Great Historical Dramas to Watch

Cassi Misciagna

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Documentaries help to explain history, but for some can be a little dull. However, through the use of historical dramas, actors, directors, and historians are able to work together to share the stories of some of history’s most influential faces and events.


Following the War of the Roses between the House of Lancaster and the House of York, the Tudor family gained the monarchy of England starting with Henry VII. Following him, Henry VIII, one of their most notorious family members, became king. During his reign, he became known for his numerous wives and the creation of the Church of England, before his first daughter, Mary I, better known as Bloody Mary, took over the British throne upon his death. Finally, her sister became queen and, upon her death, the Tutor’s reign ended. In The Tutor T.V. series, HBO gives the world a look into Henry’s reign, which lasted from 1509-1547.


Mercy Street focuses on the lives of individuals living in Alexandria, Virginia at the local Union hospital during the Civil War as they learn to get along to save both those fighting for the Union and the Confederates. In the story, the Greene’s, who are local Confederate supporters, struggle to maintain order in their own household when their oldest daughter, Emma, decides to volunteer at the hospital while their other daughter, Alice, secretly joins the Knights of the Golden Circle. While at the hospital, Samuel Diggs, a local African American servant, tries to offer his silent guidance to the staff, but due to his race faces bias from the Union occupied residents.       


The 1900’s was one of the most influential times in medical history, and through the show London Hospital, or Casualty 1900’s as it’s known in the UK, the BBC network takes accounts from employees working at the London Hospital during the time to create a suspenseful medical drama. During the century, x-rays were an exciting, but dangerous new invention, and anesthetics such as chloroform and ether were on the rise allowing surgeons to perform surgeries in a much safer manner than in prior decades.  However, since the series only spans from 1906 to 1909, penicillin that was discovered in 1928 and mass produced in 1941 was not readily in use, which led to unnecessary casualties. In the series, viewers watch as doctors and nurses fight to save patents’ lives with the limited knowledge of the time, while also trying to understand the new technologies being produced for their profession.    


Young Doctors Notebook is a historical drama loosely based off Mikhail Bulgakov’s book of the same name set in Russia during the late 1910’s. The series starts in 1917 with a young Dr. Vladimir Bomgard, who is played by Daniel Radcliffe, arriving at Myevo Hospital, a small, undermanaged building closed off from much of society, to apply as part of their staff. After his arrival, we then watch as an older version of himself, played by Jon Hamm, fruitlessly attempts to guide the young doctor to success and away from his own past mistakes. Since its release in 2012, there have only been eight episodes and two seasons released by its distributor the BBC.


Within Birmingham, England during the late 19th century to the start of the 20th century, the Peaky Blinders made a name for themselves as a violent gang who took control of the city and through the Peaky Blinders series created by Steven Knight, their story is retold for a mass audience. Starting in 1919, the series follows the life of a fictional gang leader by the name of Thomas Shelby, as he fights to maintain power over the city. Currently, there are only eighteen episodes that each last an hour in length, however a fourth and fifth season are expected with six episodes in each.  


During World War II, while many men were away fighting, the female members of their families were tasked with trying to maintain society and creating weapons for the war. Through the series, Bomb Girls, Michael MacLennan displays their lives to give people a better understanding of the struggles those back homes faced. Starting in 1941, the show focuses on a band of young women as they begin work in a factory providing bombs for the war. Originally, the workers’ classes and lifestyles prevent them from getting along, but by the end of the eighteenth episode series the girls are able to form a sense of community with one another through combined experiences.    


For those interested in the learning about the British royal family, The Crown is the perfect show to learn more about its current matriarch’s life. Starting in 1947, after the death of King George VI, the series focuses on a young Queen Elizabeth II as she struggles to manage both her family life and her new responsibilities as the Queen of England. Currently, the series has covered the London fog of 1952 that covered the entire city, Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, and Winston Churchill’s resignation from Prime Minister in 1955. The show is being released as a Netflix original exclusive and is currently only a single season of ten episodes; however, a second season is in development with a scheduled release of Nov. 2017.


Call the Midwife is an ongoing series based on the memoir of Jennifer Worth, who worked as midwife from the early 1950’s up until 1973 before pursuing a musical career. The series started in the year 2012, focusing on Jennifer’s life in 1957 after having just moved to the Nonnatus House in London, but has currently caught up to the year 1965. Although the series is intended for more mature audiences, it is a collection of heartwarming stories about a young Jennifer and her friends helping both expecting mothers and each other survive. The series airs on the BBC in the UK, but is available for purchase on DVD and airs on the PBS here in the United States.   


The Lizzie Borden Chronicles eight-episode series takes place in 1893 after the events of the TV movie Lizzie Borden Took an Axe, which is about the 1892 trial of Lizzie Borden for the murder of her father, Andrew Borden, and stepmother, Abby Borden. While the movie retells the story of the trial without bias towards Lizzie, the events of the series are fictional, displaying her as a crazed murderer running from the law. In reality however, Lizzie was shunned by her hometown after the trail despite being found innocent, and ended up dying of pneumonia in 1927 alone. To this day, it is still not definitely known if Lizzie murdered her family, although many speculate due to her odd behavior during the case’s investigation and an unknown illness that caused the family to become sick beforehand, she may have been the killer.
History is full of interesting stories of people who created the world, as we know it, and using historical dramas, people are able to both educate and entertain. I hope that these shows help you to learn more about the history of the world, while also engaging you in a gripping new series.

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Great Historical Dramas to Watch