I like angry clown-people and moody noblemen as much as the next guy, but they’re everywhere
I need some uniforms for a tough paramilitary fighting unit; what have you got?”
“Okaaaaay, let me think, how about a bright red jacket, white britches, knee-high boots and a tricorn hat?”
“For a brutal colonising army?”
“Sorry, I misheard. I thought you said ‘slightly camp, vaudeville dance troupe’.”
Two BBC dramas this week feature 18th-century redcoats and all I can think watching them is: “Are they going to do a dance?” or “For what conceivable terrain is that camouflage?” (“Damn it, men, for some reason the enemy keep spotting our huge hats and crimson coats when we try surprising them!”)
In the first of these dramas, these angry clown-people oversee a miserable prison camp, which is, thanks to their colourful jackets, slightly redolent of Butlins-themed sitcom Hi-de-hi!. It’s Jimmy McGovern’s Banished (BBC 2, Thursday) and it’s set in an Australian prison colony. Like
Hi-de-hi!, it’s no fun at all. The Australian accent hasn’t been invented yet. The prisoners and guards are starving. The female prisoners are chattel. And the God of this universe is television miserablist McGovern.
There are tonal problems. While female convict Elizabeth (My Anna Burring) has a grim sense of horror at her surroundings, her costars have seemingly wandered in from another genre. Tommy (Julian Rhind-- Tutt), a fiery man of passion, is cursed with an expressionless mannequin head, while James (Russell Tovey) faces starvation with the same chummy exasperation with which Tovey elsewhere confronts messy flatmates or being a werewolf. He makes imminent death seem like something really annoying.
Slow hand clap
There are some anachronisms. Would 18th century prisoners really engage in a slow handclap of approval? Would an illiterate convict tell a joke involving the recently discovered polar bear? Would Tommy really woo Elizabeth with a verse from Boyz II Men’s 1994 classic I’ll Make
Love To You?
Then each week’s primary plot is resolved with the convenient neatness of a sitcom, probably Three’s Company. In the first episode the trio must hide Tommy and Elizabeth’s forbidden-by-death love from mean old Mr Roper . . . sorry, I mean the colony governor, only to find he’s not going to hang them and is in fact going to let them get married, despite the fact they’re already married to others.
This week’s episode has James and Tommy give a bully his comeuppance. They cleverly murder him with a rock and take the body to the beach (a bit like in
Weekend at Bernie’s) – but the governor, because he’s a legal maverick, decides the murdering was fair enough.
In short, the governor is soft on crime, redefines marriage and even speechifies about the dangers of inequality. Frankly, while I’d like to have brunch with him over a copy of the Guardian, I’m not sure he’s sound on 18th-century prison colony management.
Irish actor Aidan Turner (Tovey’s costar in Being Human) also dresses as a redcoat in a period drama. He insisted his programme wasn’t “a stripper show” when pictures emerged of him in character with his top off, but there is (spoiler alert) a naked swim in next week’s episode.
Anyway, it’s called Poledance (actually Poldark, BBC 1, Sunday) and in it ,Turner plays Ross Poledance who returns from war to find his father dead, money gone, sweetheart married and a restriction on raunchy dance moves. “Damn it, Poledance! Your sexy gyrations aren’t appropriate for an 18th-century workplace!” cries his stuffy uncle.
The truth is, the Mr Darcification of period drama notwithstanding (original 1970s Poldark Robin Ellis kept his shirt on),
Poldark is more believable and enjoyable than Banished.
Poldark seems to have one emotional state – a sexy sulk – but there’s genuine hurt in those sad eyes and he doesn’t have the anachronistic values of a 21st-century time traveller.
He aristocratically protects peasants from the rapacious middle classes, restores dominion over his father’s sullen and flump like servants, and begrudgingly saves his love-rival from drowning. All in all, if I’m to be ruled by a moody nobleman whose chaffingly cumbersome clothes occasionally force him to strip to the waist, Poldark is the man for me.