Alan Morrison on
The Devil’s Whore
by Peter Flannery
Being a largely unfavourable comparison of Peter Flannery’s Cromwellian melodrama The Devil's Whore (2008) with more impressing harbingers such as Winstanley (1975), By the Sword Divided (1983-5), Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and To Kill A King (2003)
The Devil's Chore
Readers may be quickly alerted by the above pun to my less than enthusiastic view of Peter Flannery’s faction-drama based around the key events in the English Civil War, the rather tabloid-titled The Devil’s Whore (though the term being Martin Luther’s idiom for ‘Reason’, something Gerrard Winstanley often cited as the new alternative to feudal traditionalism, is not entirely misplaced). Those on the Left and with a related interest in social and political history of our country would
no doubt have been quaking in sceptical anticipation at what promised – via previews of a tub-thumping Lilburne and Diggers tilling the earth before salmon-pink sunsets – to finally be a truly gritty and incisive television depiction of the thwarted radicals of 1640s-50s England.
But sadly the fly in the ointment of this – no doubt, heartfelt, and certainly ambitious – dramatisation is the seemingly pointless central narrative of a fictional (though implied with the conceit of an allegedly factual frontispiece) aristocratic woman, namely – the blandly Austen-esque named – Angelica Fanshaw, and her many picaresque encounters and love affairs with some movers and shakers of the times. Most pivotally, the largely unsung (so compliments to Flannery there) landed radical Thomas Rain(s)borough (also known at the time as, among other variations, Rainbow or Rainborow) and the lesser-known but equally historical, rogue Edward Sexby. Though their prominent inclusion is something to be welcomed by knowledgeable viewers, it is a great pity that both portrayals seem to lack in sufficiently compelling exposition by which their narrative motives might have come across more affectingly. The palpably feministic take on narrative by Flannery seems to in part backfire, reducing potentially fascinating characters such as Rainborough and Sexby to near ciphers caught up in the romantic-entanglements of a purposeless, fictional motif in the Rubens-faced Angelica. But the period-suited complexion of the actress chosen for this part is undermined by the usual modern-play-on-the-past style of contemporary historical characterisation, and her apparent ability to influence even the King in his perspectives on the political climate of the time, among other pivotal matters with Parliamentarian leaders later, seems historically unlikely.
True, there were female Leveller activists at the time, ‘the bonny besses in the sea-green dresses’ (see Alison Plowden’s excellent book In A Free Republic – Life in Cromwellian England), but it is highly improbable – according to accounts of the period – that, though unreasonably, a woman, no matter her status, could play so galvanic a role in the frontline events of the period as the creation of Angelica does. Lilburne’s wife is perhaps suitably feisty for the woman behind the radicalised pamphleteer.
Sadly, in spite of some obvious effort on his part, John Simm’s grimacing, scar-cheeked mercenary neither works as a convincing anti-hero nor as a visceral, Heathcliffean fringe-lover to the central protagonist, as no doubt the writer and director both intended; the slightly pantomime look to the character notwithstanding, Simm only manages to engage my attention during his final moments and suicide after a botched assassination attempt on Cromwell. Simm for me is a fairly limited actor, strong at what he does best, which is a sort of scowling edginess, but precisely because of this acting style, tends to get typecast in 'edgey roles' (Raskolnikov in Crime in Punishment; a slightly too aggressively-charged van Gogh et al).
Cromwell himself is fairly authentically portrayed, warts and all (literally), by a scowling trans-Atlantic actor, but one who, in spite of suitable conviction, fails to fully impress on us the true light-and-shade of the deeply complex nature of Oliver Cromwell, one torn between spiritual ideals and earthly pragmatism, and there is more a gruff, bumpkinish West Country crustiness to the actor’s – though admirable given his nationality – take on the rounder curl of the Norfolk accent. But it is germane to acknowledge at this point in the criticism, that apparently Peter Flannery’s original script spanned the equivalent of 12 episodes, reduced to a paltry four by Channel 4 honchos (those who calculate the average attention span of the public as something akin to toddlers’).
While the costumes and sets are, at least ostensibly, accurate and impressively detailed, the lighting strikingly chiaroscuro, and the cinematography highly painterly (or Rembrandt-esque as many critics have noted) to say the least – some shots of buff-coated Roundheads galloping over grim hillsides particularly impressive – these visual achievements are blighted by jarring This-Life-style camera jerks, which in trying to convey a sense of urgency to events, instead trips over itself in almost directorial self-parody. Given, in some scenes this works better than others, particularly when depicting the highly charged atmosphere of, say, the trial of ‘Free Born’ John; but mostly it doesn’t fit the grave mood and nature of the settings.
