Wednesday, January 6, 2016

History in Print or on Video, Take Your Pick

By  Jeff Burns

Americans have been fans of British dramas for a long time, especially period shows, often BBC productions broadcast by PBS..  You’re probably familiar with classics like Upstairs, Downstairs, Brideshead Revisited, and Downton Abbey, but here are a few that you might want to watch on Netflix and/or read the books on which they are based.

Call the Midwife, based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, is about a group nurse midwives and nuns who run a medical facility in London’s impoverished East End in the 1950s.  It was the BBC’s most successful drama since 2001, and every episode has layers of drama.  There’s the life-and-death drama you’d expect in a medical show, but also each character has her own personal drama, whether it’s a love affair, a family conflict, feelings of inadequacy, or alcoholism.  On top of that, there are the social, racial, economic, and political tensions that Britain grappled with in the post- World War II period.  Each episode is humorous, sad, inspiring, and educational all at once.

Homefires is based on a book called Jambusters by Julie Summers.  It tells the story of a rural Women’s Institute in the UK during World War II. The Women’s Institute program was created during World War I to mobilize rural British women for the war effort, and they engaged in all sorts of activities from selling war bonds and collecting supplies for the war effort to making and selling jams and growing victory gardens.  The Women’s Institute was a unifying and empowering movement for rural English women, and the book and show tell their story through the lives of the families in this particular small village.  Season 1 consists of 6 episodes, and a second season is currently in production.

 A Young Doctor’s Notebook is based on a collection of short stories by Mikhail Bulgakhov called A Country Doctor’s Notebook.  The stories are set in a rural Russian village during the revolution, and in the series, the doctor is played as a young man  by Daniel Radcliffe and by Jon Hamm as his older self, and the two have great scenes together.  It’s kind of a fish-out-of-water story with Radcliffe’s character fresh out of a Moscow university, relegated to a backwards village full of eccentrics.  That makes for more comedy than drama, compared to the first two recommendations.  In fact, the show reminds me a lot of the recent Wes Anderson movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel. If you like Wes Anderson movies, if you like quirky, if you like eccentric, you’ll love A Young Doctor’s Notebook.

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