Desperate Romantics


Rating 4

Written by Peter Bowker, based on the book ‘Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites’ by Franny Moyles

Directed by Paul Gay (episodes 1, 2 and 3), Diarmuid Lawrence (episodes 4, 5 and 6)

Starring Aidan Turner (Dante Gabriel Rossetti), Rafe Spall (William Holman Hunt), Samuel Barnett (John Everett Millais), Sam Crane (Fred Walters), Amy Manson (Elizabeth Siddal), Jennie Jacques (Annie Miller), Tom Hollander (John Ruskin), Zoë Tapper (Effie Ruskin / Effie Gray Millais), Dyfrig Morris (William Morris), Peter Sandys-Clarke (Edward Burne-Jones), Natalie Thomas (Jane Burden), Rebecca Davies (Fanny Cornforth), Poppy le Friar (Rose la Touche), Mark Heap (Charles Dickens), Ian Puleston-Davies (Mr Siddal), Polly Kemp (Mrs Siddal), Josie Farmiloe (Charlotte Siddal), Philip Davis (Frank Stone)

‘Desperate Romantics’ is a bawdy and exuberant six-part BBC television drama that tells the story of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the art movement founded in London in 1848. Keeping its tongue firmly in its cheek much of the time, it plays rather like ‘Carry On Pre-Raphaelites’.

Concentrating on the movement’s three founders, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, it is told through the eyes of a wholly fictional character, Fred Walters. All other main characters are based on real people (with the possible exception of Charlotte Siddal, who I do not know about and who, in any case, plays a small role here).

The series, written by Peter Bowker, whose previous work includes a brilliant updating of Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Miller’s Tale’, plays fast and loose with the truth, but almost everything represented here is based on fact, even if the timelines are distorted for dramatic effect. One small example of this is the reference made to ‘A Child’s World’ (aka ‘Bubbles’), the painting by John Everett Millais that was first exhibited in 1886 and created some controversy during the artist’s lifetime because of its use in a long-running advertising campaign for Pear’s transparent soap. Despite the appearance of an early draft of this work in ‘Desperate Romantics’, the series actually ends some seventeen years earlier in 1869 when Dante Gabriel Rossetti had the body of his wife and muse Lizzie Siddal exhumed so that he could retrieve a small journal of poems he had placed in the coffin.

The six one hour episodes are tremendous fun and pass by quickly – the melancholy concluding episode ends on just the right note of irreverence. The cast is as near to perfect as it is possible to get and there are some fabulous performances. There has been some talk of a second season, which would certainly be possible by drawing on the lives of other later members and associates of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The possibility is enticing and the ending of the final episode does seem to suggest an open door for the future, but it would have a lot to live up to and I would not wish the energy and high spirits of these first six episodes to be dampened.

‘Desperate Romantics’ inspired me to revisit the work of Rossetti, Hunt and Millais and that is probably the biggest compliment I can give it.

Review posted 29 August 2009


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