Victorian Britain has been especially en vogue at BBC Towers of late, but rather than offering us idyllic bumblings (Lark Rise..) or austere misunderstandings (Upstairs Downstairs), The Crimson Petal and the White brings us a far juicier piece of entertainment which is as richly immersive as it is unconventional.
Michel Faber’s 2002 novel was meant to be an antidote to the Victorian propaganda yarns of nobility and class that have flooded our TV schedules in recent years and this adaptation captures its essence with guile. Romola Garai guides us through the opening scenes as well-educated and sharp-witted hooker Sugar. “You’re an alien in these parts..” she tells us as a very urban soundtrack grinds to the beat of a piss-stained backstreet London.
But this mini-series seems to be more than simply a harrowing vision of 19th century England. The whole cityscape is awash with characters of daunting calculation (none more so than the shark-eyed Sugar..) but Mr Rackham is a delightfully blustery and rather owlish co-lead. Chris O’Dowd from The IT Crowd shows genuine panaché to pull off this wittering but likeably foppish would-be-writer, who balances the demands of a stir-crazy wife (“She nearly knocked the gentleman’s hat clean off!!”) with his feelings and fascination for Sugar (“Why, that’s Shakespeare!?”) Elsewhere Gillian Anderson continues to relish the distance she is placing between herself and her legacy by supporting these two with some excellent banter “Jesus died for our sins. Rather unsuccessfully it would seem, because we’re all still paying for them..” and Mark Gattiss puts in another macabre turn that has long been his speciality.
But character foreplay aside, the finest thing about the opening of this four-parter is the intoxicating atmosphere that is richly created with some fine cinematography. The colours themselves are wonders to behold and we watch the flame-haired Sugar thrown into relief time and again by flashes of rich but seldom repeated shade that arrive on our screen every now and again. It’s almost as if the director had wanted to smash the image we have of the Victorians as stiff-backed miseries in black and white photos. The results are excellent and coupled with some easy and stylish camera-work, you couldn’t help but feel that – like Mr Rackham – you had necked one-too-many glasses of wine..