This BBC serial is an interesting development in the heritage drama genre: all the known facts of the Pre-Raphaelites’ lives are there, but cheerfully strung together with all the blatant sensationalistic plot devices available to the modern soap scriptwriter (Peter Bowker).
All amplified by production values (especially the music). The six episodes snapped and crackled along under fluent direction by Diarmuid Lawrence.
Reverent it was not - more like sheer effrontery, knowingly done - but hugely entertaining and cleverly preempting criticism.
Ann Mason’s Lizzie Siddal, well-cast with her beautiful Pre-Raphaelite features, was convincing in the role of the artistic talent and artists’ model trapped in a doomed love affair with Aidan Turner’s complex and irrepressible Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
She was one of several female characters - Effie Ruskin (Zoe Trapper), Annie Miller (Jennie Jacques) and Jane Burden (Natalie Thomas) all exploring the ambiguities of women’s status in the era - actually with a lot more subtlety than most such dramas, in spite of/because of the deliberately anachronistic scriptwriting approach(?)
Tom Hollander’s uptight and sexually damaged John Ruskin emerged as the cartoon baddy in this drama; Sam Crane’s sensitive Fred Walters as its conscience. Samuel Barnett’s John Millais was a naive baby spoiled by happy love and financial success; Rafe Spall’s William Holman Hunt a man tortured by the contradiction between his Christian beliefs and physical compulsions.
Bringing up the rear, Dyfrig Morris as the eponymous William and Peter Sandys-Clark as Edward ‘Ned’ Burne-Jones were a pair of comedy twins - Rossetti declaring in the final episode that William had a future in ‘design’. Leaving us to ponder on the future of historical genre television.