In America they often show up on public television, but in England they are more closely related to network TV movies and miniseries.' The costume drama has been a television staple for decades now, bringing to life epic tales based in source material too complex to fit into three-hour motion picture, let alone the standard two-hour runtime. "The Story of the Costume Drama" embarks on an ambitious, five-part documentary series journey into the venerable genre, providing viewers with a look at England's rich history of contributions to modern storytelling. Narrated by Keeley Hawes, "The Story of the Costume Drama" doesn't merely tell viewers about these productions, it provides them with carefully selected clips to illustrate specific points being raised and supplements whenever possible with interviews with the cast and crew of many of these productions, many of which are iconic to the point that they are considered amongst the best television programming ever created.
The series begins its first 45-minute offering with "The Greatest Stories Ever Told," a very broad, chronological overview of the costume drama beginning with the massive "Forsyte Saga." This initial offering does a great job of highlighting key productions and their lasting effects on TV, showing that the costume drama covered a wide variety of topics from romance to historical epics to serious character studies. However, as the episode reached the end of its run, I noticed a few big series' had been omitted, namely the 1983 adaptation of "Jane Eyre" featuring Timothy Dalton. This trend continued in "The Stars" an overview of how the costume drama "made" some big name stars today and how in-turn, more recently some big name stars have given huge boosts to the genre, which admittedly can get tired and stale. It's here though, that the program shows heavy bias towards the series' of cast and crewmembers that chose to sit down and be interviewed on camera at lengths. While the influence of the Firth/Ehle "Pride and Prejudice" can never be argued (it should be noted neither Firth nor Ehle are interviewed) and its inclusion in nearly every installment of the series is entirely justified, the time spent on 1996' "The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders" seems entirely based on Alex Kingston's willingness to share multiple anecdotes (co-star Daniel Craig is neither mentioned to talked to). This point is further frustrating considering John Hurt is briefly talked to for a moderate look at "I, Claudius."
While appearing as the fourth episode of the series, "Picture Perfect" would have been better suited as the third and is one of the more technically fascinating installments, taking a look behind-the-scenes rather than rehashing actor anecdotes and providing broad cultural significance. The third and fifth episodes, "Affairs of the Heart" and "A Call to Arms" highlight two major themes of the costume drama: romance and war, respectively, with the former feeling a bit long in the tooth after the first two episodes covered a lot of the same material. "A Call to Arms" though is a welcome treat if only to introduce American viewers at large to Sean Bean's famous portrayal of costume drama hero Richard Sharpe. All in all, "The Story of the Costume Drama" manages to appeal to veteran fans and newcomers alike, but the intent of broadening the horizons of the latter group is painfully obvious. Two nagging questions remain with me though: why were some series' not mentioned at all (if I had to guess, I would say it might be rights issues regarding film clips) and why no episode on the genre of historical epics? As much as I enjoyed "Picture Perfect" I'd have gladly traded it for a look at the many solid entries in the genre that cover not just key events in British history but that of the world at large. Nitpicks aside, "The Story of the Costume Drama" is an entertaining, fast-paced, solidly produced documentary series on the lighter side.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is more than adequate for interview segments, with moderate detail. However, colors by and large are slightly washed out and there are minor issues with compression. Source material is sadly not as stunning as it should be and the choice to crop scenes that were originally 1.33:1 makes the productions look sloppy at times, undermining the intent of the documentary.
The English stereo soundtrack features solid dialogue reproduction from interview subjects and the narrator. The same can't be said for the source clips, which don't sound as lively as they should, especially when some exist on DVD in much finer quality. English SDH subtitles are included.
The lone extra is a photo gallery.
"The Story of the Costume" drama is most assuredly not the final authority on the long-standing television staple. While it provides a solid overview of genre highlights, there are a few glaring omissions and definitely some bias as specific productions and actors are highlighted multiple times. That being said, it's very much an entertaining production for newcomers and veterans alike and the general context it does give to specific productions is definitely worth the investment of time. Recommended.