Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Historical Movies and Series ~ Family Fun

by Debra Brown

Whether educational or misleading as to historical detail, the availability of shows with historical themes has stirred interest in the past. Costumes, music, and dances delight. Customs, strange laws, and class divisions intrigue. Settings, from a quaint village of half-timbered cottages to castles or palaces, draw tourists from across the seas.

Some like a military theme or legends; others prefer Austen style romances or quirky Dickens characters. I thought I'd make a list of period movies I've seen, and I hope others will add to it in the comments below. I am rarely naming the actors, though I know that is important to some viewers. I will focus on the story and perhaps throw in some opinion.

Many of the following are older movies or series that I watched avidly once upon a time while making jewelry--a past career. Devotees may find nothing new, but a new generation of history and historical story lovers is always arising, and this is for them.

Aristocrats is based on the story of the Lennox sisters who descended from George II on the illegitimate side of the bed. Sarah Lennox enchanted the young George III, but he had to marry a chosen princess. Sarah went on to have extramarital relationships, and it is interesting to see how her family dealt with it.

Edward VII, the son of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, had a hard time living up to his parents' expectations. A poor student, he became a playboy. His ailing father visited to reprimand him and died two weeks later. His mother blamed the death of Albert, the tragedy of her life, on her son. He came to the throne at the turn of the century and reigned from 1901 to 1910. Bertie's wife, Alexandra, tolerated repeated mistresses, but was deeply grieved. I was amazed by her actions at the end of the movie, Edward the King.

Perhaps I should add in here stories about Bertie's mother, the happily married Queen Victoria who became a reclusive widow in black for the rest of her life. They include The Young Victoria and Victoria and Albert. Mrs. Brown is about Victoria's widowhood when she was close to John Brown, a servant that both she and her late husband had relied upon.

Victoria's happy marriage to her cousin resulted in nine children and forty-two grandchildren, many of whom married into royal houses of Europe. This led to interfamilial genetic pooling and hereditary diseases such as the hemophilia of young Alexei of Russia, the heir to the throne. The Tzarina Alexandra desperately sought a cure for her son. Her hoping in the powers of a monk, Rasputin, who by helping Alexei gained tremendous control over Alexandra and the family, and by extension, the whole country, is a breathtaking tale--one that could not have been invented more tragically by any author. Keep a box of tissues nearby and hunker down for a long, fabulous movie, Nicholas and Alexandra, with incredible palace interior scenes.

The Sissi movies (and I don't remember the titles!) ~ old films which are subtitled, but they are about a real queen and her difficult life.

Fall of Eagles ~ This 1974 BBC miniseries shows the demise of the Hapsburgs of Austria-Hungary, the Romanovs of Russia and the Hohenzollerns of Germany, and how they were involved in the outbreak of World War I. Sissi is in there again.

The Crown Prince ~ Another royal tragedy about Rudolph, the Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary. I would call it depressing, but it is based on true history. Poor Sissi... again. The movie is subtitled.

On the more fictional front:

The Pallisers is the story of a duke and duchess, a marriage of convenience followed by a life of duty. The gowns that woman wore!

Howard's End ~ An Edwardian story which shows some struggle between the classes, but also the lovely politeness of society.

Of course there is Downton Abbey ~ This is set in a time of change following WWI when aristocrats began to lose their grand houses and previous lifestyle. It shows how the hereditary system worked in Britain, with everything being entailed to the closest male heir.

There are the wonderful Jane Austen movies, some of which have been made over more than once, and some of which have touched off a lifestyle for a whole generation. Just type Jane Austen into the provider's search box and get a drop down menu.

Sherlock Holmes ~ There are many old series episodes as well as movie length shows about this interesting Victorian London based detective, and the modern Sherlock. Also, watch for Hound of the Baskervilles, which is a Holmes story, but it goes by the Hound name.

Poirot ~ A great many movies and series episodes set in the 1920s period about the Agatha Christy detective from Belgium. He is a quirky guy, and the mysteries he solves are interesting. It is a fun watch, but you never do learn how he solves the cases. His little grey cells get all the credit.

Miss Marple ~ More Agatha Christie mystery. Along with the great stories, you get to putz around in little old English villages and gardens a bit. See also Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures for a real life story that is every bit as interesting as her fiction.

Stone of Destiny is really great. It's a true 1950s story; Scottish students take on a centuries old problem. Their country's ancient coronation stone was taken by the English, and British monarchs to this day are crowned sitting on it. The ardent students in the movie are determined to bring it back to Scotland.

