Pre-Raphaelites: the Horrible Histories version

22 July 2009

Anyone trying to dramatise the lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood has my sympathy. At first glance, the project seems to have everything you need for post-watershed TV: sex; glamour; tragedy. It also has too many characters, most of them pretty unsympathetic gits, not afraid to do a bit of Victorian moralising while destroying the people they purported to love.

The only one who isn't a git is a bit naïve and dull, gets married, paints the ultimate chocolate-box picture, gets rich and er...that's it. It becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly why no-one has tried dramatising the story before.

A couple of reviewers described Peter Bowker's stab at it "Entourage with easels". The trouble is the Beeb can't do West-Coast stylish. But it does have the Russell T Davies screenplay formula, which extends from Casanova to Torchwood. It's gone through a few iterations but has wound up with a team which does a bit of running about, shouting and striding purposefully down the street. Lots of noise and fury, signifying nothing. As long as things keep moving around, no-one will fall into the gaping plot holes.

Franny Moyle's book Desperate Romantics, on which Bowker's screenplay is based, opens with a filmic prologue set against the Chartist demonstrations of 1848 that does a sterling job of introducing the main characters. None of it actually happened but that doesn't matter because it works.

So, I'm quite happy for Bowker to take liberties with the history for the simple reason that sticking to the facts will have people switching over by episode three at the latest. But, I only ask that the TV actually be good. Some of the scriptwriting is so heavy I was half expecting to see a credit to Balfour Beatty. In the cringeworthy scene where the Scooby Gang tries to recruit Lizzie Siddal(l) as a model Dante Gabriel Rosetti informs Holman Hunt and us that he can't possibly ask her because his nickname is Maniac after all - they need someone less threatening. Clang! Is his nickname Maniac? Did he not know that?

Instead they get "Fred" to ask her. I don't want to get all Roy Chubby Brown but I sat through most of the episode thinking "Fred? Who the f**k is Fred?" (I confess that I missed the introductory five minutes where his character introduces himself). Why did they keep calling the person who I thought was painter Walter Deverell "Fred"? Luckily the promotional blurb from the Beeb sorts this one out: he's a synthetic character made from bits of Rosetti's sensible civil-servant brother, Deverell and, presumably, the poet Charles Patmore. So, it's obvious that he's the least sexually threatening. He doesn't actually exist.

There are large chunks of history that wind up utterly garbled in Bowker's version. As well as being actively courted by the Scooby Gang en masse (which didn't happen), you have the critic John Ruskin in another laugh-out-out scene burning a bunch of what are presumably meant to be JMW Turner's erotic drawings in a scene that will make it difficult later on to explain his fascination with, um...somewhat younger women. Ruskin was long suspected to have burned the drawings (ten years after the events in episode one) but they turned up many years later.

Then you have the bizarre scene with Ruskin and the Scooby Gang where we see an unfinished version of Rosetti's The Annunciation. OK, there is a smart, funny line in here about Rosetti's skill with paint. But set against that is the jarring idea that all he needed was to plug Siddal's face into the composition. But we're dealing with painters who worked from life - that's presumably the point of episode two where she nearly dies in a cold bath - so the idea of Rosetti almost finishing The Annunciation before getting Siddal to sit for him is just plain weird.

The narrative hops from quasi-historical event to event with very little happening in the character department. Rosetti declares art needs a revolution but there's no context to explain what they are rebelling against. Actors like Phil Davis just trot onscreen to deliver the view of the establishment and depart. Charles Dickens rolls along to deliver his verdict in person for a bit more dramatic effect. And then it cuts to another largely meaningless scene. If you're going to make stuff up, you might as well go for it and deliver something that at least feels coherent. Ruskin is the complicated one: focus on him (it's more or less what Moyle did) - Hunt really isn't that complicated at all, just a bit confused - or explore Rosetti's arc of self-destruction. Right now, there are just too many characters to make half-decent TV. Bowker's only way out seems to be to have them all joined at the hip for all six episodes.

Episode one of Desperate Romantics just felt as though it went through about ten script-development meetings too many. I can practically hear execs sitting there asking: "So when does Raphael turn up?"