Are you missing Downton Abbey? The final series starts Sunday, January 4, 2015, in the US, but if that’s too long for you to wait, here are five other movies or TV series that will help you scratch that itch for historical costumes, big casts of aristocrats and servants dealing with repressed emotions, and grand British houses:
5. Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75 & 2010-12)
The House: 165 Eaton Place, London. Not a sprawling country mansion — instead the opposite, you get to see The Families’ lives when they’re In Town.
Upstairs: The Bellamy family, including Lady Marjorie (daughter of an earl) and Richard (MP and son of a nobody). The original series (1971-75) starts in 1903 and ends in 1930. I can’t tell you much more, because I’ve never been able to get past the old skool videography to watch it!
But I can recommend the 2010-12 sequel! It’s 1936 and a new family has moved into 165 Eaton Place — Sir Hallam Holland (a diplomat), his glamorous wife Lady Agnes (played by Keeley Hawes), and her sister Lady Persephone (played by Claire Foy). There is DRAMA and lots of interwoven stories, many of which focus on fascism in Britain as World War II looms.
Downstairs: Equal time was given to the staff in the original 1970s production, hence the title! You’ve got your butler, cook, maids, footmen, and more, all having their own storylines.
In the 2010s sequel, Jean Marsh reprises her role from the 1970s version, and there’s a whole new cast of characters playing servants … although I admit, I don’t remember any of their plot lines!
4. Love in a Cold Climate (2001)
The House: Alconleigh, the country estate of the cash-poor Radlett family. Modeled on the childhood home of Nancy Mitford, whose semi-autobiographical novel this is based on.
Upstairs: The real Nancy Mitford and her sisters had a very eccentric childhood, and they grew up to be gorgeous, stylish, and sometimes scandalous in the 1930s and beyond: Nancy was a novelist/biographer and socialite; Diana was a socialite and fascist; Unity became a devotee of Hitler; Jessica moved to the US where she became an author and communist; and Deborah became the 10th Duchess of Devonshire. Sorry, got sidetracked!
In the fictionalized version, Fanny (Rosamund Pike) is the relatively stable character through whom we see the life stories of two of her friends from the 1930s to the 1940s. You see their eccentric late childhood as Fanny periodically visits Linda’s home, Alconleigh. Fanny then marries a nice guy, while friends Linda and Polly don’t fare so well, but make for good drama: Linda marries a guy who just isn’t that into her, and Polly falls in love over and over again, and in the process ends up in Spain during its Civil War, then back to England for World War II. It’s not as good as the book, but it’s a great view of the down-at-the-heels but still-holding-on English aristocracy.
Downstairs: They’re only extras here.
3. The Buccaneers (1995)
The House: There are actually multiple…
- You get a glimpse of the society houses of Newport, Rhode Island, when our main characters are first starting out.
- Runnymede, the idyllic riverside country house in England, where our main characters have a whole lot of fun.
- Allfriars, the huge, cold, imposing, aristocratic house of the Marquess of Brightlingsea and his family, where two of the main characters (Conchita and Jinny) go to live after marrying the sons of the Marquess.
- Longlands, yet another huge, cold, imposing, aristocratic house — of the Duke of Tintagel, where the official main character (Nan) lives after marrying the Duke.
Upstairs: Based on the book by Edith Wharton, which is set in the 1870s but takes inspiration from the real life of Consuelo Vanderbilt, the Duchess of Marlborough — this is the story of four American girls who are new money, so go to England for their debuts … and then get married, and fall in love, and things get complicated. You’ve got lead character Nan (Carla Gugino), who is dreamy and literary and who everyone dismisses as the baby; Jinny (Alison Edwards), her older sister, who is very beautiful and very middle-of-the-road; Lizzy, beautiful but eminently practical; and Conchita (Mira Sorvino), half-Brazilian, half-American, and very wild. Their bustle gowns are To Die For — seriously, if you like this era, you MUST see this — and the Brits are cold and haughty and stiff. Oh, and Greg Wise!
Downstairs: Nada! Unless you count Nan’s governess, Laura Testvalley, who is in that in-between place. She’s a key character and has her own storyline that’s very sweet and heartbreaking.
2. Berkeley Square (1998)
The House: Multiple aristocratic townhouses all located on Berkeley Square, London.
Upstairs: It’s 1902, and London’s elite families living on Berkeley Square have babies, and so they need nannies. The upstairs families play second fiddle to the downstairs, but they’re definitely around, having complicated affairs and wearing nice Edwardian wear.
Downstairs: Three nannies work in houses next door to each other. Matty is no-nonsense but falls for a hot, troubled footman; Hannah has an out-of-wedlock baby; and Lydia is sensitive and naive. They all wear smashing early Edwardian tailored suits while getting to know each other, dealing with their aristocratic employers, plotting fellow servants, cute footman, illegitimate babies, and more!
1. Gosford Park (2001)
The House: Gosford Park, of course. A dead ringer for Downton Abbey, really — another huge, sprawling, cold, aristocratic, country house. Did you know that Downton was originally planned by screenwriter Julian Fellowes as a sequel or spin-off of Gosford Park?
Upstairs: It’s a house party/shooting weekend at Sir William’s country estate, and someone ends up murdered. There’s various well-to-do folks, each with their own agendas: Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) is bored; the Countess of Trentham (Maggie Smith) is at at her Dowager Countess-y best, full of biting bon-mots; and everyone is unhappy, having an affair, in need of money, or something else that makes things Not All That They Seem. Oh, and the 1930s evening wear is To Die For!
Downstairs: The servants get equal time, and they very much 1) have their own agendas, and 2) are very intertwined in the upstairs people’s lives.
Who doesn’t want to live in a huge, cold, opulent (and possibly crumbling) house??!!