To Walk Invisible: A Review (contains spoilers!)

 

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Image from Daily Express

I first saw that the BBC was going to make a drama about the Brontë sisters a few months ago, and I have been looking forward to it ever since. The Brontë sisters are some of my favourite authors and reading Jane Eyre at the impressionable age of 15 was, I would say, the beginning of an interest bordering on obsession which has lasted for years.

To Walk Invisible was directed and written by Sally Wainwright, and aired on BBC One on 29th December: a festive TV treat.  It began with a surreal opening scene, featuring the four surviving Brontë siblings playing one of their favourite childhood games, set in their own fictional world of Gondal.  This is pretty much all we see of their childhood and next thing we know, the siblings are grown adults; the girls busy writing and going for walks across the dramatic Yorkshire moors, and Branwell is drinking himself into an early grave.  All of the actors were well-cast for their roles.  I particularly liked Chloe Pirrie as Emily Brontë.  She gave a very earthy yet at times, very impassioned, portrayal of Emily that seemed to reflect the characters from her only published novel, Wuthering Heights.  Charlie Murphy played Anne as she is always shown to be: sweet tempered, gentle and a bit of a pushover.  I did not warm to Finn Atkins’ Charlotte Brontë, but then neither did I warm to the (what I assume to be accurate) account of the real-life Charlotte I have come across in several biographies.  Of course, Jonathan Pryce could not fail to give a compelling and empathetic performance as the Reverend Patrick Brontë and Adam Nagaitis was a pathetic and at times, hateful Branwell.

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Image from radiotimes.co.uk

The first half of this drama was rather slow, I felt, and for those of us who may already know a few facts about the Brontës, it was a somewhat frustrating pace.  In particular, the drama seemed to focus very heavily on Branwell and how he drank.  I felt it was a shame for the drama not to show much of the childhood of these extraordinary people.  It might have added context to the way in which the sisters treated Branwell in their adult life.  I also felt it was something of a disservice to show only this side of Branwell, which sadly is pretty much all he is ever known for anyway.  Given that in one of the final scenes, the famous portrait of the three Brontë sisters is shown, it might have been nice to have had the artist – Branwell Brontë – credited earlier.  His end was sad and untimely and self-inflicted, but that is not all that there was to him and it is interesting to consider what he might have achieved had alcohol and drugs not had such a hold over him.

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Image from wikipedia

The pace picked up a little once the girls began to write their most famous novels and sought out publishers for them.  The scene in which Charlotte tells her father that she is the famous author of Jane Eyre is particularly touching and one gets a real sense of how brave, how thrifty and how ground-breaking these young women were.  The script alludes to the fact that at the time, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey and Jane Eyre were all viewed as fresh and radical.  It gives an idea also of how celebrated Charlotte was in her own lifetime and how successful.  This is further accentuated in another charming scene when Charlotte and Anne visit London and reveal themselves to their publishers.

After this, the drama moves quickly towards its tragic and, in my opinion all too abrupt close.  Inevitably, Branwell drinks himself to death and the sisters have to deal with the aftermath.  Charlotte and Patrick are shown in tears – a hint of what was to come.  The scenes we then view are from the modern day: images of the Brontë parsonage as it is now with its plastic covers protecting the table at which the novels were written and its bright and airy visitor centre and shop.  I liked the contrast and how tangible it made the history feel.  However, what I did not like was that the end of Emily and Anne’s lives was relegated to some typed text at the bottom of the screen, and the odd choice not to feature the rest of Charlotte’s.  Although sad, I think it a shame that we did not see how Charlotte dealt with the death of her siblings, or how went on to be celebrated further and to marry before she died of pneumonia in 1854.

I do not know if the writer had a specific purpose in showing only this small section of the life of the Brontë family, but as a viewer and a fan, it did seem that several important episodes which might have shed a little more light on the quiet and largely unfamiliar Brontë story, were unfortunately omitted.  That being said, To Walk Invisible was an interesting drama and worth watching for the performances of the actors.

