The Devil’s Whore, Channel 4

Did we like it?
A very good drama set in the time of the English Civil War, in which the conflict itself is merely the backdrop for a more profound portrayal of the absolute impotence of women in the 17th century. However, it’s as wedded to historical fact as Guy Ritchie is to Madonna.

What was good about it?
• Andrea Risborough is excellent in the role of Angelica Famshawe. She transmits the frustration and passion of a highborn woman with a feminine morality utterly unsuitable for someone of her station.
• Devil’s Whore is far more focused on her struggle for equality with men than the insurrection of the ‘poor’ to dethrone the king, and restore power to parliament – which anyhow is unmasked as a squabble between the king and other influential people of power; the specious concern with the chasm dividing the aristocrats and the poor is just a ruse for megalomaniacs like Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Rainsborough to seize power on a conceited pretence.
• And so the story concentrates on how Angelica, despite her intelligence and wilful fervour, is relegated to little more than a plaything for her weak and susceptible husband Harry, who cows before the Prince’s nephew when he bursts into their bedchamber on their wedding night.
• Angelica is slowly drawn into the sedition of the nascent Roundhead movement when she hears the plea of the wife of John Lilburne, a man flogged for speaking out against the king. And from then on, her connection to the uprising is inextricable and it’s through her than the rest of the war is chronicled.
• On her visit to Lilburne in jail, accompanied by Edward Sexby (John Simm), she is forced to lift her veil in the same way as she was forced to lift her skirts to flirtatiously remove her garter while dancing on a table surrounded by a baying drunken aristos.
• And her repression is compounded by Harry’s hatred of her moans of pleasure when they make love. She tries to placate him by saying, “You are my master!” as she believes a dutiful wife should no matter how alien the concept to her liberal nature. But this antagonises him further as he snaps, “Those are the words of whores in my soldiers’ camps!”
• And Angelica’s headstrong desire for emancipation from masculine oppression inadvertently causes her husband’s death. When their estate is under threat of siege by Cromwell’s forces, she refuses to leave and demands to fight. Feeble Harry succumbs, as to defend the home would mean their deaths and so he surrenders. King Charles executes him for cowardice, blaming Angelica for this decision with the words, “You should have subdued your wife”, which reminded us of Harry Enfield’s Women: Know Your Limits.
• And it’s Angelica’s cogent narrative that grips far more than the Civil War, which of course, it’s meant to.
• In contrast to the frenetic mania of Angelica, the other protagonist Edward Sexby is more stoical and ambiguous. Whereas Angelica dances, argues and pities, Sexby makes menacing demands, or is captured in impassive vignettes, such as the scene where the only changes in his expression is caused by the rippling reflection in the water trough in which he is watching.
• While lacking the imposing bulk of a brutish mercenary, John Simm imbues Sexby with a wiry, sinewy resolve and an inflexible morality after he quits the New Model Army when Lilburne is coerced into bowing to a cowardly but rich earl, while Cromwell and Rainsborough award themselves arbitrary titles such as ‘general’ ‘colonel’ and ‘major, mimicking similar ranks on the Cavaliers’ side as the clueless Harry is made a colonel.
• While the symbolism is blatant early on to evoke sympathy for the Roundhead cause – oaken tables laden with uneaten food, servants scuttling about at their masters’ caprices – the impression mutates over the course of the episode, as the altruism of Cromwell’s motives are exposed as megalomania.

What was bad about it?
• It’s a sensible decision to distance the details of Civil War from the main narrative of Angelica and Sexby, as it’s the least convincing part of the drama.
• The battle at Edge Hill was well done, but was the only significant skirmish shown. Elsewhere it seems as though either budgetary constraints compelled a focus on historical battles that were easy wins – the shelling of a distant abbey – or complete fabrications, such as the siege of Harry and Angelica’s home. Rather than marching inexorably across the English countryside, Cromwell’s New Model Army had the appearance of a toy model army being shifted from Warwickshire to Oxfordshire under the propulsion of a field marshal’s stick.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s