Alan Morrison on

BBC 2's Desperate Romantics
or, Desperate Philanderers; Rampant Romantics; Carry on Canvas; The Pre-Pubescents etc. Being an historically aware viewer’s sense of nausea at yet another of the BBC’s trashings of the past

Pre-Raphaelites Behaving Badly

After broadcasting the unusually mature and dramatically powerful one-off Freefall only a week or so before, the BBC return to form with the first episode of a short serial allegedly based around the lives and – most importantly for the Beeb of course – loves of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The BBC once again excel in really the only way they ever significantly do nowadays: in their insatiable genius at trashing the past and trivialising the high ideals and achievements of historical artistic figures by trying to show the modern viewer that they were really just like de kidz of today (in some cases, even with the same ridiculously conical haircuts, e.g. Casanova, Robin Hood et al). So inevitably the Pre-Raphaelites were next on the list for clumsy post-modern post-mortem – the true Romantics, as epitomised in the risible sex-romp-fest Byron, having already been given the ‘trousers down’ treatment – and I have to say, the team behind this latest charlatanism have at least injected proceedings with a vaguely smirk-inducing sense of wit, albeit more in the Men Behaving Badly vein than the Oscar Wilde sense. Indeed, I think the Beeb missed the obvious title for this immaculately photographed drivel: Pre-Raphaelites Behaving Badly. Given the ‘drama’’s (I mean, comedy’s) prolific innuendoes and saucy symbolisms – cue the token fellatio scene overlooked rather disapprovingly - and disturbingly - by the glowing face of Christ in Light of the World – and shots of dripping paint brushes galore, it is in many ways in the Carry On vein of contemporary historical ‘drama’ – Carry On Canvas being perhaps the title that should have been in this case; or Carry On Iconoclasm; or Carry On Up The Easel... I could go on.

The performances are occasionally worth glazing one’s eyes over, the wolfish-faced actor playing the rather absurd interpretation of Dante Gabriel Rossetti being perversely – though painfully – amusing in his sheer slobbishness, yobbishness and basically piss-taking manner. Fortunately he is focused on as a figure largely of ridicule by his fellow rat-pack painters, the po-faced Holman Hunt (apparently a sweaty-browed, sexually neurotic pugilist in this version of history) and the vaguely Hobbit-esque, milk-skinned Millais. And although the script is generally risible, pointlessly pot-holed with token modern slang – Rossetti at one point eloquently retorting to Holman Hunt, are you saying my paintings are shit? – and idioms, there are a few Blackadder-esque quips that at least stir some basic primal gut-turn, such as, again, Rossetti saying of a puerile painting of some cherubs in a gallery that he’s seen more powerful art splattered in a chamber pot. So at least such quips raise this trashy Brit-lit take on history – replete with Brit-pop style soundtrack, no doubt entitled 'Artlife' – to the levels of second-rate costume comedy.

That Desperate Romantics is stunningly photographed is yet again testament to the complete contradiction currently endemic in contemporary Beeb historical drama: apparently, yet again, the director and cinematographer are both working on an entirely different dramatisation to the director and actors. It’s a bit like getting Stanley Kubrick to direct Up Pompeii. The result is confusing, infuriating, irreverent, philistinic and, well, yet another waste of our Licence Fee. And this is all the more frustrating when one considers that, given a vaguely talented scriptwriter, it might have been so much more challenging and interesting (as at least the previous painter-drama The Yellow House attempted to be, even if it was undermined by John Simm’s pugilistic grump approach to van Gogh). Sadly however the atrociously – and misleadingly – titled Desperate Romantics (they could easily have just dropped the 'Romantics' bit from the title) is more in the teen-baiting vein of most BBC historical comedies, er, ‘dramas’. This means the viewer is spoon-fed a bullet-point intro to the Pre-Raphaelites, with a lot of sex thrown in to the mix naturally. Token historical celeb appearances inevitably punctuated certain parts of the first episode, with Charles Dickens – that one, apart from Shakespeare, Henry VIII, Elizbabeth I and Queen Victoria who almost everyone can recognise – irrelevantly cameoing to pour scorn on the P-R’s first exhibition; he crops up everywhere these days doesn’t he? The only significant figure to be portrayed with any ounce of authenticity or sensitivity is John Ruskin, who provides a much-needed contrast to his exhibitionist proteges, in his lugubrious ponderousness, disgust of the flesh, and occasional proneness to sudden aphorismic outbursts, which provide the only flourishes in an otherwise ditchwater-dull script. Naturally much is made of his apparent asexuality, his seeming revilement at the female body (particularly genitalia), and subsequent inability to consummate his marriage with a wife who only brings up this conjugal impasse seven years into their frigid marriage-bed. Equally clumsy is a scene in which he agonizes over some pornographic sketches in his study drawer, and then suddenly sees a tangible apparition of himself having sex with his wife, lit in an erotic fire-glow red. No doubt shot just to wake the viewers up at one of various points at which they've either dropped off, or suddenly seen some hint of insight into Ruskin’s tortured libido, only to have it ham-fistedly spelt out in front of them with groin-tingling titillation.

