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Created by Chris Van Dusen, producer Shonda Rhimes (released on Netflix, 25 December, 2020). Based on the Bridgerton novels by Julia Quinn. 

Review by Gabriel Gbadamosi


Mad King George III’s royal German wife of colour is the centrepiece of the period drama series Bridgerton, in which a Queen who has lost love to madness now presides over its rituals among the young. The real, historical Queen Charlotte’s rumoured African ancestry (through a black branch of the Portuguese royal family) is as well-known as the fact that the great-grandfather of the quintessential Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin was African: yes, we know, but so what? Bridgerton, released on Christmas Day 2020 and now the most-watched series on Netflix – streaming to 82 million households worldwide – has changed everything.

The drama begins with the presentation at court of the season’s newly eligible debutantes, watched over by Queen Charlotte, played by Guyanese-British actress Golda Rosheuvel, with a critical or approving eye. The money spent on the period sets and locations, indeed lavished on the sumptuous costumes made with such meticulous attention to detail in the matter of buttons and stays (for the undoing of reputations), along with some fine quality acting that won’t have come cheap, is eye-watering. Yet what I couldn’t take my eyes off was the aura of power shimmering through the Queen’s rather beautiful long-18th century bouffant hairstyle, the nodding centre of Bridgerton’s glittering social whirl. In fact, that bouffant halo is for me the centrepiece of the whole show. Gentle reader, it’s an Afro. Britain has a black Queen, is post-racial, and only darkly remembers a racialised past.

My first thought, watching at home during the Covid-19 lockdown, was where am I? British television is not capable of this. I felt I’d fallen asleep and woken up in another version of Britain, another world; one the young had concocted without me. I’d taken my eye off the ball and British television had shaken off a studied, duplicitous ‘realism’ when it comes to the all-white preserve of historical costume drama (escapist nostalgia for whiteness) and exploded into the multi-ethnic present.

The courtiers and lovers, lords and ladies – not just the servants – are also Asian and Afro-Caribbean, and not by means of any pretended colour-blindness. You are invited to feast your eyes on the gilded elites of a multi-ethnic, multi-national society – German, English, African, Asian and the inter-marriages. Colour is not the issue; social status, youth, beauty, power, money, sexuality and love are the issues, and the storylines.

But then I blinked, and saw it was an American show, with British actors, Georgian interiors and sunny days with unfailingly blue Californian skies; Hollywood meets British period drama. The Americans, psychotic about race, have nevertheless beaten us to it. Whites-only British period dramas will look odd after this. British Asian film actor Dev Patel has already starred in Dickens’ David Copperfield; Channel 5’s drama series Anne Boleyn stars black actor, Jodie Turner-Smith, who stands out in the court as Anne did with her foreign, French education. The casting is not colour-blind, it’s deliberate; it reflects contemporary British society and challenges our assumptions about both the past and the present. Watching television these days, I feel poised on the edge of a dream – part true, part wish fulfilment – that change is gonna come.