Looking Back

Steve Clarke explores the enduring demand for period drama.

Television period drama is reaching for the stars. Costume capers, swashbuckling series and romantic romps set in past decades are staples of scheduled TV. As the drama boom continues, and the small screen heads towards what may be a post-linear age, program-makers are mining the past for stories that can engage audiences in a crowded market.

For once, money appears to be no object. HBO’s global blockbuster Game of Thrones and Netflix’s exquisite The Crown, the über-expensive reimagining of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, are two of the shows that have upped the ante in TV period drama. They are among the costliest TV shows ever made, setting new benchmarks by virtue of their cinematic quality and the scope and intricacy of their storytelling. Others are in the pipeline as Amazon Studios prepares what is reputedly a $1 billion remake of Lord of the Rings.

At this year’s MIPTV, distributors’ catalogs will not be short of period pieces, all of them hoping to be the next Game of Thrones. Expect to see shows set in the 20th century—World War II is a favorite period for commissioners—Tudor times through to the Victorian age and beyond.

The joint Amazon-Sky show Britannia is set in 43 AD when the Romans invaded Britain. Endemol Shine’s Troy: Fall of a City takes audiences right back to ancient Greece. There are new adaptations of classic novels such as Little Women and Howards End, modern books set in the past like The Miniaturist (located in 17th-century Amsterdam) and racy originals like Canal+’s Versailles, centered on France’s “Sun King,” Louis XIV. The third season of Versailles will open this year’s debut CANNESERIES screenings.

There is subtitled fare, such as SVT’s breakout hit The Restaurant, and period stories honed from crime mysteries featuring the world’s great fictional detectives. Did anyone mention Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot and other stories created by Agatha Christie?

Period biopics, based on the lives of famous people and politicians, and period stories of love and class drawn from the pens of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, have been the subjects of innumerable TV adaptations.

But what attracts today’s international buyers to period drama and what are the latest trends in the genre?

“The essence of a successful period drama is to portray timeless stories of conflict, love or adventure in a compelling fashion, capturing the romance and intrigue of a bygone age, with narratives that remain current and relatable today,” suggests Peter Iacono, president of international television and digital distribution at Lionsgate, which has also fared well with Mad Men and the Starz costume drama The White Princess, a follow-up to The White Queen.

The studio’s MIPTV shows include Little Women starring Angela Lansbury and Emily Watson, and Howards End with Tracey Ullman, Hayley Atwell and Matthew Macfadyen. Iacono says it’s significant that these two shows tackle themes that are relevant today.

“Both Little Women and Howards End are essentially stories of women’s empowerment,” he notes. “This is very relevant in relation to the current ‘Time’s Up’ movement.”

“Despite being based in 43 AD, Britannia feels very contemporary,” says Leona Connell, director of sales at Sky Vision. “The directing, music and graphics lend the series a fresh and modern look, which makes it stand out. The themes of invasion, of people uniting to push back the common enemy, are relevant to today’s audience.”

Iacono describes Little Women as “a truly universal coming-of-age story, as relevant and engaging today” as it was when the novel was first published in 1868. “Howards End is a story of two charismatic, smart and strong-minded young women who are fighting for their rights to be independent,” he adds.

Buyers want limited-run series that can “be scheduled at key times to help platforms looking to create an ‘event’ around their programming,” Iacono continues. “They are seeking programming that is channel-defining. With the increase in the standards of CGI and creative program-making, there is just no limit to anyone’s imagination. We are seeing some extremely ambitious and authentic period dramas being created right now.”

Most distributors agree that for a period piece to sell, it must have a contemporary edge. The Miniaturist, a three-parter sold by all3media international, looks like a beautiful Dutch masterpiece by Johannes Vermeer. Great care was taken with the show’s design, but Maartje Horchner, the distributor’s executive VP of content, suggests it’s the story’s relevance to today that helps set it apart.

