On first glance, you might think Netflix’s bold new period drama Bridgerton centres on a traditional romantic storyline between eligible bachelor Simon Hastings, The Duke of Hastings, and Daphne Bridgerton, one of the young daughters of the titular household.
But Daphne and The Duke are different.
These characters aren’t willing to conform to the restrictive social politics of the day by marrying a suitor when society expects them to, so they form a plan to fend off aggressive matchmaking from encircling relatives.
This is where Bridgerton takes a fresh approach to the period drama. It may be set in 1813, but the show aims to authentically represent young people with properly-realised lead characters whose conversations about love and relationships aren’t just celebratory, but express doubt and are not schmaltzy or two-dimensional.
Speaking of the show’s approach, Regé-Jean Page who plays The Duke tells HuffPost UK that people have always been confused about what they want from love and life since the dawn of time – it’s just these complexities are rarely seen in period dramas.
“You genuinely think you invented it, don’t you?” reflects Regé-Jean of how humans experience heartache. “It’s like, mate, we didn’t invent it, everyone’s been living this since year dot – people are people – they’ve always been the same.”
We aren’t all immediately after a suitor in reality – and Bridgerton in Regé-Jean’s eyes is symbolic of how film and TV is “getting better at respecting that”.
“They want to learn how to love, to learn how to be the best version of themselves, to learn how to live life to its fullest despite what their family wants or what society wants,” continues Regé-Jean of the show’s characters. “So what changes is the restrictions – the corsets, the clothes, the societal laws or whatever else, but people are still the same, you know?”
Bold in the way it deals with emotion, Bridgerton is also ground-breaking in other ways. The show has a racially diverse cast auditioned using colour conscious casting, which means there was an effort made to represent diverse backgrounds, while aesthetically it is also hugely ambitious: the wardrobe featured 7,500 individually made outfits, and crew exclaimed how they’d never seen sets this big in sound studios before.
Back inside the plot, there’s incredibly raunchy scenes, including representation of how the LGBTQ community may have experienced sex and relationships in pre-Victorian England.
The first Netflix series from Shondaland, the production company behind Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, Bridgerton feels as if there was no expense spared.
“The very early conversations I had with [showrunner] Chris Van Dusen and Shonda about what they were doing with this project were about this big open space that we had to run into, because period drama is seen as a very traditional genre with very traditional rules,” reflects Regé-Jean. “Which gave us so much space to explore what had been neglected with that – we could bring in this freshness, this energy.”
Elaborate shots showing aristocracy sweeping from townhouses onto horse drawn carriages and gossiping on grand doorsteps were filmed in Bath, Yorkshire, London and Hertfordshire, anchoring the show in visually familiar territory.
“We talk a lot about mixed casting, but actually what you forget is it’s really good fun,” says Adjoa Andoh, who plays the formidable Lady Danbury, a friend of the Duke’s late mother. “There’s that sort of addictive joyful vibrant quality and I think this year of all years it’s a blessing that it’s coming out at Christmas. I think it’ll lift the spirits.”
Lady Danbury’s ball in the first episode (there are eight in season on) exudes the show’s high energy and Blockbuster feel. “If you’d seen the stage directions in the script it’s like it’s on steroids,” laughs Adjoa down Zoom. “And you just have to go with it – to have that energy on a period drama is quite thrilling.”
The ball is an example of how in high society, young women were often forced to present themselves as marriage material before they are ready. Amongst the flirtation from the lavishly-dressed women and sharply shaved men there are those who do not feel suited to this environment, no matter how glamorous.
The Duke professes to never wanting to marry and at first his ego means he is hard to sympathise with. “Unlike you, I cannot simply declare I do not wish to marry, I do not have such a privilege,” barks Daphne Bridgerton early on.
But as his story unfolds, Regé-Jean was tasked with interrogating what it means that The Duke sees himself as perpetually single. His character provides the opportunity to delve further into the topic of masculinity more broadly: what it means today and what it meant then.
“Simon is clearly in the tradition of romantic archetypes, your Darcys, your Heathcliffes,” begins Regé-Jean. “I wanted to examine and interrogate what makes that archetype attractive, what makes them worthy of being an object of desire, how do they find love and find the ability to love because these are tall dark mysterious broken anti-heroes, the Clint Eastwoods of culture.”
We’re living in an age where masculinity is constantly being questioned: are there any clear cut ways to determine what makes a good, morally upstanding, or attractive man?
Regé-Jean feels he certainly knows what it isn’t: “This constant need for dominance and strength, having walls up, this kind of silent broker cowboy who needs to have something that can be redeemed before he is actually worthy of love, there is a missing piece to that strength.”
“There is strength to letting go of grief, or at least processing grief more helpfully than we’ve necessary seen in these corseted upper class dramas before."”
“And that’s where I think vulnerability comes in – the fact that we’re figuring out that there is strength in actually being vulnerable to one another, there is strength to letting go of grief, or at least processing grief more helpfully than we’ve necessary seen, particularly in these corseted upper class dramas before.
“There are enormous pressures on young men at the moment,” adds Adjoa. “To work out who the hell they are, and how they’re supposed to be in the world, how they’re supposed to be perceived, and what they are allowed to be.”
Regé-Jean concludes: “It’s well beyond time to bring that into the conversation of how you build a masculine romantic hero - and I was excited to try and contribute to that story, because that I think is the 21st century story that we’re in the middle of now.”
“Not boys don’t cry, boys should cry, and it makes you healthier and stronger for it.”
Bridgerton is available to stream on Netflix now.