And as for the Pre-Raphaelites themselves? Basically, we have a trio of frock-coated twats striding about the streets of 19th century London like three members of Boyzone coming back from a fancy dress party – and these pathetically facile figures to represent the main players in one of the most intellectually profound, technically startling, politically enlightened art movements in British history. No exposition on the intellectual and spiritual ideas behind their painterly movement, no even vague attempt to analyse the very political and radical drive behind their anti-establishment attitudes – bar slogans throughout referring to them vacuously as ‘radicals’ –, no mention of their nascent socialism (that modern dirty word), no fathoming at all into the very other-worldly nature of their collective vision... At least, not in the first episode. So one presumably should reserve judgment? I don’t think so. Unless suddenly DR does a complete volte-face in its next two episodes into a more authentic and convincing study of the true thoughts and motives behind the Pre-Raphaelite movement; mentions of their manifesto pamphlet The Germ in more than just soundbite detail; some proper exposition on their painting techniques and specifically a mention of the fact that they painted their canvases in white gloss before applying colour so as to create an almost luminous glow to their work; and something more extensive than just a cameo for one of their integral associates, William Morris - I’ll conserve my initial judgement on the basis that life really is just too short, and I’ve already wasted a good hour just writing this review. I’ll probably not bother further poisoning my love of the historical Pre-Raphaelites and their brilliant art by wading through another hour of this utter tosh.

Before I end though, I must make mention of the BBC’s own online press release for this latest in their Noughties’ spin on historical adaptation (following hot on the heels of the likes of The (Rude) Tudors, Robin (of dee) Hood, and Merlin Potter), since it has to be seen to be believed. Here are some of the choicest snippets which provide testament to the corporation’s indefatigable faith in the integrity of their television costume drama production being sold on its own authentic terms:

A relationship drama from the perspective of this iconoclastic group of dysfunctional male romantics, the series follows their lives and relationships as they shamelessly scheme and strive to find fame, fortune and success, as well as love and quite a bit of sex along the way.

Yes, you did just read that right.

This colourful and rude gang drama from BBC Drama Production will be executive-produced by Kate Harwood, Controller, Series and Serials, BBC Drama Production.
 
And that.

Kate Harwood says: "Basically, it's Entourage with easels. Desperate Romantics paints a modern, vivid and irreverent portrait of this group of painters whose attitude to the establishment makes them comparable to the punks a hundred
years later.

Yes, and that too. 'Rude gang'? 'Punks'? This really beggars belief, and also demonstrates the very contradictory state of the BBC at present, which, while producing such abominations in both costume drama (Lark Rise to Candleford et al) and pointless remakes of Seventies classics (Survivors, Reggie Perrin etc. – though surprisingly the latter, still a pale shadow of its epic predecessor, wasn’t quite as bad as many feared it would be, genuinely witty in places, but still ultimately pointless) on its mainstream channels – for the plebs of course – it has actually pulled out the stops on its digital cousin BBC Four with some genuinely intriguing one-off plays – the Curse of Comedy series for example). Seemingly though, those backroom Fabians at BBC Four have not yet managed to persuade the BBC 1 and 2 men in suits that society has evolved intelligently enough for their even only vaguely intellectualised productions to drip into those mainstream channels. (I blame Thatcherism for this hiccup in our intellectual and moral development: more than significantly, the cream of BBC drama production had all but petered out by 1980, and started to go down hill by around 1984 onwards. Coincidence?).

Could Desperate Romantics have been any worse? Yes, it could have been marginally more absurd and piss-taking, it could have, in short, been the painterly equivalent to The Tudors, and by a hair’s breadth, it just scraped above that. After all, we do have a fairly convincing John Ruskin, even if the actor seems to be taking part in a different adaptation altogether (replete with his script) – but at least it wasn’t Ray Winstone playing him. And we do have a lead female sitter who actually looks remarkably like immortalised images of the legendary Pre-Raphaelite model and muse (as well as poet and future suicide), Elizabeth Siddal, with her pallid looks, glassy eyes, and blazing red hair. The cinematography, too, is startling to the eye, implicitly mimicking on film the telling compositions and fiery colours of Pre-Raphaelite art. But sadly these small positive details are not enough to distract us from the sheer triviality of this take on what was, more than most English artistic movements, a very un-trivial, transcendental phenomena. The BBC, in its reading – or perhaps partial mirroring – of the viewing public, simply doesn’t understand intensity, conviction, seriousness of ideal, so has to resort to mocking it and dumbing it down. Perhaps symptomatic of our post-Thatcherite culture, the BBC seems to harbour a – bemusedly – smug contempt for anything intellectual or emotionally deep, trying its utmost to de-sophisticate for their imagined ‘chavish public’, tramp down any true light of sincerity in idea or achievement of the past, by trumping up as much barrel-scraping libidinous rampancy it possibly can. The result: tabloid adaptations.

Alan Morrison © 2009