“With the remarkable set dressing, bright coloring and edgy storyline featuring a gay central character, it feels completely not period,” she says.

Like so much costume content, The Miniaturist is based on a novel, in this case, Jessie Burton’s international best seller published in 2014.

“One of the trends in period drama is firmly towards book adaptations,” adds Horchner. “It gives broadcasters and platforms a lot of comfort that there is a ready-made market for their shows. They don’t have to worry about how to pitch a successful, well-known book because audiences have already heard of it. It helps the commissioner if it ticks that box.”

She continues, “If you’ve read a book, there’s a certain amount of curiosity over what it might look like on screen. It can go one of two ways. You’re either disappointed because the TV version looks nothing like how you imagined it. Or you are overwhelmed by how beautiful it was because you never thought it would be like that.”

Jenna Santoianni, the executive VP of television series at Sonar Entertainment, says that most of the period shows she’s involved with are “strong author-led intellectual property,” arguing that “it’s an important driver of period drama.”

Both The Son and the eight-part sequel to Das Boot are based on literature.

“It was reading The Son [by Philipp Meyer] that drew Pierce Brosnan back to the small screen after so many years,” Santoianni says.

But not all period drama is based on books, celebrated or otherwise. Writer Peter Morgan created The Crown from scratch, relying on his own knowledge (he also wrote the film The Queen and The Audience, a stage play examining Elizabeth II’s relationship with her Prime Ministers) and a team of researchers to help him create and fashion dramatic storylines.

Meanwhile, a lot of other, high-end period shows are effectively works of fiction. “Big historical stories based on a key character from the past or a big event will attract wide interest,” Sky Vision’s Connell says. “Our series The Plague [which unfolds against the Black Death stalking 16th-century Seville] and Britannia are not historical series as such; they are fictional series based in times past. Ultimately it’s down to the strength of the writing and directing as to whether a show will travel well.”

The days of long-running, serial costume drama like the 14-part award-winning Jewel in the Crown, once considered a benchmark for the genre, have largely gone for good.

The Netflix commission The Crown comes in a ten-part series but each episode is self-contained, and, of course, viewers aren’t expected to wait another week to watch the next episode.

“Perhaps audience attention spans are shorter than they used to be,” says all3media’s Horchner. “For me, The Miniaturist couldn’t have gone on long enough, it could have been a six-part series.

“You can usually tell a story well in three or four parts. That way, you’re likely to keep an audience, especially if the pace in episode one is sustained throughout the series and there is no lengthening of the storyline.”

Sonar’s Santoianni, who brought Taboo, starring Tom Hardy, to the market, pinpoints the biggest change that TV period drama has undergone during the last decade or so.

“Ten to 12 years ago, the TV budgets and the craftsmanship didn’t match what they are today,” she says. “The budgets have ballooned. You also have feature-level talent that wants to do these dramas for TV. The production values and the budgets can accommodate that.

“I think there is a hunger to see the kind of programming that used to be provided only by large budget films. We’re now able to see that on TV. Also, we’re able to tell the narratives in much longer content.”

The period dramas that travel best are the ones that have authentic stories and authentic production values. “I don’t think there is one period in history that is more popular than others,” opines Santoianni. “Great men, and women, in history, big historical figures, can make great TV. Think of how many shows we’ve seen based on Winston Churchill. But the key is having a universal theme that people can relate to.”

Generally, period drama is more expensive than contemporary TV fiction. For the BBC’s Wolf Hall, based on Hilary Mantel’s best sellers depicting the rise of Tudor courtier Thomas Cromwell, a cool £20,000 ($28,000) was blown on paying for candles alone.

So unless you’re Netflix or Amazon, co-production is essential in Western markets. “Period was something a lot of production companies didn’t want to do before because the budgets could not support doing it well or doing it right,” says Santoianni.