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Image from radiotimes.co.uk

 

A Comparison of Adaptations: Mansfield Park

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As a costume drama junkie with a fondness for comparing different adaptations of the same novel, I have decided to do just this in the hope that some may enjoy the same.  Jane Austen adaptations seemed a good place to start as they are amongst some of the most popular.

There are three television adaptations, of which I am aware, of Austen’s lesser-read novel, Mansfield Park.  I am going to begin with the most recent.  In 2007, ITV showed three new Jane Austen adaptations, each with something new to add to the stories they retold.  Mansfield Park starred Billie Piper as perhaps Austen’s least popular heroine, Fanny Price, and Blake Ritson as Edmund Bertram – possibly the wettest of Austen’s heroes.  In compensation for Fanny’s reputation as an intensely annoying, saccharine character, Piper played her as someone much more wilful and sharp witted.  Ritson’s Edmund was still wet but a little more endearing than other portrayals I have seen.  Those of you who have read Mansfield Park will know that it is a long novel, which, somewhat unusually for Austen, subtly addresses several key controversial issues of the regency period in England.  Of course, there is the usual satire and social commentary.  Through her forthright and outspoken anti-heroine, Mary Crawford, she pokes fun at the customs and rules surrounding the idea of a young lady being ‘out’ or ‘not out’*, she makes fun of the clergy, and questions the idea that people of the upper class are really any more refined or sophisticated than anyone else.  However, she also explores marital infidelity, the perils of gambling and drinking to excess and a huge amount of literature to date has explored the issues surrounding the head of the Bertram family, Sir Thomas, and his sugar plantations.  This is, therefore, a big novel to adapt for screen and each version I have seen has focused on a slightly different area.  In this version, Sir Thomas appears as a rather dark and unpleasant character for much of the time, though there are some interesting scenes between him and his children which show a softer, more understanding side to his nature.

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Image from janeaustenfilmclub.blogspot.co.uk

The first half of this adaptation is largely true to the novel, save for the slight alterations in Fanny’s character, but I was disappointed that rather than including scenes of Fanny’s return to her family in Portsmouth (for me one of the most poignant and emotional parts of this story) it instead has the Bertram family leaving Fanny behind to be alone at Mansfield Park so that she can see what it would be like to live a life of loneliness if she does not marry Henry Crawford.

The ending of this adaptation was, again, different to the novel, but rather more romantic and not without charm.  Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram are shown as being very much in favour of the match between Edmund and Fanny after all the drama they have previously faced, and Fanny becomes a lot more grown up and even more carnal in this final part – something that I feel is needed in this romance between two cousins who have grown up together almost as brother and sister.  I have always found it slightly difficult to understand how Edmund comes to see Fanny in this light – how does someone go from seeing someone almost as a sister to seeing them as a lover?  But this drama handles the transition as well as possible, and in the end, it is easy to be happy for Fanny and Edmund and to believe that they should be together.

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Image from youtube.com

The second adaptation that I am going to discuss is the 1999 film, starring Frances O’Conner and Jonny Lee Miller as the lead characters.  This is an unusual adaption in that it merges scenes and writing from Jane Austen’s own life with that of her heroine’s.  In one early scene, when we are being introduced to the character of Fanny, we see her writing her own History of England, a work which Austen herself produced when she was fifteen.  This version is the fastest paced and most dramatic of the adaptations.  Fanny is, again, updated for a modern audience and is presented as feisty and self-assured.  There is a strong strain of comedy running throughout this film presented through Fanny’s own interpretation of events, and this is an interesting aspect to add to what is arguably the darkest of Austen’s novels.  Perhaps the writer, Patricia Rozema, felt it would be needed as this version does tend to emphasise these baser subjects – I am thinking particularly of the moment when Fanny discovers a sketch book of Tom Bertram’s filled with horrific drawings depicting the cruelty faced by the slaves on his father’s plantation.  This is used as the reason behind his difficult relationship with his father.  Another difference between this adaptation and the book is the slightly bizarre decision to turn Fanny’s beloved brother from the novel into a beloved sister, or rather, to elevate the relationship between Fanny and Susan and to completely omit the character of William Price.  Although this allows for some more intimate conversations to take place between the two sisters, it is a shame, as this is one of more important relationships in the novel, not to mention the role it plays in teasing the readers about the integrity and morality of Henry Crawford’s character. Mary Crawford, played by Embeth Davidtz is almost completely unlikable in this film and, as in the novel, it is when she speaks her mind once too often and reveals her hopes of marriage to Edmund only when he has been elevated to Sir Edmund upon the untimely death of his older brother that Edmund begins to notice Fanny and to see her as a potential wife.  What this film has going for it is a lovely soundtrack, a much more modern focus, and lead characters who feel somehow more tangible than in other versions, not to mention the odd laugh here and there.

