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From the sodden to the shirtless: a brief history of period drama’s most iconic scenes of sexual tension

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Charlotte Duck
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Don’t be fooled by those innocent blushes and courteous exchanges, period dramas do sexual tension like no-one else. Four-poster beds, corsets, not to mention all those underclothes, it seems that today’s script writers can’t help themselves adding in the odd bit of raunchiness.  

But to create a truly memorable scene involves real genius. From explicit heaving bosoms and unexpected full-frontals to a topless Poldark tending the fields or just the sight of Colin Firth in a wet shirt, the iconic sex scenes on this list are an eclectic bunch.

  • A Room With A View (1985)

    It seems the combination of the romantic Tuscan landscape and Julian Sands' enigmatic George Emerson proved too much a temptation for the innocent Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham-Carter). The pair enjoyed a passionate kiss among a field of cornflowers, while Kiri Te Kanawa belted out O Mio Babbino Caro, before Maggie Smith – starring as Lucy’s chaperone – abruptly interrupted them.

    Photo credit: Rex Features

  • Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

    From Vicomte de Valmont’s speedy seduction of Cecelie (played by the-then relatively unknown Uma Thurman) to the power-play of sexual chemistry between de Valmonte (John Malkovich) and the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close), almost every scene in Dangerous Liaisons oozes sex. The most touching moments, however, are between de Valmonte and the devoutly religious Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), the only pair in this movie who have any genuine affection for each other.

    Photo credit: Rex Features

  • La Reine Margot (1994)

    If you want your sex scenes with a dose of history and culture, La Reine Margot is right up your street. This French classic includes a rampant sex scene between the notorious Queen of France and a Protestant soldier, La Mole, which involves them doing the deed against a brick wall with her wearing a black masque. Fifty Shades, anyone?

    Photo credit: Rex Features

  • Pride & Prejudice (1995)

    When Colin Firth's Mr Darcy cooled himself off with an impromptu dip, who would have guessed that his sodden shirt and dripping hair would have become such an iconic moment in period drama history? Not only was it spoofed by the likes of French & Saunders, but it even gets a substantial mention in Helen Fielding's second Bridget Jones novel, proving Elizabeth Bennet wasn't the only one swooning.

    Photo credit: BBC

  • The English Patient (1996)

    There are so many poignant love scenes between Katherine Clifton and Laszlo de Almásy in this Oscar-winning classic, it’s difficult to choose just one. The pair make love in a church while the nearby congregation sing Silent Night, then there’s the bath scene, which begins with Ralph Fiennes sewing while taking a soak, and, in another tryst, Kristin Scott Thomas proceeds to violently attack Ralph Fiennes before he rips her dress to shreds and pulls her down onto the floor. Kristin recently described filming these love scenes as “jumping stark naked into an icy swimming pool. You just have to plunge right in.”    

    Photo credit: Rex Features

  • Titanic (1997)

    Who could forget the scene in Titanic, which starts when Rose asks Jack to “draw me like one of your French girls”? Kate Winslet’s character then proceeds to remove all her clothing, bar an enormous jewelled necklace, and lie on a chaise longue while Jack manages to do a half-decent drawing, despite the over-powering sexual tension. The pair then go on to get all naked and steamy in a Rolls Royce. Apparently, this is the first scene that Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio shot together on-set. What a way to get to know each other.

    Photo credit: Rex Features

  • Elizabeth (1998)

    According to this biopic, not even the Virgin Queen was averse to a bit of bodice-ripping. This controversial re-telling of Elizabeth I’s early years shows the monarch dismissing her ladies-in-waiting so she can be secretly bedded by the doe-eyed, tights-wearing Earl of Leicester, played by Joseph Fiennes. And, as you’d expect, they do the deed on a muslin-draped four-poster bed.  

    Photo credit: Rex Features

  • Shakespeare In Love (1998)

    Joseph Fiennes found himself in yet another iconic sex scene when he starred opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in her Oscar-winning turn as Viola. On discovering that Thomas Kent is in fact a woman, Fiennes' Bard can't control his passion any longer; although he has to be a little patient as things don't get hot and steamy until he’s removed her Elizabethan undergarments, something that takes quite a while.

    Photo credit: Rex Features

  • Tipping The Velvet (2002)

    Tipping the Velvet was rare for a period drama in that it showed lesbian love. Not only that but this BBC adaptation included one scene which depicted a corset-clad Anna Chancellor being pleasured by a dildo-wearing-woman dressed as a soldier. Revolutionary in every sense.

    Photo credit: BBC

  • Atonement (2007)

    Keira Knightley and James McAvoy somehow managed to make having sex against a bookcase and a library ladder look romantic and erotic, rather than painful and ridiculous, in this World World II adaptation. But while full marks go to their passionate portrayal, it’s Keira’s green slip dress – which gets slipped off – that’s the real star of this scene.

    Photo credit: Rex Features

  • The Duchess (2008)

    Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, seemed to be wearing about 60 layers of undergarments when she finally gave into temptation and let herself be bedded by Charles Grey. The pair make love to a rousing soundtrack but the reality of the scene was a little less theatrical. Apparently, Dominic Cooper was wearing a flesh-coloured loin cloth to preserve his modesty which sent Keira Knightley into hysterics. "During the scene, I was fully clothed, but Dominic wore a skin-coloured nappy… You are meant to be supportive of each other, but I just lost it. I couldn't stop laughing."

    Photo credit: Rex Features

  • Downton Abbey (2010)

    Many a-sex scene has begun with a vigorous horse ride over rolling countryside but few have ended the same way as Lady Mary’s passionate tryst with Turkish diplomat Kemal Pamuk. In one of the most surprising twists in period drama romance, Lady Mary proved too much for “Poor Pamuk” to handle and he ended up dead in her bed – the ramifications of which dominated the show for several series thereafter.

    Photo credit: ITV

  • Poldark (2015)

    Aidan Turner transformed scything from an outdated agricultural activity into something a lot sexier when he filmed this iconic scene in the first series. His topless, tanned torso sent social media into a frenzy and we've been watching the show avidly ever since ­– just in case he's out in the fields on a warm day again.

    Photo credit: BBC/Mike Hogan

  • War & Peace (2016)

    Sometimes it’s the restraint between two characters that ups the passion quota and that was definitely the case when Natasha and Prince Andrei took to the dancefloor to waltz at the Tsar’s ball. With the eyes of St Petersburg’s nobility on them, not even a kiss was exchanged but James Norton made Lily James’ Natasha – and everyone watching at home – feel weak at the knees as he circled her around the ballroom. It’s no coincidence that this heart-racing scene was written by Andrew Davis, the man also responsible for Colin Firth’s sodden shirt.

    Photo credit: BBC

  • The Halcyon (2017)

    The first episode of World War II hotel drama The Halcyon opened with a bang when viewers got a glimpse of Kara Tointon’s pert, peachy behind. Cheeky hotel singer Betsey Day sneaks into Lord Hamilton’s room to have a bath but doesn’t seem particularly perturbed when he interrupts her, instead provocatively asking him to “pass her a towel” as she stands fully naked in front of him.

    Photo credit: Rex Features

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Charlotte Duck

Charlotte Duck is a freelance editor and writer. She's written about everything from David Beckham's pants to luxury prams, and interviewed Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley and Lee from Blue. She's a rubbish cook but very good at tidying. 

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