Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Review: "Desperate Romantics" is dire dramatic drivel

I don't know what it is about the BBC which makes it utterly unable to make a drama series about artists without hitting the romantic melodrama / sensational soap opera button.

Who could forget "The Impressionists" which morphed from a major three-part factual drama series unravels the intimate history of The Impressionists (press Release #1) into
Rivalries, romance, and a struggle for recognition a unique insight into the world of the Impressionist painters in a fascinating new factual drama for BBC ONE.
The Impressionists - on the BBC and at the National Gallery
with a heavy emphasis on the "dramatic" and very little about the art.

Desparate Romantics on the BBC
John Millais (Samuel Barnett), fictional character Fred Walters (Sam Crane)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Aidan Turner) and William Holman Hunt (Rafe Spall)

The latest set of artists which have been served up for a cultural downshift - accompanied by a Britpop/rock soundtrack - by the BBC are the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood.

This was the first description
Set in and among the alleys, galleries and flesh-houses of 19th-century industrial London, Desperate Romantics follows the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a vagabond group of English painters, poets and critics.

A relationship drama from the perspective of this iconoclastic group of dysfunctional male romantics, the series follows their lives and relationships as they shamelessly scheme and strive to find fame, fortune and success, as well as love and quite a bit of sex along the way.

This colourful and rude gang drama from BBC Drama Production....

Basically, it's Entourage with easels. Desperate Romantics paints a modern, vivid and irreverent portrait of this group of painters whose attitude to the establishment makes them comparable to the punks a hundred years later.
BBC Drama Production presents Desperate Romantics for BBC Two (my hyperlink)
I guess the BBS has cottoned on to the idea that sex sells. Which is curious because for very many years the BBC made rather a lot of money by making very high quality drama series with excellent production values. Obviously in the new era of mega salaries for the BBC bosses and champagne expense accounts the production values went out the window along with the value in terms of how they spent the licence payers money.

To be honest it is series like these which make me think that the BBC should be totally cut adrift from the income from the licence fee. Why not have a system where all the television companies can compete for funds for programmmes which genuinely educate and inform? Then we might get to see some real quality!

The BBC Press Release failed to identify the commissioning editor responsible for this cultural downshift in drama series. However the identification of the series producer as being Ben Evans (Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa!, Curse Of Comedy) explains a lot.

I'm with the reviewer from the Independent - this is Trainspotting applied to the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood. Plus the writing is absolutely chock-full of the most appalling tabloid straplines by way of introducing characters and context.

Apparently there is a factual book called Deserate Romantics by Franny Boyle which inspired this drama series (all six episodes). Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites by Franny Moyle is a review of it by Frances Wilson. It was interesting to learn that Moyle had had a career in arts programming at the BBC - it all seems very incestuous to me! It was very odd to read the conclusion of the review - which is a stark contrast to the way it's being played out on television - and then to find out that Franny Boyle is the Co-Executive Producer. How one has to suffer for one's art?
Despite its lush subject, Desperate Romantics is not a biography in the fleshly school. There is nothing indulgently sensuous, or melodramatic, or morally vacant in Moyle's handling of these stories. Instead she tells her tale plain and at a belting pace, pursuing events through troughs of letters and journals, peppering the commentary with the occasional Freudian reading. She writes with the bracing good humour of a head girl - friends are “chums”, people feel “chuffed”, journeys are “jollies”, arguments are “ding-dongs” - and the jauntiness of her approach is a refreshing antidote to the incestuous, dreamlike claustrophobia of these interlocking lives. Her book is powerful, absorbing and, well, rather jolly.
Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites by Franny Moyle
However all was explained when I found the Daily Telegraph article by Desperate Romantics dramatist Peter Bowker - see the Daily Telegraph - 'I always was a desperate romantic' - and the conflation of the PRB story with punk rock / prog rock / adolescent male yearnings begins to be explained.
I have a horror of dramatised art biography but Franny's book offered something different. Her book looked at the Brotherhood's art through the filter of their remarkably tangled and compromised love lives.

Some artists want lasting fame. Some want money. Others want sex. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood want all of it. .....Unfortunately, the art world isn't much interested in a bunch of young, punk iconoclasts raging against the 'establishment' of the Royal Academy - particularly when one of that set, the shamelessly arrogant Rossetti, has yet to learn to paint

The one interesting thing the BBC has produced is a website "Explore the paintings" which allows you to zoom in on the paintings and to also see how Tate Britain digitized the paintings. It's a pity that the information here isn't also available to those watching on television.

