Models, muses, lovers: Bringing art history to the screen

The BBC's steamy drama about the Pre-Raphaelites finds new ways of bringing art history to the screen

Brick Lane, thanks to Monica Ali's novel and the east London thoroughfare's celebrated fusion of boho and balti, is something of a tourist destination these days – and not always for the type of sightseer you might expect. When I was there recently a group of pastel-clad British visitors of the variety more often spotted at National Trust properties snaked into view and stumbled into a distinctly 19th-century street scene.

Lined with handsome five-storey townhouses built by refugee Huguenot weavers, the road had been closed to traffic, and three young women in bonnets and bustles were sitting sunning themselves on the kerbside, in a composition straight out of a Victorian photograph. And these weren't supposed to be just any women, for the three actresses taking a break from filming a new BBC drama were portraying Lizzie Siddal, Annie Miller and Effie Ruskin – models, muses and lovers of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

So while Tracey Emin, Jake Chapman and Gilbert and George may currently inhabit the handsome, £2m homes fringing Brick Lane, BBC2's Desperate Romantics harks back to an earlier generation of artistic enfants terribles. Based on the book by Franny Moyle, the new six-part TV drama meshes the stories of Pre-Raphaelites William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the influential critic John Ruskin, and their interchanging lovers, wives and models. Its rip-roaring story of love, lust, jealousy, betrayal, drug addiction and suicide could come straight out of a soap opera. Or, as the original BBC press release describes it, "Entourage with easels". Hunt, Millais and Rossetti as Vince Chase and his Hollywood hangers-on from HBO's Entourage? It's an alarming prospect.

"When I pitched it to the BBC, I didn't pitch it as 'Entourage with easels'," says Franny Moyle, a former commissioning editor for the arts at the BBC who left her job in order to pursue an obsession with the Pre-Raphaelites. "I pitched it as a big emotional saga, a bit like The Forsyte Saga. Having said that, I think it was a useful snapshot – a way of getting a handle on the drama. The danger was that people would think, 'Gosh is this going to be a stuffy old thing with men in beards'..."

Desperate Romantics is most assuredly not that. Anyone looking for classic BBC Farrow & Ball costume drama with restrained story-telling and tasteful period nuances had better reach for their box set of Cranford. This is art history peppered with expletives and where life models give head in more ways than one.

"We're trying to find a language that modern viewers won't run away from," says Moyle, who is also co-executive producer on the series, adding that Peter Bowker, who adapted her book, has had to execute much chronological sleight of hand. "Pete compressed the story that plays out in the book over 12 years into something that feels as if it's taking place over a couple of years – to keep up the pace, to make it feel modern." The spirit is there, says Moyle, even if a would-be disarming prologue caption reads: "Much of the following drama is true... and some of what follows might be true."

Mid-Victorian artistic London may be a long way from Bowker's recent work on the Iraq war, Occupation, but he's fully embraced the "Entourage with easels" ethic. "These three guys strike me as very testosterone filled," he says. "I hope (young people) will be surprised that art history can be so lively."

"A lot of the critics said 'Oh, it's all been told before' – well, actually nobody had woven the stories together in quite the same way," says Moyle. "People who write reviews are academic experts in their field and they talk about things that have been published in academic journals. I come from a broadcast background and as a programme-maker. I never assume anyone knows anything because although a few hundred thousand might, there are millions who don't."

So for the benefit of the millions who don't, here's a potted synopsis of the opening episode in the style of Entourage (or something like that): Three dudes junk 300 years of art history and get real. They paint hoes, who naturally they also jazz, and generally freak the straights who run the show. And then the main man, a critic named John Ruskin, who for some reason won't have sex with his honey, digs them, and the brothers hit the big time...

Hunt even had a nickname, Monster, straight out of Entourage, as an artificially bewhiskered Rafe Spall explains. "He thinks it's because of his dogmatic work ethic, but his friends think he's a bit wild and intense," says the actor, who took painting lessons to get into the role of Hunt. "His conflict in this drama is the fact that he is a man of God, but he is also obsessed by a prostitute (Annie Miller), so, to justify this, he gives her lessons in deportment and manners, sort of My Fair Lady style."

No such hang-ups for the Brotherhood's most libertine member, as it were – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who is played Aidan Turner. "He'd constantly just sleep with other women; he had no qualms about stuff like that," says Turner, also known as the vampire flatmate in BBC3's acclaimed horror comedy Being Human. "They're all such different characters, you kind of wonder why they're friends. But I guess all friendships are like that."

The cast of Pre-Raphaelites is completed by Samuel Barnett as John Millais, but it's Tom Hollander, as the probably paedophiliac John Ruskin, who steals the show with a performance of clammy slyness. Meanwhile, a fictional character, Fred Walters, has been introduced for the sake of exposition.

"Fred is an amalgam of a few real contemporaries of the Brotherhood, and I created him in order to tell stories from an outsider perspective," says Peter Bowker, who goes on to explain the power of the emerging media of the day and how this fed into the notoriety of the Pre-Raphaelites. "This period was the beginning of the world of art as we recognise it now," he says. "These guys exploded at the same time as the phenomenon of daily newspapers, and art was arguably the most popular entertainment of the day. Here are three young men blowing the art world apart. You shouldn't underestimate their impact: it would have been like when you first heard punk, heard hip-hop or first saw a Damien Hirst piece."

Look out for the splendid Mark Heap as Charles Dickens, the arch-critic of the fledgling movement. But what of the women – the wives, models and muses? Are they to be sidelined again, as in life? What of Lizzie Siddal (played by Amy Mason), the flame-haired hat-shop girl who became Millais' Ophelia? Or Annie Miller (played by Jennie Jacques), the prostitute whose depiction as the kept woman in Hunt's The Awakening Conscience proved too close to the bone? And Effie (Zoë Tapper), Ruskin's undesired wife who went on to marry Millais and have eight children?

"They all suffered in various degrees," says Franny Moyle. "The women are in a double bind because they are trapped by their inability to support themselves. They're endlessly being tortured by social convention."

Indeed, for all the effort to inject modernity into the story of the Pre-Raphaelites, it is the clash between their contemporary-seeming attitudes and the far less permissive mores of Victorian society that makes the story so compelling.

Desperate Romantics begins on Tuesday 21 July on BBC2

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