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Pride and Prejudice takes the top spot

Published: December 30, 2010 at 7:00 am
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A survey of the BBC Magazines reader panel conducted on behalf of BBC History Magazine has uncovered that the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice is the best costume drama to have graced Britain’s television screens. The televised adaption of the Jane Austen classic novel, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, was voted for by 14.1 per cent of respondents.


The question ‘Which costume drama do you think is the best to have graced Britain’s television screens?’ was posed in recognition of the fact that 2011 is the 40th anniversary of the seminal BBC drama Elizabeth R (which only received 1.4 per cent of the vote).

Robert Seatter, head of history at the BBC, drew up the shortlist of 20 leading costume dramas. He said “'It is a truth universally acknowledged...' that we Brits love a TV costume drama, especially with an Empire line bodice and especially in austerity times! No surprise therefore that Pride & Prejudice topped the polls. More surprising for me, however, was that our constant love affair with the Tudors did not surface higher, and that I, Claudius from the distant 70s tipped the nearer remembrance of Edwardian class and romance into lower place.”

Interestingly those second and third choices of the public vote have recently been reinvented for a new audience. With 8.4% of the vote, Upstairs, Downstairs, the ITV series set in an Edwardian townhouse in London first shown in 1971, clearly still has a hold in the public’s affections. BBC One revived the house for three new episodes, as a highlight of its seasonal programming this Christmas.

Meanwhile, I, Claudius, the BBC’s 1976 adaption of Robert Graves’s Roman period novel (the second most popular choice), has just been remade as a Radio 4 series.


Alison Hindell, Head of Audio Drama at Radio 4, commented "I'm delighted to hear that I, Claudius was one of the most popular responses in the greatest costume drama poll. It's a hugely memorable piece of television and a superb novel and is now an impressive and ambitious radio drama. More economical in duration (the radio version is six hours against tv's 12 hours plus) - and in budget - nevertheless it captures all the intrigue and passions that we remember so well and gives them a fresh twist with a new cast. And the togas are all in the mind.”

The results

Downton Abbey (ITV, 2010)

The new Upstairs, Downstairs, mixing life below and above stairs, and exploiting the scriptwriting skills of Gosford Park’s Julian Fellowes. Perfect for austerity times.



Cranford (BBC, 2007)

Middle England embraced village life again in this skilful adaptation of Mrs Gaskell’s novellas. While real life austerity took over, we were charmed by bonnets and gloves.



Brideshead Revisited (ITV, 1981)

ITV’s highly successful adaptation of Evelyn War’s family saga, which outed gay themes and Catholicism while beguiling with high production values. Voted 10th in the BFI’s best British TV Programmes list of 2000.



The Forsyte Saga (BBC, 1967)

The last major black and white drama serial made by the BBC, and the first major costume drama to capture the imaginations of UK audiences. Church service times were moved to accommodate the series; Edwardian hairstyles appeared! ITV remade it in 2002.



Tenko (BBC/ABC, 1981)

An unusual take on the Second World War, Tenko told the experiences of British, Australian and Dutch women captured by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore in 1942.



Sharpe (ITV, 1993)

A fictional British soldier played out his story against the dramatic backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. Starred Sean Bean



The Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984)

The last days of the Raj were captured in this sweeping adaptation of Paul Scott’s novels, part of a cycle of film and TV preoccupied with post-colonial and multi-cultural themes.



Colditz (BBC, 1983)

Britain’s obsession with the Second World War continued in this hugely popular escape drama. The technical consultant on the series was Major Pat Reid, the real British Escape Officer at Colditz.



House of Eliott (BBC, 1991)

The last major costume drama made in BBC Television Centre, set in a haute couture fashion house between the wars. After that, costume drama would move outside the studio and onto location.



Rome (BBC/HBO/RAI, 2005)

A return to the world of I, Claudius, following a slew of big screen period pieces, notably Oscar winner Gladiator. The biggest co-produced series made with the American market in BBC history.



The Tudors (ITV, 2007)

The Tudors reappearing again, with more sex and more opulence, and liberties with historical accuracy.



A Family at War (ITV, 1970)

Hugely popular family saga, portraying the lives of the lower middle-class Ashton family in Liverpool, from 1938 through WW2 years.



The Six Wives of Henry VIII (BBC, 1970)

The first major historical drama series made after introduction of colour. Keith Michell aged convincingly as the megalomaniac monarch, and BBC costume makers went to town!



Elizabeth R (BBC, 1971)

The second Tudor blockbuster from the BBC: Glenda Jackson was a memorable Elizabeth, capturing both the feminist and traditionalist votes.



Duchess of Duke Street (BBC, 1976)

The BBC’s answer to ITV’s Upstairs Downstairs, made by the same producer, and starring Gemma Jones as the eponymous ‘duchess’ who works her way from servant to hotelier



By the Sword Divided (BBC, 1983)

The dramatic story of the English Civil War is told via two families: the Laceys loyal to King Charles I and the Fletchers loyal to Oliver Cromwell.



The Flame Trees of Thika (Thames, 1981)

One of a number of TV series and films of this decade which explored Britain’s post colonial experience. In this case, the story of English settlers in a corner of East Africa in 1913.



Other (see table below)




Programme titleNumber of votesPercentage of votes
Don't know/don't watch/not applicable752.3
Bleak House200.6
Larkrise to Candleford160
When the Boat Comes In90
War and Peace80
Foyle's War60
Little Dorrit60
North and South60
The Onedin Line50
Pillars of the Earth40
Band of Brothers20
Fortunes of War20
The Barchester Chronicles20
The Devil's Crown20
The Devil's Whore20
The Pallisers20
A Horseman Riding By10
Any BBC Charles Dickens series10
Between the Lines10
Centennial (J.A.Michener) 197910
Desperate Romantics10
Our Mutual Friend10
Doctor Who10
Edward & Mrs Simpson10
From the Earth to the Moon10
George Gently10
Jane Eyre (Toby Stephens)10
Jane Eyre (BBC with Timothy Dalton)10
Life of Enid Blyton10
Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes10
Lloyd George10
Lost in Austen10
Mad Men10
Moll Flanders10
Nana 1970's10
Pride and Prejudice (BBC, 1980)10
Rebel Heart10
Secret Army10
Shoulder to Shoulder10
The Cleopatras10
The Golden Bowl10
The House of Eliott10
The West Wing10
Treasure Island (BBC)10
Wuthering Heights10

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