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Image from austenefforts.blogspot.co.uk

The final version I am going to discuss is my favourite.  The BBC mini-series was made in 1983 and starred Sylvestra Le Touzel and Nicholas Farrell as Fanny and Edmund.  This is by far the most faithful to the novel and due to its length, it is able to reproduce the story almost chapter for chapter.  It is very much of its time in that many of its scenes are devoted to dialogue rather than action, Georgian phrases with which a modern audience may not be familiar are repeated by the actors, and the costumes are historically accurate rather than necessarily attractive or flattering.  However, for all these things, I love it and find it rather comforting and engaging to watch.  One feels that when Austen wrote this novel, this is what she saw in her head.

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Image from theassemblyrooms.blogspot.co.uk

As in the novel, the mini-series glosses over much of the darker subject matter which more modern adaptations have brought to the fore, and instead the characters and their interactions with one another are what matter.  Sir Thomas Bertram is played by the wonderful Bernard Hepton and although still authoritative, this is probably the gentlest portrayal of the different adaptations.  The same can be said Angela Pleasance’s Lady Bertram.  Mary Crawford (played by Jackie Smith-Wood) is very likable in this version but, of course, deeply floored.  I find it an interesting decision of the writer’s to included so many conversations between Edmund and Fanny in which he tries to understand Mary’s character, and more importantly to explain away her faults due to the people to whom she has been exposed.  Farrell’s Edmund is unavoidably feeble in some scenes but he also shows a lot of tenderness towards Fanny which helps to explain the attraction she feels towards her cousin.  Le Touzel’s Fanny Price is possibly the closest to the heroine of the novel.  She is always good and moral, shy and steadfast.  She is also incredibly awkward at times and full to the brim of unexpressed passion and emotion.  Perhaps I am alone in not actually finding Fanny Price as insipid as some others seem to, and perhaps this is why I prefer Le Touzel’s portrayal.  The final declaration of love in this version is quiet and matter of fact, as it is in Austen’s novel.  It could be somewhat disappointing and understated for a modern audience but it is faithful and so, for some, could be just what one wants from a Jane Austen adaptation.

A review of Poldark (contains spoilers)

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Image from The Independent Times

Poldark combines two of my greatest loves – Cornwall and, of course, period drama.  This second series was long awaited, as it had been over a year since the end of series one when the first episode was finally aired.

The first series saw the return of Captain Ross Poldark to his home in Cornwall after three years of fighting in the American War of Independence.  Here, he is dismayed to find that his father has died, his home is neglected and his former love, Elizabeth, has become engaged to his cousin, Francis.  He nevertheless picks himself up and between marrying his kitchen maid, Demelza and re-establishing his home, also becomes a figurehead to the people of his land by helping them to regain control of their homes and their tin mines from the greedy aristocratic Warleggan family.

When, in 2013, it was first announced that there was to be a remake of the classic and hugely popular Poldark (first shown in the 1970s) there was outrage from fans who believed that nothing could be better than the 1975 BBC version.  However, since then, this modern version has also enjoyed great success, fetching in an audience of 5.1 million viewers for the first episode of series two.

