In a mad-paced modern world, there is just something so calming about watching British period dramas like Downton Abbey. The costumes, the language and scenery, the romance, and the intrigue all add up to an entertaining binge-watching experience. When one is transported to another place and time, one sees just how far we have come as a society and where we still have room to grow. One cannot help but imagine what they would do if they were a character in the story such as a lady’s maid faced with keeping her mistress’ secrets like Anna Smith (eventually Anna Bates), or a working middle-class man whose whole life changes when he becomes the heir of Downton because of sexist laws, like Matthew Crawley.
Created and written by Julian Fellows, Downton Abbey aired for 6 seasons on PBS as part of the Masterpiece series. It told the story of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in post-Edwardian era Yorkshire, England. This was a time of great political and social change as the power and influence of the aristocrats gave way to the common working class man. After finishing the series one cannot help but want more British wit and wisdom and thankfully there is no shortage of that. Here are ten British dramas to help calm your nerves and sharpen your tongue.
Call the Midwife
Call the Midwife was originally based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth but has expanded past the source material. It tells the stories of the midwives and nuns of the Nonnatus House, a nursing convent and part of the Anglican religious order, and the patients they helped care for in the ‘50s and ‘60s in the East End of London. Like Downton, this was a time of great social change, with extreme poverty, a baby boom, and a new National Health Service. Even though this show deals with heavy issues, it is at its core a heartwarming tale of community and the beginnings of life. Jessica Raine plays Nurse Jenny Lee, Vanessa Redgrave narrates as mature Jenny, and Laura Main plays Nurse Shelagh Turner/Sister Bernadette. This BBC series is currently streaming on Netflix.
North and South
This four-part television serial is based on the 1855 Victorian novel of the same name by Elizabeth Gaskell. Set in the time period around the Great Exhibition of 1851, it centers around Margaret Hale and her parents, Maria and Richard, who move from the countryside town of Helstone in Hampshire to the industrial city of Milton. Time will tell if country girl Margaret can learn to adjust to the big city, including its men, like mill-owner John Thornton. Downton fans can compare Margaret and John’s romantic journey to that of Mary and Matthew’s. They will also recognize actor Brendan Coyle, who played Mr. Bates as Nicholas Higgins. Daniela Denby-Ashe plays Margaret and Richard Armitage plays John. It is available to stream on Amazon with the BritBox add-on.
An HBO and BBC co-production, Gentleman Jack tells the groundbreaking story of Anne Lister, a diarist, landowner, and industrialist. In her extensive diaries, often written in code, Lister records her life including her lesbian affairs. Perhaps Thomas Barrow of Downton Abbey could have learned a thing or two from Lister. Because of her masculine appearance, black clothes, and education, Lister received the sometimes unkindly-intentioned nickname gentleman Jack. The first season is set in 1832 and shows Lister returning to Halifax, West Yorkshire, England to claim and restore her uncle’s estate as her inheritance. Anne Lister is portrayed by Suranne Jones, who British television fans might recognize from Doctor Foster. This British drama can be streamed on HBO Max.
Pride and Prejudice (1995 miniseries)
Sorry, Keira Knightley, but the definitive version of Pride and Prejudice is the 1995 BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet. Based on the Jane Austen novel of the same name, it centers around the Bennet family, blessed with 5 daughters. Much like the Crawley family on Downton Abbey, the estate the Bennet family lives on can only be passed down to a male heir, so one of the Bennet daughters must marry a wealthy man. But as Austen states: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” But how do you solve a problem like Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet? Can Elizabeth get over her initial prejudice of the cold Mr. Darcy and get to know the real man? Can Mr. Darcy put his pride aside? Watch this six-part miniseries on Hulu to find out.
This six-part British period drama reunites the creative team from Downton Abbey, including writer/creator Julian Fellowes, and is based on the series of novels of the same title also written by Fellowes. After newly-wealthy Sophia Trenchard falls in love with titled Edmund Bellasis, they are wed or so Sophia believes. Bellasis falls in the Battle of Waterloo and leaves Sophia unwed and pregnant. Twenty-six years later, the Trenchards and the Bellasis families move to the new affluent neighborhood of London called Belgravia and learn to live with the weight of this legacy. Harriet Walter stars as Caroline Bellasis, Countess of Brockenhurst and Tamsin Greig is Anne Trenchard. This perfect Downton replacement can be streamed on Amazon with the Epix add-on.
