Preview of “Desperate Romantics”

The BFI screened a preview of the BBC dram446_indexa 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 desperate_romantics_01with 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.


  1. Thank you for sharing this. I live in the U.S. and won’t be able to see Desperate Romantics until it makes its way across the pond. I’ve had my trepidations about the program, mainly for some of the reasons you have mentioned here. But I think you have put my mind at ease (just a bit!)and you’ve reminded me that some of the choices the producers have made are designed to appeal to a larger audience than those already interested in the Pre-Raphaelites. I’ve been compiling a list of reviews and other information related to the program on my website, so I hope you don’t mind me adding a link to this post.

    I’d be interested in hearing your impressions of Franny Moyle’s book if you’ve read it. As I said, I have not read it yet and from what I’ve read in some reviews, I know I will question a few of the assertions she’s made.

  2. Dear Stephanie, thanks for your comment. I quite understand – and share – your trepidations, but if one sees its wider appeal, then I guess it’s all worth it! I’ll have a look at the other reviews – thanks for posting the link.
    I haven’t yet read the book, though I am keen to, but I have to say I am more dubious about that, because (although I don’t know much about it) I’m afraid it may be more quasi-academic and thus more misleading to the general public. When I get around to reading it I’ll post a review. Still, for better or worse, all this should hopefully raise interest in the PRB!

  3. Yes, I agree and hope that it will spark an interest in Pre-Raphaelite art. No doubt many viewers unfamiliar with the artists will choose Desperate Romantics as the first book to read since it accompanies the miniseries. But I certainly hope they read other books as well. I personally love anything written by Jan Marsh! I also enjoyed Kirsty Stonell Walker’s book about Fanny Cornforth and Lucinda Hawksley’s book about Siddal.
    Thinking about this upcoming miniseries, I’ve had moments where I’ve stepped back and looked at myself and been amused. It occurs to me that I have become guilty of television snobbery. I am increasingly dismayed and disappointed at what television has become here in the U.S. I’m really hoping that this horrible trend of reality TV will end soon, but it doesn’t look as if it will.

  4. Actually one of the things that did rather annoy me about the TV “Desperate Romantics” is that there is NO mention at all of Christina Rossetti (who is the subject of my PhD, hence my concern!) and it says that Siddal was the model for “Ecce Ancilla Domini”, when I’m quite sure that was Christina. I agree about Jan Marsh – she’s very good, and such meticulous research. Her book on Lizzie Siddal is one of the best books I’ve read, I think – fascinating to see the reinventions that different periods put upon figures from the past.
    Television snobbery – well, that sounds familiar! My husband complains that he doesn’t get to watch programmes in peace because of my shouting at the TV. As for reality TV – I don’t watch it, can’t stand it! Recently in the UK we seem to have had a surge of programmes on interesting subjects, like Victorian painting, the PRB, Henry VIII, that kind of thing, but really they’re aimed at people who don’t know anything at all about the subject, which is often disappointing. At least with “Desperate Romantics” it’s entertaining. And for anything more cultural we have BBC Radio 4, which is amazingly good!

  5. I have thoroughly enjoyed the Desperate Romantics series and have also read Franny Moyles’ book – a great read, by the way! I too was somewhat frustrated by the many historial inaccuracies in the series – especially the invention of Fred – though I suppose I can see the reasoning of wanting to limit the number of characters…
    I think the book fills in the gaps most admirably, and I was especially intrigued by the revelations about Ruskin, being an Oxford University alumna, where the man is still held in the highest regard as a bastion of Victorian mores and culture!!
    I am eager to purchase the DVD (out on September 20th)and enjoy the series a second time :o)

  6. Hi Claire, thanks for your comment – that’s really interesting; I haven’t read the book yet and am pleased to hear it fills the gaps. I shall have to read it soon. I’m glad you enjoyed the series – I think it was good on the entertainment side, and from that point of view I quite enjoyed it too.

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