Bridgerton: Netflix teases period drama narrated by Julie Andrews
Netflix’s Bridgerton is unlike any Regency romance you have seen before. It is more colourful, more lavish, just more everything. And it’s certainly much, much sexier. The series’s ‘intimacy coordinator’ Lizzy Talbot was clearly kept very busy. “I would maybe suggest being careful who you watch it with,” she says. “If you’ve got family members that you prefer not to watch intimate scenes with, maybe avoid watching Bridgerton with them.”
This is the racy Regency on rocket fuel – ramped-up Austen. Based on best-selling novels by American author Julia Quinn, the eight-episode series arrives on Christmas Day but has already been generating a bit of a buzz.
It has a ready-made army of fans in the books’ dedicated global readership, but is also arousing interest because it’s the first Netflix show from Shonda Rhimes, the super-producer behind the political intrigue series Scandal and long-running hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy, which has racked up more viewing hours than any other Netflix show.
Rhimes was signed up to an exclusive deal by the streaming giant for an astonishing $150million and is one of the most powerful figures in entertainment so expectations are high.
It’s 1813 and we are in London. Daphne Bridgerton is a radiant beauty, one of eight children of a widowed Viscountess. As the oldest daughter, she is making her society debut but one of her overprotective older brothers frightens off potential suitors.
Lady Whistledown, the unknown author of a hugely popular and very well-informed gossip sheet, decides that Daphne is a dud and her stock plummets.
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In order to boost her value on the marriage market, Daphne enters into an arrangement with her brother’s friend, the dashing but difficult Duke of Hastings who has vowed never to wed. The pair will pretend to be courting – a fauxmance.
This makes Daphne more desirable in the eyes of high society’s young men and gets the pushy mothers of eligible daughters off the Duke’s back. And although the fake twosome initially irritate each other…well, you’ll have to watch.
Daphne is played by rising star Phoebe Dynevor, the daughter of Coronation Street star Sally. Regé-Jean Page (Regé as in Reggae – you’re going to be hearing this name a lot) is the moody, brooding Duke and is destined for instant heart-throb status. This will do for his career what Normal People did for that of Paul Mescal.
Remember how Colin Firth set pulses raising when his Mr Darcy dived into the lake in Pride and Prejudice? Well, the Duke of Hastings likes to get his kit off and work out in the boxing ring.
Making a very rare TV outing, Julie Andrews – now in her eighth decade in showbusiness – voices the mysterious Lady Whistledown, nom de plume of the Regency gossip girl who scandalises – and delights – the ‘ton’, as the upper echelon of society is known. Lady Whistledown’s publication is basically 19th century social media – it can get people cancelled!
As the various romances, scandals and intrigues play out, half of the fun is spotting the famous faces in the huge cast: Ruth Gemmell (Utopia), Polly Walker (Line of Duty), Ben Miller (Death in Paradise), Nicola Coughlan (Derry Girls) and Jonathan Bailey (Broadchurch) are among them.
But one of the most striking aspects of the show is the colourblind casting for which Shonda Rhimes is known and which she has long championed.
It means we get to see brilliant black actors excelling in period roles for which they might not have been considered even just a few years ago.
At one time, when non-white actors did get parts in shows like this, it would often be as a below-stairs character – a maid or a valet. But here they are at the very highest levels of the aristocracy and crucial to the story.
As well as Zimbabwe-born Regé-Jean Page playing Simon Bassett, Duke of Hastings, there is Adjoa Andoh, 57, who is fabulous as the elegant and shrewd Lady Danbury, a mother figure to the Duke. Golda Rosheuvel radiates regal disdain as Queen Charlotte. And every ball and crowd scene reflects multi-racial Britain as it is now.
No doubt a few fuddy-duddies will huff and puff about the fact that it doesn’t really reflect 19th century Britain, and especially not the aristocracy. But this is a drama, not a documentary and, unlike The Crown for example, it’s about fictional characters.
“Bridgerton isn’t a history lesson; it’s a show for a modern audience,” says author Julia Quinn.
It is awash with anachronisms – in fact, it revels in them, with its string quartet arrangements of pop songs (by Grande, Billie Eilish, Shawn Mendes), and in the way characters talk about having ‘chemistry’ with other people and about ‘trading up’ in their relationships.
Another contemporary element is its subtle critique of the established social order, particularly of a woman’s lot. And, anyway, it feels like a real Christmas treat to have such a funny, vibrant, entirely fresh show at a time when the terrestrial TV schedules are a little short of new material because of the pandemic.
“We’re unapologetically romantic,” says the showrunner Chris Van Dusen. “This is pure escapism. And that’s something I think we could all use right now.” It is also considerably raunchier than your typical costume drama. It would have given Jane Austen a fit of the vapours.
The show starts as it means to go on. Within the first few minutes of the first episode we see one of the Bridgerton brothers enjoying a very intimate alfresco assignation with a young lady.
We meet singers and artist’s models who are no better than they ought to be. Our heroine Daphne is naive at the beginning of the story but she proves a quick learner.
However, even though a substantial part of Bridgerton is about bodices being ripped, petticoats pulled up and breeches being breached, it is still a costume drama.
Emmy-winning costume designer Ellen Mirojnick was Bridgerton’s mistress of the robes. And she was more interested in creating a particular sort of look than in strict historical authenticity, always bearing in mind what Shonda Rhimes would want to see.
“The basic aesthetic is to be aspirational, that everything should look beautiful, luxurious, in its own way,” Mirojnick says. A team of 238 – pattern-cutters, embroiderers, tailors – made some 7,500 pieces for the series.
“It was like a Bridgerton city of elves working continuousrly,” according to Mirojnick. Daphne alone wears 104 different outfits, the colour palette changing as the character grows from a girl into a woman.
Dynevor has recalled arriving for her first costume fitting and finding herself in a warehouse filled with clothes.
There are beautiful fairy-tale frocks and then there are over-the-top, garish costumes worn by the Featherington family.
The Featheringtons, led by Ben Miller, are the new-money neighbours of the Bridgertons in Grosvenor Square. They lack the class and elan of the more established family. Their house has been designed to look a bit ‘Versace’ with lots of colours.
The Bridgerton residence is far more restrained. Both homes were created in a former factory in West London. Filming mostly took place in the capital and in Bath. This season is an adaptation of the first Bridgerton novel, The Duke and I. There are eight in all, each focusing on a different Bridgerton sibling, and they have been translated into 32 languages, so popular is Quinn all over the world.
Romance novels never win the Booker prize or get reviewed in snooty literary journals yet they account for around a third of fiction sales. And Quinn – real name Julie Pottinger – is a
sharp, witty writer who studied Art History at Harvard and had been admitted to Yale School of Medicine before she quit to devote herself full time to fiction.
In her Bridgerton books she has created a rich, resonant world with enough characters and storylines to keep the TV people occupied for a long time – if they choose to continue with it.
Nicola Coughlan (Penelope Featherington) posted on social media: “High five if you finished filming Bridgerton Series One”.
Will there be a Series Two? And the rest. Well, you can bet your eldest daughter’s dowry on it.
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