“TV budgets are creeping up—$4 million to $5 million an episode and above for certain shows. These budgets allow for much higher production values that are comparable to feature-film quality. With these budgets, co-productions become even more important. To support these shows and to get the right budgets it takes a few partners. We’ve found a lot of success in our partnerships with other companies in constructing co-productions. One company on its own would not have been able to make Das Boot.”

Sonar’s collaborators on the series, which was filmed in German, French and English, are Bavaria Fiction and Sky Deutschland.

“We worked together from a very early stage and developed a lot of trust and respect for each other,” Santoianni says. “You do run the danger of having too many cooks in the kitchen. Alignment, trust and early partnership are really important for a successful co-production.”

“It is easier to find co-producers for period than it is for contemporary shows,” observes Caroline Torrance, the head of scripted at Banijay Rights. “When you’re pitching a contemporary idea as a co-production, people say they want to see it set in such-and-such country. Once you go into period, those rules don’t exist anymore. People are more open-minded, you’ve got more freedom, so it’s easier to pitch the ideas and get partners on board.”

As mentioned, Britannia is a co-production between Sky and Amazon in the U.S. “Certainly Amazon’s contribution to Britannia was an important element to the financing of the series,” says Sky Vision’s Connell.

In Turkey and other Middle Eastern and Central European territories, the business model is different, according to Global Agency’s founder and CEO, Izzet Pinto.

“Our period shows are fully funded by the production companies. They try and cover their costs from the fees from local broadcasters and international sales. International sales are the key to profit,” he says.

The series he sells have budgets that are a fraction of the size of Western period drama and are in demand by broadcasters and platforms in the Middle East, Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Latin America. “It’s difficult to sell these shows to the U.S. or the U.K., although we’re having some success with digital platforms,” Pinto says. “Free-to-air is much more difficult.”

Nevertheless, period pieces such as Magnificent Century have been big global sellers. Telling the story of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman over four seasons, the drama sold to 50-plus territories and led to the spin-off Magnificent Century Kosem.

Boosted by the success of those series, Global Agency took on the distribution rights to the English-language RTVE drama Queens, about Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Another Turkish company that has amassed a slate of period dramas is MISTCO, which is showcasing TRT’s Mehmetcik: Kûtulamâre at MIPTV. “Created by the same producer as Resurrection: Ertugrul, the series is based on the heroic story of a young man who would sacrifice his own life to save the country and people who are in need of help,” says Aysegul Tuzun, the VP of sales and marketing at MISTCO. “TRT is the biggest investor in epic dramas in Turkey, and they have the most extensive know-how in this genre.”

Distributors stress the need for a successful period drama to be character-driven. “Audiences need to identify with the characters and not feel they’re watching some stale history lesson,” suggests Banijay’s Torrance. “The audience really needs to care about the characters and what happens to them.”

Does star casting help? “It always helps when you’re pitching a show,” she adds. “Having said that, there wasn’t anybody in Versailles that was a breakout Hollywood name. People reacted well to the storyline. I think it helped that it was an unknown actor playing the king. Audiences weren’t distracted by thinking ‘This is a famous actor playing Louis XIV.’”

Whether it’s the costumes or characters, in such a crowded television market even the most lavish period drama needs that certain X factor to persuade audiences to watch more than one episode, never mind eight or ten.

“These days audiences are obviously spoiled for choice,” says all3media’s Horchner. “They’ve seen it all before. Dramas need to grab their attention and surprise them.

“Even if they know the story already, it has to be something they haven’t seen before. It has to be told in a way that smacks them in the face.”

Ultimately, the success or failure of a period drama is no different from a contemporary drama. The story’s intrinsic strength or weakness and how it’s told are what determines if people will watch. All the money spent on actors, recreating the past and high-end CGI can’t disguise a clunking narrative. “Regardless of whether it’s period or modern, it is all about the story,” emphasizes Pinto. “The storyline is key.”

Pictured: Lionsgate’s The White Princess.