15 of the Best British Period Dramas Featuring Dame Maggie Smith

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Last Updated on May 17, 2024 by Stefanie Hutson

Dame Maggie Smith's role as the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey may be the one most modern viewers know her for, but she's been wowing audiences in period dramas for longer than many of us have been alive. In this post, we'll take a look at some of her finest British period drama moments – beginning, of course, with her most famous role… 

Downton Abbey (2010)

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Dame Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

Set in the early 20th century, Downton Abbey follows the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants, navigating social changes, personal dramas, and historical events beginning with the sinking of the Titanic and continuing through World War I and beyond. The series devotes a great deal of time to the upstairs-downstairs dynamic between servants and masters, particularly the evolution of that relationship as old, wealthy families begin to feel the financial strain of their ancestral burdens.

Dame Maggie Smith appears as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham. Her sharp wit and incisive commentary provide both comic relief and surprisingly profound insight throughout the series. Other major stars include Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, whose dedication to his estate and family drives much of the plot; Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley, the strong-willed and complex eldest daughter; Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley, the American-born wife of the Earl, who brings a modern sensibility to the family; and Jim Carter as Mr. Carson, the dignified and loyal butler who oversees the running of the household.

Last spotted on: BritBox, Amazon Prime, Peacock

The Miracle Club (2023)

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The Miracle Club

Technically, The Miracle Club is set in Ireland and France – but as Ireland is part of the geographic region known as the British Isles (encompassing Great Britain, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and many of the surrounding islands), we're including it. 

Set in 1967, The Miracle Club follows a group of women from a close-knit Dublin community who embark on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, seeking solace, healing, and a miracle for each of their struggles. The film centers on Chrissie, Eileen, and Lily, three friends who, over the course of their pilgrimage, will discover strength in their friendship and faith.

Dame Maggie Smith stars as Lily Fox, a widow whose journey to Lourdes becomes a quest for closure and forgiveness. Laura Linney plays Chrissie, while Kathy Bates fills out the leading trio in the role of Eileen.

Last spotted on: Netflix

From Time to Time (2009)

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From Time to Time

Set near the end of WWII, this fantasy period drama follows young Tolly, a teen spending Christmas at his grandmother's country house when he begins seeing ghosts and time travelling between the present and the early 19th century. Maggie Smith appears as Mrs. Oldknow, his grandmother. At the end of the war, she finds herself low on funds and considering the sale of the estate. 

Over the course of their time together, grandmother and grandson grow closer and each one helps the other to get over a significant hurdle in their lives.

Last spotted on: Amazon Prime

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

Set in 1930s Edinburgh, this 1969 film follows the story of an unorthodox and charismatic teacher at an all-girls school. Maggie Smith plays Miss Jean Brodie, a young teacher who's dedicated to molding a select group of students, known as the “Brodie set” and influencing them with her progressive, often controversial views on art, politics, and life. As Miss Brodie's influence grows, her relationships with her students and colleagues become increasingly complex and fraught with tension…and consequences.

This particular role earned Maggie Smith an Academy Award for Best Actress. 

Last spotted on: DVD

Gosford Park (2001)

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Dame Maggie in Gosford Park

Set in 1932, Gosford Park is a murder mystery that unfolds during a weekend shooting party at an English country estate. The story weaves together the lives of the aristocratic guests and their servants, revealing hidden secrets, complex relationships, and simmering tensions. When the host, Sir William McCordle, is found murdered, the lines between the upper class and their staff blur as everyone becomes a suspect.

Dame Maggie Smith shines as Constance, Countess of Trentham, an imperious and sharp-tongued dowager whose biting wit and keen observations add a fun dash of intrigue and humour (remind anyone else of Downtown Abbey?). 

Last spotted on: Streaming rental on services like Prime Video and Apple TV

Death on the Nile (1978)

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Death on the Nile

Set against the backdrop of an opulent Nile River cruise, this star-studded adaptation of Agatha Christie's famed novel also includes an appearance from Dame Maggie Smith. The story follows renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) as he investigates the murder of the wealthy and beautiful heiress Linnet Ridgeway. 

