Not really a mystery, though it’s sorta setup like one, The Confessions of Frannie Langton (2022) is a compelling exploration of love, race, and class in Regency England. Based on a novel of the same name by Sara Collins, who also adapted it for TV, this miniseries is currently streaming on BritBox in the U.S., and it aired on ITV last year in the U.K.
In spite of some obvious (and less obvious) connections, author Sara Collins told the Washington Post this is more of a historical take than a color-blind fantasy:
“I love the “Bridgerton” effect. I think it’s really important, obviously, that we open doors to color-blind casting and opportunities for creatives of all–you know, from all backgrounds. …
But it’s also important that we — you know, the old saying is that you learn from history so that you don’t repeat those mistakes. There are issues that we touch on in “Frannie” that somehow have reared their ugly heads in contemporary society again. …
So I think it is so important that we try to do both, that we indulge the fantasy elements that are catered to by shows like “Bridgerton,” but we don’t lose sight of the power and the value and the importance of truth telling. And we’re really trying to combine those two objectives in this show.”
While the exact story of Frannie Langton is more gothic romance than literal history, the context and characters are historically plausible. The performances are strong, and this could definitely be Karla-Simone Spence’s breakout role as Frannie Langton. Her costar, Sophie Cookson as Madame Marguerite Benham, has previously been in two of the Kingsman films. Established frock flicker Jodhi May is also featured as Hephzibah “Hep” Elliot.
So come for the queer interracial love story, and stay for the fabulous hairstyles! Though it’s bittersweet because the designs were created, at least in part, by Marc Elliot Pilcher, who died in 2021 from COVID-19 complications shortly after winning an Emmy for Outstanding Hairstyling on the first season of Bridgerton. According to several reports, the production was halfway complete when he passed. He’s credited on the show (thought not on IMDB.com, oddly), and the first episode has an end card dedicated to Pilcher.
The flamboyant hair on Marguerite, Hephzibah, and even Frannie at the fancy dinner are all reminiscent of Bridgerton styles, but they fit even better here in the late 1820s timeline.
In this series, the hair is less over-the-top because this story doesn’t have that kind of candy-coated heightened reality. Also, these are wealthy characters, but not hugely so. The hair gives an appropriate node to the period styles, and then, on Frannie when she works at the whorehouse with Sal (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), the hairstyles incorporate nods to their African heritage. I think these styles work beautifully as appropriate punctuation to the costumes.
Unfortunately, aside from a few moments, Marguerite suffers from Leading Character Hair or is it “she’s wild and unusual for her time, so she must have unrestrained hair” syndrome. Whatever, it’s a sad trope because it’s not “wild,” it’s just slovenly for an adult, married, wealthy woman in the 1820s to run around in public with her hair hanging down like this.
Sophie Cookson, who plays Marguerite, said in the ITV press pack, that she had a hand in her character’s costume:
“When I first met the costume designer Nigel Egerton, I had such a clear idea about what I wanted Madame to look like. She can’t be a wallflower in any way. You have to see her and know she is different. The first time you meet her in the book, Madame is wearing a very outlandish outfit. We went for these really dark, rich colours as opposed to the Georgian style of wearing pale colours. You see her and instantly think, ‘What’s going on with her?’ So it was a lot of fun to wear these sumptuous materials and be someone like no-one else on the street.”
No idea if that includes her hair, and I can’t find any interviews with the actual costume designer, so this is all I have to go on. But I have to say that this outfit with the reddish velvet coat and loose hair is the first time we see Marguerite, and it had me questioning the series for a moment. I was worried the whole thing would look just as sloppy, making it a slog frock-flicks-wise, but thankfully this scene is not wholly representative of the show. It is, alas, how the character looks.
Both for general dressing scenes and the sex scenes, you do see proper Regency corsets and undergarments. And Karla-Simone Spence, as Frannie, has no complaints, so much so that a Bustle interview with her is titled, “Karla-Simone Spence Has A Newfound Love For Corsets.” She said, “I loved wearing them and I still like wearing them today.” In the ITV press pack, she explained:
“The style back then included empire line dresses and corsets, which I enjoyed wearing as they helped me to understand how Frannie would have lived, how she carried herself and how she breathed.”
