Shiny Shelf

Charles II: The Power and the Passion

By Eddie Robson on 17 November 2003

It’s a mark of the extent to which times have changed that the BBC’s showpiece Sunday costume drama contains as much bedroom action as the average episode of ‘Sex and the City’. Charles II, the king without whom the Restoration wouldn’t have had such a snappy name, spends a great deal of the first episode of this four-part series in the sack. He even discusses the process of regaining his throne whilst romping with wenches in Belgium, a feat repeated by Marvin Gaye when recording his ‘Midnight Love’ album in the early 1980s.

Some critics of this series have complained that Charles’ story has been sensationalised in order to make it more interesting for Today’s Audience, and also that it panders to Today’s Audience by modernising the dialogue. (We hear a surprising amount about Today’s Audience considering nobody seems to know who they are or what they like, and you never meet anybody who considers themselves a part of it.) After a spurious opening scene in which Charles witnesses his father’s public murder at the hands of Cromwell (which thankfully turns out to be a dream sequence), I found this first episode quite well balanced and enjoyable.

True, the script is in a fairly ordinary vernacular, but I noticed no glaring anachronisms and I’m all in favour of this style if it prevents writers from turning in the cod-Shakespearean nonsense they tend to produce when asked to write Ye Olde Dialoggue. This also means that it’s a ham-free zone on the acting front, with the likes of Rufus Sewell, Diana Rigg and Ian McDiarmid giving uncontrived performances. And yes, there’s a lot of sex, but this is the Restoration after all: practically all of the drama from this period is about love, sex and adultery. These were not the concerns of the age without good reason.

In between, the sensational aspects are leavened with plenty of scenes of men sitting in rooms and talking about politics, thereby articulating the issues of the day for the audience’s benefit. The use of hand-held cameras throughout the piece is an interesting addition to the usual staid costume drama visuals, subtly suggesting that this is ‘real’ whereas last season’s Dickens or Austen adaptation was fiction. I must confess to know little about this period and would be unlikely to notice inaccuracies, although I note that the Scottish proclamation, under which Charles made an attempt to reclaim the throne and was defeated, is skipped over – although this could just be because it would have been expensive to film.

The drama more or less commences with Charles’ restoration, after which we see a monarch whose power has been sapped by an emerging Parliament and who takes a more laissez-faire approach to politics. This formed the basis for Britain’s present political system and if ‘The Power and the Passion’ successfully charts this path over its remaining three episodes then it will stand as a creditable history play as well as a jolly Sunday costume drama.

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By Eddie Robson

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