With a title like The Devil’s Whore, you just knew Channel 4’s latest costume drama set during the English Revolution (yes, we had one of those) was going to be a bodice-ripping bonkathon.
So it was a bit of a shock to see popular TV tackling the politics of one of the most exciting periods in English history, one that usually gets wiped from our collective memory just because the democrats bumped off a despotic king. The series introduces a new generation to a time when the English argued for a world where human beings were equal in the eyes of God and thereby deserved an equal share of the world’s riches — a sort of ... common wealth.
In those days, and increasingly true of today, that was fighting talk.
During the Civil War (1642-51), the Roundhead Parliamentarians overthrew Charles I when he threatened to bankrupt the nation. Had we not then reinstated the monarchy after the fascinating social experiment of the Commonwealth, we’d be celebrating January 30th, the day the English took a giant step in democratising the political system and beheaded their king.
Heck, this was the birth of the Mother of All Parliaments. You’d think our cinema and TV would be choc full of it. But no, we need Channel 4 and a big dollop of sex to stamp this momentous event onto our brains.
Actually, considering it is C4, the sex is remarkably sedate, performed only by loving couples within marriage or with the promise of marriage. When mere lust raises its head, the heroine’s honour is defended to the death. It is the convention of the tale that the fictional character of, Lady Angelica Fanshawe (Andrea Riseborough), traitor to her class, must shag for the honour of the series title in each episode or we would want our money back, had we paid for this.
Unfortunately, her paramours — and I’m only halfway through the four parter — die violently, each end foreshadowed by the appearance of what looks like Donnie Darko’s six-foot rabbit and the unmissable strains of “Mad World”, Donnie Darko's theme. I am looking forward to seeing who is lined up as Death of the Week in part III and playing spot the deliberate anachronism.
The Devil (top) and Donnie Darko's rabbit — separated at birth
What’s remarkable is that the writers reverse the dictum of 1066 And All That: cavaliers — wrong but romantic; roundheads — right but repulsive. I’m used to hand-wringing accounts of a tortured Oliver Cromwell doing what a man’s gotta do to the noble and misunderstood king — usually played by Alec Guinness, who even the most hardened republican would want to put in their pocket and feed chocolate.
Instead, Charles I is played unsympathetically by a mesmerising Peter Capaldi, just about resisting the attempt to twirl his Van Dyke moustache in villainous fashion. Not easy when it threatens to upstage him in every scene. For the first time, Chas 1 is shown for the cruel vain man he must have been to have played the power game to the end because he believed he ruled by Divine Right. I assume this is due to the writing of Pete Flannery who mesmerised us with Our Friends In the North, which gave us Daniel “James Bond” Craig, and Christopher “Dr Who” Ecclestone.
And when did you ever see a drama even acknowledging the existence of the idealistic Levellers?
I did want to know why Simon Pegg was playing Edward Sexby until I realised this was Life On Mars hero and Dr Who badass, John Simm. Starting as a mercenary on the Royalist side, he is swept along by his secret love for milady and becomes a leader of the Leveller faction of the rebels, proving that the smallest he hath as large a character arc as the greatest he.
Thomas Rainsborough (Michael Fassbender), one of the senior Levellers and as dashingly romantic as any cavalier, famously argued that the “poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he" at the Putney Debates. My money's on him being "the greatest he". I’d give his sermons a good listening to. Yowza!
Dominic West, fresh from The Wire, as a warts-and-all Oliver Cromwell, is implicated in Rainsborough’s demise and contains the germ of the character that would wreak havoc in Ireland but which, along with Scottish events, the writers don’t have time to cover in four hours.
Madam Miaow says ... A thoroughly entertaining introduction to the English Revolution. This is your history. Have fun finding out about it. Wax on ... wax off ...
The English Civil War
Co-creator Martine Brant on the series
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