Thursday 11 December 2008

Passionate people at w…w…w…war!

The Devil's Whore (2008), directed by Marc Munden

Some periods of history are rarely touched by television drama. The English Civil War is one of those periods. It has been 25 years since the BBC’s By the Sword Divided (1983), but for the past few weeks, Channel 4 has broadcast The Devil’s Whore, a 4-part drama covering 1638 to 1660. The title suggested intrigue and, at the very least, some titillation. This promised to be a less-than-puritanical journey into England’s revolutionary past, but was it going to be another romp-fest like the BBC’s recent The Tudors (2007)? Or did co-writer Peter Flannery’s (Our Friends in the North (1996)) involvement hint at a more epic tale of the hopes and fears of ordinary seventeenth century Englishmen and women?

Angelica Fanshawe is a fictional character created from an idea of Flannery’s co-writer, historian Martine Brant, who had written her thesis ‘on the gallows speeches of women in the 17th century hanged at Tyburn, often for petty offences - most of them pitifully misunderstood and persecuted for not conforming to a patriarchal system’ (1). Although Brant drew on the memoirs of aristocrat Lady Ann Fanshawe (1625-1628) (2), Angelica is in some ways an anachronistic, proto-feminist, possibly aimed at keeping a young audience interested in the unfolding drama. The potential danger with Angelica’s character was that she would remain essentially a cipher, a narrative device that might serve the purpose of introducing the audience to Oliver Cromwell (Dominic West), Thomas Rainsborough (Michael Fassbender), the Levellers, the Diggers et al, while detracting rather than adding to the historical narrative. However, the writers had a cunning plan.

Brant and Flannery deftly introduced a real historical figure alongside Angelica Fanshawe: Edward Sexby, a Roundhead soldier and sometime Leveller in Cromwell’s army, who shares Angelica’s passion for freedom. Sexby falls in love with Angelica on seeing her for the first time and this becomes the romantic spine of all four episodes. The co-writers embellished Sexby’s story by giving him a Clint Eastwood-like, Man With No Name, mercenary character: he starts off working for the Royalists, then joins the New Model Army, only to leave them when he becomes disgusted by the hypocritical treatment of Honest John Lilburne (Tom Goodman-Hill) – and this all in the first episode! The interweaving of Sexby’s narrative and Angelica’s own tumultuous story means an otherwise straightforward ‘will they, won’t they’ subplot is intimately bound up with the rights and wrongs of the historical conflict, and all this is played out with panache by actors Andrea Riseborough and John Simm.

Director Marc Munden whizzes us from scene to scene with gusto; the sheer pace of the storytelling is breathtaking. There is a group of scenes in the first episode that sets the tone for the rest of the series where we are transported from the sounds of crowds protesting outside parliament for the release of John Lilburne (1640) to the Battle of Edgehill (1642) in under sixteen minutes. The details of history are left out as time is compressed, and the story relentlessly moves forward. The simple intercutting, as the scenes get shorter and shorter and the music becomes more pronounced, between Sexby’s knife-sharpening soliloquy to a captive audience of two boys and Charles I’s failed attempt to arrest the Five Members, creates an expectation of the ferociousness of the ensuing war.

Angelica’s naive intervention to persuade the king that he might have been mistaken about the Five Members of parliament wanted for treason is utterly fictional, but still a great moment. ‘Mistake?’ utters Peter Capaldi’s pale white king, as he looks down at his even paler, impudent, female subject, ‘I am mistook?’ This is clearly very embarassing for Harry, Angelica’s husband (Ben Aldridge), who tries to explain to the king that Angelica’s ‘mind is wild still’. Still stunned, the queen, Henrietta Maria (Mélodie Abad) asks Charles what is going to happen, and he begins to stutter, ‘W…w…w…’ We cut back to Sexby who is pointing his sharpened sword straight at the camera, and he finishes Charles’s line ‘..war’. The action then moves straight to Edge Hill.

The Battle of Edge Hill is the only major filmed battle sequence. Even on a reported budget of £7 million and a filming location of South Africa, chosen partly for budgetary reasons, battles cost bucks. The ‘fight at Kineton’, as the characters refer to it, really only serves the dramatic purpose of showing Edward Sexby swapping sides from Royalist to Parliamentarian. There is no attempt to introduce ideas about the military or political significance of the battle, but our story rolls on. Edward Sexby, almost dead on the battlefield and with new body scars to add to his impressive facial one, is now on the side of the ‘good guys’. Lying among the corpses in the aftermath of the slaughter, he has a vision of Angelica walking towards him in the moonlight, and is then found unconscious by Freeborn John Lilburne (who really did fight at Edge Hill) and Thomas Rainsborough (who actually didn’t).

