Last Night's TV: The Crimson Petal and the White/BBC2
Vacation, Vacation, Vacation/Channel 4
Thursday 07 April 2011
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.
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