As for the inclusion and depiction of Leveller pamphleteer and campaigner for male suffrage, John ‘Free Born’ Lilburne, among those readers of historical accounts of such groups as the Levellers and Diggers of the Commonwealth period (see Christopher Hill’s Puritanism and Revolution or FD Dow’s Radicalism in the English Revolution), this is a potentially vexed issue. For a start, John was known as ‘Free Born’ John, and not, as far as my readings have uncovered, the rather Blackadder-esque ‘Honest’ John. Though Lilburne was a Northerner, from Hull, I would take slight issue with Flannery’s profoundly Geordie-sounding version, whose tub-thumping has been arguably over-egged in terms of its simmering aggression in this depiction. True, according to accounts, Lilburne did indeed class himself as an ‘Agitator’ (and, indeed, distanced himself from what he perceived to be the inaccurate label of ‘Leveller’ attributed to him, since he did not, crucially, believe in the levelling of private property; such was more the conviction of Gerrard Winstanley of the Diggers, or ‘True Levellers’), but in the period it is likely this term was meant every bit as metaphorically as literally, and more often than not would manifest in scatterings of inflammatory pamphlets rather than necessarily in constant crowd-fomenting confrontations. What also doesn’t help matters is the fact that the actor playing Lilburne looks like a mullet-wigged Alistair Campbell and is only marginally more charming. I find it difficult to believe, from my various readings on Lilburne, that he would have cut quite so smug and sanctimonious a figure as Flannery’s ‘call-a-spade-a-spade’, testosterone-charged version we witness here. For a start, Lilburne was from a ‘middling’ (middle-class) background, a man of letters as much as campaigning, later a captain in the army, so most probably wouldn’t have come across quite as brusque and leathery as he does in this dramatisation. But I would concede, since Lilburne is thought to have been born in Durham, Flannery was perfectly entitled to extrapolate this detail and go for a more gritty, streetwise portrayal rather than what might have been a more Home Counties RP depiction, had the radical figure appeared more substantially than one or two throw-away scenes in Cromwell (1970). So, maybe fair enough. Nevertheless, there’s still something deeply unsatisfactory about Flannery’s Lilburne, not to mention dubious in his initial appearance as close – and apparently more leader-like – chum of Cromwell’s, in an early scene of the series.
While I embrace wholeheartedly Flannery’s refreshingly leftfield take on the Civil War and Commonwealth periods by putting the radicals of the times up to the front of the stage (something formerly omitted in favour of focus on the contradictions in Cromwell himself as a sort of metaphor for the different ideas fomenting in the period – as typified in the aforementioned 1970 film), I do, on grounds of historical authenticity, take issue with the writer’s way of doing this. In short, Flannery’s radical sympathies are perhaps a little too transparently voiced through his leading characters – even for viewers such as myself who are particularly sympathetic to this – and there is in a way a sense throughout of a very slight Left-centric re-writing of the true dynamics of the time. For me, The Devil’s Whore would have worked far more affectingly and powerfully had it been written around Lilburne and his like-minded contemporaries solely, without the very modern levering-in of ‘historical celebrity’ as chief protagonists (ie, the King, Cromwell et al). As with the well-intended and occasionally gripping Our Friends in the North, Flannery’s ambitiousness often works against him, and there is a feeling all too often of ‘important events and issues’ being shoe-horned in to the narrative so regularly that it is hard to draw a real feel of their effects for their sheer speed of approach and departure; in short, Flannery tries to encompass too much in too little time for any of it to really settle to the bottom of our consciousnesses. This is a sort of filmic sensibility which television serials shouldn’t hurry to keep up with. But the main problem with Flannery’s plotting and narratives is his compulsion to inter-weave famous historical events with the personal stories of the characters, to an excess. This makes it difficult to really engage with the characters for trying to keep up with rapidly-changing historical and political backdrops. But I certainly commend Flannery’s ambitiousness, albeit, in terms of parachuting in a fictional main character and ‘sexing up’ her factual counterparts (the name Sexby itself being seemingly extrapolated as a Carry On-esque pun), somewhat slapdash and needlessly confusing in my opinion.
Having noted the authentic flavour to this historical dramatisation (which in spite of its many flaws, is still a good few rungs up from the doggerel of The Tudors or Merlin et al), I have to add that in a sense this convincing evocation of the period is for me, perhaps counter-productively, best represented by background details, costumes and apparel, even in the more befitting haircuts of sundry extras, than in the portrayals of the main players. Rainborough, for instance, resembles more Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings than his historical inspirer, with his long straggly hair tied in a braid; and the Gothic-esque visitations of a phallic-tongued CGI demon tonguing at Angelica from gnarled trees every so often (not to mention the Ring-Wraith style procession of spirits from a battlefield), also smacks more of Middle-Earth than Middle-England. Frankly, such phantasmal intrusions on an essential historical dramatisation fall flat on their face and are simply laughable. The pre-publicity relating to the series being filmed in South Africa didn’t help for me, since all I could see was disproportionately sized replicas of 17th century manor houses positioned incongruously amid the russet grasses of the veldt. In general, a shabby historicism unfortunately undermines the very deeply felt and still reverberating ideas of English radical groups of the period that Flannery was evidently setting out to exhume for reappraisal. And I can’t help feeling that the same could be said of his much-lauded Our Friends in the North. Where arguably Flannery is more successful in this most recent venture is in emphasizing the distinct parallel between the compromised (if not corrupted) policies of Cromwell’s Commonwealth and those of Blair’s New Labour. But this polemic is undermined by the more superficial and pretentious excesses of The Devil’s Whore.
