The central character in Mr. Selfridge is none other than Harold Gordon Selfridge, the British-American retail magnate and founder of the eponymous department store. The show begins with the store’s founding in 1908 and follows the trials and triumphs of the Selfridge family and their staff through 1929.
While Selfridge’s early history is true to life, the workers at the store are fictional. Nonetheless, viewers may appreciate the realistic accounts of life behind the store counter, as well as Jeremy Pivens’ subtle performance in the title role.
The highest-rated period drama on IMDb is Peaky Blinders. The part-fiction part-history show stars Cillian Murphy as Thomas Shelby, leader of the Peaky Blinders, a gang that ruled Birmingham at the end of World War I.
Shelby is cunning and ambitious, with plans to expand his organization beyond its current stronghold. Peaky Blinders is told from the gang’s point of view, making Chief Inspector Campbell (played by Sam Neill) the primary antagonist. The show also features numerous empowered female characters, as well as characters of diverse backgrounds.
After the sudden death of their father, sisters Evangeline and Beatrice have no prospects and no hope for a future in society. That is, until they put their talents in dressmaking to use and become the most celebrated fashion designers in London.
New opportunities for women are at the forefront of this series, which aired from 1991 to 1994. Audiences loved the entrepreneurial main characters and their gorgeous costumes, as well as the cutthroat world of fashion.
The original Upstairs Downstairs that aired in the 1970s follows the Bellamy family and their servants at 165 Eaton Place. Although the house is run by a member of Parliament and his socialite wife, the show gives the downstairs characters their due with rich storylines and characterizations.
The fifth and final season is set between 1919 and 1930 and works real-life events into the story such as the post-war recovery and the 1926 general strike.
Phryne Fisher is a woman of many talents. She can fly a plane, drive a car, speak a million languages, and even wear trousers on occasion. She is also a formidable private detective who solves all manner of crimes in 1920s Melbourne, with the help of her maid Dot and detectives Jack Robinson and Hugh Collins.
Phryne might appear frivolous, but her priority has always been to bring justice for those who can’t help themselves. The show has been described as great fun, with a strong, independent, and inspiring female lead whose wardrobe many fashionistas will covet.
Passing is not just about a black woman who lives her life ‘passing’ as a white woman. It’s also about secrecy and hypocrisy and the universally human fear of being ‘found out’. It was a very important book of the time, when conversations about race, class and gender were beginning to open up, despite prejudice still seeming, to many, a stone-set human right.
The story follows Irene and Clare, two mixed-race friends who reunite in a Chicago hotel after years of not seeing each other. Clare, Irene learns, has been living as a white woman with a racist husband who has no idea of his wife’s background. Clare, on the other hand, remained in the African-American community but refuses to acknowledge the racism that holds back her family’s happiness. They soon become consumed by the other’s chosen path – until events conspire to make them confront their lies.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)
All Quiet on the Western Front was a ground-breaking book that changed how the world saw the First World War. There is little glory to be found in it: war is hell, no matter what side you’re on. And Remarque’s remarkably humane account of life in the German trenches during the early days of the Western Front showed the English-speaking world, for the first time, what it was like for the soldiers who lived in the same mud but spilled different blood from the other side of the barbed wire.
Remarque became one of the most articulate spokesmen for his generation, one that, in his words, was ‘destroyed by war, even though it might have escaped its shells.’ It is widely thought to be one of the greatest books about the experiences of war ever written.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the book that shattered British squeamishness about sex into pieces (institutionally, at least). Telling the story of an affair between a young, married aristocrat and her also-married gamekeeper, it became notorious for its graphic descriptions of sex and seductive language, four-letter words and other forms of nighttime naughtiness (though it doesn’t always happen after dark, here).
It was first published privately in Florence, then in France, but was not released in Britain for a full 32 years after DH Lawrence wrote it, following a landmark obscenity trial that became one of the most important cases in British literary and social history. It has since been anointed a ‘sacred text’ for British democracy and freedom of expression.
The Weary Blues was the most important book by the Harlem Renaissance’s most famous author. Hughes rose to fame fast and furiously amid a cultural movement that marked the first time in US history that white America began to pay attention to African American literature. And with this collection of poems, he – alongside a handful of others – gave voice to a generation.
With his masterful use of language, tone and rhythms of jazz and blues music of the time, he spoke personally and powerfully to the experiences of Black Americans. While the titular The Weary Blues (included in poetry anthology Blues Poems) is his most famous poem, it is Our Land that contains one of the most memorable lines in 20th-century literature: “I, too, am America.”