It’s been a great year for irreverent historical and literary film and TV, with the most prominent being The Personal History of David Copperfield (dir. Armando Iannucci), Enola Holmes (dir. Harry Bradbeer) and The Great (Tony McNamara, creator). We’re also currently between seasons of Dickinson (season 2 premieres in January on Apple TV). This trend was sparked by two main things – the massive popularity of Hamilton (and of course we had the Hamilfilm on Disney+ this year) and the Oscar-winning success of The Favourite (2018). One of the most positive features of this trend has been the diversity in casting, other types of representation (The Favourite and Dickinson both prominently feature lesbian and bisexual characters) and having a more modern approach to issues such as feminism. Other features they have in common include: bright and colorful costume and production design, plenty of sex and swearing, a fresh comedic feel and lively use of music. These do not feel like boring or dusty museum pieces.
On Christmas Day, there is going to be another sparkly present to unwrap (which very much continues the trend) and that is a new show on Netflix which is a blend of Jane Austen, Shondaland and Gossip Girl. Based on the series of books by Julia Quinn, this is Bridgerton. Created by Chris Van Dusen, a writer-producer on Shonda Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal, this is Regency England as you’ve never seen it before. The season centres around Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), the eldest daughter from a family of eight children. The father in the family has died, so it falls to eldest brother Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey of Crashing, W1A, Broadchurch and Chewing Gum) to ‘help’ Daphne get married off. Enter the Duke of Hastings, with the amusing un-Duke-like name of Simon Basset (Rege-Jean Page), who makes it abundantly clear that has no plans to marry and that he wants his title to die out with him.
Surveying the comings and goings of the town with an all-seeing eye is Lady Whistledown, the show’s narrator (voiced by Julie Andrews, no less) – who produces a hotly-anticipated pamphlet with not only everybody’s gossip, scandal and rumour but she also bestows her favour on different people, depending which way the winds of society’s fortunes are blowing that particular week. If Lady Whistledown considers you the ‘hot property,’ you’re much more likely to find a suitor, if her gaze falls unfavorably upon you, you become a social pariah. It doesn’t help that Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) takes Lady Whistledown’s word as gospel, either. Daphne’s younger sister, the feisty Eloise (Claudia Jessie) makes it her mission to find out who Lady Whistledown is and she tries to recruit her best friend, Penny Featherington (Derry Girls‘ Nicola Coughlan) to the cause. Penny has her own worries, including a crush on yet another Bridgerton – Colin (Luke Newton) and trying to help her cousin Marina (Ruby Barker), who is in the desperate situation of being pregnant and unmarried.
Bridgerton features some of the best romance tropes; including enemies-to-friends-to-lovers and the classic “let’s pretend to be courting in order to throw other people off the scent.” The music is absolutely dreamy, with a combination of original music by Kris Bowers and classical versions of well-known pop tracks such as Thank U Next (Ariana Grande), In My Blood (Shawn Mendes), Wildest Dreams (Taylor Swift) and Girls Like You (Cardi B). The string quartet versions of pop tracks actually work really well and help make the dance scenes (and…ahem…other types of scenes) as swoony as they are. Some of the balls are absolutely spectacular, with petals falling like snow or an outdoor dancefloor with a backdrop of fireworks. As we would expect from more traditional Austen adaptations, there is plenty of longing gazes and brushing fingertips. And of course, there’s a duel-at-dawn. Be warned, however, if you are able to be with family this Christmas, things get extremely steamy at the end of episode 5 and for the whole of episode 6, so perhaps watch after Grandma has gone to bed. The wedding night scene certainly seems to have taken some cues from Outlander, that’s all I say.
The casting and acting across the board is mostly very strong – with everyone deftly walking the tightrope of tones required. The actors take the material seriously, so when friends or sisters fall out, for example, there is some genuine emotion there. Adjoa Andoh and Golda Rosheuvel are both fantastic as elder stateswomen – Andoh plays Simon’s Aunt, confidante, mentor and advisor. Rosheuvel plays a Queen who has firmly wrestled control of the country from the mad George III – she is the matriarch and her word is final. Lady Featherington (Polly Walker) and Lady Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) are both great as the heads of their households. Will (Martins Imhangbe) and Alice (Emma Naomi) play a boxer/entrepreneur and his shrewd wife – they are friends of Simon’s and show a totally different side to the rarefied London society where most of the season takes place. A couple of minor quibbles – Luke Thompson seems too old to be playing Anthony’s younger brother Benedict and Anthony’s Opera-singer mistress Siena (Sabrina Bartlett) is an unconvincing temptress.
It should go without saying that the costume design (by John Glaser, John Norster and Ellen Mirojnick) and production design (by Will Hughes-Jones) are both huge selling-points. The wisteria-covered Bridgerton home is stunning, both outside and in. There is a ball in episode 4 that appears to have a black-and-white theme that concludes in a moonlight rendevous in a maze. When Daphne is finally introduced to the Duke’s home, it’s a magnificent and palatial stately home with a black-and-white tiled floor, muraled walls and the kind of dining table where you have to shout to be heard from the other end. I don’t want to hear complaints about the dresses being too colourful or the wigs too tall – this show is FUN and exactly how some of us want to see 2020 out. It’s not meant to be fastidiously historically accurate or taken too seriously. I truly hope it’s a roaring success and leads to the adaptation of more romance novels – a genre that has not been treated kindly by the media for a long time.
Bridgerton is a rollicking good time and I loved every minute of it. I hope there will be many more seasons to come because I want to return to the ton again and again.
Bridgerton will be available on Netflix from December 25 2020.