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Last Updated on February 10, 2024 by Stefanie Hutson
British television produces an abundance of great period dramas. Most are adaptations of classic British novels by renowned authors like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, and more. So, it's no surprise that most of the shows on this list are book adaptations. This also means many of the shows on this list have been adapted for the small screen (and silver screen) more than once.
For this list, we focused on romantic and historical dramas. While excellent shows like Peaky Blinders and Call the Midwife can be called period dramas, we kept this list to the grand costume-drama-style shows most think of when hearing the words “period drama.”
The 10 Best British Period Dramas of All Time
As always, “the best” is subjective; so, how did we pick these? This list was compiled using a combination of IMDb ratings, popularity (number of ratings), and some insight as a fellow fan. Your favourite show may not be listed here, but don't fret: we probably love that one, too. Nothing on this list is rated below 8.3/10.
Bleak House follows the outcome of a legal case and the many characters who are affected by it. Fun Fact: Bleak House was one of Agatha Christie's favourite novels. She wrote the rough draft of a script for a screen adaptation, but was never adapted. This 2005 miniseries version gives plenty of time to tell Dickens's expansive, affecting story. This version was written by Andrew Davies who also adapted the Pride & Prejudice (1995) and House of Cards (1990).
Starring Anna Maxwell Martin, Gillian Anderson, Carey Mulligan, Charles Dance, Patrick Kennedy, Burn Gorman, Nathaniel Parker, Richard Harrington, Anne Reid, Phil Davis, and more.
Stream Bleak House on BritBox HERE.
- Fans of Bleak House will also want to watch the adaptation of Dickens's Little Dorrit starring Claire Foy and Matthew Macfadyen, also streaming on BritBox HERE.
Based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh, this 1981 adaptation stars Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, and Diana Quick. Laurence Olivier appears in 2 episodes.
Told in flashbacks, this beloved series follows Charles Ryder, an Army officer who is stationed in an English country house. He realises the house is Brideshead Castle, the family home of his university friend, Sebastian Flyte. This expansive story examines his life in retrospect, from the 1920s to the early 1940s.
This particular selection is probably the most controversial on the list, largely because it created fictional scenes about real people, many of whom were either alive or had close relatives who were alive. Though based on true events, the writers had to use their imaginations to fill in things that happened behind closed doors.
The Crown tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II from the 1940s onward. It was devised by Peter Morgan and based on his play “The Audience”. Since it began, it has grown into a much loved, much anticipated series. It stars a a seemingly-countless number of British heavyweight actors who you'll recognise from many of your favourite shows.
Cast changes allow the characters to age up. Claire Foy, Olivia Colman, and Imelda Staunton all play Queen Elizabeth II. Matt Smith, Tobias Menzies, and Jonathan Pryce play Prince Philip. Princess Margaret is played by Vanessa Kirby, Helena Bonham Carter, and Lesley Manville.
Stream 6 seasons of The Crown on Netflix HERE.
- Fans of The Crown should also check out Victoria starring Jenna Coleman streaming on Amazon Prime HERE.
Downton Abbey begins in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic. But this tragedy is just a taste of what's to come: WWI. Downton Abbey is an epic saga following both the upper-class Crawley family and their servants. It's set in a luxurious mansion in Yorkshire.
Stream all 6 seasons of Downton Abbey on Amazon Prime HERE. At time of writing, it's also available free on The Roku Channel (with ads).
Stream the first Downton Abbey movie HERE.
Stream the second Downton Abbey movie “Downton Abbey: A New Era” HERE.
- Fans of Downton Abbey may also enjoy Parade's End starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Tom Stoppard expertly adapted Ford Maddox Ford's tetralogy, often considered one of the best novels of the 20th century for its expansive look at the impact of WWI. Stream Parade's End on HBO/Max; also available to own on Amazon HERE.