I cannot comment on the comparison between the two productions, as I have never seen the 1975 version.  Nor can I comment on whether Aidan Turner’s Poldark is true to the original character in Winston Graham’s series of novels.  However, I can review the series simply as I have seen it.

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Image from BBC website

The music and the scenery in this drama are both stunning.  The opening sequence gives me goose pimples each time it is shown, and I particularly liked the way that folk songs, usually sung by Demelza are woven into the soundtrack of many of the episodes.  This drama celebrates its location as much time is devoted to showing the breath-taking beauty of Cornwall –  its rugged, untamed cliffs, the glittering sea, the grand, elegant houses…they all combine to make this programme a pleasure to watch –  a treat for the eyes.  Let’s not forget the stunningly good looking cast too; they’re equally as indulgent to watch.  Aidan Turner, who has now become almost as famous for his topless Poldark scenes as Colin Firth became for his ‘wet shirt scene’ in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, plays a character who is very human and full of faults, despite being the hero of the piece.  In series two, I think we see more of this than in the first when, as far as I can remember, his good-guy status was pretty well fixed.  Now that he has been married to Demelza for some years, this series switches focus somewhat to examine Ross’ relationship with Elizabeth and those feelings which we cannot shake that he has never completely gotten over her.  This is, of course, is what lead to the controversial episode which caused all the outrage – the one in which he finally seduces Elizabeth, or perhaps it was the other way around.  Whichever it was, the only outrage I felt was at Ross’s betrayal of Demelza and I think the emotional fallout was played superbly by all the actors involved, particularly Eleanor Tomlinson.  The scenes in which Demelza toys with taking revenge on her unfaithful husband by sleeping with Captain McNeil were horribly believable to watch, but luckily her character was restored to form for any viewer who loves Demelza for her loyalty and innate goodness.

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Image from Daily Express website

There is also the relationship between Poldark and George Warleggan which takes precedence in this series.  After George effectively tries to get Poldark hanged in episode one, the tension understandably grows between the two, to the extent that George seems to be after everything that Ross holds dear – his mine, his family and even the supposed love of his life, Elizabeth.  This enmity between the two provides a gripping narrative for the second series that sees many of the other characters harmed or sometimes elevated in the viewers’ eyes.

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Image from BBC website

Poldark is not a cosy, reassuring period drama to watch on a Sunday night as, for example, a Jane Austen adaptation might be.  But it is exciting, visually stunning, passionate and engrossing.  This second series has certainly persuaded me to go back and re-watch the first series (which did not capture my imagination quite as much) and I am looking forward to series three.  Let’s hope it’s not such a long wait this time!

A Review of Victoria

 

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Image from ITV.com

A couple of weeks ago, ITV’s lavish period drama, Victoria finished and this has left many people with an empty void in their late Sunday evenings.  These people are, of course, missing the crucial point that Poldark is still showing on BBC One, nevertheless, the fact remains that in losing our weekly dose of Victoria, we have lost a very entertaining, very visually appealing, very engaging piece of drama.  The good news is that it is already set to return for another series in 2017, thus continuing the story of Queen Victoria’s life.

I was not sure what I would make of Victoria before it was shown.  Regular readers might remember that I mentioned it before in another post, along with my concerns that there already exists a very good drama about Queen Victoria’s life starring Victoria Hamilton and Jonathan Firth.  However, this drama, starring Jenna Coleman had a very different feel to it, and I could appreciate it in its own right.

