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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 Sss (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.