Growing up in England in the 1980s and ’90s instilled in me a Pavlovian reaction to the scene of a horse-drawn carriage crunching up the gravel driveway of a stately home, scored to a rousing string orchestra. Even before my mother had time to identify the house in question, before the protagonists had descended into the circle of uniformed flunkies, and before Judy Dench or Helena Bonham Carter or Emma Thompson had exchanged a word with Anthony Hopkins or Daniel Day-Lewis or some lesser Redgrave, I was primed and eager to sink into a warm bath of romance, heartbreak, gossip, snobbery, cut-glass vowels, and clinking cutlery.
At the same time, I wanted to resist the lure of the bonnets and the ballrooms. For a bookish child, costume drama was like that well-read friend with one too many Jane Austen tote bags — it was faintly embarrassing, skipping over the nuance and the difficulty of the literature and going straight for the commercial jugular. Romantic comedy without the courage of its convictions, the genre’s image was stuffy, middlebrow, jingoistic — and perhaps worst of all, catnip to Americans. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s British critics resented the Oscars for caring only about our national cinematic output when it was set at least a century in the past, and then resented them all the more when we came away with the consolation prize of Best Costume Design.
The critic Charles Barr coined the term “heritage cinema” in 1986 to describe the patriotic World War II output of the British film industry, with Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) as the pinnacle: productions that polished up a mythical past to boost the morale of a beleaguered nation. That stuffy, stiff-upper-lip phrase nevertheless sounds respectable compared to the term that overtook it, “costume drama,” which reduced these movies to their surfaces—a shimmering, overpriced lure to audiences who were content to be allowed in just to admire the furniture. Like Dame Maggie Smith pointing out a lipstick smudge on a teacup, the term not only names the genre but also indicates how one should feel about it: superior and ever-so-slightly queasy.
The genre, like a corset, is always threatening to unlace itself.
In the 1980s, costume drama became synonymous with Merchant Ivory Productions, the prolific team of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Merchant, born in Mumbai, and the American Ivory teamed up in the early 1960s to make films in India. They met the German-born Jhabvala there when they adapted her novel The Householder for the screen. After several years of working together on films that often focused on Anglo-Indian history and culture, the team embarked on a series of adaptations of novels by Henry James and E.M. Forster. It was these productions — especially the Forster projects A Room with a View (1986) and Howards End (1992) — that made their output synonymous with the genre as a whole.
The costume drama has a reputation for being prim and proper, romantic but sexless — a reputation that contradicts the reality of the Merchant Ivory films. Almost a decade before Colin Firth’s wet shirt titillated television audiences in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Rupert Graves went full-frontal in both Merchant Ivory’s Room with a View (1985) and Maurice (1987). Yet somehow the more suggestive, less explicit scene is better remembered, framed as it was for the female gaze, like the cover of a paperback romance novel. But Ivory recognized that part of the point of all that fabric swaddling is, ironically, to keep our minds on the body underneath. The genre, like a corset, is always threatening to unlace itself.
It’s no accident that costume drama exploded on British television and cinema screens in the 1980s, a symptom of and support for Margaret Thatcher’s retrograde, revisionist version of the English past. These productions (which one is almost obligated to describe as “sumptuous” or “lavish”) present a system of predictable power and permissible privilege in which everyone knows their place and nobody asks uncomfortable questions about where the money came from. In 1991, Cairns Craig, writing in Britain’s prestigious Sight & Sound magazine, attacked the films of Merchant Ivory and Charles Sturridge (Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread) as “conspicuous consumption” for people who thought designer logos were tacky but still wanted to gorge themselves on vicarious and extremely proper luxury.
Critic Peter Swaab points out that this heyday coincided with two acts of Parliament that provided funding for the preservation of sprawling stately homes, morphing them overnight into tourist destinations and film sets. There’s no clear consensus about the historical limits of the costume drama genre, which might easily be stretched to include Call Me by Your Name (2017), scripted by James Ivory and set with aesthetic precision in 1983. Nonetheless, it seems to correspond most naturally to the heyday of these great British houses, from the late 18th century through the 1930s. The films in turn became marketing for the booming heritage industry, an assurance that some fantasy of English history would prevail, unbroken, amid industrial, urban modernity.
Merchant Ivory made these homes, this landscape, and the fortunes of the landed English aristocracy look secure and indomitable, even though the novels on which many costume dramas were based present them as precarious. Indeed, those novels are largely about the fragility of worlds that look secure, especially for women: Think of the Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility, unceremoniously kicked out by their uncle; the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice growing up in a home they have no chance to inherit; or the Schlegel sisters in Howards End watching their London home get torn down in the march of progress. Even Downton Abbey turned on the same sexist legal quirk of an “entailed” estate that drives the plot of Pride and Prejudice. But to the camera, nothing about these vast estates is fragile. They fill the screen with their handsome honey-gold glow, as certain as the movement of the planets.
