From Downton Abbey to Call the Midwife, British TV has been on fire lately — and American audiences are burning for more. If you’re an incurable addict like me, you’ve probably noticed a few trends, however. In my mind, they contribute to the comfortable familiarity of the British period drama — you might not know where the next plot twist will take you, but you always know where it’s all going in the end. I’ve cracked the code so you don’t have to. Probably a verbatim copy of the rules handed out to producers and writers once they pass their British TV No Spoilers Security Clearance, here are my 10 Rules for British Period Dramas on TV.
Be warned: that means pretty much every piece of this blog post is a spoiler.
10. Always Air It Three Months Later in America
It’s like Britain’s way of saying, “You may have won your pesky rebellion, but we still hold all the cards.” However, this rule comes with a few corollaries:
Make new episodes available online as they air in Britain, but in a limited and difficult-to-discover fashion that tests the resourcefulness and dignity of hardened fans.
Create only one preview spot for the new season, and air it with relentless monotony on American stations during the three months of suspense.
Once the new season has aired in America, make sure the webpage on American channels’ sites promoting the show includes a major season spoiler for something the Americans haven’t had a chance to see yet.
9. If You’re In Love, You Probably Have TB
This is a rule that British dramas have borrowed from the greats of English literature (from whom their stories are often drawn), but it really has become a British TV law in its own right. As soon as you see the sparkle in someone’s eye, it’s only a matter of minutes before you see the phlegm in their handkerchief. The more hard-fought the romantic union, the more likely it is one of them will keel over immediately upon its achievement.
Related: if you’ve been seeking your long-lost sibling your entire life, you’ll probably find them right before they croak of TB.
If a lover dodges TB, just hang tight, because they’ll probably die of the flu.
8. If You’re Pregnant, You Probably Have Eclampsia
I’m currently reading the memoirs that inspired the show Call the Midwife. I was surprised to learn, from the real Jenny Lee, that eclampsia is a relatively rare complication of pregnancy, because it seems as though every other pregnant woman on British TV gets it. It’s truly a horrific condition, and I don’t mean any disrespect for those who have suffered and passed away from it. I’m just saying — don’t get pregnant in a British TV drama. That often proves difficult, as the next rule demonstrates…
7. There’s a Lot More Drama When No One Uses Birth Control
Obviously there were a lot more accidental pregnancies back before forms of contraception were reliable or widely available. But you can rest assured that in British period dramas, no one gets away with sex. Coach summed it up in Mean Girls: “Don’t have sex. You will get pregnant, and die.” Fertility seems to increase when you’re unmarried, in inverse proportion to your likelihood of getting married anytime soon, especially to the father. In fact, the only surefire way not to get pregnant on a BBC drama is to desperately want a baby.
6. Someone’s Gotta Die
In every show, there will be at least one actor who decides he or she can do better than a leading role in an extremely successful international hit that’s been renewed for seasons to come, and they quit to seek a bigger gig in Hollywood. When this happens, it’s preferable for the character to die.
5. One Person Will Always Embody the Century
At least one character will serve primarily as an embodiment of the era, or a dominant aspect of it. Think of Sir Richard Carlisle, the self-made newspaper baron in Downton Abbey. Of course, I’m partial to actor Iain Glen, so I’d let him embody my century any day.
4. No One Is Ever as Disfigured as They Are in the Book
I get that this is TV and that all characters have to meet a minimum standard of appearances in order to be sympathetic or interesting to the audience. But consistently, even when a character’s ugliness is an important part of the story, everyone will be far more attractive than they’re described in the book. I know one person who doesn’t like the 2006 version of Jane Eyre because Toby Stephens is too attractive to be a convincing Rochester. Curiously that hasn’t stopped me watching.
3. Everything Gets Real in the Christmas Special
The Christmas special is the real season finale of BBC shows — the last episode of the season before it is really just setting things up. I think the practice of doing a Christmas special at the end of every season is charming — especially as the episode itself is always holiday-themed. Of course, that means Americans will get to see it sometime around midsummer.
2. People Will Toss Around Endearing Slang
After decades of watching British television shows (and, you know, the year I actually lived in London), you’d think I’d be fluent in British accents. But that’s impossible. I may have finally gotten to the point where I could follow a conversation in a noisy pub, but BBC dramas still elude me on occasion, because of their sprinkling of endearingly dated slang. I’m not sure if BBC writers research which slang was in vogue at which times, or if they just learn by watching previous BBC dramas. Either way, subtitles are often necessary.
1. At Some Point, an Innocent Kid Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity
Maybe he’s a pauper who stops to help someone even more unfortunate. Maybe he’s a rough’un who steps up to defend the heroine from local bullies. Maybe she’s the blameless lovechild of the hero, who reminds everyone of what love looks like. At some point, an innocent kid will step up and change the game. You may not recognize him, and he may never appear again, but you know you’re heading toward denouement after an innocent kid sighting.