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Our Children’s Future: Does Public Service Media Matter?

The Appeal Of Period Drama For A Younger Audience

A fascinating research article exploring how the streaming services have attracted younger audiences with a genre that is a staple of traditional public service broadcasters.

The period drama is a genre inextricably caught up with British national identity. Through these dramas we construct an origin story for our present-day culture and invite outsiders in to come and experience our heritage of quaint countryside communities, lavish stately homes and Hogwarts-like educational institutions. These dramas take the form of feature films, many of them highly successful and awards-laden, and television series, at which the British public service broadcasters excel. Many of these television dramas achieve not only success at home, but are exported overseas through organisations such as PBS Masterpiece in the US, and thus achieve significant global attention. The most successful become part of our public consciousness: think of Colin Firth emerging wet-shirted from the fictional Pemberley landscape and becoming a nineties icon in the process. More recently ITV’s 'Downton Abbey' has taken up the baton, with its upstairs downstairs structure and the scope over its five seasons and (to date) one feature film, for characters to become embedded in the hearts of viewers, tragically killed off, or introduced in later series to freshen up the storylines.

However, whilst there is no doubt that the public service broadcasters in the UK continue to produce high quality drama, their difficulty in maintaining high audience numbers in the younger age demographics is well known. The seismic shift that streaming services have created in the broadcasting industries has led younger audiences to have far more choice than previous generations, meaning public service broadcasters no longer inherit automatic audiences from one generation to another. What’s more, the period drama genre, which has long been a stalwart of British production, does not, on the surface, appear to be likely to significantly attract young audiences away from streaming services and back to PSM providers.

This is not to suggest that this genre cannot be found on streaming services though. At time of writing, the recent Netflix hit 'Bridgerton' has been garnering headlines for its ratings-conquering foray into the world of Regency period drama; a period more traditionally represented through adaptations of the work of Jane Austen. The notoriously secretive streaming service proudly advertised that the drama had been viewed by 82 million households globally, making it Netflix’s most successful drama series to date.[1] One of the most notable features of this drama was its combination of period detail with contemporary features such as anachronistic dancing styles and adaptations of modern pop songs. Perhaps most significant, and unusual, of all though, was the highly diverse casting which did not restrict actors from BAME backgrounds to the small number of working-class characters that would be considered a historically accurate reflection of the period.

In order to fully consider the significance of the trend that 'Bridgerton' represents, and the relationship between younger audiences and the period drama genre, I would like to go back to research carried out by myself in 2017-18, in which I explored the ways in which young people respond to this genre. The research, carried out with young people aged between 16 and 19, was designed to provide evidence to interrogate simplistic assumptions often made about the tastes of young people, and to demonstrate the diversity that exists amongst teenagers. The study was restricted to young people in England, and consisted of screenings held within schools and colleges, to which young people were asked to provide their responses. All the young people in the study watched the same material, namely the opening episodes of two TV shows (the BBC’s 'Peaky Blinders' and ITV’s 'Downton Abbey') and three feature films ('Belle' (Amma Asante, 2013), 'The Imitation Game' (Morten Tyldum, 2014) and 'Far from the Madding Crowd ' (Thomas Vinterberg, 2015)).

The data from this study provided many insights into both young people’s feelings about the period drama genre, and the contribution this genre makes to British society more generally. Perhaps one of the most significant findings was the sheer diversity in the ranges of responses different young people gave to the same material. Despite setting out on the research with a hope to demonstrate that young people are far less homogenous in their tastes and tendencies than they are often characterised as, even I was taken aback by how differently the participants in my study reacted. Whilst a screening might utterly bore one set of participants, others were likely to engage enthusiastically with it. Films that inspired tedium, or even a mass walk-out, in some groups of participants, could prompt highly emotional responses in others. Indeed, only one screening ('The Imitation Game') could be considered to achieve a relatively consistent response, being positively received across the board by the young people in the study.

Significantly, the screening that inspired the most lukewarm response in the study was 'Downton Abbey', one of the most popular period dramas of recent years. Whilst the young people who took part in the study were never shy with their opinions, often expressing vehement love and hate for different dramas in the study, I was struck by the fact that many seemed largely disinterested in 'Downton Abbey', which I had deliberately chosen to screen because of its huge success and high profile in the years leading up to the study. Some participants expressed sympathy or related to the experiences of the working class ‘servant’ characters depicted in the drama, and others sarcastically noted that they wished they could have the problems of the privileged aristocratic characters. However, in general I found that this drama simply did not particularly interest the young people, who were typically much more animated when responding to the other screenings.

This disinterest speaks to the problems at the heart of Public Service Media’s challenge to attract younger audiences. A drama such as 'Downton Abbey', which was made in the model of many decades of period drama, according to my research just does not have the mass appeal for younger audiences that it obviously did for the UK audience as a whole. It would not be accurate to suggest young people cannot and did not enjoy this drama, some of my participants were familiar with the drama and had previously watched and enjoyed it, often with family members. However, the relative indifference that this traditional production inspired demonstrates that more of the same is unlikely to build a solid audience for Public Service Media amongst the younger generation.

