‘Jamestown’ may be the next ‘Downton Abbey’


Jim Glanville

The television historical drama Downton Abbey became the most watched television series in England and the United States over its six seasons from 2010 to 2015. To date, Downton Abbey has been broadcast in over 200 countries to an estimated audience of 120 million viewers.

The 52 episodes of Downton Abbey were produced by ITV and Carnival Films of the UK in cooperation with Masterpiece (formerly Masterpiece Theater) of the U.S.

Now, London-based Carnival Films has produced the historical drama series “Jamestown” for Sky television in the UK and NBC Universal International in the U.S.

The executive producer Gareth Neame of Downton Abbey returns as an executive producer of “Jamestown.” All eight episodes of the first series of “Jamestown” have been filmed, and a second series of eight episodes has been commissioned by Sky.

The series depicts the English settlers in the early Jamestown colony. Jamestown was settled in 1607, and the first episode of the television series opens twelve years later with the 1619 arrival of a party of English women to be wives for the overwhelmingly male population of the settlement. History records that John Rolfe arrived at Jamestown in 1610, began experimental plantings of tobacco in 1612, married Pocahontas in 1614, and raised the first commercial tobacco crop in 1617. So Virginia was already a tobacco colony when the would-be wives landed.

Episode one got the new series off to a good start when it was shown to an estimated 600,000 viewers on Sky television in England on Friday May 5. The series will be released in the U.S. this fall on a yet to be finalized airdate.

The series centers on three fictional female leads, the men who contracted for them as wives, and the soap opera drama of male-female interactions and tensions. It tells a human story played out in a historical setting. It is not history, though some real historical events and real historical figures such as Virginia governor George Yeardley (1587-1627) are portrayed.

For a filming location, Virginia was too expensive, Canada had too unpredictable weather and South Africa had too unstable an exchange rate. Surprisingly, Hungary proved to be the right place. There is a substantial movie production industry in Hungary.

The production designer from Downton Abbey created an extensive set for the Jamestown settlement in the countryside near Budapest. The set came with complete building interiors complimenting their exteriors. Most of the principal actors are British, with Native American Indian actors being hired through U.S. casting agencies that specialized in such roles. With many shots on a reedy Hungarian river that looks a lot like eastern Virginia, the result is a very authentic looking production.

Episode one has already stirred up a controversy. The well-known Guardian newspaper critic Mark Lawson wrote that the female characters were portrayed as being “feisty, cheeky and rebellious” in a manner that Lawson said pandered to 21st-century sensibilities.

Historians quickly responded that early Jamestown women were indeed all of those things that Lawson claimed they were not. Thus, British historian Rebecca Rideal responding in the Guardian wrote that “early modern women didn’t always accept the submissive status thrust upon them, they did speak filth, and they did rebel,” and added that it is particularly important “in this era of fake news, to represent women’s history properly.”

The Oxford-trained historian Tom Cutterham quickly pointed out, writing in the Early Americanists historians group blog “The Junto,” that the most direct response to Lawson comes from Kathleen Brown’s book, “Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia” (Chapel Hill, UNC Press, 1996).

Brown has been in the history department at the University of Pennsylvania for the last 21 years, and her classic book about women in early Virginia is held in the Virginia Tech and Radford libraries, but not in any New River public library.

Fortunately, around 2002 Brown wrote an essay titled “Women in Early Jamestown” as part the interpretative essays series for the web-based Virtual Jamestown maintained by Virginia Tech historian Crandall Shifflett.

That essay is online for the asking at https://tinyurl.com/BrownEssay. Brown concludes her online essay by writing: “As pilfering laundresses, marriageable nieces, transported gentlewomen, sexual partners, and field laborers, women of many colors and nationalities became part of the historical tapestry of Jamestown.

Their lives and their points of view were as varied as those of their menfolk, defying our efforts to reduce them to caricatures.”

If the foregoing has whetted your appetite, look for the historical fictional drama series “Jamestown” to become available on a television screen in Virginia this fall.

What we need next is a dramatic series about James Patton and the settling of western Virginia.

Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.