Here are my recommendations for the best documentaries and period dramas currently on or soon to air on British television.
One other treat, that I am thrilled to tell you about, (credit and thanks for this must go to my husband for its discovery), is the recently digitised Radio Times Archive. The first edition of The Radio Times was printed on 28th September, 1923, a joint venture between the BBC and publisher George Newnes Ltd. The BBC edited the publication from 1925 until 1937 and it was published in-house until 2011. The digitisation of four thousand five hundred copies of the magazine was completed in 2012. However, access to the full archive is currently restricted to BBC staff but it is hoped that by the end of 2013 the entire archive will be available on-line to the general public. Public access is currently limited to a small collection of, downloadable, pre-war television supplements. For the main website, CLICK HERE.
My favourite supplement is one published at the time of King George VI’s (1895-1952) coronation, which took place on Wednesday 12th May, 1937. To download this issue, CLICK HERE. If you want to listen to an original recording of the King’s coronation speech, then it is available on British Pathé’s website. It might be a good idea to turn-up the sound on your computer before you begin, as it is very faint. The whole speech lasts just over eight minutes. For the speech, CLICK HERE.
Drama Series 8 x 60 minute episodes. Sundays 9pm
Set in April 1889, six months after the last Jack the Ripper killing, East London. For H Division, the police department charged with keeping order in the seedy back streets of Whitechapel, life goes on. This fictionalised account of the aftermath of the Ripper murders and impact upon the police responsible for solving the crimes, is particularly violent and gory. But nonetheless, a well-acted ensemble piece that contains plenty to hold the interest of Ripper enthusiasts and social historians alike. Cast includes: Matthew Macfadyen (Detective Inspector Edmund Reid); Jerome Flynn (Detective Sergeant Bennett Drake) and Adam Rothenberg (US Army surgeon and one-time Pinkerton detective, Captain Homer Jackson).
Drama Series 10 x 60 minute episodes. Sundays 9pm
I have been waiting ages to see Mr Selfridge, ever since ITV teased us with trailers during season three of Downton Abbey last year. It was worth the wait, I know reviews have been mixed but the production values are high and Edwardian London never looked so good. This sumptuous slice of nostalgia helps fill the gap left on Sunday evenings by Downton.
Mr Selfridge is based upon Lindy Woodhead’s book Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge and created by multi-award winning writer Andrew Davies. It tells the story of Harry Gordon Selfridge (1858–1947), the American gentleman who established the iconic British department store, Selfridges, in 1909. Cast includes Jeremy Piven (Mr Selfridge) and Katherine Kelly (Lady Mae).
Harry Selfridge was born on the 11th January 1858 at Ripon, Wisconsin, USA. Aged twenty-one, he went to work at department store and mail-order firm Field, Leiter & Co (later Marshall, Field & Co). In 1886, he became manager of their retail department. Selfridge left the firm in 1904, after having spent the previous fourteen years as a junior partner there. He used his fortune to buy Chicago firm Schlesinger & Mayer which he proceeded to sell quickly, turning him a profit of £50,000 to go with the return of his £300,000 initial investment. Selfridge arrived in London in 1906 and lived in fashionable Arlington Street. He set about realising his grand plan to open a large department store in the heart of London and spared no expense in gathering around him the best team possible, employing one thousand two hundred staff at his Oxford Street store and even hiring Goldsman, the chief window-dresser at Marshall, Field & Co.
According to writer and historian, Claire Masset: ‘Perhaps the greatest advertising campaign of the early twentieth century was that of Selfridges, announcing its much-awaited opening in March 1909. During the entire week of its opening, Harry Gordon Selfridge commissioned thirty-eight advertisements designed by well-known graphic artists, appearing on over a hundred pages of eighteen national newspapers. The campaign, which cost £36,000 (equivalent to £2.35 million today), caused a sensation, with 90,000 people visiting the store on its opening day and over a million in the first week.’ (Masset. C., Department Stores, 2011, p. 26, published by Shire Publications.)
I have had a look through a selection of contemporary newspapers from 1909 and found some simply fascinating examples of Selfridges’ advertising campaign. I hope you enjoy reading them as much I did.
The dedication of a Great House. A day well spent is passed at Selfridge’s. This house is dedicated to woman’s service first of all. And for this there are many excellent and satisfying reasons. To begin with, everything at Selfridge’s is obviously and charmingly NEW – the great building itself and its equipment – the vast stocks of varied merchandise in their entirety – the methods of displaying them to best advantage – and the unaccustomed and luxurious appointments instituted to provide every possible comfort for daily visitors.
This House is dedicated to woman’s service first of all, and our purpose is to make her shopping more attractive than it has ever been before; so to satisfy her with value, stocks, and prices that she will discover a wider and more pleasurable opening in the word ‘shopping’ than she has hitherto read in it; and learn regard for Selfridge’s as the best equipped place of merchandise in London for every shopping purpose in which she takes an interest. There is a home-like lounge for smoking and gentleman are invited to use it as they would their club.
