Fifty Shades of Grey star Jamie Dornan: From masturbation to restoration

Fifty Shades of Grey star Jamie Dornan takes on a king in a new 17th-century drama. Gerard Gilbert joins him on set

With Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the BBC's adaptations of Hilary Mantel's twin Booker-winning novels following the rise and fall of Henry VIII's adviser Thomas Cromwell, about to go into production, the Tudors' grip on historical television drama appears to be as vice-like as ever.

The BBC did attempt to broaden our dynastic perspective last year with The White Queen, 10-part version of Philippa Gregory's Wars of the Roses bestsellers – but even this could be seen as "The Tudors: the Prequel". And in any case The White Queen, like the last Plantagenet monarch, Richard III, met an inglorious end surrounded by but a few trusty followers. In terms of cultural impact, sadly, it almost might as well have been buried beneath a Leicester car park.

One fairly recent exception to this Tudor dominance has been The Devil's Whore, Peter Flannery and Martine Brant's rip-roaring 2008 Channel 4 saga about the English Civil War, spanning the years 1638 to 1660 and following a mix of real characters (including Dominic West's Oliver Cromwell, Peter Capaldi's King Charles I and John Simms's Leveller leader Edward Sexby) with fictional creations such as the proto-feminist Angelica Fanshawe (played by Andrea Riseborough).

And now The Devil's Whore has a sequel of sorts. It's called New Worlds and again it's co-written by Flannery and Brant – the latter a historian who had the original idea of following one woman's experience of the English Civil War after she started investigating the origins of her 16th-century Oxfordshire home, Wytham Abbey. Once more featuring Angelica Fanshawe, but this time in a more supporting role (and played in her maturity by Nurse Jackie's Eve Best), New Worlds is set in the 1680s, deep into the reign of King Charles II, whose restoration of the monarchy ushered out the joyless years of Cromwell's Puritan dictatorship. Or at least that's the way this era is so often misrepresented, argues Brant.

"The Restoration is thought of in popular imagination as King Charles the merry monarch and all of his mistresses," she says. "The republican experiment [under Cromwell] hadn't really worked, and so from 1660 onwards everyone was very pleased to welcome back Charles II. He was going to heal the wounds, he promised justice and no persecution. But in fact, his regime turned into one of the most repressive that this country has ever known, and not many people know that."

Fifty Shades of Grey film 'surprisingly tame' with more 'PG kissing' than sex

"The civil wars and the republic are taught dismissively as 'the Interregnum'," adds Peter Flannery. "A minor blip between two monarchs, not a massively important chapter in our political history. I think it's largely to do with the fact we cut off the head of the King yet we still have a monarchy. It's an uncomfortable memory. There's a fascinating tension here when we came to write our new drama. It's a world where you'd be going to one of the new Restoration plays or a lecture in the 'new science' at the Royal Society, walking past bodies in gibbets and heads on poles…"

New Worlds is set on both sides of the Atlantic – in and around the Fanshawes' Oxfordshire home and in Massachusetts where the Puritan settlers are at odds with both the Native Americans and royal agents out for revenge against fugitive regicides (these American scenes were actually filmed in Romania). It has a younger and less well-known cast than The Devil's Whore, although Jamie Dornan is about to become a major player. His serial killer in last year's controversial BBC2 thriller The Fall marked him out as an actor to be watched, but next year's movie adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey (in which he plays billionaire BDSM enthusiast Christian Grey) will introduce him to a global audience of EL James fans.

 

"Abe is an idealist and an outlaw," says Dornan. "He's very determined in his fight to make England a true republic and end the tyrannical rule of the Stuarts' throne. It is a similar fight to that taken up by his father, William Goffe, who was a real historical figure and one whom Abe idolises."

Growing up in Belfast, says Dornan, "the English Civil War was not on the school curriculum… so to some extent I had to learn from scratch". Suggested reading for the young cast included Lucy Worsley's Cavalier, the chirpy TV historian's portrait of a colourful 17th-century aristocrat, although it was contemporary news events that caught the imagination of Game of Thrones and Skins actor Joe Dempsie.

"Interestingly enough we were filming this around the same time that the second uprising in Egypt was happening," says Dempsie, who plays Ned, a New England colonist trying to throw off the control of the Crown. "It's not a cosy, tea and crumpet on a Sunday evening watching people in their tight corsets run around," adds Australian actress Alice Englert, who happens to be film-maker Jane Campion's daughter. "It's got a really strong important message to it." Englert plays Hope ("one of the original young Americans" as she puts it), whose idealism fades as she witnesses the enclosure of Native American lands and the Puritan repression of women.

Says Brant: "When you see the righteous self-justification of annexing Indian lands, you think of the concept of exceptionalism underlying much of American policy. And the English settlers who went to Massachusetts in the 1630s and founded Boston – John Winthrop's City on the Hill – wanted a church where there were much stronger strictures. It was very Talibanesque… very prescriptive about the way people behaved, but women were the target of this much more so than the men.

"What we were trying to show is that the young have to engage with their world politically," she says. "This is about young people changing their world." It's left to Dornan to add perhaps a note of caution to the hope that New Worlds will raise political and historical awareness. "I have friends who watch television just for the costumes," he says. "A lot of people don't look beyond that."

'New Worlds' begins tonight at 9pm on Channel 4

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