The Forsyte Saga
The Forsyte Saga follows three generations of an upper-middle class family. This is an epic tale following many people through half a century. It's based on the book by John Galsworthy. If you prefer a look at the lives of the lower class, this may not be for you. Servants are seen, not heard.
The highest rated adaptation is the original from 1967, but it doesn't appear to be streaming currently. The DVDs are available on Amazon HERE. (This link is for the NTSC/Region 1/Americas discs at time of publishing article).
The 2002 adaptation stars Damian Lewis, Rupert Graves, Gina McKee, Corin Redgrave, Ioan Gruffudd and many more. The Forsyte Saga (2002) streams on PBS Masterpiece HERE.
There are many adaptations of Jane Eyre, but this one is the highest rated on IMDb. Plus, who can say “no” to Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson? Jane Eyre is a mysterious, romantic story about overcoming hidden secrets. Jane is an orphaned governess who finds employment with the enigmatic Mister Rochester.
This adaptation is a miniseries, allowing ample time to tell the full story. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe.
Stream Jane Eyre on Amazon Prime HERE.
- If you're a fan of the Brontë sisters, be sure to watch To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters available on PBS Masterpiece HERE.
North and South
This story begins when Margaret Hale, a middle-class southerner, moves to a northern industrial town. North and South considers social divides and the consequences of hasty judgments. This gorgeous Victorian period drama is based on the 1854 book by Elizabeth Gaskell.
We cannot stress enough how excellent this period drama is, especially for how often it is overlooked, even by fans of period dramas.
Starring Daniela Denby-Ashe, Richard Armitage, Sinéad Cusack, Tim Pigott-Smith, Brendan Coyle, Jo Joyner, and Lesley Manville.
Stream North and South on BritBox HERE.
- Fans of Pride & Prejudice will enjoy this series as it shares many themes, like social perceptions and what happens when you judge a book by its cover, so to speak.
The series opens when Ross Poldark comes home to Cornwall after fighting for the British in the American War of Independence. His life will never be the same. His father is dead, his family's mine is closed, and the love of his life is engaged to his cousin. It couldn't get much worse and the only way to go is up. We then follow Poldark as he tries to establish a new life.
It stars Aidan Turner, Eleanor Tomlinson, Phil Davis, and more. Stream all 5 seasons of Poldark on Amazon Prime HERE.
RELATED: “18 British Shows like Poldark” HERE.
- There are two older adaptations of Winston Graham's extensive book series: The 1975 version starring Robin Ellis streams on Acorn HERE. Then, a 1996 movie starring John Bowe, Ioan Gruffudd, Mel Marin, and Kelly Reilly is streaming on BritBox HERE.
Pride & Prejudice
This miniseries is not only considered one of the best Jane Austen adaptations of all time, but one of the best period dramas of all time. It is the highest rated show on this list with an IMDb rating of 8.8/10. Starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.
Pride & Prejudice deals with themes of social perception and hasty judgements.
This version takes a full 6 episodes to adapt Jane Austen's classic novel, meaning is has an abundance of depth and character development. It was adapted for the screen by Andrew Davies, known for House of Cards, Middlemarch, Bleak House, and War & Peace.
The 1995 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice (Remastered to 4K) is streaming on BritBox HERE.
RELATED: “The Best Jane Austen Adaptations” HERE.
Downton Abbey has many similarities with this groundbreaking series. Unlike The Forsyte Saga, it doesn't just focus on the upper-class family… This series also follows the downstairs staff. The characters are realistic and complete with flaws and plucky spirits. It's well written and full of great acting. It is even reminiscent of a high-quality stage play.
Starring Jean Marsh, David Langton, and Simon Williams.
All 68 episodes of the original Upstairs, Downstairs are streaming on BritBox HERE.
- A reboot of Upstairs Downstairs aired in 2010. While it wasn't quite as well received as the original, it's still enjoyable to watch, if only for the excellent cast: Dame Eileen Atkins, Keeley Hawes, Ed Stoppard, Anne Reid, and Claire Foy. It is also streaming on BritBox HERE.