As the East End continues, we hope, to observe social distancing practices and stay home, it’s likely many are burning through their Netflix queues and spending oodles of time browsing in search of new shows to binge. For those indoorsmen who already power through a couple of series per weekend, this task can prove even more difficult—but we also have lots of show knowledge to impart.
To that end, we’re collecting lists of excellent shows that are a bit harder to find. Almost everyone, for example, loves Downton Abbey, but few have truly delved deep into the wealth of great period dramas available on the various streaming services, including Hulu and Amazon Prime and its affiliated channels, such as BritBox, PBS Masterpiece and Acorn TV (you’ll see more from these in another post).
Most people have Netflix, so let’s start with five great period dramas on this popular service.
The English Game – Season 1 (2020) Netflix
Just released on March 20, this brand-new Netflix original isn’t exactly a hidden gem, but how many have already watched the entire six-episode series? Few, we expect. Written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellows, the show chronicles the events leading to the birth of modern professional football (soccer, for us Yanks) in Britain, starting in 1879 with the rivalry between well-heeled upper-class team the Old Etonians and the Northern, working-class factory team, Darwen FC. The Old Etonians are captained by legendary star player Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft), who sees the importance of his sport to the poor working class, while Darwen (and later, Blackburn) is led by Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie), a Scottish wunderkind player who, along with his pal Jimmy Love (James Harkness), is paid to play, which was against the rules at that time. As this rivalry builds—in step with the clash between rich factory owners and their poor workers—and pay-to-play creeps into the sport, Suter’s working-class team and the Old Etonians head toward a final clash in the FA Cup championship game. Even if you don’t care about football, The English Game is full of great human drama and recounts a pivotal time in history. It’s an absolutely enjoyable watch.
The Bonfire of Destiny (Le Bazar de la Charité) – Season 1 (2019) Netflix
Another series set in the late nineteenth century, 1897 Paris to be exact, the show uses a real, devastating fire as a catalyst for the story that follows. The fire burned an annual charity bizarre to cinders and took the lives of 126 people—many of them wealthy women. The Bonfire of Destiny follows three women in the aftermath of the fire and quickly spins an exciting web of intrigue, romance and deceit. Without spoiling too much, one aristocratic woman, Adrienne de Lenverpré (Audrey Fleurot), uses the tragic event to escape her husband and start a new life, while another Alice de Jeansin (Camille Lou) sees her fiance’s true colors during the fire—which changes everything for her. Finally, Jeansin’s maid Rose Rivière (Julie De Bona) comes out of the flames in a horrific new reality, which seems impossible to escape. This adds to a growing number of foreign Netflix shows offering English language overdubs. The voice acting definitely isn’t as good as the original French, but it’s helpful for those who don’t want to read subtitles or those who prefer to multitask and want to be able to look away and listen at times. Originally created as a miniseries, The Bonfire of Destiny has enchanted viewers enough to inspire serious talk of a second season.
The Frankenstein Chronicles – Season 1–2 (2015–2017) Netflix
Led by the inestimable Sean Bean (Eddard Stark in Game of Thrones), this vastly different reimagining of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel follows Inspector John Marlott (Bean), a river police officer who uncovers a gruesome corpse comprising body parts from eight missing children and begins his work to find the man or woman responsible. The story paints a dark, gritty picture of nineteenth century London with such prowess, you can almost smell the dank rooms and putrid, rotten places in which it’s set. Things may start off a bit slowly for some viewers, but stick with it for a terrific payoff in Season 1, and an even more squalid, horrifying story in Season 2. It has yet to be cancelled or renewed for Season 3, but there are definitely more stories that could be told.
Peaky Blinders – Season 1–2 (2013–2019) Netflix
Perhaps the most well-known on this list, Netflix original Peaky Blinders brings a wonderfully fresh and new take on the gangster genre. Based on a real notorious youth gang, this BAFTA-winning drama series follows the fictional Shelby family and their Peaky Blinders gang as they rise to previously unimaginable prominence in post-WWI Birmingham, England. The story begins in 1919, just months after the Great War’s end, and centers on troubled but brilliantly cunning veteran Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy), who sets about elevating his Romani family to the status of criminal royalty in Birmingham and, eventually, beyond. Violent and gripping, Peaky Blinders excels at depicting fraught internal family drama and far-reaching plot lines as Tommy exercises his ruthless ambition. Along with the excellent Murphy in the lead role, the show roster of costars and supporting talent shines with names such as Tom Hardy, Adrien Brody, Sam Claflin and Natasha O’Keefe, as well as Paul Anderson and Joe Cole as Tommy’s brothers, Arthur and John, Helen McCrory as his scene-stealing aunt and family matriarch Polly Gray, and Finn Cole as her estranged son Michael Gray. If you can handle copious violence and foul language, you absolutely must watch this show. Expect to see Season 6 in 2021, and get ready to dream of wearing dapper tailored suits and cabbie hats—it’s impossible to avoid.
North & South – Miniseries (2004) Netflix
Sure, it’s more than 15 years old, but at a total 235 minutes, this four-episode BBC historical series makes for a perfect one-night binge. Based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1854 Victorian novel of the same name, North & South tells the story of Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe), a young woman from rural Southern England who must move to the industrial North when her father leave the clergy. Margaret and her family struggle to acclimate to their new town’s ways and customs, including meeting the Thorntons—a family of cotton mill owners who appear repulsed by their social inferiors. Tensions mount as the town’s overburdened and underpaid mill workers clash with their employers and strike. And while Margaret’s sympathy for the working class grows, so does her unexpected attraction to John Thornton (Richard Armitage). North & South has many of the hallmarks of a good Victorian drama as it explores issues of class and gender in the age.