Last Night's TV: The Crimson Petal and the White/BBC2
Essex Jungle/Channel 5
Thursday 21 April 2011
As fictional deaths go, Mark Gatiss's exit from The Crimson Petal and the White last week surely takes some beating. Poor pious Henry, so agitated about the rescue of fallen women, and so blind to his own libidinous yearnings for Mrs Fox, finally had the scales torn from his eyes by his brother William: "For pity's sake, Henry," William shouted with understandable exasperation. "She wants you to give her a good seeing-to." Sadly, Mrs Fox wasn't seen to, well or otherwise, but Henry became so engrossed in thinking about it that he didn't notice that he'd set his feet on fire. That's what I call a sexual reverie, frankly. This week, quite properly, everyone was in mourning dress and, behind her black veil, Agnes was steadily getting battier and battier.
Sugar appears to have been tamed and domesticated in recent episodes, but the drama certainly hasn't, thanks in part to Agnes's wilder excesses. All sorts of things are going on now, from emotional cruelty in the nursery (discovered in retrospect after Sugar moves in to act as governess) to secret novel writing (Agnes, who appears to be producing some new agey-type manuscript about angels). And, were there less ambiguities at another level, it could easily all be getting a little florid and hysterical. You might suspect it of working itself up into a bit of a frenzy, and think that the best prescription would be a good long walk and some hydrotherapy at a coastal spa.
What makes it compelling though, apart from its gloomy sense of style, is the sense that none of the characters have been reduced to mere bits of narrative clockwork. I suppose that Agnes might be a little functional, on hand to be pitied and disclose the patriarchal oppressions of the age. But both William and Sugar shimmer oddly as you watch, constantly trading places in terms of their neediness and authority. Who's really in charge here? The assumption that it is Sugar – lethally controlled and determined as she was in the opening episode – doesn't seem quite so obvious any more. She's scratching a lot, possibly because she's succumbing to the same Victorian claustrophobia that has helped Agnes on the way to madness, and she also seems genuinely hungry for William's attention. What initially looked like a straightforward revenge fantasy (to viewers who hadn't read the original novel) has become more difficult to read.
Sugar's relationship with William and Agnes's daughter was particularly touching last night, an expression of maternal tenderness that was also a muted protest about its absence from her own past. At its best the drama now sways and rustles as ominously as the tree that stood in the background when Sugar was reminded of her humble status by a visiting dowager, its thrashing pulled up suddenly in the sound mix so that it was as if you could hear the mental turbulence inside Sugar. And her discovery that William has been visiting his wife's bedroom late at night doesn't seem likely to calm the storm at all. At the moment, I honestly couldn't predict what the final episode is going to bring, or who it might deem to deserve punishment, which is rare enough these days to be cherishable in itself.
To quite a few people's surprise The Only Way Is Essex has ended up with a Bafta nomination in the Audience Award category, so I imagine we should now brace ourselves for a rash of programmes vajazzled by the addition of the name of England's least glamorous county. Essex Jungle is ahead of the game – a four-part series on Channel 5, which explores what it claims is the region's distinctive passion for exotic pets (apparently, 30,000 exotic animals are imported into Essex every year, most of them intentionally). Iain Newby is the star here, a kind of Crocodile Chelmsford who wanders around in a leather safari jacket and a hat with teeth on it. Ian has six children under seven, four dogs and a cat and about 70 exotic reptiles and birds, which are squeezed into every cranny of his modest house, which operates as a kind of refuge for trophy pets who have outstayed their welcome. "Haitian boa," Iain said tapping a tank while running through an inventory of his current residents. "One of the rarest snakes in the world... found on a doorstep in Basildon."
We also watched the owners of the Scales and Fangs pet shop feeding their stock – which involved a lot of frozen mice going down a lot of snakes' gullets – and visited Greg, a former prison officer who shares his home with a cayman, a seven-foot monitor lizard and an iguana so ugly that even other iguanas probably recoil when they see it. "I wanted someone to come home to," explained Greg. "They're company and I find them easy to get on with." He's trained his cayman, Caesar, to go out through the cat-flap, though Caesar didn't look particularly happy about it and Greg was notably cautious around Caesar's dental end. "Affectionate is probably the wrong word," he conceded when asked to characterise his relationship with Caesar, "but it's a mutual respect between the two species." Hector, Greg's monitor lizard, seemed marginally more affable than Caesar, perhaps because Greg is so easy-going. "Good boy," he said contentedly when Hector squelchily voided his bowels on Greg's kitchen floor. Apparently, it's easier to clean up off lino, which made you think uneasily about the carpeting in Greg's house. It's only a guess but I don't think Greg gets a lot of female company.
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