The interest that my participants expressed elsewhere in the study demonstrates that the use of a historical setting alone was not the reason for the lack of interest in 'Downton Abbey'. One of the main reasons for the popularity of 'The Imitation Game' was its representation of the life of a historical figure (Alan Turing) and its depiction of a well-known historical event (the Second World War). Indeed, one of the key findings of the research was that many of the young people in the study specifically stated the representation of the past, or the ability to learn more about past events, as one of the key sources of enjoyment for them from watching the material, despite this genre not being traditionally associated with young viewers. In subsequent interviews, many of the young people identified aspects of the stories they had watched in the screenings that had piqued their interest enough for them to take advantage of the availability of online information sources to find out more about it. (One participant’s use of the phrase ‘googling up’ to describe this process neatly encapsulates this process, and points to its habitual use by young people.)

For many of the young people, the values they saw the dramas as representing were crucial to their assessments of their quality and worth. One of the reasons for the universal popularity of 'The Imitation Game' was the narrative’s encompassment of a variety of social concerns, including the treatment of women, LGBTQ+ people and the neurodiverse, alongside its patriotic representation of British code-breaking prowess during the Second World War. Perhaps true to the stereotypical image of the young, the teenagers that took part in my research often held strong opinions that sprang from their own personally held interests and ideologies. This is not to suggest that all the young people in the study held the same values though. Just as wider society incorporates a broad range of different points of view, the young people in the study also demonstrated a range of different ideological positions. Whereas one group voiced vehement objections to the film 'Far from the Madding Crowd' due to their belief that it failed to fully deliver on its feminist intentions, another group criticised the same film for what they saw as the immoral behaviour of its female protagonist.

However, despite clear ideological differences amongst the teenage participants in my research, these young people typically approved of dramas that they saw as promoting the freedoms of the disadvantaged, and representing demographics that they saw as underexposed in the media industry. The film 'Belle', the story of a mixed-ethnicity young woman in Georgian England, was widely appreciated by the young people in the study. This film explores the heroine’s process of coming to terms with her heritage, which incorporates both the English aristocracy and enslaved people, and thus combines a lavish period mise en scene with modern concerns regarding the difficulties faced by descendants of enslaved people in coming to terms with the treatment of their ancestors and the obfuscation of their own heritage. Significantly, the representation of a young woman of mixed ethnicity in a period drama was just as likely to be positively commented on by young people from predominantly white areas of England, as it was by young people from more ethnically diverse areas, or who were from mixed or non-white backgrounds themselves. This highlighted for me the extent to which young people were conscious of the need for diverse representation, even where it was not reflective of their own personal characteristics.

A frequent feature of the comments made by the young people in my study about 'Belle' was their sense of how unusual it was to see the representation of ethnic minorities in this genre. What is so striking about this aspect of the research is that, despite the passing of less than three years since the data was collected, it no longer seems likely that this would be seen in the same way. The last couple of years have seen a plethora of releases in which actors from ethnic minority backgrounds have been cast in period dramas with little or no attempt to use claims of historical accuracy to justify this choice. Films such as Josie Rourke’s 'Mary Queen of Scots' and Armando Ianucci’s 'The Personal History of David Copperfield'  both cast non-white actors in roles that would traditionally have gone to white actors. The latter film in particular, which entirely commits to the principles of colour-blind casting by not only casting Dev Patel as the lead character, but also paying no heed to actor ethnicity in the casting of characters with familial relationships, has gone from seeming highly experimental when it was released in the UK in January 2019 to appearing to be admirably prescient.

On television, the aforementioned 'Bridgerton' applies similarly ahistorical principles in its casting. Whilst not following Ianucci’s method of ignoring actor ethnicity entirely (characters who are related to each other are drawn from similar ethnicities), this series features actors from ethnic minorities in a variety of roles, across all the social strata featured in the series, including the depiction of Queen Charlotte, who holds an authoritative position due to the illness of her husband, George III. Most notably, the first series of the drama follows a mixed race relationship between Regé-Jean Page’s Duke of Hastings and Phoebe Dynevor’s Daphne Bridgerton, although the series makes only one (in my view slightly clumsy) attempt to explain the representation of black aristocrats (and even royalty) within this Georgian diegesis, and for the most part simply allows the viewer to accept the characters as they are presented.

Similarly, 'The Great', made for US streaming service Hulu, also depicts a royal court, and its associated aristocracy (this time in Russia), with a comparably colour-blind approach to casting. Here again, actors from ethnic minorities are cast as key members of the royal court, with no attempt made to explain the apparently historically inaccurate diversity. As with 'Bridgerton', this drama also constructs a diegesis that takes a playful approach to the depiction of history. (Despite purportedly representing the early married life of Catherine the Great, the drama is tongue-in-cheek about the issue of historical fidelity, describing itself as ‘an occasionally true story’).

