December 4, 2008


Bringing the English Civil war to life: From the Diggers’ lunacy to Cromwell’s moral emptiness, the aim of TV drama The Devil’s Whore is never less than true. (James Heartfield, 12/04/08, Spiked)

Channel 4’s The Devil’s Whore puts life into the conflict because it has cut back on the battle re-enactment scenes and got in close on the leading characters: Leveller leader Thomas Rainsborough (seemingly bumped off here by Cromwell, not Royalists, as history records) played by handsome Michael Fassbender (currently on the big screen as Bobby Sands in Hunger); Cromwell, of course, played by Dominic West, The Wire‘s Jimmy McNulty; and Peter Capaldi out-creeping Guinness as the arrogant king. ‘I am mistook?’, Charles I says, conveying the logical impossibility of such a proposition. [...]

Peter Flannery, the writer of The Devil’s Whore, whose morose Our Friends in the North got the end of socialism just right in the 1990s, has likewise caught the mood and the language of the 1640s. When he drops Rainsborough’s famous quote that ‘the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he’, the script is not disturbed. He knows the history well enough to sympathise with the extremists of the revolution, the Diggers, but still suggest that they were, in the end, hysterical loons. He tells the story of the massacre at Drogheda without letting it outweigh what the revolution was about. Strikingly, he makes ‘Honest’ John Lilburne, the Levellers propagandist, grow from clown to giant in the courtroom.

But best of all he catches the eerie moral absence that is Cromwell. In his Cromwell memoir God’s Englishman, Christopher Hill tells the story - just shown in episode three of The Devil’s Whore last night - of the point at which Cromwell works out that he must slaughter the ringleaders of the New Model Army mutinies. From his letters we know that Cromwell was genuinely worried about what he was doing, and even saw the appeal and coherence of the Levellers’ arguments. He knew that they were only drawing out the logical meaning of the revolution. But he knew too that the logical meaning was without any real basis, and that he had to crush their dreams. In his letters, Cromwell explains that he cannot fault their arguments, but chooses instead to put himself in the hands of ‘providence’: meaning he gives over reason to intuition, and determines to crush the revolt to retain control of the army. It is a gruesome moment of Realpolitik that Dominic West wears lightly, as if he was watching something unfolding somewhere else.

The Diggers were stable enough compared to our favorites, the Fifth Monarchists.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 4, 2008 7:17 PM
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