Right on, girl! That’s how you do it. Tell that to all the actresses who whine about corsets!
Almost all the male characters are assholes, and their costumes are standard-issue Regency men’s stuff. Except for Olaudah “Laddie” Cambridge (Patrick Martins).
Will you be watching The Confessions of Frannie Langton (2022)?
We know from the life of Dido Belle that the life of a black woman in 18th century England would not be easy, even with the support of a wealthy, aristocratic family. Pretending that wasn’t so is kind of problematic. What a sham we will never know how Jane Austen intended to handle her mulatto heiress in Sanditon!
Austen had started to indicate her “mulatto heiress” as a person of delicate health, but hopefully she was planning to make her a full character, rather than just “an invalid” for someone else to take care of and thereby establish their own merit– i.e., a plot device.
Hopefully, she would’ve treated her more kindly than Thackeray treated his later “mulatto heiress” in VANITY FAIR, where poor Miss Rhoda Swartz is mostly a “buffoon” who conveniently ties a couple of loose ends together and lets Thackeray move on with the plot.
I’d like to believe he was also using her to show the bad character of everyone who laughs at her behind her back– since he does establish Miss Swartz as one of the few purely “good” characters, even if not properly “refined” and given to mangling words.
At the very least, though, it’s an example of what Black people who were able to mix in 19th century English society still had to face. And sadly, it’s probably far more accurate than what we’re seeing in recent “race-blind” productions.
Definitely going to be watching! There are legitimate issues with the corsetry/stays in period pieces, it’s not just whiny actors. Most productions don’t have the resources to make sure the corsets/stays fit the actors well, or they’re tight-laced to make up for fit issues (or just tight-laced in general even though that wasn’t the norm). They also don’t usually have enough time to get the actors accustomed to the way good corsetry provides support. But the vitriol against historical undergarments is pretty ridiculous, I’ll give you that. It’s nice to see that this production made it possible for the actor to feel comfortable, which allowed her to be more fully engaged with how the character would have gone through her daily life.
This looks intriguing! I thought the book was excellent.
I was intrigued, but that ignorant statement from Sophie Cookson regarding period colors (pale) and that she was able to sway the design (not to mention that hair) is disheartening. Red was very popular for women at that time — cf: https://cdn.gallerix.asia/sr/_UNK/3575090783/4290586052.jpg, one of many portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence of women in rich, dark colors.
As for the hair stylist, Marc Elliot Pilcher, his work shows a familiarity with the rather naughty drawings by Henry Fuseli of his wife Sophia — https://www.vogue.com/article/how-the-18th-century-drawings-of-henry-fuseli-speak-to-our-decadent-age. Ms. Cookson should have wanted hair like that for every moment she was on screen.
Years ago, when I was in a color blind casted version of The Crucible, my then boyfriend was quick to say a “real” production would never cast like that. I’d like to rub this and Bridgerton in his face.
… your ex wasn’t much of a theatre person, was he? (Even back in the day, if you really, really wanted to blow his mind – assuming he had one – you could have pointed him towards Orson Welles’ all black MACBETH of 1936).
That was also a production of the Negro Theatre Unit established by the Federal Theatre Project (WPA) to give a point of entry to Black actors, writers and directors.
It was nicknamed “The Voodoo Macbeth” because Welles shifted the location to a fictional Caribbean country and substituted Haitian vodou for European witchcraft.
The Wikipedia entry gives a lot of info and even a brief clip from a film that included footage from the final moments of the play:
…or Patrick Stewart’s “photonegative” Othello.
She should teach a lesson to Bridgerton’s actresses who managed to get rid of the corsets for season 3!
After just watching a scene in a Netflix fantasy series where the main character apparently “can’t raise her arms” because of a corset (???????), I’m very pleased that the artisans behind this film and the main actress put in the effort to be a little more understanding of how corsets work!