I have to say, however, that by this point I was thoroughly hooked, and my cribbers-guide appreciation of the main historical events of the period was no longer going to interfere with the enjoyment of the storytelling. So the creators were playing fast and loose with some aspects of history, but the broader objective to try and capture the revolutionary spirit of the time felt true. In Christopher Hill’s seminal book on the period, The World Turned Upside Down, he explains that he is going to take ‘the worm’s eye view’ of history because he wants to grapple with the significance of a period where so many radical groups and sects jostled for social change (3). The names of the sects, and their sheer number, are almost comical, but it is a testament to a society where ordinary, landless people, spurred on by changing social relations, a weak and corrupt monarchy and a wave of radicalism following the publication in English of the Authorised King James Bible in 1611, began to associate and agitate for greater freedoms. There were Levellers, Diggers, Seekers, Ranters, Grindletonians, Quakers, Fifth Monarchists, Muggletonians, Agitators and many more.

The full title of the series: The Devil’s Whore: A true account of the life and times of Angelica Fanshawe is of course a cheeky, and factually incorrect one. Angelica Fanshawe, as we know, is a fictitious character. It feels like Brant and Flannery are just sticking two fingers up the academics and historians. In reality, for example, there is little evidence to suggest Sexby was quite as noble as the writers suggest. In fact, towards the end of 1650s, Sexby is associated with attempts to restore the monarchy and so he was probably not quite the hero that we are led to believe. This wasn’t the only tinkering that Brant and Flannery indulged in: the idea that Cromwell was responsible for Thomas Rainsborough’s assassination has little historical purchase. One could also list everything you expected to see but didn’t: The Battle of Marston Moor (1644), The Battle of Naseby (1645), Sir Thomas Fairfax, The Putney Debates (1647) etc.

When the production of The Devil’s Whore was announced in 2007, Professor Peter Gaunt, the chairman of the Cromwell Association, said: ‘The blurring of fact and fiction never works well and there are real dangers inherent in just making it up. There are so many good, genuine sources about the period, which are so rich and vibrant, that there is the capacity to make factual and appealing programmes about the Civil War without turning to fiction’. Peter Flannery responded by explaining how The Devil’s Whore was going to correct some historical imbalances about the period, suggesting a certain political purpose rather than a concern only with entertainment, or indeed education: ‘The Puritans have had a bad press. The idea that they were humourless and wanted to ban Christmas is just nonsense. They could be as handsome and dashing as anyone else. These were passionate people who were - willing to fight to the death for what they believed in’ (4).

In fact, my expectation for The Devil’s Whore was heightened by Peter Flannery’s involvement because I so enjoyed Our Friends in the North back in 1996 – a damning indictment of Old Labour on the eve of the coming to power of New Labour. The epic serial charted the course of the lives of four friends from Newcastle from 1964 to 1995, showing us their broken dreams. Another catalyst for my interest was the casting of Dominic West as Oliver Cromwell. Hot from the cult American television cop series, The Wire (2002), West grew into his role of the ruthless and troubled Cromwell with the relaxed intensity we saw him bring to his wayward cop, Jimmy McNulty. But in reminding myself of Our Friends in the North (a nine-part serial) and The Wire (five series, each of 13 episodes), I feel cheated by The Devil’s Whore’s relative brevity.

I can’t help reflecting that Flannery was initially introduced to Martine Brant in 1994 by Tessa Ross, an independent commissioner at the BBC, who wanted them to discuss Brant’s idea for a Civil War drama, and the original plan was for a ten-hour drama instead of the four hours we ended up with. ‘The whole thing fell apart for all sorts of complicated reasons, but mainly because the BBC never quite knew what it wanted,’ recalls Flannery (5). I am very pleased The Devil’s Whore has been made. It has opened up a period of history in a fresh and exciting way that I believe audiences of all ages can take something from. Nevertheless, we would have had a full ten hours had the BBC perhaps not lost its nerve.

The main weakness of The Devil’s Whore is that the characterisation of the key historical protagonists is held in check in order to make room in a limited time frame for the narrative drive of our fictitious heroine, Angelica, and semi-factual hero, Sexby. A defining characteristic of the period is the muscular language employed by everyone from parliamentarians to mechanic preachers. Too often our enjoyment of the language of the time is stifled by pragmatic editing in order to squeeze the drama into its four-hour straight jacket. The economy of the writing, the sumptuous costumes and sets and crafted camerawork are all to be applauded, but The Devil’s Whore could have been so much more. In response to a fractured and sometimes confused television culture, audiences should insist that big budgets for new writing about big historical events are a very good thing.

1) The Devil’s Whore Production Notes,
2) Memoirs of Lady Fanshawe, Anne Harrison Fanshawe, Henry Colburn, 1830.
3) The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution, Christopher Hill, Viking Adult, 1972.
4) Channel 4 sexes up the Puritans, Chris Hastings,, 11 June 2007.
5) TX: The Devil’s Whore, Matthew Bell, Broadcast Now, 05 November 2008.

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