Hey there! I recently stumbled across the new period drama The English on the BBC, a fictional western set mostly in the late 1800s and featuring an incredible cast headlined by the magnificent Emily Blunt (who’s also an Executive Producer on the series). After enjoying the first episode immensely, I soon finished the 6-episode series (each around an hour long), and it certainly didn’t disappoint. This drama series written and directed by Hugo Blick isn’t one to let under your radar!
In this post, I’m going to list a few (mainly non-spoiler) reasons why I think The English is essential TV; if you haven’t seen it, then maybe it’ll encourage you to give the show a shot, and if you have, I’d really like to hear your thoughts on the series! Right, without further ado, then…
The Fascinating Setting
When the first episode of The English starts, it’s hard to know exactly what’s in store, and I mean that in a good way. It opens with a monologue from Emily Blunt about killing a man, which is vague but engrossing enough to hook you in, before suddenly transitioning to the late-1800s mid-American setting that most of the show takes place in. This is the time period where “The English” (a colloquial term for the people moving west) are forcibly making inroads on land previously owned by Native Americans, and we soon bear witness to an in-progress execution that is only halted when Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer) turns up.
Whipp is a Native himself, from the Pawnee Nation, and also has history working within the U.S. Army. He’s somewhat of a lone survivor, with connections to both sides of the conflicts he frequently happens across. His clear allegiance is his connection to his home and the land he sees as rightfully his to reclaim. On his way to do so, though, he happens across Lady Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt), an Englishwoman who’s moved West from England in search of a man she has unfinished business with. Soon, the dangers of the area and time bring Cornelia and Eli together. They’re heading in different directions and for different reasons, but their unlikely partnership is the anchor for why The English works so well. They learn from the different perspectives and life experiences of the other with a charm and chemistry that’s irresistible to watch, whilst numerous other characters and plotlines swirl around them.
An All-Star Cast
As I’ve already touched on, the cast for this series is extremely impressive! Emily Blunt needs no introduction; she’s reliably brilliant and has proved herself in many leading film roles, such as Sicario, Edge of Tomorrow, and A Quiet Place. As Cornelia Locke, she effectively portrays the vulnerability of moving to a new unknown land where so much is different. Even from the start, though, she emanates a powerful self-confidence, and it’s so rewarding to see this grow as she meets Eli and learns from him. I was less familiar with Chaske Spencer (who plays Eli, and is himself a Native American), but consider me a fan now! Eli is perhaps less outwardly expressive than Cornelia, but just though body language, Spencer shows the simmering pride beneath the surface. This character has suffered a lot of tragedy in their past and learned to stay alive during the injustice all around him, and the moments when that eventually breaks the surface make such an impact. As aforementioned, Blunt and Spencer make fantastic counterpoints to one another.
It’s not just the leads, however! The first episode alone features Toby Jones and Ciarán Hinds, and when those are the names attached to supporting roles, you can understand the level of talent all throughout this show! Other standouts are Tom Hughes as the conflicted Thomas Trafford, who goes through a really intriguing arc; also Rafe Spall, who brings both charisma and evil to the villainous David Melmont; and Valerie Pachner, with an exuberant turn as wronged farmer Martha Myers.
To lead on from that last point, the range of superb performances adds so much depth to the mid-American setting, and make it more than solely a Cornelia-and-Eli story. The six-ish hours of TV aren’t shy of spending time away from the leads in order to flesh out the supporting cast – indeed, the fourth episode is almost entirely spent on flashbacks. These give needed insight to the previously-mentioned Thomas Trafford as well as the antagonist David Melmont, and make the eventual payoffs to those arcs much more satisfying as a result.
I really liked that The English treated the audience as intelligent viewers. It isn’t an entirely linear show, often switching to different characters and times in an almost Game of Thrones-esque way, and it relies on the viewer to understand that and figure things out for themselves. The upside of that for The English is that it frees up time to show, not tell, and let the phenomenal cast do their thing in portraying the emotions of the characters. Every scene feels purposeful.
All of that isn’t to say The English isn’t packed with action, however! It’s a Western, after all, and it brings plenty of tense shootouts and brutal set-pieces with it. All the action has a purpose for pushing forward the narrative, often having a slow-burn build-up before everything breaks loose. There’re multiple horseback encounters that are a joy to watch (for the horses if nothing else), and a particularly suspenseful long-range conflict late in the series. Honestly, even just seeing the characters on horseback stride across the scenery is beautiful to watch!
As you’d expect, there’s a lot of gunplay in this series, and The English does well at not descending into over-the-top gunfights. Instead, it’s all very deliberate, with guns often shown as threats within tense conversations. Similarly, at the time, guns weren’t quite as sophisticated as they are now, so there’s a risk of them jamming, having inadvertent recoil, or just being too slow, and this adds extra jeopardy. The show also has moments for more indigenous weapons like bows and blowguns. An intriguing element is also how The English starts to veer into the fantastical at a few moments. It’s never full-on fantasy, but the nature of some of the injuries, illnesses, and beliefs we witness play with the leeway allowed by this being a fictional series informed by history. It’s an intriguing element that may not be for everyone, but I enjoyed the inclusion.
Costume, Make-Up, & Production Values
My comments so far have probably indicated this, but there’s a sense of high production value with The English. The sprawling landscapes give an inherently cinematic feel that matches the story and cast, and the cinematography leans into this. There’re plenty of shots where the background and/or sky takes up the majority of the picture, and the use of depth of field often establishes a sense of scale to the dialogue scenes. Most of the interior scenes take place in imperfect wooden buildings or barns, but the use of lighting and prop design makes them into mysterious places full of stories to tell. When we do see different settings, such as a few sequences in England, the change to rich colours and high rooms makes a stark contrast that ensures the show doesn’t get repetitive in terms of setting.
Another element that stood out to me and drew my eye throughout was the costume & make-up design. There’s plenty for the costume department to do here, and the distinctive Native American clothing has so much emotion attached to it. I’ve mentioned contrast above, but again it’s relevant here, across from the buttoned-down formal attire of the encroaching West. Once again, Cornelia and Eli are the stars here. Eli is the embodiment of the Native American styling, and the consistency of it speaks to his character. Cornelia, meanwhile, begins in bright colours that seem out-of-place, but as her journey continues, she increasingly discards it as she ingrains herself into the country. It culminates with a powerful, ritualistic scene near the end of the series. The costumes aren’t just proficient and aesthetically pleasing, they speak to the character arcs they’re a part of.
A Stunning Intro & Soundtrack
Whilst I’m talking about presentation, the audio needs a section too. The sound design throughout matches the authenticity that the visuals strive so much to achieve in building out this world, and I noticed how The English infiltrates your senses this way before knocking you back. There’re some sections of gunfire, for example, that are relentless in attacking your senses and making you confront the actions on screen. Furthermore, the soundtrack composed by Federico Jusid is atmospheric but not overbearing, with the lyrical tracks well-placed and well-timed. They predictably fit the Western setting, but aren’t overused, and each shine as a result of that.
Perhaps my favourite actual track, though, is the one which plays for the opening titles. The titles themselves are a creative, colourful montage of torn paper art to make images key to the series, and the rustic typography is welcome to the eye as well! The music completes it, with a rousing, sweeping tune that got me excited to settle into another hour of The English.
There you go, then – six reasons why The English is a show I highly recommend! It’s on BBC iPlayer in full right now, and also showing weekly on the BBC itself. You can see more of my TV-related posts here!
Have an amazing day!
(Featured Image & Images in Article: Via Radio Times)