Lori Anderson: TV dressed up as period drama for Christmas

Tuppence Middleton plays Amelia Havisham in the BBC's 20-part serial Dickensian. Picture: BBC
Tuppence Middleton plays Amelia Havisham in the BBC's 20-part serial Dickensian. Picture: BBC
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THE entire viewing schedule appears to be crammed with plus-fours, powdered wigs and pistols, writes Lori Anderson

‘Quiet, master! Mistress might hear!” The episode of Cold Feet in which Jenny Gifford indulges in “rantum-scantum” nocturnal role-play with her husband gives more than a nod, tip of the top hat and tweak of the garter to our on-going love affair with television costume drama.

If I remember correctly Gifford (played by Fay Ripley) was pretending to be a kitchen maid cornered by her lascivious master and it’s a line that could easily have slotted into Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs. For some curious reason, the line always pops into my head whenever a drama involves crinolines and carriages.

This festive season my viewing, like that of the rest of the nation, is replete with costume dramas. The entire television schedule appears to be crammed with tweed plus-fours, mutton-chop side burns, powdered wigs and pistols. On Christmas Day the denizens of Downton Abbey allowed us one last look inside the grand old house before closing the curtains and bolting the shutters after six seasons. It was just as well, in less honourable hands than that of the writer and creator Julian Fellowes, I could quite imagine the family’s woes running right up to the faded flares and tie-dyed T-shirts of the seventies and far beyond.

Less than 24 hours after the electric lights went out at Downton Abbey, new wax candles and gas lamps lit up the sets of Dickensian, the BBC’s new 20-part serial in which all of Charles Dickens’ most glorious characters are brought together in a brand new storyline. It’s like a 19th-century “Avengers Assemble” as Ebenezer Scrooge, Uriah Heep, Miss Haversham and Little Nell are plucked out of their own stories and cast adrift on a gloriously atmospheric set. The man picking up the pen laid down by Charles Dickens is Tony Jordan, a veteran screenwriter who over the course of his career has written 150 episodes of EastEnders, created Life on Mars and Hustle and prior to starting the new series, had the good grace to visit Dickens’ study at Gad’s Hill Place and spend an hour in silent contemplation of his herculean task. Judging by the first two episodes, he might just pull it off, as the short 30-minute episodes are the television equivalent of the weekly instalments in which so many of Dickens’ most celebrated novels first appeared. I’ve little doubt that if Charles Dickens were alive today he would be seeking the largest audience possible and happily scripting TV drama.

Agatha Christie managed to attract a massive audience of which television channels could only dream. It is hard to imagine but her novel And Then There Were None has sold over 100 million copies in the 80 years since it was first published on the eve of the Second World War. It is also hard to imagine that it took until 1986 for this to become its official title. It was first published in 1939 as Ten Little Niggers, in 1966 the title was changed to Ten Little Indians and then it became And Then There Were None – a title adopted by her American publisher back in 1939.

The BBC’s lavish adaptation concludes tonight and has been another festive present for those who enjoy a murder mystery as they struggle to digest their turkey leftovers. In fact it has been more than a murder mystery, for many fans of the golden age of detective fiction, it’s the most complicated perfectly plotted murder mystery ever written as ten disreputable characters arrive on an island off the Devon coast only to be bumped off one by one.

Watching these costume dramas and adaptations of classic novels while sprawled on the sofa in a post Christmas slump I found myself pondering why Christmas isn’t the time to launch bold new dramas. I think it is because viewers don’t wish to seek out new characters with which to spend the evening. Christmas is a time of family and friends, when we crave the comfort of the familiar. Every year we take down the decoration box from the attic or under the bed and unfurl one by one baubles, tinsel and memories from years gone by.

We want the same thing as last year, only slightly different and so each year the festive schedules are filled up with old friends like Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens and Sherlock, which, this year, has the added bonus of coming wrapped up in fancy dress. The modern Sherlock of text messages and emails has been transported, we know not how and care even less, back into the late Victorian era as Arthur Conan Doyle intended. Mark Gatiss, the co-creator of the drama described this year’s episode which is broadcast on New Year’s Day as: The Adventure of Having Your Cake and Eating It.

I’m sure we’ll all enjoy a slice but the rich dramatic pudding to which I’m most looking forward too is served up on Sunday when the BBC whips off the silver cloche and presents us with a new adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Like so many people, it’s a novel of which I’ve heard so much but read so little. Last year my husband tried to persuade me to listen to the ten-hour adaptation on Radio 4. Have you ever heard of a less enticing way to spend New Year’s Day? By comparison one hour a week in the company of Natasha Rostov, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Pierre Bezukhov as they struggle to find love, grow and survive during the Napoleonic wars is much more manageable. I’m curious as to whether I’ll be hooked and if the book in all its massive weight will then begin a gravitational pull. Or if instead I’ll simply be grateful that one of the many gifts of Christmas television each year is to allow us to appear better read than we actually are. “Quiet Master, Mistress might hear!” Now who wrote that? Dickens, Christie, Conan Doyle?