Grace Dent on TV: The Crimson Field, BBC1

A missing fruit cake is a good enough cliffhanger for me

Dramas like The Crimson Field, BBC1’s new war-hospital saga, send out a dog whistle blast to women like me. “Watch me!” they seem to squeak. Scenes filled with derring-do, jam-packed with yesteryear women fighting feminist struggles to be taken seriously in a man’s world. The bittersweet notion of beautiful brave soldiers falling in love with pretty volunteer nurses before their dispatch to the front. Stiff nurses’ uniforms, stiff upper lips, stiff hospital corners on beds expected by matron at all times. Suranne Jones being formidable among the gore and gauze. Her out of Cold Feet – Hermione  Norris – faffing about with triangle bandages. And always at some point something too beastly for words is bound to happen, because this is a war for crying out loud. A bit like in BBC1’s adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, which lurched from sad to sadder to let’s not even speak about that part where Stephen eventually makes his way back to Isabelle as it will forever haunt my heart.

As I grow older war dramas or novels about the First and Second World Wars affect me more acutely. That inevitable bulldozer of happiness, family and hope one can sense on the horizon. As a schoolgirl, war was the slightly boring pastime of grown-ups, conducted on battlefields, irrelevant to invincible precocious types like myself. Yet, examining Birdsong 20 years later, or reading William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, or watching a drama like  The Crimson Field, where the closing scene shows all those beautiful boys marching off to the front and the inevitable wasteful outcome, these things  grow harder with age. Those opening scenes of Roman Polanski’s The Pianist where Maureen Lipman and Adrian Brody are having a lovely big family dinner full of warmth and generational  bonhomie pondering pre-war ideas. “Ere, these Nazis don’t seem very fair in their plans for Jewish business, do they?” And then war arrives and ruins every iota of everything anyone ever held dear.

One of the easiest to watch war-based dramas is the Benedict Cumberbatch stare-fest Parade’s End, which is the harrowing tale of what happens if you marry a very bitchy, shag-happy woman (Rebecca Hall) and then get tangled up with a woman who is a very principled, bookish, damp dish rag (Adelaide Clemens). The war does happen in Parade’s End, but generally very far away while rich people eat scones and bicker about adultery in West Sussex. And The Crimson Field? Well it’s an even gentler war romp still. Here is a Sunday night Call the Midwife-style saga, wholly lovable and compelling, with excellent performances from Oona Chaplin (Game of Thrones), who plays a similar sort of practically minded, quietly angry doer of good as she did playing Talisa Maegyr working on the battlefields of Westerlands – but without a great deal for the viewer to weep or wail about.

Indeed, one of the most exciting twists in episode one of The Crimson Field was a missing fruit cake, brought from home by one of the nurses and stolen by Sister Margaret Quayle (Kerry Fox). I didn’t recognise the marvellous Fox, in that sister’s uniform, from her Shallow Grave days,  although as the credits rolled, Quayle revealed the purloined cake with a dark glee very similar to when she surveyed Keith Allen’s penis in the 1994 Danny Boyle classic. Here, we were  supposed to think, was one bad bitch. A woman capable of great deceit. But, let’s face it, it was only a cake and, meanwhile, men in the midst of twitching nervous meltdowns, who had watched their entire platoon be blown to smithereens, were being shouted into uniforms and sent back to battle, so in the grand scheme of things, I didn’t truly care about cake-gate.

Still, The Crimson Field has much to jolly along a Sunday night. We have handsome caddish  surgeons – Captain Miles Hesketh-Thorne and Captain Thomas Gillan – who are hellbent on shagging the nurses. We have a furious matron determined to protect the nurses and the sanctity of the field hospital by banning makeup, scent and fraternising. Let’s call her Matron Cockblock. We have Colonel Utterly-Unreasonable who keeps appearing and shouting, “I don’t care if he’s only got one leg, get him back to the front and let him punch people sitting down instead!” (I’m  paraphrasing). There’s Suranne Jones’s secret  soldier boyfriend and the fact Oona King’s character has already been fired and sent home on the Blighty Convoy once in episode one, but because of her skills at soothing the almost-dead is on a final chance. At present, the other two volunteer nurses, Rosalie Berwick and Flora Marshall, are almost interchangeable as nice, out-of-their-depth posh English gals whom the sister hates on sight as she wanted proper nurses not ageing, bored singletons who are fleeing their families in a  bygone-times “gap year” arrangement.

The Crimson Field could easily snatch a large swathe of the Downton Abbey audience, largely because it is silly. It can never be as silly as series two of Downton where quality control slipped suddenly and the house suddenly converted into a convalescent home – a storyline I still get quite hysterical just thinking about. War, what is it good for, absolutely nothing; although in this case, it cheers up an otherwise dull Sunday night.