Top 5 Nostalgic Interwar British Series

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The British seem to LOVE the interwar years — i.e. between World Wars I and II, or 1919-1938. I’m not a Brit myself, so correct me if I’m wrong, but there are so many books, movies, and TV series that just shimmer with a sense of “this is how life Should Be” and “oh no, looming war, this is the calm before the storm.” This probably applies more to things set in the 1930s than the 1920s, but in order to avoid the standard titles you’d expect to see in this post (Brideshead RevisitedUpstairs Downstairs, and Downton Abbey), I’m including one from just-post-World War I and one from the 1920s.

 

I Capture the Castle (2003)

Alright, so I’ve raved about this one before, so I’ll refer you to those two posts for why you should watch this movie about a bookish, dreamy teenage girl coming of age in genteel poverty in 1930s England. Romola Garai is You Age 15-ish, Rose Byrne is at her most charming, Bill Nighy is complex, Tara Fitzgerald is hilarious, and a young Henry Cavill is super cute and not yet a jerk, and our main characters live in a crumbling castle in the English countryside. Oh, and hearts are broken.

Rose Byrne has MY DREAM HAIR.

If you don’t identify with Cassandra (Romola Garai), we probably can’t be friends.

Lovely, realistic 1920s costumes.

2003 I Capture the Castle

Henry Cavill (The Tudors) before he became an asshole!

2003 I Capture the Castle

Characters that perfectly capture that wistful feeling of wanting to grow up NOW.

2003 I Capture the Castle

Some childlike magic.

2003 I Capture the Castle

AND people get dressed up fancy!

 

The Forsyte Saga: To Let (2003)

I am a heretic, because I really didn’t enjoy the first of the 2000’s The Forsyte Saga adaptations (2002). Everyone was miserable, and the character I was supposed to sympathize with (Irene) left me cold and unmoved, plus I was underwhelmed by the costuming. So I was surprised to enjoy the sequel, “To Let”; I think possibly because (spoiler alert!) annoying people DIDN’T get what they wanted, and I enjoyed watching them suffer? Plus the (same) costume designer (Phoebe de Gaye, who then went on to annoy us all with The White Princess and The Spanish Princess) had a better handle on what makes 1920s dress chic.

2003 The Forsyte Saga: To Let

Gina McKee returns as Irene, Rupert Graves as Jolyon, and Damian Lewis as Soames. But they’re really the background…

2003 The Forsyte Saga: To Let

Instead the action switches to focus on the younger generation, particularly daughter Fleur.

2003 The Forsyte Saga: To Let

We get dressed up!

2003 The Forsyte Saga: To Let

We deal with family!

2003 The Forsyte Saga: To Let

We get married? It’s been a while since I’ve seen this!

2003 The Forsyte Saga: To Let

Damn I love a good 1910s-20s wire-framed hat.

2003 The Forsyte Saga: To Let

Tears and suffering!

2003 The Forsyte Saga: To Let

And parties!

 

Love in a Cold Climate (2001)

One that’s on my shortlist to rewatch and review in depth; it’s based on Nancy Mitford’s semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in a super quirky, poor yet aristocratic British family. If the idea of secret clubs hanging out in cupboards, and young women dealing with the complications that arise from having a mother known for constantly divorcing her husbands and so is known as “The Bolter” sounds good, fire this sucker up. Bonus: Rosamund Pike!

Love in a Cold Climate (2001)

Fanny (Rosamund Pike, center) makes good choices.

Love in a Cold Climate (2001)

Polly has a secret love, and You Will Be Shocked when it comes out!

Love in a Cold Climate (2001)

She’s cold and standoffish, but for a reason.

Love in a Cold Climate (2001)

Linda is a sucker for love, and it leads to some bad choices.

2001 Love in a Cold Climate

Like showing up dressed like this for the Spanish Civil War.

2001 Love in a Cold Climate

Lots of chic 1930s wear!

2001 Love in a Cold Climate

Hilariously bitchy older relatives!

2001 Love in a Cold Climate

Rambling around quirky English manors!

 

The Cazalets (2001)

If you love sprawling, many interrelated characters à la Downton Abbey, you’ll love this. It’s based on a series of novels that tell the story of the title family, which revolve around the family’s country home in Sussex. Rupert struggles with complications arising from a new marriage, Hugh (Hugh Bonneville) deals with the trauma of World War I, while Edward cheats on wife Villy (Lesley Manville of Harlots) with Anna Chancellor and others.

2001 The Cazalets

Who doesn’t love scenes where nobody is saying what they really think?

2001 The Cazalets

So many generations to irritate!

2001 The Cazalets

People getting up to no good!

2001 The Cazalets

And great hair!

 

Lilies (2007)

Jumping down the class spectrum and at the top of my must-watch list comes Lilies, the story of a three sisters from a working-class Liverpool family. One gets married and comes to regret it, one falls for her well-to-do employer, and one becomes a corset saleswoman, all while dealing with their crotchety father and suffering-from-WWI-PTSD brother.

