Wolf Hall (2015 Miniseries - 6 episodes)
Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn are the Marvel superheroes of world history, in that, they get a reboot every couple of years and are utterly done to death. I get that 6 wives, beheadings and a break with the Vatican are a big deal, but the topic has gotten very boring. It needed the masterful touch of Hilary Mantel to rejuvenate it. Mantel's brilliant book of the same title tells the story of that tumultuous time in England through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, a merchant who rose through the ranks to become one of the most powerful men in England... and then promptly lost his head, obviously. If you've read/watched A Man for All Seasons, then you might recognise Cromwell as the greasy evil man who manufactures evidence against the noble Sir Thomas More. Mantel does not shy away from Cromwell's ruthlessness but gives him so much nuance.
The miniseries does a fabulous job of bringing Mantel's book to life; it is a thoughtful and well-scripted drama with plenty of court intrigue and illicit sex-having to satisfy the historical fiction aficionado. Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn were especially good. My only complaint is that, it drags at certain points and some of the bearded people can get indistinguishable.
The Last Kingdom (2015 Season 1 - 8 episodes)
Now here's a more interesting time from British history: when the country was little more than a bunch of little swamps and mud fortresses and the Viking galleys struck fear in everyone's hearts! Set during the reign of King Alfred the Great, this show is firmly in Outlander/ Game of Thrones category, minus dragons and time travel.
Uhtred Ragnarson, played by Alexander Dreymon is a Saxon boy taken by the Danes and brought up as a warrior. He's a fantastic protagonist, especially in the looks department. Mostly in the looks department actually. He is tall and broad-shouldered, with a twinkle in his eye and moves with great assuredness.
There's plenty to criticise about the show: the dialogue is middling and character development is patchy. For example, they make a big deal about how King Alfred is the Tyrion Lannister of England and has spies everywhere, but his handling of everything from episodes 4-7 was terrible and utterly out of character! Brida who plays Uhtred's love interest starts off as a complex character-- wise among the Danes, totally clueless among the Saxons and her chemistry with Uhtred was great. Around episode 5 they don't know what to do with her so they make her weird and utterly waste her. What.
But I loved it. The plot is well paced and it is dramatic, sexy and funny. Also, did I mention that Uhtred is very very handsome.
Mr Selfridge (2013-14 Seasons 1 and 2 - 20 episodes)
Mr Selfridge isn't a proper period drama with courts and kings and swords; it is more in the Mad Men genre. It's the story of the eponymous Harry Selfridge, a bombastic American who showed Londoners a thing or two about business by opening one of the most successful department stores in the early 1900s.
The most intriguing thing about the show is that the title character is the plot device while the most interesting characters are transforming themselves and have beautiful, emotional moments of character development around him. He isn't even the moral centre of the show. That's not to say that he isn't portrayed as a force of nature but it's just that he's the most boring part of the show. The best episode was when he was in a coma and everybody else comes together to do wonderful things.
It is the soap opera-iest of all the shows mentioned in this post. There are also the pretty clothes and the "Ms Towler's dazzling window display that is unveiled at the climax" sort of moments but it is perfectly acceptable if you need a period drama fix (the first two seasons are on Netflix).