Call it the 'Downton Abbey' effect.
Despite an impending 20% cut in the BBC’s overall budget and a licence-fee freeze until 2017, Janice Hadlow, the controller of British channel BBC2, has said adult drama will be a key priority. The drama budget has thus been tripled – from £10m to £30m – and may be funded by the radical move of replacing all day time programming on BBC2 with rolling news until 7pm.
First out of - and on - the box then, April 2011 sees a new four part series ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’, set in Victorian London and based on the 2002 novel of the same name by Michael Faber. The drama occupies telly ground already broken by ‘The Devil’s Whore’, ‘Desperate Romantics’ and ‘The Tudors’ – which all employ the three ‘R’s of modern TV period drama – racy, raunchy, romps.
The usual liberty is taken with historical accuracy. In the opening scene - a disorienting jaunt following the main character, Sugar through filthy alleys peopled by consumptive children, pasty-faced, though beautiful, whores and accompanied by the background grating of a frenzied cello – a man is wheeled towards the wildly dipping camera wearing a bird like black plague mask. As these were employed in England during the 13th and 17th centuries he is either in fancy dress, or just in the wrong century.
The sense of confusion is further deepened by the voice over – Sugar informs us, in the sensual tones usually employed for ‘food as sex’ M&S ads or culinary tour de force Masterchef, that ‘you don’t know what day it is, do you'? Well this bit is accurate at least, as the production team seems a bit confused about it too.
This giddy pace slows down to unfold a televisual feast of romantic, cosy charm. Though Sugar, played by English rose Romola Garai is a prostitute in the squalid and stinking Victorian capital – hence the plague mask, presumably, the ‘beak’ of which would have been stuffed with aromatic herbs – still she seems to enjoy her role, smiling archly into the camera whilst being ‘serviced’ from behind.
The scars on her back from past beatings are somehow like so much picturesque dressing, rather than a reminder of the brutality and degradation of her life. The music slows down and becomes comforting, and reassuring. Sugar seems untouched – pale and pretty, and with a complacent charm that belies a desperate existence. Following the death of a fellow harlot and close friend due to a random assault, Sugar is in constant fear for her life. She has the self possession to read Shakespeare and pen a novel however, and is propositioned to become the kept woman of a wealthy would be writer and perfume magnate, who is captivated by her intellect – amongst other attributes.
This character is brilliantly portrayed by Chris O’Dowd from 'The IT Crowd', and his neglect of his fragile wife Agnes, who is physically and mentally abused by her doctor back at the family mansion, makes you wish for his murderous fate, as so graphically imagined by Sugar whilst she researches her book, about a prostitute enacting lethal revenge on her 'worm' like clients (and which should perhaps be entitled ‘Perfume Magnate – The Story of a Murderess’).
Once again this drama exposes the lie of Victorian morality - in common with 'Desperate Romantics' and 'Sweeney Todd'. As the brothel owner, Mrs Castaway, Gillian Anderson again inhabits the shifting candle lit interiors of Victorian London, though unlike her haunting portrayal of Lady Deadlock in the BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 'Bleak House', she here adopts a cockney accent to rival Dick Van Dyke’s Burt, in 'Mary Poppins'. Cor Blimey, Mrs!
‘Who understands better than I the connection between commerce and art?’ says Sugar to her deluded suitor, as she vows to improve his business prospects. With her voiced theatrical sound effects as background notes to their sexual congress, usually performed ‘doggy fashion’ to allow the camera to focus on her glacial, disinterested expression, she constantly ‘plots’ another life, and rifles through his bag.
In the final poignant scene of the first episode, Agnes sees Sugar – ‘My angel, come at last!’ - from an upper window of her mansion home, just as her husband’s kept woman checks out her 'Sugar’ daddy’s wealthy abode. Bizarrely, the graphic depiction of wings on the back of her gown as Sugar finally disappears round the corner of salubrious Chepstow Villas, furnishes the viewer with quite a clue to the mindset of Agnes, lest you may think a Victorian whore would be highly unlikely to fit this glowing description.
Bleak House (Special Edition) [DVD] Amazon US
Masterpiece Classic: Downton Abbey (Original UK Unedited Edition) Amazon US
Eileen O'Sullivan recommends these DVDs from Amazon US. She watched Bleak House and Downton Abbey on British TV.