, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt, is much more introspective than the recent Gothic version starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. Based on the 1847 novel by Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre emerges from a painful childhood to take a position as governess at Thornfield Hall. With this small degree of freedom she encounters clues concerning her own past and that of her employer, Edward Rochester. Don’t judge their inevitably building flirtation, because it’s almost supposed to be agonizing to watch it develop. Ms. Eyre tells her pupil in a drawing lesson, “Remember, the shadows are just as important as the light.”

So, while The Diary of Anne Frank is far from what anyone could call an uplifting true story, this British mini-series is the best available rendition on film or television. The set was designed to be an exact replica of the real Secret Annex in Amsterdam, where the Frank family, Hermann and Auguste van Pels, their son Peter, and Fritz Pfeffer went into hiding during World War II. In spite of the dark nature of passing events, young Anne upholds an intelligent, bright, and relatable voice in her writing as she describes the intimate details of their existence.

From Hulu’s Criterion collection, “Nora” mirrors the odd relationship between novelist James Joyce and the salty Nora Barnacle from Galway. Giving up her position as a maid, Nora leaves her home and follows Joyce to Italy. She does not understand and often criticizes his efforts at writing. Over time, the two build a mutually supportive bond, which incorporates neurotic behavior, alcoholism, family, and work. The viewer can sense echoes of Joyce’s novels and short stories in the film. Also, Ewan McGregor sings an Irish chanty, more than once.

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