With Christmas cancelled, it’s possible good TV has never been more urgently needed. Even during the Blitz you were allowed to huddle in the shelter with other terrified families. Not this time. It’s a pity, then, that the terrestrial festive scheduling is about as joyful and inspiring as Chris Whitty’s latest PowerPoint. Haven’t we talked to each other enough this year? Broadcasters might plead mitigating circumstances, but the direction of travel has been clear for some time: don’t take any risks at Christmas. It stinks of a managed decline.
All of which means Netflix’s period bodice-ripper Bridgerton is welcome. The premise isn’t revolutionary, but at least the streamers are still spending money trying to make something new and entertaining. There’s no mistaking the programme’s tone. It’s set in London and its characters speak in British accents, but Bridgerton feels about as English in spirit as Dallas. This is a Regency London fantasy from the other side of the Atlantic, based on novels by American novelist Julia Quinn, brought to the screen by the American super-producer Shonda Rimes.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Without the yoke of our native obsessions with the finer points of class and historical accuracy, Bridgerton is freed to be watchable fluff, with everyone involved refreshingly aware they are producing a piece of entertainment rather than A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Key to this is the diverse casting, which attracted pre-release attention. No doubt the sight of black queens and dukes will have a few older viewers foaming at the mouth and writing to Ofcom, but in truth, it is hardly noticeable after a few early scenes.
In the first episode we are introduced to the aristocratic Bridgerton family: the widowed Lady Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) and her eight children, a lively but charming bunch who live in a massive house and run around being precocious. In the absence of a father, it falls to the eldest son Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) to vet the suitors for his eldest sister, Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor). She’s a traditional kind of beauty, and nobody’s expecting any shortage of possibilities, especially after she is praised by Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel).
Enter Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker), a mysterious cousin who comes to stay with the Featheringtons, a family of dowdy redheads whose apparent purpose is to make the Bridgertons look more glamorous. (Evidently, even in an age of diverse casting, it’s still fine to discriminate against gingers.) The eligible men fall at Marina’s feet, leaving Daphne with meagre pickings. The obvious option is Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), the Duke of Hastings, Anthony’s old Oxford mucker, but he seemingly has no interest in marrying, despite the entreaties of his unofficial godmother, Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh, who’s such a blast she would win the argument about the casting on her own). Anthony doesn’t either, preferring more informal relations with a singer, Siena (Sabrina Bartlett).
Along with the racial mix, the separation between sex and marriage is the closest Bridgerton comes to having a subversive energy. These characters are oppressed by the roles they are given even as they feel obliged to perform them. The plot isn’t difficult to follow, but for anyone struggling to keep up, everything is overseen by Julie Andrews as a mischievous omniscient Gossip Girl-style narrator, Lady Whistledown, whose observations are delivered in-world in the form of pamphlets. When there is the odd satirical point about to be made, it comes clearly signposted. “Tonight we shall discover which young ladies might succeed at securing a match, thereby avoiding the dreadful dismal condition known as the spinster,” she intones spryly while the characters assemble at a ball. Nobody’s going to mistake Bridgerton for Austen, but it hardly matters. It looks great, rattles along, and doesn’t ask too much of the exhausted, depressed, locked-down Christmas viewer. A shiny little stocking filler.
Bridgerton comes to Netflix on Christmas Day
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