A Foolproof Guide to the Great British Costume Drama

To celebrate the launch of the new drama 'Taboo' on BBC One, we look back at the most important elements of this great British institution.

05 January 2017, 12:30am

All images: Scott Free Prods

America, you can keep your sepia-tinted murder mysteries and fast-paced car-chases. Over on this little island, where a sea of English Breakfast tea laps against shores of crumbled digestive biscuits and there's absolutely no crime, we've got much more important things to be getting along with. Especially during the Christmas holidays. The Very Important Task in hand? Sitting back with our grandparents and enjoying a delightfully violent and deeply sexy costume drama, of course. 

This year the BBC is straight-up ruining your New Year New You plans by putting something really brilliant on BBC One and iPlayer from January 7th. Taboo, a gripping foray in to the 19th century shipping empire. It's raunchy enough to make your mum blush the colour of cranberry sauce and subversive enough your dad will repeatedly clear his throat in shock. This is an epic if there ever was one. 

Created by Tom Hardy and his dad Chips, with a cast of drama stalwarts and fresh faced talent led by Hardy himself (yes that is Jonathan Pryce smouldering out from under his eyebrows) you'd be forgiven for thinking Taboo couldn't be a more perfect costume drama. But it can. Hardy, also taking the reins as executive producer, has teamed with writer of Peaky Blinders Steven Knight, Ridley Scott (yes Ridley Scott) and Kristofer Nyholm who directed The Killing. I mean it really won't be hard to convince every adult member of your family that they want to watch this dark take on a period drama.

All this excitement got me thinking, just what is it about men wearing starched collars shouting at each other in candlelit parlours that drives us Brits so wild? Read on for a concise guide to the perfect costume drama. Or don't, and just watch Taboo instead. With a Dry January mocktail. And your gleeful granny.


While they might not be actively challenging windswept models, sorry, noblemen to a duel, the captivating visual landscapes costume dramas play out upon is obviously a huge part of the reason we're so obsessed with them. Why else would Stanley Kubrick insist on lighting the entirety of Barry Lyndon with candles? Well I mean, unless the guy just really hated his production team. Elaborate and intricate sets are crucial when it comes to evoking that classic "don't you wish you lived then, but also if you did you'd probably just be a maidservant and ladle soup for a living" feeling. 

Still, a viewer can dream eh? And how better to dream than being guided through the baroque, candle-lit ballrooms of War and Peace, all marble floors and incestuous silk bedsheets. Or over the misty streets of Peaky Blinders' Birmingham. And to the haters who say we only watch costume dramas for a heavy dose of upper-class escapism: what self-proclaimed period piece would be complete without the reminder that sewage and dirty water ran freely down the cobbled roads? As did thieves and murderers. And really, really hot people, apparently. 


Ah, the costumes. Those breast cupping, crotch outlining, throat-choking (or is that a storyline…?) costumes. How much more conventionally British can you get than forcing RADA trained actors to splutter out lines about decorum while wearing what is essentially a "sexy Marie Antoinette" outfit put through a dark wash. I only really started watching shows like Downton Abbey and their ilk for the inconceivably tight waistlines and faultless fabric colour matches that some quiet genius continues to churn out. Whether you're in to corsets and doublets or not, who can argue with the marriage of an EastEnders plotline to a bunch of ladies in lace up to their chins wearing hats that look like gigantic punctuation marks nicked off the end sequence from an old episode of Art Attack?

As outlined above, costume dramas are quite literally defined by the presence of funky outfits. You know, the kind you start throwing together after your first relationship falls apart and you're not forced to wear clean Gazelles and mom jeans any more. But. BUT. There's more than just meltdown layering to this iconic British genre. As a nation proudest of its worst behaved heroes (think Guy Fawkes) the costume drama provides a backdrop for the kind of morally acceptable crime even your cross uncle will crack a wry smile over. They allow us to indulge in a spot of victimless violence, the pleasure of finishing all the gravy at lunch without having to live through the shame of your mum's stony glare. It's all so deliciously unbelievable, too. 

I mean, you have to wonder how many erotically-charged discussions were really had in the 1800's as a razor was pressed to the throat of a foamy faced gangster by his gravel-voiced barber. Or how many women fell lustfully in the arms of a man wearing a waistcoat so tight that from behind his back looks like a Christmas turkey. There's no question the violence is gripping – what would Peaky Blinders be without a good old shouty tussle outside a church, but it's more moustaches at dawn than gore at… dinnertime? A bit of rough and tumble with a panto wink and a heady dose of good old British anti-authority at its core. Don't mind if I do.


Yes, the romping. Come on, stop kidding yourself, that's what's so bloody enticing. All that trembling cleavage and barely veiled muscularity is essentially Carry On for people who want to pretend they aren't waiting for the moment when a fleshy body part is dramatically exposed to a cacophony of gasps and sighs. A good costume drama is nothing without its Mr Darcy; its ravishing hunk; its man who would almost certainly cry-max and start talking about his parents if you hooked up with him in real life. They're phenomenally sexy and Taboo, whilst it may gleefully subvert almost everything else we've come to expect from a period drama, is no exception. I'm just sorry you're going to have to watch it with your family. Believe me, there will be some serious squirming on the sofa. Tea anyone?

You wouldn't think it but Scroobius Pip is as into the minutiae of period dramas as we are. He's summarised all of the themes we've touched on and more in his trademark eloquent style. Have a watch.

Be aware there's loads of swearing in this video:

Taboo airs on BBC One from January the 7th, 2017 at 9.15PM