Has the costume drama had its day?

The BBC's lavish new adaptation of Emma has seen its ratings slide. Jonathan Brown ponders the future of bonnets-and-breeches TV

Jane Austen was in little doubt about the likeability of the eponymous character of her penultimate novel Emma. She was, observed the writer presciently, "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." Snobbish, vain and meddling, there would indeed seem very little to attract modern audiences to the romantic liaisons of 19th-century Highbury and its cupid-in-chief.

But since the mid-1990s, when TV viewers swooned in their millions at the sight of a clingy-shirted Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, the costume drama has proved a sure-fire vehicle for popular and critical acclaim on screens both large and small. Interest in Emma also peaked in that decade, when it underwent the Hollywood treatment only a year after the film Clueless transported the classic story to modern-day California. At the same time, Kate Beckinsale gave perhaps the most enduring modern performance in an ITV adaptation.

Yet this week, that once assured success looks in doubt, as BBC bosses were forced to defend their latest lavish interpretation of the book. Starring Romola Garai as Emma, Michael Gambon as her father and Jonny Lee Miller as the love interest Mr Knightley, the second part of the prime-time Sunday-night costume drama pulled in only 3.5 million viewers – down nearly 1 million on the opening episode the previous week – while the third episode saw another 200,000 switch off.

It was trounced in the ratings by ITV1's comedy drama Doc Martin and came in way below its anticipated reach of 5 million viewers. By contrast, Doc Martin saw an extra 600,000 viewers tune in to catch up with the exploits of Martin Clunes as the hemophobic medic last week – good news for the troubled broadcaster, which saw its share of the Sunday prime-time audience reach 33 per cent. A spokeswoman for the BBC said it had no explanation for the ratings dive of its flagship autumn show. "It is not all about ratings. We are happy that the audiences that are watching are really enjoying it," she said.

While the corporation insists that viewers have been telephoning and emailing in sufficient numbers to reassure drama chiefs that the investment – a commercially sensitive secret – was justified, the critics have given it a qualified nod of approval. One theory is that Doc Martin is benefiting from its weekly inheritance of a 13 million-strong audience from ITV1's all-conquering X Factor compared to just 5 million that roll over from the BBC's stately Sunday staple The Antiques Roadshow. But a growing number of others believe the days of bonnet and bustle are over.

Yet Emma's lacklustre ratings have not discouraged the BBC from playing what is widely considered to be one of its ace cards. A two-part Christmas special of Cranford, based on the novellas of Elizabeth Gaskell published between 1849 and 1858, are already scheduled. Then there are 13 episodes for the third series of Lark Rise to Candleford based on Flora Thompson's evocation of mid-Victorian life in the Chilterns.

In January, the BBC indicated it was to start moving away from the 19th century, seeking a grittier and more up-to-date – if equally lavish – direction for its dramatic output. BBC drama commissioner Ben Stephenson envisaged evolution rather than revolution, hardly surprising considering that so-called "bonnet productions" have historically accounted for 15 per cent of the department's output. Evidence of the change came with the announcement of a new adaptation of Andrea Levy's well-received novel Small Island, about immigrants arriving in the UK from the Caribbean in the post-war period. There will also be a Christmas special updating Henry James's late-Victorian ghost story The Turn of the Screw to the 1930s. To complete the foray into the last century, BBC Four is broadcasting a series of one-off dramas based on the lives of three famous British women – Margot Fonteyn, Gracie Fields and Enid Blyton.

The BBC has faced some high-powered criticism in recent weeks. Author Howard Jacobson accused the corporation of being over-reliant on the "moribund" drama of Dickens and Austen while eschewing more modern writers such as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Andrew Davies, whose canon of work includes some widely acclaimed reworkings, accused the BBC of plunging "downmarket" for its decision to scrap the development of Anthony Trollope's The Pallisers and Charles Dickens' Dombey and Son in favour of old warhorses such as David Copperfield.

Wet shirts and meddling heroines: Rise of the costume drama

1995

* Benchmark-setting TV mini-series of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth as the wet-shirted Mr Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet

* Clueless: Vapid Hollywood teen update which took Emma and plonked it down in modern-day California, starring Alicia Silverstone

* Persuasion: BBC film, starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds

* British film version of Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee and starring Emma Thompson

1996

* Gwyneth Paltrow starred in Hollywood remake of Emma

* Andrew Davies movie screenplay of Emma, for ITV, starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong

1999

* Film version of Mansfield Park, starring Hannah Taylor Gordon

2005

* Critically acclaimed Bleak House, mini-series, starring Charles Dance

* Pride and Prejudice: Oscar-winning film version starring Kiera Knightley

2007

* Persuasion: ITV film starring Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones

* Mansfield Park ITV one-off starring Billie Piper

* Becoming Jane: Hollywood milks the legend still further with Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen

* Northanger Abbey: ITV TV movie starring Felicity Jones and JJ Feild

* Cranford: BBC series, Elizabeth Gaskell's tale of Victorian women's lives in the rural North-west

2008

* Sense and Sensibility: BBC drama three-parter written by Andrew Davies

* BBC's first series of Flora Thompson's 19th-century bucolic saga Lark Rise to Candleford

* BBC remake of Oliver Twist

* Jane Eyre: BBC dramatisation of Charlotte Brontë's novel

* Tess of the D'Urbervilles: BBC adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel

2009

* Dickens again with BBC's Little Dorrit

* Daniel Deronda for the BBC starring Hugh Dancy in George Eliot's last novel

* Wuthering Heights was reprised for ITV's summer schedule

* The latest version of Emma, starring Michael Gambon, Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Financial Controller

£45 - £55k DOE: Guru Careers: A Financial Controller is required to join a suc...

Guru Careers: Product Manager / Product Marketing Manager / Product Owner

COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Product Manager / Product Owner is required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Online Customer Service Advisor

£13000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A chance to work for an extreme...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager - Media Sales - £36,000 OTE

£28000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award-winning company, whi...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'