television

Brave But Brief

Channel 4's The Devil's Whore

Channel 4's The Devil's Whore

Most of the history blogs worth reading have already had their say about Peter Flannery’s Civil War drama, The Devil’s Whore, which this week ended its four episode run. (Cardinal Wolsey’s take is here, and there lie links to a few of the others.) Hopes were high: Flannery was responsible for 90s sensation Our Friends In The North, and he has been working on this latest project since 1997. Undoubtedly, though, the history blogs are right to exoriate his history: Flannery’s English Civil War bears little resemblance to the real one, his Interregnum even less. As someone whose favourite read this year was John Adamson’s 2007 The Noble Revolt, this of course disappoints. But Flannery is surely less interested in historical accuracy and John Pym, and so he should not be judged on his knowledge of the Heads of Proposals.

Unfortunately, The Devil’s Whore didn’t quite work as drama, either. If its third hour was the strongest, it was because it featured the chaos and despair which lay at the heart of this tale of confusion and identity crisis, themes which always encouraged the series to be at its strongest; but the episode was also bitty, fragmented and somewhat random – and in this sense, too, it was the most representative of the four segments.

The series is not without its clevernesses: though its five central characters, one of whom is entirely fictional and the others based in one way or another on historical figures, were surely never as closely entwined as Flannery would have it, they do all share a yearning – a searching – quality. This The Devil’s Whore places not unreasonably at the heart of the experience of England between 1640 and 1660, and in this sense it is even perspicacious.  I rather liked the way the series depicts its characters, and therefore the nation, each reaching for their own identity in a society which, one way or the other, denies it them: the low-born Cromwell chafing against the aristocrat’s reigns, Angelica Fanshawe finding herself unsatisfied by the place society alots to women. If Flannery’s Rainsborough or Lilburne seem woefully divorced from their historical setting, at least they fit nicely into the series’ fictional one.

Here, though, the rot sets in. The story has it that Flannery originally conceived The Devil’s Whore as a 12-part serial. To be reduced to a four-part miniseries without also limiting his story seems a woeful twist of fate, and is surely the principal cause of the faults which riddle the series Flannery eventually made. When the BBC refused his show, and Channel 4 accepted it on the proviso of major abridgement, Flannery’s task was impossible. You can detect the subtelties of that full version in the one that got made: the way that romp and politics co-exist, here uncomfortably but originally, and with the breathing space of eight more episodes, perhaps fruitfully; the breakneck speed which sees the Civil War reduced to a bit of a barney, the dismissal of the Rump Parliament to a sudden Cromwellian strop, hobbles the narrative. Again, it is not the ahistorical nature of these vignettes that repels; it is the narrative shorthand they represent, and the level to which they deny the viewer any time to invest in the events or the characters swept up by them.

What power The Devil’s Whore does have comes from a brace of excellent performances. John Simm as Edward Sexby beds down well by the second episode, though in the first the twinkle in his eye is a little too ribald; Dominic West at first seems too low-key, but ultimately reveals cool method to his madness; and Andrea Riseborough as Fanshawe manages somehow to knit together the rapid role changes of her character whilst somehow filling in the psychology lying between them that has been torn out in the process of abridgement. In particular,  Peter Capaldi turns in a brilliantly brittle Charles I. All of these performances show real depth. (Having said that, Ted Vallance in the New Statesman is not wholly incorrect in accusing the admittedly charismatic Michael Fassbender of playing Thomas Rainsborough as a ‘low-rent Aragorn’.) They are aided by simply gorgeous cinematography, and a fine attention to detail on the part of the stage dressers. The series is very rich to look at and listen to, and this alone renders the plot compelling even as it careers ever faster towards nowhere in particular.

The grimness of the series is, disappointingly, softened at the end, as if the Restoration somehow solved everything. But every story needs some form of close, and if anything this one is most unsatisfying because it it comes too quick, and comes too pat, and the whole story suddenly seems strangely perfunctory: though we see monumental events and eavesdrop on complex debates, Flannery is always looking at the stopwatch. When King Charles leaves the Commons without arresting any of the five members, he is within 20 seconds fleeing London. In such a narrative, nothing is lent sufficient weight. Though some of the scenes in Ireland are harrowing, and John Simm in particular invests them with a sense of determinist futility, they lack context – accurate or otherwise at this point barely matters – in which we can understand and judge the events. Nor is this effective soap opera, where events are important only insofar as they affect our characters: they, too, swap and change with nary a nod to any real decision making process.   Flannery becomes a screenwriting White Rabbit: he’s always late, and always rushing.

This is really very sad, because the performances, and the concept, deserve something better in the execution. The series looked beautiful, and held the attention, but it was hard to escape the notion that, with apologies to Uncle Oliver, The Devil’s Whore stayed too short for the good it would have done.

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8 thoughts on “Brave But Brief

  1. Inversion Layer says:

    Flannery originally conceived The Devil’s Whore as a 12-part serial

    Which explains a lot as it was very bitty, passing off significant periods of time and major events in just a line. It also, unfortunately, lost most of the Flanneryness with his social/political items only occasionally surfacing.

    But we did watch it all, the performances were at least good and some excellent (such as McNulty as Cromwell). Bad ending and the CGI devil was both unnecessary and silly. A 12 hour HBO version keeping Mr West and letting Flannery have full control could be a joy.

    Paul

  2. Inversion Layer says:

    Yes, after Our Friends in the North and Singer, which we saw twice when it premièred at the RSC with Anthony Sher in the title role, we had hopes for this. Every now and again there were flashes of what we were hoping for, but overall it failed for the reasons you point out.

    I hated the ‘supernatural’ elements, not because I don’t like that sort of thing, but because the visuals were so unconvincing and the moments seemed completed divorced from the rest of the narrative.

    Elizabeth

  3. danhartland says:

    I think we’re all agreed that only HBO can save us now.

    Elizabeth – I agree that the supernatural bits seemed shoehorned in. I wasn’t at all sure of their point, unless it was to further underline Angelica’s lack of roots in such a theistic society. If so, it could have been done with significantly less CGI. Having said that, it did effectively present how very real religious ideas seemed to the people of the time: to them the Devil was a very real figure with very real agency. So to that extent it was only badly executed rather than flawed in concept, and so becomes emblematic of the show: so a good title, after all! 😛

  4. Pingback: The Devil’s Whore (2008) « Costume drama reviews

  5. Great review – I definitely agree with you that the whole series feels too hurried. and it would have been good to have all the missing episodes. It has made me want to read more about the English Civil War and fill in some of the gaps.

  6. danhartland says:

    Thanks, Judy – glad you liked it. I agree with you, too, about the strange nature of Angelica’s role: simultaneously central and peripheral.

    And I can recommend more reading about the period – it’s endlessly fascinating. A good start is Peter Gaunt’s short history. 🙂

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