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Image from radiotimes website

The first episode dealt mainly with Victoria’s life before she became queen, with Catherine Flemming doing a wonderful job of representing the loving but ambitious Duchess of Kent and Paul Rhys playing the notoriously unpleasant Sir John Conroy.  And there was Rufus Sewell.  He featured heavily in the first few episodes, which was highly pleasing, and then pretty much seemed to completely disappear.  At first, I wondered if I had missed something.  Had Melbourne mentioned that he was going away?  Had he become ill, or had he died and had I simply zoned out at the relevant moment?  However, at the same time, I was reading A. N. Wilson’s Victoria: A Life, and this seems to actually be what happened.  After Victoria married Albert, Melbourne (with whom, contrary to what I had previously thought, she had shared a strange sort of unsuitable, undeclared romance) was frozen out and forgotten by Victoria so that it soon became painful for him even to ride in his carriage past Buckingham Palace (according to A.N. Wilson).  When he did eventually die, Victoria, who was by then the mother of six children seemed to regard the event so little, she gave it one short, sentence-long mention in her diary. So, the loss of Sewell’s character was great indeed, however, this is also when I felt the story line seemed to pick up the pace a little.  Tom Hughes, whose looks seem to match Queen Victoria’s own description of Prince Albert played a very convincing role and represented the prince as slightly more introverted and undemonstrative than in other dramas.  However, this too, chimes with the way in which history seems to view Victoria’s grounding and intelligent husband.  Coleman herself played a very youthful and emotional Victoria who, despite her impulsiveness and at times, her carelessness of other people’s feelings, was easy to warm to.  It was the scenes which involved the royal couple that were my favourite to watch.  It was refreshing and comforting to watch a drama which, at this stage of the series at least, shows two young people falling in love and making their start in life, and seems to celebrate this.  The parts which showed the servants and their story lines were less appealing to me, simply because I was watching this drama to find out about the life of Victoria.  To me, their scenes felt like an interruption to the main story line; it felt almost as if the servants should have had their own series, something akin to ITV’s Downton Abbey or the BBC’s Servants.

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Image from ITV.com

All in all, I really enjoyed this series.  Yes, some events were exaggerated or changed slightly for dramatic effect, but if we’re not too bothered about the historical accuracy and desire instead something that is easy to follow and weaves a strong narrative to the early life of this much-analysed queen, then this drama certainly provides that.  I am already looking forward to the next series.

A few things I learnt on a V&A Study Day…

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A few weeks ago, a good friend and I treated ourselves to a V and A study day on costume design for costume drama. I wasn’t sure what to expect and as the date drew nearer I did have some forebodings, fearing I might actually have signed myself up for something like hard work during my precious free time. However, what followed was actually a thoroughly pleasant way to spend a Saturday – a chance to be talked at by some real experts about something I adore.  If you’re reading this, then I’m assuming you may adore it too and so here are a few gems I’d like to share:

  1. The day began with an introduction to the costume house, COSPROP. This was set up by John Bright 50 years ago and is widely used by costume designers. It also includes a number of real costumes which date, I believe, back to the Georgian era.
  2. Several costume dramas use pieces that are actually from the era being portrayed. This is more common in earlier costume dramas due to the garments becoming more fragile with age. In Merchant Ivory’s A Room with a View, Helena Bonham Carter is wearing a real Edwardian gown in the famous fainting scene.
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Image from saxonhenry.com

3. One of the most interesting talks of the day was given by John Bloomfield, who amongst other things, designed the costumes for the 1970s BBC production of The Six Wives of Henry VIII. This is often held up as a hugely successful television show, which paved the way for other successful costume dramas to follow (Elizabeth R, Poldark, The Onedin Line). I’ve watched this series time and time again and never noticed how each important family had its own colour palette for their costumes – oranges, warm browns and reds for the Boleyns/Howards, Green for the Seymours and everyone else in either black and silver or black and gold.

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Image from pinterest.com

4. Each episode of The Six Wives had a budget of only £2000 for costumes. Therefore, many of the jewels that sparkle so magnificently on the costumes are actually painted bits of cardboard, screws, curtain rings, name plates and lots of PVA.

5. The costumes were designed to reflect the Tudor portraits of Hans Holbein.

6. Almost all historical costume that you see on screen begins with the underwear.  The actors and actresses do tend to wear full replica historical underwear to give their clothes the desired shape and structure.

