Whether you like them or not, period dramas certainly have their place in the schedules of 2012. Dowton Abbey and Call the Midwife have drawn massive audiences this year so you can’t blame ITV for trying their luck at another period piece for a dark Sunday night.
The Making of a Lady centres on down on her luck Emily (Lydia Wilson) who manages to lose her job as assistant to snooty Lady Maria (Joanna Lumley) and get evicted from her damp boarding house in the same day. But it’s all ok, because Lady Maria has a nephew, (Lord James, played by Linus Roache) who needs a new wife to produce an heir, and despite her less than aristocratic background, Emily fits the bill. After the least romantic proposal in history; ‘love is all very well, but have you thought about security?’, Emily is off in a smart carriage dolled up in silks and furs. Then it’s a lightening quick wedding, at which point we are properly introduced to the woefully overacted black sheep cousin Alec (James D’Arcy), last seen coughing his lungs up in a grim bedsit, and his Indian wife. Thankfully, this is also the last we see of Joanna Lumley, who displays none of her usual joy or sensuality in this role.
Anyway, ITV have only commissioned an hour and a half of this so on races the plot. Which is basically: Lord James has to go off to fight the nasty Indians (in India). Alec, his wife and her nasty Indian servant/witchdoctor con their way into the house. Emily falls pregnant, Alec and the gruesome Indian twosome try to kill Emily and baby. Lord James gets back just in time to save the day.
The programme was essentially an exercise in Gothic melodrama box ticking. We had grumpy servants who were overly loyal to the master, crows falling down chimneys, abandoned ruins, and dusty priest holes. Anyone playing period drama bingo should have won with the obligatory ‘leading man in water getting passionate’ scene. It would have served as an enjoyable piece of Sunday night fluff had it not been for the thoroughly uncomfortable racist element. The Making of a Lady is adapted from a story by Frances Hodgson Burnett, writer ofThe Secret Garden and The Little Princess. Doubtless having villainous Indians was acceptable in her day but I like to think society is trying to move on. Much has been made of ITV’s efforts to improve the quality of its drama output and it has been very successful. Sadly, The Making of a Lady felt like a step backwards.
Lydia Wilson deserves praise for her luminous turn as our heroine but plotwise it isn’t hard to see why The Making of a Lady isn’t regarded as a classic.
Contributed by Victoria Prior