19 November, 2008

The Devil's Whore....Our Friends in the Civil War

I am going to jump in to the debate on whether the current Channel 4 English Civil War drama, The Devil's Whore is any good. It seems to be picking up some award nominations, but that doesn't mean a lot.

The series is the work of Peter Flannery, who brought us the landmark drama Our Friends in the North . This followed the fortunes of four friends from Newcastle-on-Tyne between 1964 and 1995, so had a much longer span than Devil's Whore, with the characters' lives changing in reaction to the events around them.

In an interview on the current show's website he compares the two dramas: "There's a sense of friends bonding near the beginning of this, and then you watch how their lives play out through a time of political upheaval. So there's a great similarity. For a long time we called it Our Friends in the Civil War". Flannery hopes that Andrea Riseborough will win a BAFTA as Gina McKee did for "Our Friends". We'll see.

After the first three episodes I am still watching. This is in the face of one or two flaws that various reviewers have already spotted:

Many Civil War characters do not get a look-in. "Where are John Pym, the Earl of Bedford, Sir Thomas Fairfax, Denzil Holles and Edward Hyde?", asks Ronan Bennett in his review. And those characters that do feature are not properly introduced in terms of background and motivation; - oh look, there's Cromwell.

- The New Model Army seems to have shrunk to about 20 men and a couple of cannon. The Cape Town branch of the Sealed Knot must be short on members. So the battle scenes suffer from what Wacht Am Tyne calls "The Sharpe Effect".

- Some of the scenes look too much like South Africa, because they are. I didn't know the Drakensberg had moved to Ireland.

- The CGI devil looks like he has wandered in from another set

- In spite of the presence of a dedicated sex scene coordinator, Ted Vallance says in his New Statesman review that "This a series caught in two-minds as to whether to be a faithful, serious historical drama or merely an entertainment for those who get off on men wearing hose and doublets"

- It all seems rushed, and squeezed into too few episodes. The Civil War is too important (and long) to rush through in 4 episodes - compare Band of Brothers, which took us through the Normandy campaign almost as if in real time, so you feel involved. Michael Fassbender (Thomas Rainsborough) was in BoB by the way. I think Chronologi Cogitationes may be thinking on similar lines in suggesting that if we had followed one or two characters through the events it might work better, " but then they threw in Cromwell, Lilburne and Rainsboroughe" .

And Yet..
The committed acting keeps you watching, especially John Simm as the mercenary Sexby. He is as good in this as in Life on Mars. All the main players are good, and the small-group scenes have a lot of chemistry and are shot in authentic-looking interiors.

I also like the brooding and lawless atmosphere. Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone might seem unlikely influences, but in a background piece in Broadcast Now, director Mark Munden says: "I wanted to bring in elements of the modern revisionist western. In terms of its landscape, the piece was very much about isolated areas of civilisation, such as Oxford and London, within a wild lawless country. Sexby is like a mercenary gunslinger, [Leone's] 'man with no name'.

In the end, I agree with Julie Myerson on The Newsnight Review panel : Our Friends in the North was iconic; but The Devil's Whore ain't. In four episodes, it never could be, but if it gets people wanting to know more about this turbulent period it will have done some good.

more on The Devil's Whore:
Lady Byron at Factual Imagining has some useful links .
Another good review at The Story and the Truth .


Andy said...

It still sounds fascinating (warts and all!)

Andy said...

Never mind my previous comment, from the reviews it sounds like a 17th century Footballer's Wives. I'll search Youtube for the battle scenes though.

cardinal_wolsey said...

Not sure about the Footballers' Wives analogy - no fake tan in sight for a start. I'll put some videos/trailers from the show on the Vodpod if I can find any.

Andy said...

"Footballer's Wives" has been my catchall shorthand for BBC shite ever since BBC America replaced their Avengers reruns with it a few years back. I've never seen more of it than the commercials actually.

Porn is porn and entertainment is entertainment, and each in their place.