‘New Worlds’: brand-new C17th historical drama on tonight

The new Channel Four drama ‘New Worlds’ begins tonight, and you can watch the trailer here.  I was amused to discover that the cast of young actors were made to read my book Cavalier for background about the seventeenth century.  As one of them, Jamie Dornan, has gone on to be cast as Christian Grey in the film version of Fifty Shades Of, do you think he’ll be taking my book with him into the sado-masochistic dungeon? (‘Stop that, Anatasia, I can’t torture you until I’ve found out who won the Civil War!’)

Anyway, I was lucky enough to see a preview and to interview the writers behind ‘New Worlds’, and this is what I had to say in t’paper, in case you missed it…

New-Worlds-Channel-4-3296060‘A teenage girl creeps through the woods, machete in hand.  Silently and swiftly, she creeps up behind a Native American tracker.  In gruesome close-up, we see her blade slice through his scalp.  She needs to kill him to save herself: he’s been employed by the government agents on her trail.

Welcome to a terrifying vision of everyday life in seventeenth-century New England.  It’s a scene from the new Channel 4 drama New Worlds. Set in the 1680s, New Worlds is the long-awaited sequel to the eye-popping, bosom-heaving, BAFTA-winning 2008 series The Devil’s Whore.

Taking place in the Civil Wars of the 1640s, The Devil’s Whore starred a then-unknown Andrea Riseborough as the story’s heroine Angelica Fanshawe.  Angelica, a Stuart aristocrat, danced suggestively on a table at the court of Charles I before undergoing a political awakening, swapping sides, and ending up involved in a plot to assassinate the king.  Taking us through the whole spectrum of Civil War politics, it was the most gripping historical drama I’d seen for years.  But it didn’t please everyone.  While one critic called it ‘a quite serious attempt to explain the underlying issues’, another called it ‘a cartoon-strip version of the Civil War according to the 1960s left’.

The sequel picks up the story of the Angelica (now played by Eve Best) two decades later, under the increasingly tyrannical regime of Charles II.  Over four hour-long episodes, a hugely complicated plot unfolds on both sides of the Atlantic.  The real history is leavened with plenty of deliciously-appalling Game of Thrones-style violence, even more so than in its blood-soaked prequel. The first two episodes contain multiple shootings, the tarring and hanging of a servant-maid, a man’s throat slashed with broken glass, a woman burned alive, a man throwing himself off a roof and another off a precipice.  Oh, and there’s torture too.  Chests heave, passions run high, and typical dialogue runs like this: ‘You may be in chains for a while but they cannot enslave your spirit’.  This is the Restoration period for the Twilight generation.

In fact the most striking thing about New Worldsis just how 2014 the script is.  There are ‘feisty’ females aplenty, Angelica, her daughter Beth (Freya Mavor), and our young machete-artist (Alice Englert) in the Puritan new world of New England, whose guardians want to force her into marriage.  There are lots of melodramatic declarations of leftie passion. ‘He has opened my eyes’, says the rather-posh Beth of her new outlaw boyfriend, ‘to the injustice of the world’.

Unlike The Tudors or the recent BBC version ofThe White Queen, though, it’s not too implausibly glossy.  The actors do not have Pantene-advert hair, and commendably there is dirty, ruddy skin on display along with unkempt eyebrows and even the odd pimple.

‘We felt very strongly that all those things do tell a story’, said Martine Brant, series writer, over lunch at her Oxfordshire house.  Twig-thin, dressed in black cashmere when I met her, she is a passionate idealist.  ‘We want to tell a kind of truth, but not the way historians can’.  She aims to overturn our general perception of the seventeenth century – ‘bosoms and periwigs and having a good time’ – and to show instead that it was time when the world changed.  ‘There’s been a kind of collective amnesia’, she says, ‘about the fact that we had the first revolution’ here in Britain, before France, before America.

In New Worlds the characters are motivated by love and politics intertwined. ‘It’s about being able to change the world you live in, engaging with the world’, Martine says.  They fight for the ideals that the Restoration brought under threat – liberty, religious toleration, democracy – and ‘risk all to make the world a better place for everyone’.

‘And we wanted to write about young people, particularly young women’, Martine’s writing partner Peter Flannery adds, sitting opposite me at the very kitchen table they used as an office.  Between them they have four teenage daughters, and they hope that New Worlds will teach their own girls to remember that ‘all the liberties we have are hard-won’.

I ask Martine and Peter, who is best known for writing the BBC series Our Friends in the North of 1996, about their method of turning history into drama.  ‘There’s no point in writing drama that’s going to betray history’, says Martine, who was hugely upset when historians accused The Devil’s Whore of painting a simplistic picture of the Civil Wars with ‘infantile dualities of goodies and baddies’.  It clearly still stings now.  Peter is much more pragmatic.  ‘We are writing drama at the end of the day’, he says.

The character of Angelica typifies their approach: she is a creative riff on a real seventeenth-century aristocrat/adventuress, and they use real history to spring off into a mélange of fact and fiction intertwined.  ‘Who knows what was said within those four walls?’ Martine asks.  ‘It’s not recorded, so we have imagined’.

Peter and Martine are involved to an unusual degree in not only the writing but also the editing and even the casting of New Worlds.  (They jokingly describe themselves as the ‘god and goddess’ of this particular universe.) Last time, inthe Devil’s Whore, they had great success in casting actors on the cusp of greatness.  Michael Fassbender, for example, was hardly a household name when he played Thomas Rainsborough, the real-life member of the radical sect called The Levellers.  And since last summer when New Worlds was shotJamie Dornan, the juvenile lead, has been swept off to Hollywood to be Christian inFifty Shades of Grey.  The actor who most impressed me, though, was Angelica herself.  It was a hard act to top Andrea Riseborough, but Eve Best, who picks up the character eighteen years later, expresses all the sincerity and suffering that Martine could have wanted.

The Restoration saw many ideals and freedoms from Civil War period snuffed out once again.  Charles II is the ‘Merrie Monarch’ but nevertheless employs torture, and those who flee him to the New World nevertheless slaughter Native Americans.  These ideas and contradictions mean that New Worlds is likeGame of Thrones with a political conscience.  It’s seriously entertaining.’

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