(left to right)
Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50)
John Everett Millais.
Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850)
(The Annunciation) 1849-50 Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The Hireling Shepherd (1851) by William Holman Hunt

The episode last night followed the genesis of some famous paintings.
What really irritates me about series like these is the way they avoid any attempt at education. They virtually ignore how paintings are created, the ways of painting which were created and the sequencing of where and when they were painted. While there was some reference to drawing in the programme it's in isolation and not related at all to how the paintings are developed. Thus it perpetuates the myth that paintings spring from the easel straight out of the artist's head as opposed being the product of a series of studies and working through a process of selecting subjects to portray and how best to compose them. The symbolism and meanings portrayed for example in The Hireling Shepherd were completely ignored in favour of focusing on the brothel model hired to pose. All in all it's yet more titillation for the instant gratification generation!

I suspect the best bit about this new drama series will be reading the reviews - which I've rounded up for you. I can't wait to see what AA Gill has to say about this series having read what he had to say about the last one!
Desperate Romantics does try hard to distance itself from other costume drama. This, it shouts, is un-costume drama: derobed drama. Look, no clothes. It's certainly more fun than, say, Larksnore to Chocolate Box. But, in spite of some good performances, it's neither as witty nor as funny as Entourage. It's nothing like it, really: more of a jolly romp – with all that nudity, the suggestive sharpening of pencils, the incessant comedy bonk-along-to-brass oompah music.
Ruskin, incidentally, is played by the excellent Tom Hollander, here struggling with a role that is three parts dictionary of quotations to one part tortured sexual repression.
Meanwhile I'm toying with titles for reviews of further episodes. Carry On Up the Canvas springs to mind..............


Ilaria said...

I watched it and was as disappointed as you, but I also think that the people who are really interested in painting are a minority.
Art is just a new setting for a soap, perhaps police and hospitals have been done too many times.
Anyway authors perhaps should have bothered asking a painter how does one repaint a face on top of an older one, not to speak about a more realistic studio ( painters normally need light to paint, even in victorian times).

Bob Ebdon said...

Yes it was tosh - to put it politely! But once you accepted that you weren't going to learn anything, it was amusing in parts - a few chuckles at least. And the actresses playing Lizzie Siddal and Annie Miller were stunningly beautiful. What really gets me in this programme and the recent "factual" series on the PRB from BBC3/4 was the ommission of Waterhouse, Madox Brown, Burne Jones, Morris etc. The three musketeers were not alone!

sue said...

Hilarious--well, it sounds like you have to watch it for what it is, not for what it isn't! "Entourage with easels." You gotta' love it. So, no Christina Rossetti stuck in the mix, just for fun? Her poetry, while purporting to be doggerel childhood rhymes, was rife with sexuality and Victorian-repressed tension. LOL

Tina Mammoser said...

I have to admit, as a costume drama junkie I will definitely go watch this. :) Expecting no art info whatsoever, which I probably wouldn't have anyway.

Angela Finney said...

I did not see the television series. I do thank you for all of these links and I explored them all and enjoyed learning about these artists. Somehow, my art history education and knowledge seems to go from ancient times to the Renaisance to Turner, Corot and Corbet to the Impressionists and beyond. I do not remember much attention to this group. I do feel that my childhood Bible books were filled with these images, however. Interesting to me, the controversary about them. I do not know how you turn out this blog without working on it 24 hours a day!

Making A Mark said...

Thanks Anglea - I write fast! :)

Making A Mark said...

Tina - as costume dramas go this falls way below the standards of the best the BBC has produced in the past - unless you're only watching it for the costumes! ;)

Kirsty Hall said...

I saw this publicity shot and thought 'the clothes look wrong'. Showed it to a friend who knows more about these things than me and he was thoroughly appalled by it - according to him, all the details are completely off.

Unknown said...

I am a 57 year old man, and in all good conscience, had to stop watching the show as soon as the nude models appeared. I, an artist, who went to minneapolis college of art and design,who has drawn nde models as they posed in an academic setting. There was no sensuality there in that kind of environment...all very professional. This show started out making it all seem very seductive. Perhaps in some quarters of the world it is. All in all, the show began with a lack of what i consider proper values. I can only imagine the film kept up with this flavor throughout the film. A shame. Bbc has done such great things. Cinematography
was great, though!

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