While Downton Abbey has become one of the biggest hits of BBC costume drama, ranking up there with Brideshead Revisited, Pride & Prejudice, and Upstairs, Downstairs, fans of the show should look at other British costume dramas. A bright show that seemed to predict the success of Downton is Lark Rise to Candleford, a popular period drama (based on the autobiographical works of Flora Thompson) that ran for 5 seasons, before being cancelled in 2011. The story of neighboring villages, the poorer Lark Rise and the more urbane Candleford, the show, like many BBC dramas was about differences among the classes, and how they mingle. Set in Victorian Oxfordshire in the late 1890s, Lark Rise to Candleford tells the tale of Laura Timmins (Olivia Hallinan), a Lark Rise girl who moves to Candleford to work for the postmistress, Dorcas Lane (Julia Sawalha). Though Laura is very well-read, intelligent, and elegant, she comes from a humble family, headed by patriarch Robert (Brendan Coyle), a mason worker, and his dutiful, but spirited wife, Emma (Claudie Blakely). The drama comes from Laura’s coming of age, as she becomes a sophisticated woman, and deals with love pangs and the pains of becoming an independent woman.
Each episode is a leisurely hour, and the subplots all work neatly side-by-side with each other. We get a bit of drama from Lark Rise and a bit from Candleford. The laborers and field workers of Lark Rise are thoughtful and kind to each other, creating a community that helps its member through penury. And though the show is sentimental, it doesn’t shy away from looking at the darker aspects of country life in the Victorian era – characters starve, end up in debtor’s prison, and children die from diseases. And though the characters border perilously close to cutesy, the depictions are remarkably free of condescending sentiment. Some of the poorer characters are played for by laughs, most notably the wizened, dotty old man Twister (Karl Johson), who is vaguely Quixote-like in his quests to make money, avoid hard work, and to duck the consternation of his wise and kindly wife, Queenie (Linda Bassett). To represent the change and the encroaching Industrial Revolution, we have Alf Arless (John Dagleish), a young field laborer who must support his family after his feckless mother, Caroline (Dawn French) is sent off to debtor’s prison.
And though the lives of the Candleford residents are much easier, their storylines are no less interesting. Aside from Dorcas and Laura, the post office is also home to the pious Thomas Brown (Mark Heap), whose religious fervor casts him as an unforgiving prude. And Candleford also has its own fashion shop, run by the Pratt sisters, Pearl (Matilda Zielger) and Ruby (Victoria Hamilton). Like Dorcas, the Pratts are spinsters who have transcended their patriarchal surroundings to make careers for themselves. And the two sisters are often used for comic relief: Pearl, the vinegary scold, and Ruby, the mousy wallflower.
Though there is some social critique, the show isn’t meant to be an educational experience. It’s an extravagantly enjoyable romantic drama. Laura has a few suitors, as does Dorcas. The drama comes from the relationships the characters share: love and friendships are tested, but are almost-always settled. And peripheral and satellite characters pop into Candleford or Lark Rise to stir trouble or to uncover secrets that the leads try to hide. All of it is done with very little subtlety.
Fans of British television will recognize some familiar faces: Julia Sawalha is known as Saffy from Absolutely Fabulous; Dawn French is the legendary star of The Vicar of Dibley and half of the comic duo, French & Saunders; Brendan Coyle would go on to star in Downton Abbey; Matilda Ziegler will be familiar to many for her silent role as Rowan Atkinson’s love interest in the Mr. Bean series. As expected they and the rest of the cast are wonderful.
Sawalha in particular deserves particular praise as the witty and mischievous Dorcas. It’s interesting because she comes off as a descendant of Emma from Jane Austen’s Emma. Like Emma, Dorcas is spoiled, self-indulgent, who believes the world would be better if she ran it; but like Emma, she’s also very kind. She’s also dedicated to her work – a great figure of proto-feminism. And as the Pratt sisters, Hamilton and (especially) Zielger are wonderful, dutifully fulfilling the comic relief scenes, but are also able to shoulder the scenes that are more serious. The only weak link is Coyle – but that is because his character is tiresome with his impeccable morals.
Because the each season is comparatively short (twelve episodes per series, versus the 20+ for American shows) the writers don’t exhaust all the potential story lines. Unfortunately, the final season has only 6 episodes, and the show was cancelled without a proper farewell, which seems like a shame because, after watching the pervious five series, viewers become invested in the intertwining lives of these neighboring towns.