Last Night's TV: The Crimson Petal and the White/BBC2
Vacation, Vacation, Vacation/Channel 4

The Crimson Petal and the White began as a bad laudanum dream: "This city is vast and intricate and you do not know your way around," said a female voice ominously, half warning and half threat. The London she moved through was – it was suggested – both a physical and a moral maze, a warren of squalid streets marked by odd visions: a grubby angel with swan's wings on his back, a crow-headed figure, a dying horse down on the cobbles. Things were just as feverish inside too, as Sugar – the whore hero of Michael Faber's bestselling Victorian pastiche – threaded her way past piglets and obese slatterns and pissing doxies to discover a friend dying, savagely beaten by her latest clients.

And yes, it looks fabulous, as if a Vogue art director had decided that Victorian underbelly was going to be this season's big thing. They'd even got a madly cackling old man to decorate one of the street scenes – a popular gothic accessory that you can normally take as evidence of failure of imagination but somehow seemed to fit here. That's largely because Lucinda Coxon's adaptation and Marc Munden's direction appear to have a very fine grasp of just how far you can tip a drama towards knowing comedy without it becoming risible. They've taken some risks in this respect, most notably in casting Chris O'Dowd as William Rackham and Mark Gatiss as his pious brother, both actors best known for comedy and – in Chris O'Dowd's case – a gleefully silly kind of comedy too.

Fans of the book may be disgruntled. But if you come to the drama clean I think it works. William is a faintly ridiculous character after all, with his literary pretensions and his fatal susceptibility to a tart's flattery. And Dowd nicely caught the absurdity of a man trapped between affectations of bohemianism and feeble attempts at Victorian mastery. William fancies himself as a man and an intellectual, but he's not really either. Seeking relief from his debts and his neurasthenic wife he finds Sugar, who's received a glowing write-up in a gentlemen's guide to London's sexual underworld. And when he discovers that Sugar can talk arty with the best of them – she scornfully dismisses Ruskin as a "major minor" in verse – he's lost.

Sugar isn't just a reader. She's a writer too, whiling away the hours between clients by penning murderous fantasies about them. "It's a book of hate to wreak revenge on every pompous, trembling worm who taps at Mrs Castaway's door," she explains, and the adaptation fleshes out her fantasies without signposting, so that you briefly think that pompous trembling William has had his throat cut before he's even got his money's worth. In fact, it looks as if Sugar's revenge against respectability will be a more long-winded affair. While William is going at her from behind, yodelling with sexual release, she's busy rifling through his coat pockets for useful intelligence, and last night's episode ended with her admiring discovery of just how far beyond his means he's been living. "You'll keep me better than you do now," she breathed.

William's wife writes too, though rarely more than a few words. She wrote "Help" in her own breath on the window and "Must get out" in her diary, and then she caught Sugar's eye across the square in a way that is very promising about future entanglements. There are also excellent turns from Gillian Anderson as Mrs Castaway – the sub-Dickensian grotesque who runs the brothel at which Sugar works – and Richard E Grant as the sinister Dr Curlew, who turns up now and then to terrify William's wife and do something unspeakably clinical under her petticoats. More laudanum, please.

If you're curious about how bankers manage to spend all the money they've steal from us then you get a clue in Vacation, Vacation, Vacation, Channel 4's solution to the tricky question of what to do with Phil Spencer and Kirstie Allsop until the housing market picks up again. The conceit seems to be this. They take two holidays in one place, one of them cheap and cheerful and one of them five star all the way. The first notionally offers a recession-hit audience a useful suggestion for their next holiday while the second – unless you happen to be a banker of course – is just there for day-dreaming purposes. Last night it was Tuscany, with the budget end being supplied by an agro-turismo break on a working Tuscan farm and the luxury bit delivered by an upmarket Florence hotel, where Phil and Kirstie were bumped up to the £2,000-a-night special suites. In the middle, there was a limp bit of consumerism about security clearance at airports, which consisted of Kirstie phoning somebody at Stansted to ask about plastic bags. They also regularly promised that they would explain how to "cheat your way to luxury for less", which turned out to consist of going on holiday in the off-season and taking advantage of the hotel's special deals. I don't know about you but I don't call that cheating really, and it didn't even come close to justifing the hugger-mugger intimation of insider knowledge with which it had been trailed. If you find Phil and Kirstie's odd-couple routine charming – or think it wonderfully comic to watch a goat eating her straw hat – then this is for you. Otherwise, it's only purpose is to pad the gap between 8.00 and 8.30.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own