If you’re one of the 8.2 million U.S. viewers who watched the “Downton Abbey” finale, your tears are probably drying now after the deaths of two major characters — and you can’t believe it’ll be a year before Season 4 comes along. What to do in the meantime?
Fortunately, Britain’s awash in well-crafted historical fare — maybe enough to last you until “Downton” starts again next year.
“There's nothing Brits like better than our 'Sunday night' dramas,” said Jo Lewis, features editor at What’s on TV, Britain’s most widely read TV magazine. “This is always the traditional slot for a period drama as it's a gentle way of easing yourself into the week, nothing too taxing. Like putting on a pair of comfy slippers and wrapping up in a snuggly blanket, it's soothing.”
Here’s a look at five recent British period dramas that might appeal to “Downton Abbey” fans. Some air soon on TV here, while others are available via DVD or digital download via PBS.org, Amazon, iTunes and other sources.
“Parade’s End”: This juicy World War I-era miniseries, which aired on BBC Two last year, stars Benedict Cumberbatch ("Sherlock") as a man involved in a love triangle with two beautiful women. It’s written by famed playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard, who, like “Downton” creator Julian Fellowes, is known for his clever dialogue. Consider it a tasty snack or Downton dessert rather than a long-term commitment, though: There will only be five episodes, total. Find it: premieres February 26 on HBO
"Mr. Selfridge": Jeremy Piven plays the real-life American who imported his own department-store shopping concept to London in 1909. In the process, he had to navigate a changing social world. The show did well enough on Britain’s ITV network (also responsible for “Downton Abbey”) when it aired in January that a second season is already planned. In the U.S., it will air as part of PBS’s Masterpiece series. Find it: premieres March 31 on PBS
“Call the Midwife”: Set in the 1950s, this series about nuns who care for denizens of an East London community ditches the glamor of high-society life for more gritty tales among the working classes. But its fans say it offers more real-life (and death) drama and less soap than “Donwton.” A big hit on the BBC in the UK, it hasn’t caught on in the U.S. quite the way “Downton” has — yet. Season 2 starts a month from now in the US, giving you just enough time to catch the first season via DVD or download. Find it: Season 2 premieres March 31 on PBS
“Cranford”: If you like Maggie Smith’s Dowager countess in “Downton,” imagine a whole cast full of such ladies. This miniseries, set in a picturesque English town in the 1840s, focuses on the gentle trials of ladies of a certain age. Most of them are middle-class, but the show has its moments of nobility. It aired on the BBC in 2007 and on Masterpiece Classic in the U.S. the next year. Find it: via ShopPBS.org and elsewhere
“Lark Rise to Candleford”: This BBC series aired the first of its four seasons in 2008 (2009 in the U.S.) and the last in 2011. The central character, a young woman, moves from the small town of Lark Rise to a larger one, Candleford, in the late 1800s. The show’s strength was its portrayal of the individual personalities of the townsfolk. Lewis calls these gentler period dramas “Gentle, feelgood twee in a recession. A bit like ‘Little House on the Prairie’ lifting recession spirits in the US in the ’70s.” Find it: at ShopPBS.org and elsewhere
A number of period dramas have already aired in the UK but have yet to air in the U.S. — which could give “Downton” fans something to look forward to after Season 4 airs next year. Keep your eyes peeled for news of “Mrs. Biggs” (about the wife of real-life Great Train Robber) and “The Paradise,” a Victorian department-store drama set before “Mr. Selfridge” that PBS is planning to air sometime in the near future.
“I think it's great British drama is doing so well abroad,” Lewis said. “We're shipping our corsets, castles and crumpets to whoever will have them and there seems to be a real hunger for it.”
What’s your favorite British TV show? Let us know in comments below.
By Christy Karras
Top: Helen George as Trixie Franklin, Jessica Raine as Jenny Lee, Bryony Hannah as Cynthia Miller in "Call the Midwife" (Photo by Laurence Cendrowicz/Neal Street Productions)
Left: Jeremy Piven stars as Harry Gordon Selfridge in "Mr Selfridge." (Photo courtesy ITV for MASTERPIECE)