Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Desperate Romantics (Preview/Q&A), BFI

Last week we saw a preview of the first episode of Desperate Romantics, together with a Q&A with writer Peter Bowker, Franny Moyle (on whose book the series is based), producer Ben Evans and several of the cast.

Desperate Romantics is a six-part drama (kicking off tonight on BBC Two) that follows the adventures of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – three painters who created an artistic revolution in Victorian England. The first episode traces their search for a suitable model, the build-up to their first exhibition and their desperate hunger for the influential (and lucrative) approval of critic John Ruskin (Tom Hollander).

It also moves beyond their artistic endeavours to portray their tangled personal lives, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti falls in love with their new model and muse Lizzie Siddal, William Holman Hunt tries to 'save' prostitute Annie Miller and John Everett Millais lights the fuse on an ultimately explosive relationship with Ruskin's wife Effie.

Bowker's script is based on a book by Franny Moyle, a former BBC commissioner for arts and culture. He strikes exactly the right note by giving the artists' ascent to celebrity an irreverent and modern resonance without shoe-horning in awkward devices to bang us over the head with it.

In fact, his choice of narrative devices is spot on throughout. In the fictional Fred Walters (played by Sam Crane), he creates a composite friend, advocate and commentator for the Brotherhood, who provides a portal between the tightly bonded Brotherhood and the audience.

He also uses the notoriously tricky voice-over with great skill. Fred's opening narration gives a very economical introduction to the characters and their world for viewers who aren't art historians, but it's used very sparingly after that.

As you'd expect, everything about the production oozes quality, from the art direction to the performances. Rafe Spall is particularly compelling as the complex and imposing Holman Hunt, while Amy Manson is luminously beautiful as the resolute and plain-speaking model Lizzie Siddal.

The Q&A was chaired by art broadcaster Tim Marlow, so focused quite heavily on the relationship between the drama, the characters depicted and their work. Moyle and Bowker said that the impetus for the series was the thematic link between the Brotherhood and the high-profile Young British Artists (YBAs) who rose to prominence in the 90s, such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.

Producer Ben Evans added that they also aimed at an irreverent treatment of the kind of costume drama that the BBC traditionally excels at, as well as a playful response to the way art biopics are currently made and watched. One of the aims of the series was to dust down the academic response to the painters' work and get to the human and emotional truth underneath.

It was also agreed that the success of some of BBC Four's biographical drama, such as the Curse of Comedy series (produced by Evans), had prepared the ground for this kind of approach.

Bowker revealed that some script problems during development were solved when the format of the programme was reoriented slightly from a serial to a series. Having each episode focus on a particular aspect of the Brotherhood's career enabled him to tidy up the stories and sharpen the structure of each instalment.

The hour-long drama is pacy and light-hearted, and captures perfectly the band-like camaraderie of the Brotherhood, as well as the simmering creative jealousies bubbling away under the surface. You might not think the Victorian art world is the most exciting arena for drama, but Bowker is a writer at the top of his game, and the first ep suggests that this is going to be a highly enjoyable series.

Official site (BBC): includes behind-the-scenes footage and info on paintings
Interviews with Peter Bowker in The Guardian and Daily Telegraph

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