I have probably watched most, if not all, of this historical period’s depictions on both television and film. How The Devil’s Whore compares to its very varied predecessors in depicting the most momentous time in our political history? It’s difficult to say. Swashbuckling nonsense such as The Moonraker (1958) aside, the 1970 epic Cromwell was an uneven affair, notable really only for some period details and Alec Guinness’s very convincing take on Charles I, but overall the film felt a whitewash of the real issues of the Civil War, a technicolour simplification for cinema audiences, with a wildly miscast Richard Harris in the title role (Trevor Howard would have been more suited), not because of his acting, which was suitably scowling throughout, but simply because he didn’t look remotely like Cromwell – as we think of him from his apparently accurate, wart-pocked portraits – with his mop of blond hair and faintly tanned face, fresh out of A Man Called Horse. To Kill A King (2003) provided us with a Napoleonic version of Cromwell in the diminutive Tim Roth, and overall this wasn’t too bad a dramatisation, focused more on the muddiness of the politics than the very black-and-white take of Cromwell.
In television terms, John Hawkesworth’s By The Sword Divided (1983, 1985), especially in its second series, was for me – in spite of its slight bias towards the Royalist side, perhaps reflective of the Thatcherite times – far more substantial and satisfactory a dramatisation of the period than Flannery’s more ambitious but film-centric take. The immediacy of video-shot studio scenes (as in the old TV style of production), a more laboured exposition through considerably more episodes, and one or two stand-out performances - notably Jeremy Clyde’s achingly aristocratic King (a more nuanced harbinger of Peter Capaldi’s slightly flatter take), Peter Jeffreys’ truly ‘warts and all’ portrayal of Cromwell, Rob Edwards’ steely John Fletcher and Gareth Thomas’s idealistic Roundhead General, Horton - By the Sword Divided is as good a dramatisation of the whole scope of the period as has been managed so far. It's a sort of Upstairs, Downstairs of the Stewart age (or rather, Cavaliers, Roundheads). Though far from perfect, the series greatly matures into its second series, with more in-depth focus on the radical clashes of the Commonwealth, and affords a sense of completion due to its relatively epic length.
But for me the greatest production on this period – bar Caryl Churchill’s rightly lauded stage play on the same subject, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire – is Kevin Brownlow’s 1975 Winstanley. This is a true gem of a production, and the only one to focus on arguably the most important and influential radical thinker of the time (played with gentle conviction by relative unknown Miles Halliwell), who led his followers – the Diggers – in sustaining themselves on an untended scrap of arable land by way of re-enacting early Christian proto-communist communities. (The Diggers, the most significant radical group of the times, are only half-heartedly featured in The Devil’s Whore, and puzzlingly, their charismatic leader Winstanley is wholly absent; though side-references to the Ranters is worthy of some note). Winstanley was indeed the ‘True Leveller’, the Digger who, unlike Lilburne, did believe in the levelling of property, and in this sense was a proto-Marxist, an early socialist who was completely ahead of his age (for the most in-depth study of his ideas I am aware of see David W. Petegorsky’s Left-Wing Democracy in the Age of Civil War – Gerrard Winstanley and the Digger Movement). Brownlow’s documentary-style film is as gritty as it is beguiling, in its black-and-white photography and naturalistic acting, and has a purity to its approach which compliments the lived ideals of its protagonists beautifully; a little masterpiece, and by far, in my opinion, the most compelling depiction of the sky-gazing radicalism of the time.
In Flannery’s effort, strikingly choreographed though it is, the production, and its mix-and-match narrative and characters, never really lingers long enough at any point to affect us more than fleetingly. It suffers, in part, from the filmic pretensions of all contemporary historical drama, but stands out as the most frustrating example, since its scope and choice of subjects had so much potential. But unnecessary bums-on-seats buzz-motifs of wax-skinned femme fatales and bodice-ripping rogues have served to denigrate the true ideological pith of its substance. In spite of some breathtaking cinematography, authentically lit set-pieces, spot-lit radicals and snippets of political grit, The Devil’s Whore is a wasted opportunity at getting to the true nuts and bolts of the ideas of the period, weighed down in irrelevant melodramatic romancing and shoddily-sketched historicisms.
In A Free Republic – Life in Cromwellian England by Alison Plowden (Sutton)
Left-Wing Democracy in the Age of Civil War – Gerrard Winstanley and the Digger Movement by David W. Petergorsky (Sandpiper Books)
Puritanism and Revolution by Christopher Hill (Peregrine Books)
Radicalism in the English Revolution by FD Dow (Wileyblackwell)
Winstanley (1975) (recommended)
By The Sword Divided (1983, 1985) (recommended)
To Kill A King (2003)
Alan Morrison © 2008