Wacht Am Tyne

Military History for the Terminally Obsessed

The Devil’s Whore: A Semi-Impartial Critique

with 5 comments

Although The Devil’s Whore is neither that much of a military-history programme nor within my area of expertise, I feel an obligation to give some commentary for three reasons:

1) I watched it, and I rarely watch television so that’s an event in itself.

2) I know for a fact that Rich at Chronologi Cogitationes refuses to even watch the show, so I feel a need to provide something where a superior authority on the period won’t. And mock him gently for not doing so.

3) I managed to catch, once again, the Harris/Guinness epic Cromwell on ITV3 a few nights ago, which provided even more food for analytical thought and eventually made my mind up for me about writing about the show.

But anyway, I did watch it. I wasn’t expecting a lot, given my corroborating evidence for such a low outcome was a knowledge (and subsequent distrust) of what sex-and-swordplay ‘historical dramas’ do in the way of shunting history out of the way and plonking a few dubious facts in its place for the cast to congregate around, not to mention the closest thing I have to a 17th-Century authority point-blank refusing to even watch the thing. The hallmarks of TV historical drama are there: Underlying contemporary concepts pared down brutally for elucidation in a single scene; historical figures who have their name declared in full after several minutes on-screen to fully identify them to the viewer as Someone What Was Real; very important historical figures playing second-fiddle to characters important to the actual plot, forcing them to pop in and out of scenes like a bad episode of Happy Days; and, of course, a minimum of three sex scenes per every 45 minutes of script.

The cast was solid enough and featured a few faces I recognised, including Peter Capaldi (Local Hero and one episode of Peep Show), Michael Fassbander (Band of Brothers and the upcoming IRA film Hunger) and John Simm (from popular-show-I-never-actually-watched Life On Mars) – the latter playing Edward Sexby, portrayed as a crazy-eyed veteran soldier-of-fortune who undoubtedly has been set as the One That Just Won’t Die And So Will Last Until The FInal Episode that all historical dramas with a bit of killing seems to have to have (given that TDW spans a timeframe upto 1660, and that Sexby died in 1658, I really hope this isn’t the case). The most striking characterisation was that of Oliver Cromwell, who is played with an accuracy-befitting East Anglian accent, giving him more of that potato-farmer air that Richard Harris raved upon in his famous “Oliver the First, King of England!” speech at the end of the aforementioned film – you come to expect not so much “I tell you we will cut off his head with the crown upon it”, rather a straightforward “GERROF MOI LAND!” in later episodes.

The battle scenes, though impressively shot in my opinion, are a let-down. The recreation of Edgehill appears to have soaked up most of the project’s budget for outdoor shots, meaning that later battle sequences are carried out by only about half-a-dozen extras – you’d think, rather than try and get away with what I call ‘the Sharpe Effect’ (making big battles seem big while only actually employing about fifteen extras), you’d expect them to have at least paid some more people to be in the day’s filming and do it properly – because, unlike Sharpe, you really do notice the lack of volume to the forces involved (I draw the four-man ‘pike block’ as my first piece of evidence to this…)

I reckon the real cause is in fact the titular gimmick (no, not the sex): the CGI devil that turns up now and again to the protagonist, to hammer home the point of her pre-credits renouncing of God. It’s pitiful, it really is – they don’t even seem to have blown the battle-scene budget on a good graphic-designer either. I kept expecting the protracted tongue-flailing trademark to be followed by a husky ‘Yarrrrrr!’ like the pirate-ghost out of Scooby-Doo. Needless to say, I provided that sound-effect myself in order to make the drawn-out ‘Oooh no it’s the Devil again‘ shots seem less like theme-hammering filler.

I don’t want to sound nasty about this show, not just because it’s only been one episode of a four-part story so far; I just have an ingrained hatred of television Doing History Wrong and Doing Drama Wrong. It might turn out good but for the fact that it’s already proven itself to be taking major liberties with such ‘trivial’ matters as Viewers’ Intelligence and Historical Fact. For that, I’m afraid I will hold a prejudice throughout the run that I fear the remaining three episodes won’t be able to dissuade me of. The Beatles said that ‘Living is easy with eyes closed’ – but I think in order for me to live through this show, I’ll have to close my ears and mind and keep my eyes fully open, as I’m a sucker for good cinematography and that might be the only carrot the show has to coax me forward to the conclusion. Try it for yourself, and come to your own decisions.

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Written by nikkiwilliams

26 November, 2008 at 5:46 pm

5 Responses

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  1. ” Rich at Chronologi Cogitationes refuses to even watch the show, so I feel a need to provide something where a superior authority on the period won’t. And mock him gently for not doing so.”

    I haven’t actually got a TV in my house, so it’s not actually too much of a choice. Nonetheless, you’re probably right… I would like to see it, although I might have to forbid myself from speaking for the duration.

    I’m surprised about what you say of the battle scenes: you can understand with Sharpe, since Napoleonic re-enacters are few and far between. Given that TDW had a huge budget, and that there are 6,000 Sealed Knotters in the country (and that they’re not the only Civil War re-enactment group, either), you’d think something could have been achieved.

    Rich

    26 November, 2008 at 6:32 pm

  2. […] Ronan Bennett’s for the Guardian (of which a review-of-a-review can be found here), and a pleasingly irreverent one at Watch Am […]

  3. Apparently the outdoor scenes were shot in S.Africa for budget reasons, so maybe they couldn’t afford to fly out the Sealed Knot for the battle scenes?
    I checked the SK site but drew a blank.
    Overall it does keep you watching, and is perhaps several rungs above the Tudors….!

    cardinalwolsey

    27 November, 2008 at 12:16 am

  4. Part of me does want to see it, but somehow I don’t think it quite counts as ‘academic’, so I’m not sure I could justify it to my college administrator…

    I imagine flying the SK to South Africa would eat a lot out of the budget; although I’ve heard that some educational TV programs have just ‘recycled’ footage rather than film a whole new battle. That, presumably, wasn’t an option?

    Rich

    2 December, 2008 at 11:45 pm

  5. I’m going to reserve further comment on the show until after seeing the finale, or if it can’t wait until I’ve seen tonight’s episode. However, it has to be said with regards to the budget question that – with not a single battle in the second episode (bear in mind the story’s up to at least mid-1646 by now) – they’re either holding back an epic battle or two for the later episodes, or they blew the money on cider and pies. The pirate-ghost demon was the only thing in the latest episode that I could see that might cost more than the average period drama could afford, never mind a “big-budget” production like this.

    nikkiwilliams

    3 December, 2008 at 6:55 pm


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