“What with Poldark on one side and Victoria on the other, maybe we chaps just aren’t needed in front of the TV on Sunday nights anymore,” a columnist for the Spectator recently lamented.
He was, apparently, upset that ITV’s hit miniseries Victoria focused less on accurately portraying the nineteenth-century monarch’s life and more on sex and relationships. By this particular critic’s account, women have transformed that famously British television staple, the costume drama, for the worse, remaking it into little more than a romance novel. (Specifically, he lamented its “MillsandBoonification.”) Another critic, also dismayed by Victoria’s lack of historical accuracy got directly to the point and cried, “Just give us the sex!”—a line that could be the cri de coeur of the contemporary costume drama.
The costume drama, the argument goes, was once a reliable straight adaptation where sex was a mere afterthought, less valued than a lovingly accurate depiction of either source material or subject matter. It’s where Shakespeare and Jane Austen, the Brontes and important men of genius found a modern audience; it’s where the best of British culture and history was simultaneously preserved and adapted. The genre, it would seem, has devolved into a melodramatic romp in which important novels and influential historical figures are reduced to lumps of lusty flesh. A handful of critics bemoan the sexy costume drama and point to the usual suspects: the inevitable dumbing down of culture, Hollywood, and, of course, women.
Sex in the television costume drama is suspicious because it explicitly appeals to women (largely straight women, but 2002's Tipping the Velvet and last year’s Life in Squares are rare exceptions) and is seen as bringing often high-brow source material too close to the lowbrow romance novel. It’s no surprise that so many television critics point to the adaptation of Wolf Hall as the rare exception with its faithful rendering of Hillary Mantel’s novel and serious tone, a clear contrast to The Tudors, a television show that embraced the kitschy fun of bodice ripping.
Call it the Poldark effect since hundreds of words have been dedicated to exploring the significance of lead actor Aidan Turner’s abs (truly, a set of abs have never been as simultaneously fretted over and desired as Turner’s). Or maybe even the Outlander effect since the show, laser focused as it is on the muscled male body, could be renamed “Crossfit Goes to Scotland.” But while Turner scythed a Cornish field shirtless, British television was also drawing sighs over The Scandalous Lady W starring Natalie Dormer, an actress born to star in sexy costume dramas, as well as the “practically pornographic” adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Even Leo Tolstoy’s classic War & Peace couldn’t escape the addition of some ridiculous sex scenes that even the Daily Mail found “raunchy.” Not to mention the BBC’s “porn-filled” Versailles, yet to air in the United States, which already is the source of quite a bit of handwringing over its depiction of a range of sexually explicit acts.
But none of this was particularly new territory for the BBC or its British television counterparts. Rather, sex has always been part of the costume drama and the new crop simply doesn’t bother to disguise that element of appeal beneath more period-appropriate signifiers like meaningful glances and rain-soaked walks. Instead, it focuses its gaze on the ideal male body and is unabashedly clear about the desirability of that body. It seems less of a debasement of source material than a modern embrace of subtext. That sex is part of romance seems obvious and, more often than not, is central to the marriage plot’s very existence. Mr. and Mrs. Bennett didn’t have all of those daughters simply by exchanging innuendo-filled glances.
The BBC’s 1995 adaptation of the Austen’s Pride and Prejudice might be the modern beginning of the particularly lusty iteration of the television costume drama. When Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy emerged from a murky pond, his mop of hair perfectly messy, he inspired a legion of romantic sighs. It’s a moment so cemented in the history of the costume drama, that a giant, slightly terrifying statute of Mr. Darcy’s pond dive was erected in Hyde Park. Though the iconic dripping Darcy was nowhere to be found in Austen’s novel, it’s become virtually synonymous with the book, in part because it visualized what only exists only as subtext in the novel—namely, Darcy’s sex appeal.
But if Austen purists were willing to look the other way over a sexy pond swim, then they were less enthusiastic about kissing. The Elizabeth-Darcy kiss in Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice adaptation had Austenites angered by the inclusion of a kiss that fan blogs claimed was part of the growing “over-sexualization” of their beloved novelist. Ironically, the film itself was dripping with sexual tension, but it was the kiss that proved too much. Now a kiss in an Austen adaptation is common enough, as is an obligatory scene where everyone is, for some reason, soaking wet—from Persuasion to Northanger Abbey, everyone in Austen (and Elizabeth Gaskell and Thomas Hardy) kisses.
With kissing and rain machines firmly incorporated in the costume drama’s landscape, more frank approaches to romance, coupled with modern source material like Philippa Gregory and Diana Gabaldon novels, were bound to follow. The costume drama still grasped at historic authenticity, but it did so with less desperation. Starz’s adaptation of Gregory’s The White Queen was so focused on the joyful and creative sexual relationship between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville that clips from the show are banished to Pornhub. And clips of Outlander are often hidden behind explicit content warnings. But if the new costume drama was as much about gazing on muscle-bound men, then the men on display were suddenly a problem for an audience seeking historical authenticity.
In an interview with The Guardian, Matthew MacFayden, the star of 2005's Pride and Prejudice, criticized the “hunky” men of the new costume drama. Referring to Turner’s Poldark, MacFayden said that the new physique “smacks of vanity”:
When I see it on screen, it immediately smacks of vanity because I know what’s happened – they’ve been doing crunches, 50,000 press-ups before breakfast and a character in a period drama wouldn’t have done that.
Darcy would have been quite fit because he rode horses and all that stuff, but if I ripped off my shirt to show a six-pack...well, that’s a gym thing.
Actor Sean Bean reiterated that sentiment and even Poldark cast members have worried that the focus on sex and appeal detracted from the serious work of the show. Even Outlander, which has been praised for its “handling of on-screen sex,” had to prove itself a serious drama and not simply a “sexual fantasy.” And producers of both Outlander and Poldark have, on multiple occasions, assured audiences of their intentions towards making serious art. Yet it begs the question: Who exactly are they reassuring? Fans of the genre seem perfectly content with Turner’s Poldark, yet the interest in the lead’s physique seems to implicitly undermine the project as prestige television which, like all costume dramas, it clearly wants to be. It’s why prestige shows like The Knick are rarely referred to as costume dramas (The Knick, for example, prefers “period medical drama”), even though they quite clearly conform to many of the genre’s conventions. The show works very hard to minimize Clive Owen’s physical appeal while lingering on pregnant women dramatically bleeding out in the operating room.
In some respect, that’s always been a problem with the genre—female fandom is seen to threaten its seriousness. Take, for example, the thousands of fan-made videos that populate YouTube; hours of mini-series are reduced to their most romantic moments and narratives rearranged to focus solely on the development of romantic relationships. The videos effectively turn tomes of classic literature into a kind of Cliff Notes of sex.
The fanfic video, usually heavy on sappy singer-songwriter music with swelling piano chords, is a long way from the Fanfare-Rondeau of Alastair Cooke’s Masterpiece Theatre. But even the high-brow overtures of television’s early costume dramas couldn’t escape the base association with female fans. Robin Ellis, the actor who played Poldark in the BBC’s 1970s adaptation, recalled being chased by female fans and Winston Graham, the novel’s author, furiously complained about the “salacious need” to transform Demelza into a “sexually loose...floozy.”
That the costume drama has long been the site of sexual politics is nothing new, even as the new crop, with its overt appeal to a narrow female gaze, continues to struggle with themes like rape and class. What is new is the genre’s almost self-conscious acknowledgement that “lowbrow” elements like sex and romance have always been central to its success.