The BFI screened a preview of the BBC drama Desperate Romantics earlier this week, with a discussion afterwards with the cast and writers. Based on the book of the same name by Franny Moyle, the series focuses on the dramatic lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The series, following on from the recent BBC4 programmes on the art of the PRB, is clearly designed to appeal to those who know nothing about the PRB as well as those who are already aficionados. It is encouraging, though, that the series aims to show how novel the PRB’s approach was (suggesting that they are “comparable to the punks a hundred years later”).
I wasn’t expecting to be particularly enthused by it, but actually, I rather enjoyed it. It’s loud and rollicking, with a script by Peter Bowker (Occupation, Blackpool) that is sometimes a little too concerned with quick-fire humour, but it certainly entertained me. There is evidently a desire behind the series to show the PRB as real people, not stuffy long-dead painters, and it certainly achieves that end. Sometimes it goes rather over the top, and of course salacious detail is prioritised, but in this first episode at least, the characters of Holman Hunt, Rossetti and Millais are appealing if a little exaggerated.
In the discussion after the screening, the writers, Peter Bowker and Franny Moyle, made it clear that it is the contemporary relevance and resonance of the story behind the PRB which they wanted to get across to the viewer; certainly they have presented it with a strong contemporary appeal, all sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, but personally I feel too much is made of trying to link the past with the present. Nonetheless, Moyle discussed the human elements of ambition and love which feature in the series, along with the group dynamic, which she feels gives it an appealing mythic quality. She wanted to “dust down” the academic perspective of the PRB and bring the intense emotions of the artists back to life. Ben Evans, the producer, added that it was the aspects of human nature – and the sex – which interested the BBC in it! The series has a dangerous appeal, he suggested, which is stronger than the average period drama.
Bowker explained that he wanted to get across the “laddishness” that Moyle had implied in her book, and commented that when writing Millais he had been thinking of David Blunkett – that is, a clean-living character who turns out to be having an unexpected affair! Rafe Spall explained that to a certain extent playing the members of the PRB presented the actors with a blank canvas, since we don’t know what their voices or mannerisms were like, and so the actors have worked hard at their interpretations. In Holman Hunt, Spall aimed to create a mixture of control and precision with sex and violence, which provided an interesting challenge. Clearly Spall has done some considerable research on Hunt, and has grown to love his character. Amy Manson suggested that in portraying Elizabeth Siddal she had attempted to show the desire to achieve more than expected from life, as the milliner became a model. Certainly Manson looked the part, almost uncannily, and was sharp-tongued and blunt, perhaps intending to recreate Siddal as a very modern heroine, rather than the waif-victim she is sometimes portrayed as. Oh, and it was suggested that Barbara Windsor is a modern version of Annie Miller!
The issue of historical accuracy is bound to be one of the biggest questions that any programme like this raises, and Bowker admits that the passage of time permits more liberties with history than biopics of more recent subjects do. A number of direct quotations from Ruskin and others were used in this episode, although I was surprised that Dickens’ comments on Christ in the House of his Parents, which were published in Household Words, were here spoken at an exhibition, as was Ruskin’s reply which appeared in The Times. The biggest liberty taken, which concerns me more, is the invention of a narrator-character, Fred Walters; apparently this was because all the possible narrators – WM Rossetti, Fred Stephens, Walter Deverell – had such stories of their own that Bowker felt it would be best to minimise the part of the narrator by making him up. I’m not sure this was necessary, personally.
The programme also suggests that the PRB first exhibited their paintings together, in an exhibition that they put on themselves. This is patently untrue, though I can see how it works as a device, but of course many viewers won’t realise the liberties that have been taken with the truth. Still, if it leads people to a genuine interest in the PRB, perhaps it will be worth it. Best, I think, to try to suspend personal knowledge and concerns, and just enjoy it as a well-produced and entertaining show. It starts on BBC2 on July 21st at 9pm.