Dame Maggie Smith stars as Miss Bowers, the stern and efficient nurse-companion to the formidable Mrs. Van Schuyler. Along with Smith, Bette Davis takes on the role of the wealthy and imperious Mrs. Van Schuyler, Mia Farrow portrays the troubled Jacqueline de Bellefort, Angela Lansbury plays Mrs. Salome Otterbourne, and Jane Birkin plays Louise Bourget.

Last spotted on: Streaming rental or free with ads on sites like Tubi, Crackle, Pluto, Roku Channel

David Copperfield (1999)

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David Copperfield (1999)

Set in Victorian England, the 1999 adaptation of David Copperfield brings Charles Dickens' classic novel to life, following the journey of young David Copperfield from a troubled childhood to a prosperous adulthood. As David navigates the challenges of orphanhood, cruelty, and poverty, he encounters a rich array of characters who shape his life and his destiny, including the kind-hearted Peggotty family, the treacherous Uriah Heep, and the benevolent Mr. Micawber.

Dame Maggie Smith appears as Betsey Trotwood, David's formidable yet compassionate great-aunt. Her performance captures the essence of Betsey's strong will and deep sense of justice, providing David with much-needed support and stability. Other cast members include Trevor Eve, Daniel Radcliffe, Zoë Wanamaker, Pauline Quirke, Alun Armstrong, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Dawn French, Ian McKellen, and Ciarán McMenamin.

Last spotted on: BritBox

Evil Under the Sun (1982)

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Evil Under the Sun

Set in the glamorous world of a luxury island resort, Evil Under the Sun is a murder mystery based on Agatha Christie's novel of the same name. Detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) is called to solve the murder of a famous stage actress, Arlena Marshall, who is found strangled on the beach. As Poirot explores the surprisingly complex web of relationships and hidden motives among the resort's guests, he uncovers secrets and lies that will stun nearly everyone involved.

Dame Maggie Smith stars as Daphne Castle, the sharp-witted and resilient owner of the island resort. Dame Diana Rigg also appears as murdered starlet Arlena Marshall.

Last spotted on: BritBox and streaming rental sites

Ladies in Lavender (2004)

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Ladies in Lavender

Set in 1936, Ladies in Lavender is a lovely little drama about two elderly sisters, Janet and Ursula Widdington, who live a quiet life in a picturesque Cornish village. Their peaceful existence is disrupted when they discover a young Polish violinist, Andrea, washed ashore near their home. As they nurse him back to health, the sisters' lives are transformed by his presence, leading to unexpected feelings and a reawakening of long-lost dreams.

Dame Maggie Smith stars as Janet Widdington, the more practical of the two sisters. And of course, she stars alongside the equally wonderful Dame Judi Dench, who played her sister Ursula. 

Last spotted on: Streaming rental or free with ads on sites like Roku Channel, Tubi, and Freevee

The Lady in the Van (2015)

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The Lady in the Van

Set in the 1970s and 80s, The Lady in the Van is based on the true story of playwright Alan Bennett's unusual friendship with Miss Mary Shepherd, an eccentric, homeless woman who parked her dilapidated van in his driveway and lived there for 15 years. As the years pass, Alan and Mary develop a unique bond, revealing the complexities of charity and human connection.

Dame Maggie Smith stars as Miss Mary Shepherd, bringing us a remarkable performance that blends humour, vulnerability, and stubbornness. 

Last spotted on: Streaming rental sites like Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, Apple TV

Quartet (1981)

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Set in 1920s Paris, Quartet follows the turbulent lives of Marya Zelli, a young Englishwoman, and her husband Stephan, who is imprisoned for art theft. Left destitute and vulnerable, Marya is taken in by an older English couple, H.J. and Lois Heidler. As Marya becomes increasingly dependent on the Heidlers, she finds herself entangled in a web of manipulation and jealousy.

