#Movies & TV
The Best Historical TV Series of All Time
by Jennifer Lafferty
Historical-based TV series are more popular than ever. PBS has played a big part in this movement, broadcasting a wide range of BBC period dramas over the years, like the hugely popular Downton Abbey and biographically inspired Mr. Selfridge. Here are some of the all-time best historical series and mini-series.
The fictional series Downton Abbey (2010 -2015) was as juicy and glamorous as any soap opera, but the popular show also provided a fascinating glimpse at how the British aristocracy lived during the transitional era of WWI.
Another PBS hit is the biographically inspired Mr. Selfridge (2013-), starring Jeremy Piven as the flamboyant title charcter who revolutionized shopping by founding London-based Selfridge’s department store in 1909. Harry Selfridge’s colorful personal life is also explored.
Tudor England is also a popular setting for historical TV series including the sexy Showtime drama The Tudors (2007-2010), focusing on the love life of the infamous Henry VIII (Johnathan Rhys Meyers) and his six unfortunate wives.
One of the most exciting periods in American history was the Jazz Age. HBO crime drama Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014) starring Steve Buscemi as a corrupt Atlantic City politician, captures the era’s most thrilling elements, including bootlegging and the nightclub scene.
The White Queen
This 2013 adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s novel about the women involved in 15th century England’s War of the Roses, centers on the fascinating Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson), who rose from obscurity to become Edward IV’s influential queen.
North and South
Emmy-winning epic North and South, adapted from John Jakes’ novels, is set before, during and immediately after the Civil War. Airing in 1985, 1986 and 1994, the star-studded mini-series follows two families on opposite sides on the war.
The Thorn Birds
The 1980s was the golden era of the TV mini-series, and one of the decade’s best was 1983 family saga The Thorn Birds, focusing on forbidden love between a priest (Richard Chamberlain) and a beautiful heiress (Rachel Ward) in rural Australia.
The History channel series Vikings (2013-) tells of Norse raiders through the adventures of warrior ruler Ragnar Lothbrok. Set against the mysterious backdrop of Medieval Scandinavia, the drama also depicts the family life of these fearsome explorers.
Little Gloria Happy at Last
This lavish and compelling 1982 mini-series adaptation of Barbara Goldsmith’s bestselling book, Little Gloria Happy at Last, recreates the shocking 1930s custody battle over heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, between her aristocratic aunt and her fast-living mother.
Long before Downton Abbey, there was the intriguing BBC drama Upstairs Downstairs (1971-1977). Set in early 20th century London, this enormously popular series, following an aristocratic family and their servants, was revived with new characters in 2010.
TURN: Washington’s Spies
One of the most exciting aspects of the American Revolution was The Culper Ring, an instrumental band of spies led by farmer Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell), as depicted in the AMC series TURN: Washington’s Spies (2014-).
Another popular early American drama was the 2008 mini-series John Adams. Starring Paul Giamatti in his acclaimed performance as the founding father and second US president, the series explores Adams’ part in the nation’s first 50 years.
The Phantom of the Opera
Among the many adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s classic novel The Phantom of the Opera, one of the most entertaining is the 1990 mini-series starring accomplished British actor Charles Dance as The Phantom and Teri Polo as Christine.
Just before his stint as James Bond, Timothy Dalton gave a memorable performance as the passionate but troubled Edward Rochester, opposite Zelah Clarke in the BBC’s 1983 11-episode adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s enduring Gothic novel Jane Eyre.
Jeremy Irons stars as controversial 15th century Pope Alexander VI in the Showtime crime drama The Borgias (2011-2013). This sensationalistic TV series centers on the notorious power struggles of Alexander and the children he fathered with his mistress.