(Daily Express, London, Tuesday March 16th 1909)
The new hat pins – we believe that we have gathered the largest show of hat pin novelties ever seen together on a counter. Some are metal filigree, some in enamel, others set with big coloured stones, and others again representing dragon flies, bees, etc. with semi-transparent born wings. This price for a ‘scarab’ pin is 6d. Filigree pins from 9d, and Louis Seize designs set with imitation amethysts, topazes, etc. are 1/- each.
(Daily Express, London, Wednesday 19th May 1909)
Woven underwear – for the chilly season. Ladies’ white Scotch all wool combinations, guaranteed unshrinkable, with spliced seats, high neck and short or long sleeve or low neck and short sleeves – all sizes, price 8/3.
Autumn knickers – Ladies’ satin, cloth and serge sports knickers suitable for Autumn and Winter wear. These are particularly well made as regards shape and finish, and have buttons for fastening in detachable linings. Jap silk accordion pleated knickers in black and white (with linings) for dancing and evening wear. Price 35/
(Daily Express, London, 20th September 1909)
From 1916 to 1922, Harry Selfridge leased Highcliffe Castle, Highcliffe, Dorset from the Stuart Wortleys and this became his country residence, away from the hustle and bustle of London life. His wife, Rosalie and mother, Lois, lived at Highcliffe. Highcliffe Castle is a Grade 1 Listed Georgian Mansion, built in the Gothic Revival style between 1831 and 1835, originally for Lord Stuart de Rothesay. During his tenancy, Selfridge added a number of modern flourishes to the Mansion, including fitted bathrooms, steam central heating and a fully equipped modern kitchen.
After the death of his wife, in 1918, and his mother, in 1924, he lost his direction somewhat and embarked upon a number of romances with younger women. Then came the Great Depression and World War Two when retail therapy was the last thing on everyone’s mind. In his twilight years, Selfridge frittered away his money in French casino resorts and eventually died, virtually penniless, at 2 Ross Court, Putney Heath, London on 8th May 1947. He is buried in St. Marks Churchyard at Highcliffe, next to his wife and mother.
Meridian (ITV) have produced a short film (3 mins. 47) ‘Meeting Mr Selfridge’, about the new series and Harry Selfridge’s life here in England. There is also a segment about his time at Highcliffe Castle. CLICK HERE.
- Drama Series 5 x 60 minute episodes – Mondays 9pm (Starts Monday 4th February 2013)
This new drama series by acclaimed writer/director Stephen Poliakoff is set in England in between 1931 and 1933. Dancing on the Edge follows black jazz musicians, the Louis Lester Band, as they find fame at the parties and performances of London’s upper class society. Cast includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew Goode, Jacqueline Bisset, Janet Montgomery, Joanna Vanderham, Tom Hughes, Angel Coulby, Wunmi Mosaku, Mel Smith, Anthony Head, Caroline Quentin and Jane Asher.
For further background on this production, see David Gritten’s excellent article, ‘Poliakoff’s Dancing on the Edge: Behind the Scenes’, published on The Telegraph’s website, Monday 21st January 2013. For the article, CLICK HERE. For behind the scenes photographs of the production, CLICK HERE.
One of the locations for this lavish BBC production was Upton House and Gardens, Nr Banbury, Warwickshire (The National Trust). Before the Second World War, this fifteenth century manor house was owned by Lord and Lady Bearsted. Lord Bearsted (Colonel Walter Horace Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearsted, MC – 1882-1948) brought Upton in 1927 and until 1929 made many changes to the property and gardens. Notable additions to the interior include a stunning red and silver aluminium leaf art deco bathroom for Lady Bearsted (Dorothy Montefiore Micholls – d.1949) and in the grounds a swimming pool. Lord Bearsted was an astute businessman, he was Director of Lloyds Bank Ltd, Alliance & Assurance Co and also founded the Shell Transport and Trading Company. During the 1930s, the multi-millionaire and his wife hosted lavish house parties at Upton. The house is full of priceless art treasures and Lord Bearsted was once a Trustee of the National Gallery.
On the weekend of 9th and 10th March, 2013 (Mothering Sunday Weekend), Upton have a 1930s Beauty Parlour event. There will be demonstrations of 1930s fashion, make-up, hair and beauty techniques. There will also be an opportunity for you to make a gift for your mum. There is no need to pre-book as this event is free, although you will have to pay normal admission charges to Upton. The house and gardens open again to the public from Saturday 16th February (11-5). For 2013 opening times. CLICK HERE.
- 1933 to 1943
- Drama Series 2 x 90 minute episodes. Wednesdays 9pm
Directed by Coky Giedroyc, Spies Of Warsaw is a thrilling spy story set in Poland, Paris, London and Berlin between 1933 and 1943. French and German intelligence operatives are locked in a life-and-death struggle on the espionage battlefield. Based on a 2008 novel by American bestseller Alan Furst with the screenplay written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. The main protagonist is jaded French agent and former hero of the Great War, Colonel Jean-François Mercier. Cast includes: David Tennant (Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier); Janet Montgomery (Anna Skarbek); Marcin Dorocinski (Antoni Pakulski) and Ludger Pistor (Edvard Uhl). This is a superb, classy and intelligent thriller. Tennant is brilliant as Colonel Mercier.
