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Story of the Costume Drama, The

Studio:         Acorn Media
Format:         Colour; NTSC; Widescreen
Rated:         Not Rated; Some mature content
# of Discs/Episodes:         2/5
Running Time:         225 minutes
DVD Release Date:         July 31, 2012
Actors:         Keeley Hawes, Kathryn Flett, Barbara Flynn, Michael Grade, Alex Kingston, Simon Langton, Hans Matheson, Anne Pivcevic, Charity Wakefield, James Walton, Timothy West, John Hurt, Sean Bean
DVD Features:         SDH subtitles; Bonus photo gallery
E:Top Picks Rating:         9/10

Acorn Media Write-up:  
Captivating new documentary tells the stories behind iconic productions.

Featuring interviews with the writers, directors, and stars of the most beloved British costume dramas, the behind-the-scenes documentary, THE STORY OF THE COSTUME DRAMA, debuts from Acorn Media. The first episode aired on PBS stations in spring 2012; however, Acorn is releasing the complete five-episode series on DVD. Narrated by star Keeley Hawes (“Ashes to Ashes”, “Upstairs Downstairs”), these five episodes give an inside look beyond the ornate clothing, sprawling manors, and addictive story lines that have riveted millions of television viewers for decades and reveal how the often controversial sagas altered the television landscape and launched the careers of many young actors.

The DVD 2-disc set features stars and scenes from “Brideshead Revisited”; “I, Claudius”; ”Pride and Prejudice”; “The Jewel in the Crown”; “Poldark”; “Horatio Hornblower”; “Elizabeth I”; “Sharpe”; “Moll Flanders”; “Doctor Zhivago”; “My Boy Jack”; “Cranford”; and many more, and includes a bonus photo gallery.

From 1955’s fanciful “Adventures of Robin Hood” to 2007’s racy “Fanny Hill”, costume dramas have toppled taboos and quickened pulses. Programs like “Edward & Mrs. Simpson” ruffled establishment feathers, while popular series “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “The Forsyte Saga” emptied pubs, wrecked social calendars, and forced vicars to revise parish schedules. THE STORY OF THE COSTUME DRAMA is required viewing for any fan of British Television.

The Episodes:
The Greatest Stories Ever Told; The Stars; Affairs of the Heart; Picture Perfect; A Call to Arms

Jon Ted Wynne Review:  
An absolutely brilliant idea, beautifully executed and interesting to watch in its own right, THE STORY OF THE COSTUME DRAMA is an outstanding new release from Acorn Media.

The title says it all and if you are a lover of British costume drama, chances are any number of your favourite programs will be featured in this two disc, five episode collection, narrated by Keeley Hawes.

As entertaining as this series is on its own, there is no hiding the agenda the makers of the program bring to the table–they want to spark viewer interest in what one hasn’t seen, as much as in those previously watched. Anyone who has enjoyed the “Sharpe’s” series with Sean Bean, for example, will be champing at the bit to re-watch the entire series after seeing the excerpts presented here as part of this homage to costume drama. After all, no one consistently produces historical drama that is comparable to the best of the Brits.

Going as far back as “The Adventures of Robin Hood” with a paunchy Richard Greene in 1955 to the landmark 26 part serial “The Forsyte Saga” in 1967, to the universally-acclaimed “I, Claudius” from 1976 and up to recent productions such as the outstanding “Doctor Zhivago” re-make with a young Keira Knightley and one of Daniel Radcliffe’s first adult roles in the heart-rending “My Boy Jack”, there is an impressive in-depth and well-researched feel to this series. To do it at all is a stroke of genius.

Quite apart from the aforementioned agenda, consider economics. Several hours of television isn’t cheap to produce, but in this case, half of the series is devoted to already existing film clips. Add some voice-over narration and some key interviews and voila, you have almost four hours (225 minutes) of quality programming that is bound to lead viewers to seek out many of the programs highlighted.

Having said that, THE STORY OF THE COSTUME DRAMA never plays like a commercial. It is informative in the best sense (unlike many DVD Extra Features that present interviews with countless behind the scenes personnel who, in most cases, achieve the dubious goal of reminding the viewer why they are behind the scenes and not usually in front of the camera). It is interesting to see presented, for example, the evolution (or is that “devolution”?) of the period drama to include more nudity and sex, courtesy, in most cases, of a writer by the name of Andrew Davies. This trend is thought by some interviewees to be an unnecessary distraction that has run its course, paving the way for more innocent (though equally entertaining) fare such as “Cranford”, to cite but one example.

Along these lines, much fuss is made over Colin Firth’s wet shirt after a swimming scene in “Pride & Prejudice”. This bit seems a bit forced and may be included to capitalize on Mr. Firth’s recent Oscar win (“The King’s Speech”), but this is a minor criticism in light of the effectiveness of the series as a whole.

Bravo to the producers who put THE STORY OF THE COSTUME DRAMA together in such an entertaining way, and to Acorn Media for making it available to North American audiences.