I meet Phoebe Dynevor and Regé-Jean Page just as they are wrapping their Vogue photoshoot in Regent’s Park. The young actors – laid-back, charming and both with a deliciously dry sense of humour – are the stars of Netflix’s bid for costume drama supremacy this Christmas, Bridgerton, a Regency romp that seeks to redefine the genre itself.
Accordingly, today’s surroundings, seemingly frozen in time since the early 19th century, have inspired wistful melancholy in the pair. “There were a few tears,” Page tells me with a grin, when I ask about their day spent wandering the manicured lawns and historic terraces of north London. He nods coyly at his co-star, who shakes her head in exasperation. “It was the wind in my eye,” she laughs, but admits there’s been something moving about seeing one another again after a whirlwind 2020.
Created by Chris Van Dusen and produced by Shonda Rhimes (the prolific showrunner of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal), the eight-part series takes its cue from American author Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton novels, a collection of frothy romances first published 20 years ago, which have since sold seven million copies (despite the occasional critical drubbing). Rhimes remembers “looking down my nose at them”, but after picking one up as a beach read, she soon devoured Quinn’s entire back catalogue.
The show draws heavily from the first book, The Duke and I, opening in Grosvenor Square in 1813, as Daphne Bridgerton, played by the angelic Dynevor, is preparing to make her debut in society. As she enters the marriage market, bustling with ambitious mothers, scheming rivals and fortune hunters, Daphne crosses paths with the season’s most sought-after bachelor: Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings, played with brooding intensity by the dashing Page. Sparks fly, egos are bruised, and their mutual indifference soon gives way to something like love.
If the premise sounds conventional, its execution is anything but, combining a diverse cast, strong feminist sensibility and an eye for the comically absurd. There are raucous boxing matches, frank conversations about sex, and, in one unforgettable scene, a ballroom populated by revellers dancing to a string quartet’s rendition of Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next”. The ensemble – which includes Nicola Coughlan, Jonathan Bailey and Adjoa Andoh – is delightfully dizzying, made even more so by Julie Andrews as the narrator and anonymous writer of a high-society scandal sheet, delivering withering takedowns like a Georgian-era Gossip Girl. Period drama purists might scoff, but that’s surely the point.
“We want people to have the time of their lives,” says Page, 32. Born in London and raised partly in Zimbabwe, he got his break in a Globe production of The Merchant of Venice, followed by a memorable turn in the historical series Roots in 2016. “I’ve been involved in more Georgian period duels than I ever thought I would in my life,” he says of the latter.
Dynevor, 25, is no stranger to period pieces either, having cut her teeth on BBC dramas The Village and Dickensian. She grew up in Trafford, and her mother, Sally, has played Sally Webster in Coronation Street since 1986. Phoebe landed her first job, as a series regular on Waterloo Road, at the age of 14. Page is astounded. “You got your first audition? You lucky little fish! I spent two years trying to get into drama school.”
For Bridgerton, Dynevor says the pair went on a “tour of England to anywhere old and gold”. They took lessons in horse riding, piano and etiquette. Rehearsing for the ballroom scenes, they danced to Plan B and Stormzy. “That’s the energy we wanted to bring to it,” says Page. Both agree the scale of the production was staggering, including the huge warehouse that housed their costumes. How many ballgowns does Dynevor wear over eight episodes? “A hundred-and-eight, 110?” she jokes, unsure.
What Bridgerton’s pomp and circumstance belies, however, is a desire to set a new template for period drama. “In the context of being historically excluded from these stories, either in record or art, the least we can do is paint ourselves back in,” says Page of the show’s inclusive casting. “It takes such little imagination to include people of colour in the stories you tell and so much more work to exclude folks.”
The series plays with our expectations in other ways, too. “I wanted to do this period under Shonda because, even though women in this era were oppressed in so many ways, I knew she would empower them in the show,” Dynevor says, while Page describes Simon as someone who “thinks he’s a swaggering hero, when he’s anything but”.
A case in point is the scene in which Dynevor’s character is accosted by a suitor. Just as we see Simon coming to the rescue, Daphne punches the chancer in the face. Dynevor shrieks with laughter at the memory and Page nods. “That’s the show in a nutshell,” he says. “You think you know what’s coming, but I promise you, you really don’t.”
© Radhika Seth