Tuesday, 4 February 2014

HISTORICAL DRAMA: The Musketeers, Deadwood

The Musketeers and Deadwood are examples of two modern approaches to historical TV drama: the Past is Really the Same and the Present, and a roll in the gutter of authentic, sordid period detail.

All for one and one for all? (Image: BBC)

I like historical drama. That is, drama that reflects the concerns of its period through the way the way the characters speak and relate. Give it a few years and Breaking Bad will be classified as historical drama, as it deals with economic pressure, and the promise of easy money through drugs, on a flawed, early 21st century everyman.

One way TV networks try and win viewers over to stories set in the distant past is by pretending that The Past Is Just The Same as The Present but with frilly shirts, horses and – the double slam dunk – sex and violence. The latest example of this curious approach (following on from The Tudors, Rome, Robin Hood and The White Queen) is the saturation-advertised The Musketeers, another version of Alexandre Dumas’s 17th century-set novel about French King Louis XIII’s personal regiment, this time devised by Adrian Hodges, whose previous main claim to fame was the Saturday afternoon dinosaur romp Primeval.

Looking at Hodges’ previous family serial credentials, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason why, some impressive action sequences and occasional bloody violence aside, The Musketeers should be on at 9pm on BBC1. Chaste feminine interest is divided between the Good, a very young looking Queen Anne (Alexandra Dowling) and the Bad, Cardinal Richelieu’s agent Milady (Maime McCoy), and the Decorative, d’Artagnan's sometime, put-upon paramour Constance (Tamal Kari). The Musketeers themselves, with the exception of d’Artagnan, don't come across as separate characters, rather a boisterous three-man mix of ladies’ man and the sort of testerone-fuelled hellraiser who'll get into a fight at the drop of a rapier (or a one-liner). So far, so similar to any previous version of the The Musketeers you might have seen, with the exception of Peter Capaldi's Cardinal Richlieu, who clearly belongs in a much better series.

The second episode, ‘Sleight of Hand’, was standard stuff and its plot and dialogue could have worked in any family action series, contemporary or otherwise, with little alteration: a plot to kill the disturbing boy-King Louis (Ryan Gage) was really a ruse by crook Vadim (Jason Flemyng, splendid as ever) to steal the king’s wealth, and the story had no more depth than that. The same could be said of last night’s slavery episode ‘Commodities’, although the storytelling stepped up a gear as Richlieu began to flex his dirty political muscles and the whole thing was smartly and artily directed by Saul Metzstein. It has to be said, though, that the decision to use English accents is disorientating; ranging from Shakesperean (Richelieu) to South London tower block (Porthos), you have a France located somewhere on the Thames Estuary.

Sadly, I can’t see this flimsy pseudo-history being enough to keep an after-the-watershed audience entertained for ten weeks. Unless it improves radically with gritty politics and historical intrigue, The Musketeers doesn’t offer enough in terms of novelty or entertainment to justify either the big budget that’s clearly been spent on it, or its promotion as a flagship BBC evening drama series. For all its adult pretensions, you get the feeling everyone involved would be happier being hale and hearty at 5pm on a Sunday afternoon on a third of the lavish budget.

Dead Good

The wild bunch... the male cast of Deadwood. (Image: HBO)
The opposite extreme of The Musketeers’ The Past Is Just The Same as The Present approach is Deadwood (originally shown between 2004 and 2006), HBO’s series about America’s last lawless town during the gold rush in 1867. The series caused a lot of controversy first time around due to the modern, unrestrained profanity in its dialogue, but the production team’s argument that this was a necessary concession for a contemporary audience was the only example of HBO compromising in its commitment to making Deadwood authentic. This extended to the series’ vibrant melting pot of different cultures – American, English, Irish, Chinese, German, Austrian and Russian – and the warts-and-all portrayal of frontier life and real historical figures: for instance, ‘Wild Bill’ Hicock (Keith Carradine) is shown as as a world weary gambler and 'Calamity' Jane Cannery as an alcoholic (Robin Weigert in a performance that’s as far away from Doris Day as it's possible to get.)

I’ve been laid low with flu over the past week or so, and when you've got a good chunk of time where you’re unable to do very much it’s the ideal moment to become absorbed in Deadwood's murky, labyrinthine world. Unlike the thin 17th century France of The Musketeers, as the series progresses you just keep going deeper into HBO’s lawless West. From the flawed Hicock and Jane, the revisionism continues in the anti-Western style of no set-piece gunfights, a lack of panoramic landscapes and an obsession with shady commerce. Deadwood is an enclosed, claustrophobic world, symbolised by a muddy, overcrowded thoroughfare between the camp's makeshift buildings and by most of the dubious decisions governing the residents and businesses being made behind closed doors in gloomy rooms. On top of the politicking over who controls what and who’s scamming who, there are the period-specific attitudes towards sex, race, illness, religion, money and easy violence, intricately laced through each of the characters. (Interestingly, from the very beginning young children equate with innocence in Deadwood, a theme that carries through to the establishing of the school house in the third series).

Al Swearengen: not about to sing 'Avalon' any time soon.
(Image: HBO)
And what characters. Until Breaking Bad came along, from its top stars to the lowest rung of its supporting cast Deadwood offered the best line up of acting talent on American television: then-newcomers like Timothy Olyphant (upright, short-tempered sheriff Seth Bollock) and Molly Parker (rich widow Alma Garrett) through seasoned A-listers like Powers Boothe (misogynistic saloon owner Cy Tolliver), Brad Dourif (the cantankerous ‘Doc’ Cochrane) and William Sanderson (shabby, eternally compromised hotelier E. B. Farnum), to scene-stealing character actors Geri Jewell and Ralph Richeson (the comedy servants Jewel and Richardson). The biggest revelation of all, though, was Brit Ian McShane, previously best known for his curly-haired 1980s rogue Lovejoy and a dodgy cover of ‘Avalon’. His wolfish publican Al Swearengen - another real life inhabitant of Deadwood – symbolises the corruption and amorality of the whole town in a mesmerising performance of coarse, Machiavellian, blackly funny virtuosity, as he manoeuevres one resident against another. Who'd have thought he had such a role in him? It’s certainly a long way for McShane way from Essex, where Lovejoy was largely filmed, but then, like all the best historical drama, Deadwood takes you from the familiar to a totally different place.

And that brings us back to The Musketeers. The BBC's latest attempt at period intrigue might attract actors of the calibre of Peter Capaldi, Hugo Speer and Jason Flemyng, but if they’re not inspired by the material, how can the programme’s makers expect the audience to be? (At least Call the Midwife, shown an hour before and irredeemably twee though it might be, has strong roles for female actors and engages with the social mores of its era). Producers don’t have to go for the full-on Profanisaurus approach of Deadwood, either: they just have to fully believe in the potential of a historical setting and trust the audience to believe in it too.

OK, on a bad day that might get you the soap-opera-with-vintage-frocks of Mr Selfridge, but it's also how great TV gets made. One Deadwood or Ripper Street is worth a hundred Musketeers.


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