What is significant about these examples is their demonstration of the potential for dramas with a historical setting to no longer be the preserve of white on-screen talent. Despite the diversity policies of institutions such as the BBC, which enshrines the need for opportunities to be provided for talent from all backgrounds, and for increased onscreen representation of minority groups, this genre has long been held to contribute to the maintenance of the longstanding imbalance in opportunities for actors from white and BAME backgrounds. There have been undoubted strides forward in the diversifying of opportunities within the media industry, with organisations such as the BBC and Channel 4 publishing ambitious policies to improve the diversity of representation on and off screen, and awards such as the BAFTAs and Oscars recently introducing diversity criteria that need to be met to qualify for consideration in some categories. However, the large numbers of period dramas produced within Britain have long been held to limit actors from BAME backgrounds, with many high-profile names discussing their experiences of needing to relocate to the US for the sake of their careers.[2]

Whilst there has been progress on this front, with the inclusion of more BAME characters within period dramas, until the last few years these have typically been restricted to a small number of working-class characters. However, in the light of recent dramas such as 'Bridgerton', these baby steps towards diversity, which clearly attempt to straddle a perceived need to maintain credibility by upholding an apparently realistic depiction of history and the acknowledged need for more opportunities for minority talent, suddenly appear somewhat quaint. The success of these dramas demonstrates that casting against the perceived ‘whiteness’ of British history can be a perfectly effective strategy, and shows that audiences are prepared to accept the presentation of a historical setting that is also representative of modern diversity.

Whilst historical dramas have been habitually subject to a felt need to adhere to often intangible notions of historical accuracy, the truth is that no drama that depicts the past is ever a true reflection of history. Every drama, whether set in the past, present, or a fantastical realm, constructs its own world, and the credibility of this will often rest on the maintenance of a consistent diegesis. Moreover, all dramatic constructions of history represent a combination of the concerns of contemporary audiences and a culturally accepted image of what the past was really like. What 'Bridgerton' and 'The Great' achieve, with their self-consciously modern approach to depicting history, is a foregrounding of this tension, rather than an obfuscation of it. The commercial success of these dramas demonstrates that organisations such as the BBC, which is known for its high quality period dramas, have perhaps been over cautious in their attempts to meet their diversity requirements whilst also continuing to produce traditional period dramas that maintain an (often illusory) image of historical fidelity. If an actor such as Regé-Jean Page can portray a Duke in 'Bridgerton', why not Mr Darcy, next time 'Pride and Prejudice' is deemed fit for another adaptation?

As noted, I do not want to attempt to present the views of all young people as homogenous. My research highlighted to me the broad range of viewpoints that existed among this age group, as, indeed, it does amongst people of all ages. However, a sensitivity towards issues of diversity and minority representation, and an appreciation for characters who embodied the struggles of the disadvantaged was a frequent feature of the responses given by participants in my research. At the time the study took place the casting of ethnic minority actors within a period setting was less common than it has proven to be over the past couple of years, as was commented on by young people in the study. If I was to use the data I collected to inform my assessment of how young people would greet this trend, though, I would expect this to be seen by many young people as a favourable development in the media industry more generally.

In meeting the needs of young people, public service media would do well to follow the lead of streaming services such as Netflix in their willingness to embrace diversity throughout a full range of its productions. Of course, there are stories in which specific characteristics of actors, whether they be of ethnicity, sexuality or disability, will be inflected in the story being told, and will be central to how the characters will be understood.[3] However, in many productions, it is possible to construct a world in which a range of demographics may be featured without this impacting on the presentation of the story. In many dramas, particularly those set in historical periods, the default tendency has been to cast primarily white talent. What recent developments in the period drama genre have shown is that this is not necessary, and my own research suggests that, with regards to the interests of younger audiences, this is not desirable either.

Whilst Britain is famed for its production of historical dramas, the success of these streaming services in broadening the ways in which the past can be represented shows that our public service broadcasters have scope to be far bolder in their embedding of on screen diversity. In that respect, it appears they need to ‘get with the programme’.


[1] BBC News, ‘Bridgerton: Netflix Says Drama is its Biggest Series Ever’, 28 January 2021, [accessed 23 February 2021]

[2] For just one example of this see actress Thandie Newton’s comments in BBC News, ‘Historical Dramas ‘Limit UK Black Actors’’, 19 March 2017, [accessed 10 March 2021].

[3] See Christine Geraghty’s discussion of the difference between casting which is ‘colour-blind’ and that which requires the ethnicity of actors to be ‘seen’ in ‘Casting for the Public Good: BAME Casting in British Film and Television in the 2010s’, Adaptation, 20 March 2020. [accessed 16 April 2020]

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By Dr Shelley Anne Galpin

Shelley Anne Galpin worked as a teacher in London for several years, before studying for her AHRC funded PhD at the University of York, where she researched the responses of teenage audiences to the period drama genre. This work will be published in her forthcoming book Teenage Audiences and British Period Drama.

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