The Women Behind ‘The Confessions of Frannie Langton’ On Pushing the Boundaries of Period Drama

Karla-Simone Spence and Sophie Cookson in "The Confessions of Frannie Langton)

Karla-Simone Spence and Sophie Cookson in "The Confessions of Frannie Langton)

(Photo: BritBox)

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is one of the most original period dramas you’ll watch this year. One part murder mystery, one part historical drama, and one part queer romance, it’s a series that touches on all manner of themes along the intersection of race, gender, class, and identity in a time of shifting political and social beliefs.

Based on the novel of the same name by author Sara Collins, the series follows the story of the titular Frannie Langton (Karla-Simone Spence), who is accused of murdering her former employer George Benham (Stephen Campbell Moore) and his wife Marguerite (Sophie Cookson), who was also Frannie’s lover. While circumstantial evidence points to her guilt, Frannie can’t bear to believe she would hurt “Madame,” whom she claims to have cared for deeply But Frannie also can’t remember what happened — thanks to the laudanum she’d been taking. A complicated story unfolds that wrestles with multiple philosophical and social issues; all made more complex by the fact that its heroine is a Black woman, precisely the sort of character we rarely see at the center of historical dramas, period mysteries, or Gothic romances. 

“I grew up obsessed with books,” author Sara Collins tells Telly Visions. “And then for a period during my teenage years, obsessed with Gothic romances in particular — Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, all the Brontes essentially. I reread them every summer. But it was this gap that really troubled me — though I’d absorbed all this literature, nothing in that literature had anything to do with someone like me or where I was from. I mean, you could argue Jane Eyre nods at it, but from a completely different perspective.” 

Karla-Simone Spence in "The Confessions of Frannie Langton"

Karla-Simone Spence in "The Confessions of Frannie Langton"

(Photo: BritBox/Drama Republic/All3Media International)

One of the most remarkable things about The Confessions of Frannie Langton is it’s a Gothic romance that not only revolves around a Black heroine but features multiple characters of color in critical roles and places a queer love story at its center. It is, most definitely, not the kind of period drama most viewers are familiar with. “It seemed incredible to me that we’d gotten to 2016, 2017, when I started to write the novel, and that no one had ever conceived of a Gothic romance where a Black woman would be the star of the show,” Collins says. “So that was really important to me, first in the novel and then onscreen, I wanted to center the Black woman.”

While the success of the Netflix drama Bridgerton has helped push the period genre to diversify its cast and stories in recent years, plenty of work remains left to do. (After all, despite putting a pair of South Asian actresses at the center of its second season, Bridgerton never even bothered to tell us whether the Raj exists in its version of history and what it means for characters like the Sharmas if it does.) Frannie Langton is not just a series that predominantly features Black characters; it’s a story about a specifically Black experience.

“I mean…a Black woman in a period drama!” Karla Simone-Spence, who plays Frannie, enthuses. “And she’s Jamaican on top of that. My family’s Jamaican as well, and I was just….how often do you see that kind of character written that was so close to who you are? I had to play her. I knew it would be an incredible opportunity.” 

Frannie’s story is told across two timelines: One, set in the present day as she awaits murder trial, and the other, a self-narrated story of her life up to this point. We learn about her background, from her early life in Jamaica to the cruel master who forced her to participate in dehumanizing science experiments meant to prove Black people were somehow inferior to whites. 

“Because it dips between timelines, her journey is a staggered line, but she starts off quite naive,” Simone-Spence says. “After all, she’s quite young. She’s never really experienced love — romantically, maternally, from friends — and so she comes to London very green. She has kind of her own love awakening during this story, and she gains her own agency. She goes on this crazy ride where she experiences so much.”

Frannie’s journey to England sees her gifted to George Benham and forced to work for his family. (This story takes place in the historically grey period between the U.K. abolishing the international slave trade and when emancipation freed enslaved people.) Yet, although Frannie Langton is a story about a formerly enslaved woman, that’s not the focus of her story. Rather than lean into graphic depictions of the violence and misery she undoubtedly experienced, Frannie Langton instead makes its heroine’s enslaved past just one more part of who she is — the source of physical and emotional scars, yes, but not the sum total of her worth.

“The [lack of Black central characters in Gothic fiction] was only ever filled by stories of suffering as if slavery was the only thing that had ever happened to Black people in the 18th and 19th century,” Collins says. “And personally — I’m a big fan of Toni Morrison. I know how important those stories are, how essential it is to engage with our history in that way. But I also felt that a lot of the times when people do it — unless they’re Toni Morrison, because she was a genius — most people lose sight of the [characters’] humanity, and they think slavery is the story. And for me, it was really important that slavery was not the story.”

