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Costume Drama

Britain re-enacts its past, real and imagined

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Costume dramas have been part of British cinema since the silent era. However, their appearance has been inconsistent over the years. A proliferation of historical films during the 1930s and 1940s was followed by a decline during the 1950s, when British cinema was overwhelmed by Hollywood spectacles like The Robe (d. Henry Koster, 1953) and Ben Hur (d. William Wyler, 1959). But history did not disappear from the screen. In 1957, Hammer Studios' diversion into English Gothic literature launched a long series of period horror films. Even an exponent of the 'New Wave' of the late 1950s was to venture into costume drama. During the 1960s and 1970s, the high production values of historical films were largely due to American funding. But in the early 1980s, British cinema was rescued from oblivion by a costume film and, to date, period films represent some of the "best of British".

In the 1910s, films became longer, narratives became more complex and costume drama became a key genre. Dickens and Shakespeare were perennial favourites and adaptations of popular novels, like East Lynne (d. Bert Haldane, 1913) and Comin' Thro' the Rye (d. Cecil Hepworth, 1923) were particularly successful. By the 1930s, Alexander Korda, Michael Balcon and Herbert Wilcox were the major producers of costume drama. Korda's triumphant The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), with Charles Laughton portraying Henry as a gluttonous but endearing buffoon, was followed by the equally popular The Scarlet Pimpernel (d. Harold Young, 1935), and Rembrandt in 1936.

While Korda preferred flamboyance to accuracy and aimed mainly at female audiences, Balcon at Gaumont British made more realistic, male-orientated films like Jew Süss (d. Lothar Mendes, 1934), a judiciously pro-Jewish subject, and The Iron Duke (d. Victor Saville, 1935), a biopic of Wellington. Tudor Rose (d. Robert Stevenson, 1936), about Lady Jane Grey, reflected the tragic repercussions of Henry VIII's tyrannical reign. Wilcox's films, like Nell Gwyn (1934), featuring his wife Anna Neagle, were patriotic and supportive of the monarchy, some at a critical time. Victoria The Great (1937), coinciding with the abdication of Edward VIII, and Sixty Glorious Years (1938), released into a climate of pro-rearmament, were well received by critics and public alike.

During the war, history functioned both as propaganda and escapism. The Ministry of Information urged filmmakers to emphasise Britain's heritage and history. Films like The Young Mr Pitt (d. Carol Reed, 1942) contained timely parallels between Napoleon and Hitler and Laurence Olivier's Henry V (1944) celebrated British military might. The critics enthused over realistic contemporary subjects, but disapproved of the 'lurid' costume films being produced by Gainsborough Pictures. Nevertheless, melodramas like The Man in Grey (d. Leslie Arliss, 1943) and Madonna of the Seven Moons (d. Arthur Crabtree, 1944) were very popular at the box office. Fashion-starved female audiences enjoyed seeing Elizabeth Haffenden's extravagant designs; gowns of silks and satins decorated with lace, fur and jewels. Furthermore, having lived through the war, women identified with Gainsborough's sexually liberated heroines, notably the glamorous 'highwayman' in The Wicked Lady (d. Arliss, 1945).

After the war, other studios took a more intellectual approach to the costume drama. Great Expectations (David Lean, 1946) was a lovingly crafted rendering of Dickens's classic novel and Lean's Oliver Twist (1948) also did well. Korda's wooden Bonnie Prince Charlie (d. Anthony Kimmins, 1948) was, though, a costly mistake, while the main appeal of An Ideal Husband (1947), which Korda also directed, and Anna Karenina (d. Julien Duvivier, 1948) were Cecil Beaton's sumptuous costumes.

Ealing, committed to realism during the war, also approached historical subjects, though Nicholas Nickleby (d. Cavalcanti, 1947) lacked Lean's panache. Much more satisfying was the Edwardian crime comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets (d. Robert Hamer, 1949), featuring Alec Guinness in eight roles.

The relative lack of costume films in the 1950s has been attributed to two factors: Britain's recent history provided ample source material, and there was a general decline in 'women's films', which wartime conditions had encouraged. Filmgoers were also being entertained by the numerous Cinemascope spectacles coming from Hollywood. A faithful version of Oscar Wilde's witty The Importance of Being Earnest (d. Anthony Asquith, 1952), filmed in colour, was one exception. However, Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), both directed by Terence Fisher, proved stylish interpretations of the original Gothic novels, their sequels continuing into the 1960s and beyond.

While his New Wave colleagues were preoccupied by contemporary stories, Tony Richardson's Tom Jones (1963) was an outstandingly successful interpretation of Henry Fielding's 18th century novel. American backing ensured other films, like David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962), would be visually stunning. A Man for all Seasons (d. Fred Zinnemann, 1966), the most profitable period film of the 1960s, and Anne of The Thousand Days (d. Charles Jarrott, 1969), both won Oscars for costume design. In Far From the Madding Crowd (d. John Schlesinger, 1967), Hardy's Wessex was compromised by the icons of 'Swinging London', Terence Stamp and Julie Christie, but Nicolas Roeg's cinematography compensated.

In 1970, Christie re-appeared in The Go Between, (d. Joseph Losey), a finely crafted rendering of L.P. Hartley's novel, set in the summer of 1900. Meanwhile, costume drama was revitalised by the success of television serials; Henry VIII and His Six Wives (d. Waris Hussain, 1972) had Keith Michell reprising his television role. The unconventional Ken Russell, who fluctuated between literature and fantasy, followed a successful version of D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love (1969), with The Devils (1971), castigated for its bad taste. The Music Lovers (1970), an extravagant biopic of Tchaikovsky, was censured but Russell was redeemed by the sensitive Mahler (1974). The more orthodox Murder on the Orient Express (d. Sidney Lumet, 1974) was a star-studded evocation of 1930s glamour.

In 1981 Chariots of Fire (d. Hugh Hudson), the true story of two athletes who competed at the 1924 Olympics, restored the prestige of British cinema. The most profitable costume films that followed were adaptations of literature, often described as 'heritage' films. They include Merchant/Ivory's versions of E.M. Forster's novels, beginning with the painterly A Room with a View (1986). The team's success continued with Howards End (1992), a superb study of class relationships, and The Remains of the Day (1993), based on Kazuo Ishiguro's acclaimed novel. Emma Thompson's literate adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (d. Ang Lee, 1995) was also one of the highlights of the 1990s. But perhaps the biggest surprise was when Mike Leigh, best known for his critiques of modern suburbia, brought Gilbert and Sullivan vividly to life with Topsy-Turvy (1999).

Though they now appear infrequently, costume dramas continue to attract audiences. Despite the American input in productions like An Ideal Husband (d. Oliver Parker, 1999), House of Mirth (d. Terence Davies, 2000) and The Golden Bowl (d. James Ivory, 2000), their success depends on the talent of British actors, costume designers and art directors. The considerable achievement of Gosford Park (d. Robert Altman, 2002), with an original screenplay, is testament to the enduring popularity and relevance of British costume drama to a modern audience.

Margaret Butler

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