Food for the Soul – Binge on History

“Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Winston Churchill, paraphrasing George Santayana

By Nina Heyn – Your Culture Scout

Long winter nights are just perfect for plunging into long TV shows brought to your local computer screen by accommodating streaming services. We thought it might be fun to list some historical shows with exceptionally high production values aimed at visual and factual accuracy. This does not necessarily mean that all the shows on this list were produced by countries that the show depicts. For example, Outlander – an exploration of life in the 18th c. Scotland – is not a British production because it is based on painstakingly researched novels by an American author Diana Gabaldon. Versailles is an excellent rendering of the long and amazing reign of the French king Louis XIV but it is a French-Canadian co-production in an English language and the majority of actors are not French. No matter though. What counts is an opportunity to pleasantly pass the hours watching wicked and complex vicissitudes of our ancestors’ lives in ages past. As an added bonus, amid gorgeous costumes and in words expressed in elegant phrases, we can see why the same reasons – lust for power, a sense of honor, greed or poverty, give the same results throughout space and time – wars, ruined loves and lives, and just sometimes the sense of having done something right. Enjoy the binge!

The Crown (2016-)
England has always offered great TV productions about their royalty but since this is a story of a currently reigning monarch and it was created with the modern approach to both history and design, it is no wonder the show has had sparked a worldwide following. The show was awarded a Golden Globe for Best Drama and many performance awards. The first season portrays England’s social transformation from vestiges of colonial power in 1950’s to “modern” Great Britain. The second season covers events in both the British society and the royal palace from the time of the 1956 Suez Canal crisis to mid-sixties. The Crown is intended as 6-season series so there is a lot of good watching in store.

Outlander (2014-)

Based on very addictive novels by Diana Gabaldon, the series follows adventures of an English WWII combat nurse Claire who in 1945 steps through a circle of henge stones into the world of 1740’s highlander Scotland. Even though this premise is a supernatural fantasy, the remainder of the historical panorama of the 18th century world is steeped in well-researched realism. Social customs, anthropological details, weaponry, clothing, geopolitics, psychological motivations – all of it has been researched by Gabaldon as part of a very inventive plot and put on screen in this series. The plot covers events during the Scottish independence battles, pre-revolutionary Paris and the American War of Independence.

With close to 5000 years of history, China has always had ample source material for long-running historical series and such shows have been a TV programming staple there for decades. The historical drama genre has now been refreshed by shows that have ushered a newly sumptuous look and style. These are not the tired studio-set dramas of 1980’s and 1990’s. Bigger filming budgets and audiences’ newly acquired taste for luxury have made a difference – the sets have been built on locations by hundreds of craftsmen recreating old techniques, silk garments have been woven and hand embroidered to match the Qing dynasty era artistry, imperial jewels are made from real gemstones etc. Story-wise these shows do not resemble traditional imperial court stories that revolved around political decisions and battles. These are tales of palace intrigues that put front and center strong female characters, taking into account their psychological motivations. A new generation of young viewers who are heavily into fashion and celebrity cast, embraced these new offerings, breaking all viewership records in China.

Story of the Yangxi Palace (2017-2018)

This is the more famous of the two – when streaming on iQiyi (China’s primary streamer service) it has set the world record of 530 million views in one day. Based on a novel Yan Xi Gong Lüe, it tells a story of a commoner who seeks employment as a seamstress at the Qing dynasty imperial court in order to discover a cause of her sister’s death. Predictably, she does not stay a lowly seamstress for long. Chinese audiences, especially the younger generation have watched the show obsessively. A cottage industry of fashion and design spinoffs and social media coverage followed.

Ru’Yi’s Love in the Royal Palace (2018)

Another long-running saga of the famous emperor Qianlong’s relationship with his consorts and concubines, this one is based on a 2011 online novel Empress in the Palace. The plot centers on the historical marriage of the emperor and the Step Empress Ru Yi Ulanara. This series also delivers a visual feast of color-coordinated costumes and artistic set décor, and the same focus on women’s fate in the male-governed world of a feudal court.

Versailles (2015-2018)

The real king Louis XIV was a man who witnessed palace intrigues since childhood, has worked on running the State every day for fifty years straight, and who had used his penchant for excessive luxury design and grandeur in transforming France from a land of farms and soldiers to an undisputed global leader in upscale consumer goods. The worldwide dominance of French luxury items – perfume, fashion, accessories, art, house décor and furniture – starts with his reign. Versailles focuses less on Louis’s contribution to history and more on the king’s relationship with his complicated royal family and courtiers, as well as various intrigues aimed at unsettling the kingship. This is not the same level of cast and script-writing as The Crown but if you want to have an insight into the times of the Sun King, the show will do the job. If you prefer a movie about this period, Vatel is probably the best.

Ekaterina (2014-)

To keep checking out royalty around the globe, you can spend some time following the life of a monarch who launched a golden age of the Russian empire. Ekaterina is a Russian series on the reign of Catherine the Great who rose from minor German nobility, through some horrible years as a fiancée and then consort of an ineffectual Paul III, to becoming one of the most powerful global rulers. Since this is a show produced in Russia with local actors, there is a level of authenticity usually lacking in western movies about anything Russian. For this reason alone the show would be worth watching; lavishly produced scenes in authentic-looking locations make it even more easy on the eye.

The Borgias (2011-2013)

Any show that would have those wicked, poison-wielding Borgias would be interesting. A great cast led by Jeremy Irons as the corrupt cardinal Rodrigo as he ascends to pope-hood just adds to the spice. Murder, sex and decidedly un-Christian behavior abound in this contemporized take on the Renaissance geopolitics. Confusingly, there is another series called Borgia (released at the same time between 2011-2014) with perhaps less stellar cast and artistic ambitions but covering the same period.

Turn: Washington’s Spies (2014-17)

Based on the novel by Alexander Rose, the story is set during the American Revolutionary War to portray mostly real characters of the revolutionaries and an unlikely spy ring that consisted of a Long Island farmer assisted by his trusted friends from childhood. The young insurgents learn everything – spy craft (pseudonyms, dead letter boxes and hanging a petticoat on washcloth as a signal), military strategies, and how to outsmart the British army that has been training for centuries. All they have is some smugglers’ tricks and lots of determination when they try to turn the tides of war through a modern tool of intelligence gathering.

The Time Between Seams or A Time in Between (2013-2014)

My name is Sira Quiroga and I’m a seamstress. I never imagined that destiny would lead me to risk my life crossing a foreign city with an arsenal of pistols strapped to my body…”- that’s the voice-over monologue start of the series.

If this gets you intrigued, you are in good company. In Spain, not only this was the most popular series of all times but it has led a renaissance of the dying art of sewing. Each Monday that an episode would air, Amazon in Spain would report a 150% spike in sales of sewing machines.

This the story of a fictitious seamstress turned spy in a very real period of the Spanish Civil War and the eve of WWII – full of political reverses and complicated societal divides. There are gorgeous outfits and hairdos to look at, exotic period settings of pre-war Morocco, Spain and Portugal, and enough of reversals of fortune, beautiful women, British Intelligence officers and Nazi baddies to last many evenings.
Check It Out!