“This is a story of a woman who comes from a background where she happened to have been enslaved,” Collins continues. “I didn’t want people to think, ‘Oh, we know what this is going to be about because it’s a ‘slave story.’ I hope the message comes across that this is very different.”

Instead, the heart of the show is a love story. And a queer love story at that, something that in and of itself is a rare thing for stories set during this period. Yes, Frannie and Marguerite’s romance is doomed from its first moments — what proper Gothic love story isn’t? — but that doesn’t make it any less compelling to watch unfold. It forms the unconventional, dark heart at the center of the story, a big reason its author came around to adapting her book for the screen in the first place. 

Karla-Simone Spence and Sophie Cookson in "The Confessions of Frannie Langton)

Karla-Simone Spence and Sophie Cookson in "The Confessions of Frannie Langton"

(Photo: BritBox)

“What really attracted me to [adapting] it for the screen — and I had to be persuaded, I didn’t want to do it at first. But, in the end, what sold me was that I had the chance to set the priorities,” Collins says. “And for me, the priority was very much the love story. Even more so than in the novel, I wanted to zero in on the feelings that develop between these two women. But it’s not a straightforward love story. It’s very challenging; it’s very complicated. There can be a debate about whether or not it was love and whether or not it was good for the two of them. But ultimately, we wanted to put it center stage, and I think we did.”

Frannie’s relationship with Marguerite Benham begins over their shared enjoyment of books and reading and quickly develops into something more overtly sexual. Yet, nothing about their forbidden romance feels exploitative or as though it’s meant to titillate viewers. Instead, it is the story of two oppressed and stifled people who find something like catharsis and freedom in one another. Neither character spends much time wrestling with the shame that so many period dramas often seem to attach to same-sex relationships. Rather, their feelings for one another are taken as a given, an aspect of their lives that’s as straightforward and factual as any other.

“They break my heart,” Collins says. “Every time I get to the end — and I’ve had to watch it a couple of times through the edit — and every time, I’m in floods of tears. It’s all down to that relationship and those two actors; I have to apologize because I know it’s going to break people’s hearts. But as a tribute to the Gothic, this love affair has to be twisted, challenging, and complicated. It’s also a tribute to reality; we’ve got to think about what was possible. Even if these two women had the best intentions towards each other, which I like to think they did, and that’s how I conceived of them, everything else got in their way. Their odds were against them.

Like any proper Gothic romance, your mileage may (and likely will) vary when it comes to Frannie and Maugerite’s relationship — it’s fair to question how much either truly cares for the other, whether either woman is using the other if their relationship is good for either one of them. But for Frannie’s portrayer, there’s no doubt about the truth — and strength — of her feelings.

Karla-Simone Spence in "The Confessions of Frannie Langton"

Karla-Simone Spence in "The Confessions of Frannie Langton"

(Photo: BritBox/Drama Republic/All3Media International)

“Frannie loves her so much,” Simone-Spence says. “It’s the first time she’s experienced that kind of love when you… sometimes you do stupid things for love because you’re just so devoted. You can’t quite explain it, but it is what it is. That’s what it is for Frannie. To her, Madame is just so intellectual and so fun and free-spirited. I think Frannie aspires to be as free-spirited because she’s never really had the opportunity to be able to be that.”

Marguerite, meanwhile, may be more aware of what sort of life is truly possible for two women in love in early 19th-century England. “I think for Madame, it would be a different experience,” Simone-Spence continues. “This isn’t her first rodeo. She realizes she can’t run off into the sunset with Frannie, and she’s more realistic in terms of what their dynamics are. But I would still say that it’s love — it’s not perfect, not at all. They go through their problems, and there’s some toxicity there. But it’s love.”

Ultimately, The Confessions of Frannie Langton isn’t about whether or not its titular heroine committed murder, though the answers are deftly handled. Instead, it’s about reclaiming her voice in a world that has always done its best to silence her. “It felt really empowering,” Simone-Spence says. “Even though it’s all quite overwhelming, she’s still standing strong. She’s still upright. She’s still fighting to tell her story, and I feel like whenever I’m talking about this show, I’m fighting to tell her story also.”

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is now streaming on BritBox.

Lacy Baugher

Lacy's love of British TV is embarrassingly extensive, but primarily centers around evangelizing all things Doctor Who, and watching as many period dramas as possible.

Digital media type by day, she also has a fairly useless degree in British medieval literature, and dearly loves to talk about dream poetry, liminality, and the medieval religious vision. (Sadly, that opportunity presents itself very infrequently.) York apologist, Ninth Doctor enthusiast, and unabashed Ravenclaw. Say hi on Threads or Blue Sky at @LacyMB. 

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