Commissioned by Richard Klein, Controller, BBC Four and Ben Stephenson, Controller, BBC Drama Commissioning. Executive produced by Richard Fell for Fresh Pictures and Chris Aird for the BBC, co-produced by Apple Film for TV Poland in association with ARTE FRANCE and BBC Worldwide.
If you would like to read more about the background to this production, Olly Grant has written an excellent, detailed article in Broadcast Now. CLICK HERE.
1950s – London’s East End
Drama Series 8 x 60 minute episodes. Sundays 8pm (Starts on 20th January)
Goodwood House and Burghley House
Documentary – 2 x 60 minute episodes. Tuesdays 9pm (Starts 22nd January)
Who better to present a documentary about two of England’s greatest stately homes, than Downton Abbey‘s creator Julian Fellowes. The two houses in question are Goodwood House, in West Sussex and Burghley House, Stamford, Lincolnshire. Fans of vintage may already be familiar with the annual Goodwood Revival event, which this year takes place on the 13th, 14th and 15th of September. Fellowes goes in search of fascinating stories behind these two houses and the characters who helped shape their history. Both houses were selected on the basis that they are still in ownership of the families who built them.
Goodwood House is the seat of the Duke of Richmond and Lennox. Charles Lennox, 1st Duke of Richmond (1672-1723) was the illegitimate son of Charles II (1630-1685) and Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth (1649-1734). The 1st Duke’s love of hunting led him to Goodwood where he purchased a small Jacobean house on the estate in 1697 for use as a hunting lodge. This house is now referred to as the ‘old house’ and is located at the back of the main house. Goodwood House was developed throughout the eighteenth century. The classical Main Hall was built in 1730, a Palladian style South Wing between 1747-1750 and a North Wing added in 1771. The Regency State apartments were added to the South Wing in 1800. The House now resembles three sides of an octagon. Charles Lennox, 2nd Duke of Richmond (1701-1750) was a keen cricketer and arranged matches at Goodwood in the mid 1720s. The 2nd Duke is credited with setting-up the first formal rules of the game, the original document is now kept in Goodwood’s archives.
Burghley House was created by William Cecil, 1st Lord Burghley (1521-1598), Lord High Treasurer to Elizabeth I (1533-1603). The house is thought to be one of the largest Elizabethan mansions ever built. Building began in the 1550s. One of the most notable owners of Burghley was William Cecil’s great-great-great-grandson, John Cecil, 5th Earl of Exeter (1648-1700) who, together with his wife Lady Anne Cavendish (1645-1703), crammed Burghley full of priceless treasures, paintings, furniture and tapestries. The 5th Earl embarked upon the fashionable Grand Tour and with his wife travelled extensively overseas during a twenty year period. One particular treasure is the Florentine cabinet, enriched with pietra dura panels, which was given to the 5th Earl by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The 5th Earl died in 1700 at Issy near Paris, apparently after consuming a surfeit of fruit!
History of Inventions and Technology
- Documentary 4 x 60 minute episodes. Thursdays – 9pm. (Starts 24th January)
This four-part series will explore the background behind some of the inventions found in everyday life. Michael Mosley, Prof. Mark Miodownik and Dr Cassie Newland explore the very nature of invention and how and why things are invented. Some of the inventions discussed in the series will include the steam engine, jet propulsion, electrical generator, telephony and television. There is a fascinating and well put together booklet to accompany the series, 50 Great British Inventions. It is free to download and packed full of useful background information and images. CLICK HERE.
This series is part of the BBC’s year-long schedule of programmes focussing on all aspects of British inventiveness. To browse the full catalogue of programmes due for transmission this year, CLICK HERE. Some of my personal favourites are documentaries on the Romantic landscape painter J.M.W. Turner RA (1775-1851); Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727); Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) – see my article on The Wedgwood Museum for further information on the Wedgwood dynasty; Why the Industrial Revolution Happened here; Locomotion: Dan Snow’s History of Railways and Stephen Fry’s Planet Invention exploring the background to the ‘stuff’ that fills our homes from putting knives, jeans, bras, flip-flops and fridges to handbags, fast cars and Swiss watches.
Do also check-out the many Genius of Invention related activities that are taking place at museums and heritage sites throughout the UK. CLICK HERE.
Petworth House, West Sussex (the National Trust) currently have an important exhibition of Turner’s paintings on view, many for the first time. Turner’s Sussex includes forty exhibits, plus a rare opportunity to view the Old Library, used by Turner as his studio when he visited Petworth, which he frequently did in the 1820s and 30s. One of Turner’s patrons was the 3rd Earl of Egremont (George O’Brien Wyndham, 1751-1837) for which Petworth was his country seat. The exhibition continues at Petworth until 13th March 2013. Booking is essential for Turner’s Sussex. Gates open: 10am; Last admission time: 2.15pm; Timed tickets every 45 minutes; Adult £10, child £5; Two-course lunch and high tea available to pre-book on 01798 342207. To book tickets, call 0844 249 1895 or book online.
History of British Woodwork
Documentary 3 x 60 minute episodes. Thursdays 9pm