2007 Lilies

Dressed up for a wedding (Dad did his best).

2007 Lilies

The sisters fight but they also support each other.

2007 Lilies

No castles or manors here, it’s three to a bed!

2007 Lilies

Lots of practical, everyday wear.

2007 Lilies

But you still get some lovely late teens/early twenties costumes.

2007 Lilies

And there’s some chicness to be found if you pay attention!

2007 Lilies

Men disappoint.

2007 Lilies

REALLY disappoint.

 

What is it with the Brits and the interwar years?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

25 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    You forgot Remains of the Day with Dame Emma and Sir Antony Hopkins.

    And I preferred the black and white Forsyte Saga.

    Reply
  2. Gail

    Agree that the early (B and W) “Forsythe Saga” still holds up so well dramatically… as I was so very disappointed with the new “To Let.” Very. Plus, Fleur Forsyth’s is not a likeable character at all, especially in the books, which I read ages ago. Just read the first volume of “Cazelets” and would love to be able to find it to watch the adaptation … but can’t find it anywhere. Did love “Castle” though. The Brits can do as many ‘interwar’ dramas/comedies as they like … it is such an interesting period, at least to me. Even the original “Upstairs Downstairs” did it well.
    Anybody know of a source to watch “Cazelet’?

    Reply
  3. mmcquown

    Since the British weren’t so stupid as to come up with an idiotic idea like Prohibition, I think they love the 20’s, at least, because, now that they had lost their innocence after WWI, they felt they could enjoy themselves and celebrate the fact that the great horror was behind them. Evelyn Waugh is my favourite author from this period, but little of his work has ever been cinematised — at least that I’m aware of. When I was at school in London, my history teacher had declared that the Forsyte Saga was the ultimate history of the British middle class. Aldous Huxley is also a good writer for this period. Again, other than “Brave New World,” not much of his work has been filmed.

    Reply
    • Jscot

      There are quite a few Waugh adaptations – two Bridesheads Revisted (the classic Jeremy Irons version plus the more recent one with Matthew Goode), there’s a pretty good version of the Sword of Honour Trilogy starring Daniel Craig, a film version of Vile Bodies (retitled Bright Young Things) starring Stephen Campbell Moore, the BBC did a version of Decline and Fall in 2017, Kristen Scott Thomas was wonderfully elegant in a version of A Handful of Dust and there was a BBC version of Scoop.

      Reply
  4. crypticmirror

    The interwar years. The last time that Britain was a power in its own right, the last gasp of Empire before WW2 wiped it out, distant enough to fantasise about with nostalgia wiping clear the problems, but modern enough to be relatable with motor cars and telephones and trains. It is the perfect storm of wishful thinking for Britain and frankly our desire to hold onto it is still causing massive political problems in the here and now. Plus, from a Frock Flicks perspective, really the last time that characters could bust out the fancy duds too. Post WW2 things were either bland or much the same as the US too.

    Reply
    • Lady Hermina De Pagan

      The actor, Henry Cavill, is not a jerk. However, his two biggest characters to date, Charles Brandon-Duke of Suffolk and Clark Kent, were written to be unlikable. With Charles Brandon, that is understandable because the historical person is a social climbing ass. Clark Kent/Superman is supposed to the be the ultimate boyscout in a good way. Instead we got a Superman who’s default is not the joyful and kind person but a tortured soul who’s adopted father taught him to hide his talents.

      Reply
      • Lee Jones

        The actor, Henry Cavill, is not a jerk. However, his two biggest characters to date, Charles Brandon-Duke of Suffolk and Clark Kent, were written to be unlikable.

        As someone who has seen not only “The Tudors” but the first two DCEU movies, I really find it difficult to agree that the Charles Brandon and Clark Kent characters were unlikable. Especially Clark Kent. He has never been the ultimate boy scout to me, just a Kryptonian with flesh and blood. If I had regard him as the ultimate boy scout, I would find him DULL AS HELL. I never understood this need for Superman to be some one-dimensional protagonist who smiles and says the right thing all of the time.

        I noticed that this list included the 2001 version of “Love in a Cold Climate”. You didn’t consider the 1980 version, as well? Or 1978’s “Edward and Mrs. Simpson”? “Gosford Park”?

        Reply
        • Guest

          It’s been a while since I’ve seen The Tudors, but the historical Suffolk was an arse. The biggest reasons was how he treated his wives (especially the whole debacle between him marrying both Anne Browne and her aunt, with the annulments and abandonments) and how he married young women/girls(his most famous wife Mary Tudor was 19 when they married and he was 31, so that’s not too bad all things considered, Catherine Willoughby though was only 14, he was 49 (she was also his ward (foster daughter basically) and betrothed to his son so that was just disgusting of him), he was also betrothed to marry his ward, little Elizabeth Grey, when she was only 8 and him 29, but he dropped her for Mary Tudor.