7. Most actors and actresses are very involved in the costume design process. Their preferences and ideas about the characters they are playing are often taken largely into consideration. Jenny Beavan regaled us with stories about Vanessa Redgrave’s input on her character’s costume in Howard’s End, and how, in the end, her decisions worked for the best

8. During the final part of the day, the stage was filled with some of the designers and makers who worked on the costumes for Downton Abbey. Like many other productions, this too uses real pieces from the Edwardian era, mainly for the maids’ aprons.

9. Each Crawley sister has her own colour palette, meant to reflect the ways in which real people dress, i.e. we tend to find two or three colours that suit us and own several garments in these hues.

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Image from fanpop.com

10. For the last year, COSPROP has been working on conserving and consolidating its vast and wonderful collection of authentic historical costumes so that each one could be photographed and enjoyed by the likes of you and me on a website, which is currently underway. In the meantime, you can visit https://www.facebook.com/CostumeHeritage/ to see the updates and glimpses of what is to come.

War and Peace – a Review (with spoilers!)

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Good Evening,

I thought I’d begin by reviewing a few of the period dramas that have been on so far this year.  These reviews are intended for people who, like myself, have watched the series already and are interested to know what other viewers have thought.  They therefore contain spoilers and comments are more than welcome.

The first, and by far my favourite, has been the BBC’s War and Peace.  I began watching this, really out of a sense of duty to the costume drama world, rather than because I thought it would be my thing.  I’ve seen that tome of a book on shelves a number of times, and never once been inclined to read it.  I think it’s the word, ‘war’.  I was also put off by my 9 month long experience of reading Tolstoy’s other classic, Anna Karenina, a few years ago.  This is undeniably a great book, a classic, a work of genius.  But I found it hard and arduous to get through, mostly because of the long, philosophical and political musings of Levin, which I just couldn’t be very interested in when what I really wanted to know was, is Anna going to leave her boring husband, and will Levin get with Kitty?

So, with this in mind, I began to watch the first episode of War and Peace, expecting to abandon it mid series.  I found the characters rather hard to like at first, and it was difficult to identify or sympathise with any of them.  However, by the end of episode two, I was hooked.  Natasha and Prince Andrei seemed to provide the standard romantic leads, yet all the while, there was Pierre, who, awkward, self-indulgent and naïve was, nevertheless, somehow beguiling.  Paul Dano played him so sensitively and compellingly, that despite the character’s selfish beginnings, I ended up rooting for him all the way.

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I could see clear links with the philosophy of Anna Karenina, particularly in Pierre’s burning desire to find a meaning to his life, and his resolve to live in a simple, peasant-style way, as seen at the end of the final episode.  And I felt happy for him.  What’s more, I felt that Natasha really did love him and hadn’t simply settled for him now that Prince Andrei was no more.

After the rather unique episode that concentrated almost entirely on Natasha’s moral downfall, the rest of the series became more and more serious, culminating in a brutal final episode.  It was violent, bleak and saw the demise of several characters.  But this was necessary, and not unexpected, given the series’ title.  I’d never warmed much to Andrei and certainly not to Helene, but the loss of Adrian Edmondson’s character, Count Ilya Rostov was tragic at the end of the series.  This was because I’d really become fond of some the characters and wanted the best for them.  I even managed to follow some of the parts about the war too!

The costumes were eye catching, suited the characters well, and were memorable.  I questioned the authenticity of one of Gillian Anderson’s gowns, wondering whether the ‘one shoulder style’ was a thing in early 19th Century Russia.

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I have not yet had a chance to research this.  Princess Marya’s dresses were all suitably modest and sober, and Kitty’s were floaty and feminine.  I thought her revealing and nude coloured gown particularly suitable for the episode in which she is seduced by Anatole Kuragin. The men looked great too, with several of them in uniforms.  Count Ilya’s clothes were eye-catching, upbeat, and seemed to hark back to the traditional Russian style before Europe started to have an influence on fashion here.

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There was something so lavish and indulgent about the whole feel of this drama and I certainly missed it being on last Sunday.

Hope you enjoyed the review,

Jennifer

Pictures are from the BBC website, the Telegraph and the Metro websites.