Or, perhaps, as certain as an all-white cast. Costume drama’s dominance of the British film and television industry in the 1980s and ’90s effectively marginalized nonwhite actors, as though the only person of color in the whole lineup of English literature was Othello. The critical and commercial success of British exports like David Lean’s A Passage to India (1984) and Merchant Ivory’s Forster adaptations spurred a passion for period film in the United States in the early 1990s. Costume dramas like Dracula, Little Women, Sense and Sensibility, and The Age of Innocence attracted high-profile actors and directors hardly known for the genre — Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee, Francis Ford Coppola — and garnered plenty of awards. Exceptions to the whiteness of the casts, especially in leading roles, were rare and deliberate, like Ben Kingsley’s role in Gandhi (1982) or Denzel Washington as Don Pedro in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993), a casting choice that offered a revealing twist to the otherwise inexplicably isolated character.
Colorblind casting has been gaining traction in the theater for several decades, and more recently on television and film — recent productions like the 2017 television version of Howards End and William Oldroyd’s 2016 film, Lady Macbeth (an adaptation of a 19th-century Russian novella), included actors of color in minor or supporting roles. Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011) saw Heathcliff played by black actors Solomon Glave and James Howson. And Amma Asante’s Belle (2013) was the exceptionally rare period drama both made by and starring women of color.
Such corrections to the traditional whiteness of these dramas are important in creating a more equitable world for actors, but more profoundly, they challenge the assumptions of audiences who have managed to convince themselves that an imperialist island nation, which built its wealth and power on the backs of Asian and African people, saw no non-Nordic faces on its own shores until the postwar migration of the 1950s. Even the rich strain of costume drama that deals with the British in India, from Merchant Ivory’s early work through the epic 1984 miniseries The Jewel in the Crown, up to recent productions like Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House (2017), habitually prioritizes the stories of white characters. A more nuanced and diverse vision of history is an essential corrective to decades of drama that visually isolated the English.
It was not widely known during their heyday that Ismail Merchant and James Ivory were lifelong romantic as well as professional partners.
In 1983, director Stephen Frears expressed a by-then familiar blend of frustration and contempt toward Merchant Ivory from those who were trying to present a different version of Britain to the world, belittling costume dramas as the “rattling of teacups” (though he would go on to direct several films that could be classified this way, from Dangerous Liaisons (1988) to Victoria and Abdul (2017).) His collaboration with Hanif Kureishi, My Beautiful Laundrette, opened in New York on the same day in 1986 as Merchant Ivory’s A Room with a View. The two films at first seem to present vastly opposed visions of England and Englishness: one set in Italy and rural England amid upper-middle-class Edwardian families, and the other in scuzzy contemporary London among immigrants striving to profit from Thatcher’s promised capitalist utopia. Film historian Claire Potter notes that the success of A Room with a View in the United States was cheered by conservative British journalists as a triumph of genteel good taste over Frears’ and Kureishi’s brash depiction of multiracial contemporary Britain.
The films have more in common than their launch date: Both star Daniel Day-Lewis in wildly different roles. In A Room with a View, he’s the stuffy aesthete Cecil Vyse whom Helena Bonham Carter’s Lucy Honeychurch abandons for the freethinking George Emerson (Julian Sands). In My Beautiful Laundrette, he’s a bleach-blond racist punk who falls in love with the Pakistani protagonist Omar. But more important and less obvious, both films offer up and celebrate the optimism of young lovers, seeking Forsterian connection against the brutal forces of conformity and conservatism.
I think in the end, despite the odor of Thatcherite mothballs, the appeal of costume drama is that it lets us take sides against tradition and cheer on romance; to feel comforted, as Peter Swaab puts it, by the telegraphed assurance that “the past is another country; they did things stupidly there because they were all repressed.” But we’re still repressed and stupid in our own way, in our own costumes, and we’re still yearning for connection.
It’s a yearning taken seriously by the genre’s most perennially adaptable writer, Jane Austen, and by her great acolyte E.M. Forster—heightened for Forster by his personal experience as a gay man who lived almost his entire life under the shadow of Britain’s criminalization of homosexuality. It was also not widely known during their costume-drama heyday that Ismail Merchant and James Ivory were lifelong romantic as well as professional partners. Merchant came from a conservative Indian Muslim family, but to be out would have been only slightly easier for the American Ivory in the AIDS-panicked ’80s. So they hid in plain sight, adapting Maurice, Forster’s unpublished gay romance, in 1987, and making movies suffused with a longing for connection, even when they were not explicitly queer stories. Their version of heterosexual romance—like their vision of Englishness seen from the vantage point of California, India, or Germany—was the more sharply observed for being seen from the outside and is at once stranger, smarter, and sexier than it looks.