          I think they did portray his sleazy ways on the show? I remember they showed the huge age difference between him and wife #4 Catherine W, and how he would commit adultery left and right, and also the fact that his lies (on the show) led to Anne Boleyn and several innocent men to their death.

          Reply
          • Roxana

            Suffolk treated the Browne women badly, what a mess. Definitely a cad yet he seems to have made his wives happy while they were married to him. He certainly did nothing to break, or even dent, the spirit of the formidable Catherine Willoughby teenaged bride or not all evidence is Catherine did as she thought fit and the men in her life had to adjust to it.

            Reply
  5. M.E. Lawrence

    As a teenager, my daughter, now 29, adored “I Capture the Castle,” listening to it on audiotape, and then finding the DVD. (We also both loved Gina McKee as Irene, especially that red ball gown in which she looked like a Sargent portrait.)

    I agree with crypticmirror’s comments. One misses the glamour of the pre-WWII days, but it came with a price, including rather nasty class bias and privilege.

    Reply
  6. Charity

    The Forsyte Saga is a bunch of hideously unlikable people being tremendously selfish. I don’t feel sorry for a single one of them. :P

    Reply
  7. The Scrivener

    Mapp and Lucia is indeed pretty fab. I also love the 1920s/1930s-set Jeeves and Wooster. Grew up watching those (my parents are both Wodehouse fans) and Jeeves’ pursed-lips disapproval of Bertie’s costume fads — monogrammed handkerchiefs, spats, and WHITE WAISTCOATS — feels very much like the male forerunner of Frock Flicks

    Reply
    • crypticmirror

      Have you seen the BBC Sitcom “You Rang M’Lord”? It has the Jeeves and Wooster sort of feel, but plays it more for dark gallows humour rather than jolly high japes. It isn’t for everybody’s tastes, but I know that a lot of people who like J&W like YRML, albeit in a different way.

      Reply
    • Gill

      The Mapp and Lucia with Prunella Scales and Nigel Hawthorne was particularly wonderful. Superb cast and very funny.

      Reply
  8. Eyebrows McGee

    Oh man, I don’t think you’re supposed to root for/identify with Irene at all! The major theme of the saga is duty vs. desire, and Irene, as much as everyone else, is chasing her desires at the expense of her duties. She scorns Soames for desiring her (instead of following his duty to marry a rich woman), but she constantly acts out of desire herself, damn the consequences to everyone around her.

    It’s also about the corrupting influence of capitalism, which turns everything into property, including beauty and great art and other people, and accordingly, the “sympathetic” artists in the book are usually delighted to be corrupted in order to get money, but then angry when money demands its side of the bargain be kept. (coughBossinaycough) Irene extols beauty over money, but still wants the money and isn’t willing to pursue beauty if it means she has to be poor.

    In a lot of ways Soames is easier to sympathize with because he is completely upfront that his desire is wealth, and his desire for art and beauty is only as a marker of and legitimization of his wealth; Irene claims to want beauty but chases wealth and then punishes the people around her because she’s unhappy with the compromises she has to make for money.

    Soames is money chasing art and beauty and buying it, which is gross; but Irene is art and beauty chasing money and then being pissed off when money wants something in return, which is contemptible. And she disdains those with money chasing beauty, which makes her a hypocrite. (It’s no mystery to Soames why artists would chase money and he’s not judgmental about it.)

    I actually liked that adaptation of the Forsyte Saga because it made Irene relatively terrible and hard to sympathize with; I think the temptation for artists and intellectuals (and people who make adaptations of great sagas for television) is to identify with and elevate the artists in the piece, as their goal is obviously more noble than money. But that’s not what Galsworthy meant AT ALL. It’s ALL corrupt and they’re ALL terrible, and Irene is not meant to be a sympathetic character; she’s Soames’s equal and opposite.

    Reply
    • MoHub

      So glad to see someone else actually read the novels and “got” what Galsworthy was saying. For me, Michael Mont is the only remotely sympathetic character in the booiks.

      Reply
  9. Gill

    “The Durrells” and earlier versions of “My Family and Other Animals” are that period, but with actual sunshine. And it’s worth noting that some children’s classics, such as “Swallows and Amazons” (various incarnations) and “Ballet Shoes” are set then – because written then.

    Reply
  10. Lily Lotus Rose

    Oh, boy! I cannot praise “I Capture the Castle” enough!! It is one of the most wonderful movies ever. The reviewer is so right: Romola Garai’s character is every young girl with romantic notions. The book is excellent, too. The musical score to “I Capture the Castle” is downright gorgeous.

    One of the readers noted the Evelyn Waugh film adaptation of “Vile Bodies” renamed as “Bright Young Things.” The movie is very good, however, my main beef with it is the ending–which is totally different from the novel.

    I wish that this list had included one of my favorite movies, “Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day” and the TV show, “House of Eliott.”

    “Lilies”–must see now. It been a question mark on my “to watch list.”

    Reply

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