Family sagas have an appeal all their own - probably because we're all part of a family, and so we can relate (at least in some way) to the struggles of parents, children, and siblings over the course of many years. Make the family saga a historical one, and there's the added appeal of getting an insight into a different era (in which people seem to be, well, people, just like they are today...). Not to mention the fact that historical fiction generally has a healthy dose of intrigue, adventure, and other interesting goings-on, and there's a recipe for success. Assuming, of course, that all the pieces of a good story are put together. The 1999 BBC miniseries Aristocrats is a decided success, because not only does it have a historical family saga, it's a nicely done and intelligent program.
Aristocrats, set in England in the 1700s, tells the story of four sisters: Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah. Along with the other members of their large family, these sisters were brought up in an environment of privilege and leisure, being great-granddaughters of a king and intimately connected through family and marriage to important politicians and lords. As women of their day, they had little direct influence on the political and larger social realm, but the reverse is not true: their lives were shaped (often dramatically) by the fortunes of their husbands and the shifts of social and political fortunes. How much they could shape things for themselves, and how well they sailed their family and individual ships in the winds of society, is the subject of Aristocrats.
The miniseries is presented in six 45-minute episodes, each one packed full of storytelling. Events always move briskly along, with new developments coming around every corner. Since we get to see a substantial chunk of the sisters' lives, time often passes in fairly large chunks as well; this is handled well, so that we always get a sense of the sisters developing over time and in response to the various influences in their lives. The four sisters themselves are nicely drawn characters, each with her own distinct personality; the secondary characters are usually fairly well drawn, but occasionally some of the more tertiary figures do get a bit lost in the shuffle, since this is a series with a very large overall cast.
The story has a somewhat soap-opera feel to it, in the sense that it is concerned largely with relationships (and all the various things that can go wrong, it seems), but that shouldn't be taken as a negative at all: the tone of Aristocrats is always serious and dramatic, with a good sense that these events and relationships are part of the lives of real characters whom we are interested in. I haven't said anything much about the plot, because I don't want to spoil it for anyone; Aristocrats has an interesting story with some unexpected twists of fate for the characters.
One of the pleasing aspects of Aristocrats is how lovely it looks: the costumes, sets, and locations are all absolutely stunning. It takes no effort whatsoever to imagine oneself in the 18th century right alongside the Lennox sisters; Aristocrats brings that odd and slightly stylized era to life in a vivid and natural way.
Aristocrats is a three-DVD set, with two episodes on each disc. The discs are packaged in ultra-thin cases inside a glossy paperboard slipcase.
The episodes are all presented in an attractive anamorphic widescreen transfer. It's quite pleasing to the eye, with good colors and contrast, and a nice level of detail throughout. I'd say that the widescreen presentation is a huge plus, as it gives the episodes a more filmlike feel that helps make them engaging.
The stereo soundtrack is straightforward and clear, with no problems at all.
A reasonably interesting 30-minute "making of" featurette is the main special feature. There's also a text biography of Stella Tillyard, the author of the biography that Aristocrats is based on, and cast filmographies.
I enjoyed Aristocrats very much, and I'd say that anyone who enjoys historical drama will do the same. It's an engaging story with interesting characters, set in an intriguing historical setting with lavish attention to detail in costumes and sets. What's not to like? Highly recommended.