Dame Maggie Smith stars as Lois Heidler, a sophisticated and controlling woman who exerts a powerful influence over Marya. Isabelle Adjani plays Marya, while Alan Bates plays HJ.

Last spotted on: Fandor, streaming rental or free with ads on Tubi

Tea With Mussolini (1999)

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Tea With Mussolini

Set in 1930s and 40s Italy, the 1999 film Tea with Mussolini follows the story of a group of English expatriate women, known as the Scorpioni, living in Florence as they navigate the upheavals of World War II. Led by the formidable Lady Hester Random, the women strive to maintain their refined lifestyles and cultural pursuits despite the growing fascist threat. Their lives are further complicated when they take in a young Italian boy named Luca Innocente, who is deeply influenced by their guidance and care.

Dame Maggie Smith appears as Lady Hester Random, the imperious and staunchly traditional leader of the Scorpioni. Other major stars include Dame Judi Dench as Arabella, an eccentric and warm-hearted artist who's passionate about preserving Italian art; Joan Plowright as Mary Wallace, a practical and compassionate woman who becomes something of a mother figure to Luca; and Cher as Elsa Morganthal Strauss-Armistan, a wealthy American widow whose flamboyant style and mysterious past add intrigue to the group. Lily Tomlin also appears as lesbian archaeologist Georgia Rockwell. Fun fact: Dame Judi Dench's late husband Michael Williams also appeared as the British Consul.

Last spotted on: DVD

The Secret Garden (1993)

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The Secret Garden

Set in the early 20th century, The Secret Garden follows the story of Mary Lennox, a young orphaned girl sent to live with her reclusive uncle, Lord Craven, at his vast but gloomy estate in England. There, she discovers a neglected garden tucked away on the grounds and, with the help of her cousin Colin and a local boy named Dickon, brings the garden back to life. As the garden flourishes, so too do the relationships and spirits of those who are involved with it.

Dame Maggie Smith appears as Mrs. Medlock, the stern and imposing housekeeper of Misselthwaite Manor. Other stars include Kate Maberly as Mary Lennox, Heydon Prowse as Colin Craven, and Andrew Knott as Dickon.

Last spotted on: Paramount+ or streaming rental 

A Room with a View (1985)

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A Room With a View

Set in the early 20th century, A Room with a View follows the story of Lucy Honeychurch, a young Englishwoman traveling in Italy with her overbearing cousin, Charlotte Bartlett. While staying at a guest house in Florence, Lucy meets the free-spirited George Emerson, leading to her romantic awakening. Torn between societal expectations and her true desires, Lucy must decide whether to follow her heart or adhere to the conventions of her class and upbringing.

Dame Maggie Smith appears as Charlotte Bartlett, Lucy's prudish and meddling chaperone. Other major stars include Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch, Julian Sands as George Emerson, and Daniel Day-Lewis as Cecil Vyse, Lucy's pretentious and socially superior fiancé, who represents the restrictive norms of Edwardian society.

Last spotted on: BritBox, Max

The Missionary (1982)

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The Missionary

Set in Edwardian England, The Missionary follows Reverend Charles Fortescue, who returns to England after ten years as a missionary in Africa. Assigned by the church to minister to fallen women in London, he finds himself navigating a series of hilarious and increasingly complicated situations. His efforts to fulfill his mission are both earnest and clumsy, leading to a series of comedic misadventures.

Dame Maggie Smith stars as Lady Isabel Ames, a wealthy and eccentric benefactor with a peculiar interest in Reverend Fortescue's mission. It's a great opportunity to see Smith in one of her earlier haughty, aristocratic roles. Aside from the brilliance of Dame Maggie, the film also includes performances from Michael Palin (Monty Python), David Suchet (Poirot), Timothy Spall (The Sixth Commandment), Frances Barber (Whistable Pearl), Denholm Elliott (A Room with a View), and Graham Crowden (Waiting for God). 

Last spotted on: DVD


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The Best British Period Dramas Featuring Dame Maggie Smith


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