Charles Dickens: I really enjoyed Bleak House and Little Dorrit. Bleak House perhaps exaggerates the drawn-out Chancery experience, and Little Dorrit takes you to debtor's prison where an inmate took his family along, as commonly occurred, although the family could go in and out to work. Not to be left out is Great Expectations, and there are The Old Curiosity Shop, Dombey and Son, and The Pickwick Papers.

That Hamilton Woman ~ More magnificent palatial homes. Watch a real life story.

War and Peace ~ I'm afraid I got bored. It has the adorable Audrey Hepburn in it, but they dressed her up like a 1950s Barbie doll, complete with pony tail, short cut bangs and a '50s dress with a waistline during the Empire period. It made me wonder about the soldiers' uniforms and other dress.

Bramwell is a series about a Victorian woman who becomes a doctor. The first episode shows the way women were undervalued, to put it mildly. I like the story well enough but gave up watching it as I was disturbed by the explicit showing of medical procedures complete with squirting blood. I turned away so as not to watch a caesarean on a deceased woman, but they threw in the horrid sound of the doctor ripping her open.

North and South ~ A rural English family has to leave their nice home and move to a polluted industrial town. (I understand there is also a series by the same name about the American Civil War.)

The Bucaneers ~ Wealthy young ladies are courted by British nobles and must adapt to a stiffer life.

Lark Rise to Candleford is a series sent in a typical English village with its ups and downs.

Little Lord Fauntleroy ~ a name I had heard all my life but never knew why. An adorable movie about a boy who was taken away from his mother (some would say "rescued from poverty") by his aristocrat grandfather.

The Secret Garden ~ I loved not only the story of a girl helping a "lame" boy to his feet, but the gorgeous furnishings in the old house.

My all time favorite is a fairly recent series set in Spain which is subtitled to English on Netflix. Grand Hotel begins with Julio traveling to an elegant hotel to learn what became of his sister, a maid gone missing. In the very first episode of sixty-four, handsome Julio shocks and surprises with his bold behavior, and we meet the wonderful cast of characters, both upper and lower class persons. Mystery, romance, and humor all prevail. My husband loves it as much as I do. I think the first episode will have you hooked.

In The House of Eliot TV Series, two sisters become fashion designers for aristocratic women in the roaring 20's. It was incredible! The only thing I hated, and I mean HATED, is that the series was suddenly dropped between seasons, and there was never an ending. It is still worth a watch, especially if you enjoy the lovely clothing and hats of the time.

For some humor:

The Importance of Being Ernest ~ Truly a great comedy. I adore the song, Lady Come Down. Two men learn that lying weaves a tangled web which can cause problems in love and romance. Five stars!

The Ideal Husband ~ Another great comedy, and I have to mention the adorable Minnie Driver because I love the faces she makes. Do not miss this one.

I have to mention Fawlty Towers, though it is set in the 1960s, the only slapstick I have actually enjoyed. Hilarious happenings surround the prudish, moralizing owner of a small hotel. Who could be better for this role than John Cleese!

And a few docu-dramas:

Monarch is an incredible documentary series about the monarchs of Britain, starting way back. There are great shots of the castles they built, many now in ruins, and various effects left over from history. There are a lot of war scenes, but they are blurred, so no gore there, but the narrator does not mind spelling out the details of how this or that person was put to death. I would, therefore, not recommend it for sensitive viewers or kiddos.

Fantastic documentaries, especially for those who have not traveled to see the buildings, include Secrets of Highclere Castle, Secrets of Chatsworth, and Secrets of Henry VIII's Palace. 

Perhaps this listing was a little girly. What do the men like?

There are so many more. Please tell us what historical movies, series, and documentaries you have enjoyed.


Debra cut her teeth on the Bookhouse Books, which created a nagging longing to live in a land of castles and wear flowing gowns and exquisite headdresses. Though life kept her busy, she was eventually able to do so vicariously through the characters of her books.

Her first published novel, The Companion of Lady Holmeshire, is set in early Victorian England. Emma, a former servant girl, is chosen as companion to The Countess of Holmeshire and dragged along into polite society where she is sure to receive a rude reception.

Debra's work-in-progress, For the Skylark, is on the back burner but simmering slowly. She has spent more time on the development and running of this blog, English Historical Fiction Authors.

Shortly after the first anniversary of the blog, an author suggested the creation of a book composed of select posts. A year later, to celebrate the second anniversary on September 23, 2013, Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, edited by Debra and the late M.M. Bennetts, was released. Volume II will be released on September 23, 2015, and we hope to continue the series.