If you loved the intrigue behind Kemal Pamuk’s death by heart attack in Downton, try a British murder mystery show. A great option is Foyle’s War, a murder mystery British drama, which ran for eight seasons. Each episode is fairly self-contained and runs around two hours long. The plot centers around Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle played by Michael Kitchen who works to solve cases in Hastings, Sussex, England, involving criminals taking advantage of the confusion of the World War II time period. Foyle is honest, hardworking, and extremely intelligent. He sees his work as a Detective is an important wartime effort and has a strong moral compass. Foyle is aided by his driver, Samantha “Sam” Stewart, played by Honeysuckle Weeks and Detective Sergeant Paul Milne,r played by Anthony Howell. It is available to stream on Amazon with the Acorn TV add-on.
Another option for you mystery lovers out there is Grantchester, which follows young vicar Sidney Chambers in the village of the same name as he and the overwhelmed Detective Inspector Geordie Keating work together as an unlikely duo to solve crimes. These partners balance each other out as Keating is an abrasive but methodical detective and Chambers is a people-person. Keating is played by Robson Green and Chambers is played by James Norton. In the fourth season, Chambers passes his sleuthing duties off to vicar Will Davenport and moves to America. Davenport, played by Tom Brittney, takes over and continues the partnership with Keating. This series can be streamed on Amazon Prime.
Upstairs Downstairs is a revival and continuation of the British television series of the same name which ran from 1971 to 1975 on ITV. It follows the household at 165 Eaton Place which was formerly the home of the Bellamy family before they lost all their money in the stock market crash of the Great Depression and is now owned by Sir Hallam and Lady Agnes Holland. Jean Marsh, co-creator and writer, revives her role as Rose Buck, the only original cast member to return. Rose is now the housekeeper for the Hollands and is joined by new cast members such as Claire Foy, who plays Lady Persephone Towyn and Anne Reid who plays Clarice Thackeray. Downton Fans will love the similar relationships between the household staff and family that employs them while streaming this series on Hulu.
The Durrells in Corfu
The Durrells in Corfu is a British dramedy based on three autobiographical books by naturalist Gerald Durrell. It tells the story of the eccentric and scrappy Durrell family, mother and widow Louisa and her four children: Gerry, Larry, Margo, and Leslie, in 1935, who move from Bournemouth, England, to the Greek Isle of Corfu for financial reasons after the passing of their patriarch. While Corfu is a cheaper place to live, it does not come with all of the modern amenities the Durrells are used to and they experience some culture shock when trying to adjust to island life. Keeley Hawes stars as Louisa Durrell and The Crown fans will recognize Josh O’Connor as Larry Durrell. It is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Lark Rise to Candleford
Downton Abbey fans will again recognize actor Brendan Coyle as Robert Timmins in Lark Rise to Candleford. This series follows the communities of the small hamlet town of Lark Rise and its more affluent neighboring town of Candleford at the end of the 19th century. When Laura Timmins, played by Olivia Hallinan, is forced to move out of Lark Rise and take on a new assistant postal worker position with her cousin in Candleford, Dorcas Lane, played by Julia Sawalha, we see both of these communities through these women’s eyes. Local disputes, romances, and the struggles of daily life are depicted with heart. This series is comparable to the American series Little House on the Prairie. It can be streamed on Hulu.
Bonus: The Gilded Age
Unofficially on this list is another Julian Fellowes show that depicts American life in New York City during the gilded age of the 1880s. It is not British but it does have a similar period drama feel and deals with rigid class structure. When her father dies and leaves her penniless, Marian Brook, played by Louisa Jacobson, must rely on the kindness of her wealthy Aunt Agnes van Rhijn, played by Christine Baranski, for financial support. Marion must learn to navigate the strict social order of the upper class or choose to make her own way in the world. It is available to stream on HBO Max.
British period dramas like Downton Abbey are a great way to not only escape but also to learn some witty one-liners. Because as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, says: “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.” Once you finish your Downton journey, never fear, your British education can continue with the ten shows on this list.