Grace Dent on TV: The Musketeers, BBC1

I was all for switching off as the bawdy band of brothers fired blanks

I tried very hard on three separate occasions to enjoy BBC1’s new much heralded buckle of swash The Musketeers. And by the third attempt realised I’d written one note on my pad which said, “Musketeers? Bored to tears, more like! AM I RIGHT?”, which is neither a terribly pithy joke or particularly constructive smite, but was simply all I could muster.

From my first viewing, last Sunday evening, all I gathered was that this was a tale of a lot of very thin-skinned French men with British accents, clad in billowing pantaloons, with epidermis that  required a good steam-clean. And blimey, were they all narked about something. Something about Louis XIII. Something about avenging the death of someone. Well, whatever it was, there was a whole heap of chasing one another through  cobbly sets filled with extras titivated to be French peasants. Much falling into hay and galloping about on ponies, much kissing of wenches, Peter Capaldi clipping about being scurrilous in a codpiece, very, very loud orchestral accompaniment to denote great tension, even when none is apparent.

I had, and continue to have, no strong feelings about the actual four musketeers themselves. Aside from that Luke Pasqualino playing D’Artagnan is very, very pretty. But this we all knew already as he was handsome in Skins and had blossomed into even more of a joy in The Borgias. The remaining musketeers are a knobbly, warring cacophony of testosterone. A walking ongoing paternity suit. This show should be sponsored by Lynx Apollo.

At the beginning of episode one, Aramis is shagging Cardinal Richelieu’s missus, elsewhere Athos is waking with a roaring hangover which he can only solve in the pre-Nurofen age by dunking his head in a pail of ice water. It was all a bit Alan Partridge, “Because I’m a bloody bloke”, but in a wholly gentle and non-offensive sense. There’s nothing to be offended about in The Musketeers. One of the most shocking moments was D’Artagnan getting kicked hard in the nadgers, which he appeared to interpret as light flirting.

I tried to watch The Musketeers again the  following Monday morning and then a further time before writing this copy, throttlingly aware that, yes, here was another big-budget BBC drama that I couldn’t fib that I liked and that I’d hack off dozens of people in the process by admitting this. And that I’d weather another round of post-midnight sniping via Twitter from “Second in Charge of Wigs” or whoever who ran the catering van, or someone else from the crew who’d had one Smirnoff Ice too many before beddy-bo-bos and now found themselves furiously clanking away on a Dell laptop informing me that I’d ruined the lives of everyone involved.

Poor me, I thought. My TV critic hell. It takes a village to make something like The Musketeers. Or Peaky Blinders. Or Ripper Street, I thought. All those actors and wardrobe people, all those set designers and fencing instructors, everyone working their arses off for months, then I fire up a blank Word document and remark it’s not remotely as great as Game of Thrones and the plot is as thin as a mid-cycle panty liner and there was more character definition in the 1980s cartoon Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds. I dislike me also.

But if you’re going to fill an entire hour with derring-do, ripped bodices, ruffled regal feathers etc, these days post-Game of Thrones, I really feel you need to be a little more cerebral about it. In the opening episode, for example, of the HBO Westeros drama – which also centres on sword fighting, avenging honour, bands of brothers et al – we meet a character like Queen Cersei who happens to be shagging her handsome brother Jamie. The unacquainted viewer begins the show thinking, “Oh God, another pan pipes and sword-fights romp”, and finishes the episode confusingly smitten with an incestuous couple who have  recently maimed a child. And this is only a minor idea among dozens of other “problematic”  notions such as the nymphomaniac prostitute-loving dwarf, the execution of serfs for cowardice, princesses being marriage-brokered like donkeys, a family of baby wolves and a harsh retro-reading of the word “bastard”.

Heaps to think about and be challenged by. Tons of unorthodox ideas about gender, sex, ideas of aesthetic beauty, class deference, empires, the value of life and the idiocy of putting any moral human being on a pedestal. One of the greatest warriors on Game of Thrones is a strapping, fearless woman. We only really have cause to think about her being female when someone tries to rape her. Now there’s a problematic sentence.

Incidentally, there are some women in The Musketeers – this isn’t purely blokes running about with swords – but I’d have happily watched D’Artagnan played by a female actress, with no fuss added to the dialogue or plot over the gender swap at all. Who knows, they could start with this and then maybe by 2025 move on to a female Doctor Who. I did laugh on Sunday night though when a BBC social-media account began  tweeting the two rival “gangs” of Sunday night viewing. The macho Musketeers versus the  winsome ladies from Call the Midwife. And if you’re neither of those demographics, you’ve always got the off switch.

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