  1. Hi Debra, thanks for putting together this list. Have seen most and will check out the rest plus add a couple, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, 2 good versions out there, Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right, George Eliot's Daniel Deronda and the mini series the 1st Churchills. Will get back to you with more if someone else doesn't list them before.

    1. Thanks; I've seen those but could not remember everything at the right moment. But it's good to have them on the list. Come back if you think of more! :)

  2. Thanks so much for this list. I've seen some of them and loved Nicolas and Alexandra, Mrs. Brown, Great Expectations, the many Jane Austen stories, and I'm a Downton Abbey addict, as well as a Sherlock Holmes addict - especially the traditional versions of Holmes and Watson. But many on your list were are new to me. I'm especially intrigued by the storyline and setting of Grand Hotel. I'll look for it.

    Meanwhile, I thought an early version of Withering Heights (with Merle Oberon) was terrific. Also, A Little Princess and Black Beauty

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth! Those are good suggestions.

  3. Loved Upstairs/Downstairs on the public broadcasting station over here in North America; Robin Hood with Richard Green in the 1950's; Duchess of Duke Street, again a TV show on PBS and one of my favs - Camelot, the movie.

    1. Thanks, Donna. Yes, great shows. I was appalled to learn how the mistress situation was handled on Duchess of Duke Street--and that it was typical. I haven't seen Camelot and should do so!

  4. I can add a few, which I don't think were mentioned: The Libertine (rather provocative - from a play - about 17th-century poet John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester), Bright Star (one of my favorites, directed by Jane Campion: detailing the passionate three-year romance between 19th-century Romantic poet John Keats and his great love and muse, Fanny Brawne), Desperate Romantics (BBC very stylized miniseries about the daring work and tempestuous love lives of the Pre-Raphaelites - the current Poldark actor, Aidan Turner plays Dante Gabriel Rossetti), Wide Sargasso Sea (based on the novel by Jean Rhys; a prequel to Jane Eyre), Miss Potter (about Beatrice Potter). Some excellent foreign films: Tous les matins du monde (about the 17th century composers, Marin Marais and Sainte Colombe), Camille Claudel (about the French sculptor, who was mentored by and had an affair with the sculptor Rodin), Artemisia (about the 17th century artist, Artemisia Gentileschi), Cyrano de Bergerac - 1990 version with Gerard Depardieu - just marvelous!) And I must add that the BBC Series North and South, based on the novel by Elizabeth Gaskell is SO WONDERFUL - a beautiful love story, but also a powerful depiction of the conditions in the cotton mills in the industrial northeast of England, workers rights, and a woman's independent spirit!) Glad you listed The House of Elliott, Debra, which is a wonderful series.

    1. Thanks, Diane! A great addition to the list. I'll have to see some of those.

    2. You're very welcome, Debra!

  5. Except for 'Stone of Destiny' a very Anglophile list. No 'Schindler's List', 'Hotel Rwanda', 'The Pianist', or 'Les Misérables' amongst a huge number not set or about in England.

    1. As you point out, J.R., there are many wonderful historical movies set outside of England. I named a few French ones in my comment above. And I recently watched a beautiful German film, Young Goethe in Love, and another, Beloved Sisters (about two women Friedrich Schiller was involved with) Also, Mozart's Sister - French. The Anzac Girls is an excellent Australian series.

    2. I also loved the series Monarch of the Glen--a fantastic Scottish setting and storyline, but the actors quit, one after the other at the worst times, and the writers had to compensate, inexplicably turning the punk housemaid into a suitable nonpunk wife for the monarch, who quit and then she had to quit also to join him elsewhere (Australia?) as they'd already killed off too many others. That's what I love about Grand Hotel. It was obviously all written in advance, and the actors either loved working on that set or had contracts to stick it out till the end. It's an excellent, well-plotted story that keeps you on the edge of a cliff from start to end. AND, it's set in Spain! My favorite.

  6. I would add the two wonderful recent films about Elizabeth I, and the mini-series about Henry VIII, 'The Tudors". Going back 30 years, THE MISSION enlarged my understanding of the politics of slavery, the Jesuits the Pope, and the 18th century. THE ABDICATION is a wonderful film about "King" Christina of Sweden (who was a friend to Charles I and was proposed as Charles II's wife) ... of the older movies, I loved LLOYDS OF LONDON which showed a side of Nelson and the Napoleonic Wars I knew nothing about. I'm amazed at how few quality movies there are about the Stuarts and our Civil War ... so many rich characters, drama, wonderful clothing and locations, and so few films. I know, it was complicated. THE LIBERTINE made an excellent stab at it.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.