The Devil’s Whore corrupts historic truths

Cartoonish Cavaliers and proto-hippy Roundheads abound in this new TV drama, which serves up a simplistic account of the English Civil War

BY John Adamson LAST UPDATED AT 10:38 ON Thu 20 Nov 2008

The election of a black man as President of the United States may at least have laid the ghosts of the American Civil War. But those of England's own Civil War - that older but no less bloody conflict - have been harder to put to rest. Ever since the 1640s, the divisions between Cavalier and Roundhead have been replayed in the political contests between Right and Left, the culture wars between the puritan and the permissive, even in the way we think of the war itself.

The latest evidence of just how the Royalists-Parliamentarian divide can be made to map neatly onto modern-day political concerns was provided last night by the first instalment of The Devil's Whore - Channel 4's new four-part blockbuster series set during and immediately after the English Civil War.

Angelica is one of those beautiful, disturbed-childhood, proto-feminists

The story of these 'great events' is told (in old-fashioned epic tradition) through the experiences of a single, fictional heroine, Angelica Fanshawe - the devilishly glamorous and equally improbable 'Whore' of the title. For Angelica (please note the pun, 'the angelic one') is one of those beautiful, middle-class, disturbed-childhood, abandoned-by-mother, proto-feminist career women, who reject God around the age of 11, the authority of their husbands about a decade later, and are spooked thereafter by periodic visitations by a very Freudian Devil - complete with a tongue which unfurls like a lavatory roll. In one of the more wildly implausible moments, feisty Angelica button holes Charles I at Whitehall Palace to give him a little talking-to on 'How the Civil War Might be Avoided' - if only the king would come to an agreement with his Parliament. But the king doesn't listen and - yes - there's a civil war: well, that's just typical men.

What, then, of the history? Anachronisms and impossibilities abound. At one point, a Catholic is seen praying to a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, even though this did not become an object of devotion until the 1860s. At another, Angelica starts dancing on the king's own dining table, still more implausibly flashing her garters for good measure. And King Charles himself, whose sense of the theatrical was so much more developed than this film's, appeared on horseback at the battlefield of Edgehill, not, as here, in a medley of civilian riding clothes, as though out for an afternoon canter, but as a warrior-prince, in magnificent black armour.

Where this film fails most is in offering its account of who was the war between and what was it fought about. Of course, this was always going to be difficult to render on screen. But what we are offered here is cartoon-strip version of the Civil War according to the 1960s Left: a struggle of democrats and proto-socialists (including,  hilariously, a Geordie John Lilburne) against the monarchist Right. Charles I (whose Fu Manchu-style scraggly beard would have shocked that fastidiously well-barbered monarch) is simply a tyrant, presiding over a raunchily immoral court (in fact, it was famously and, to some, boringly chaste), and whose characteristic acts, as depicted here, are the vicious flogging of one subject (standard practice for malefactors till the 19th century) and the summary execution of another (a simple calumny). His court is full of cardboard cut-out Cavaliers: a troop of fresh-faced Hooray Henrys, as dim-witted as they are highly sexed, blindly obedient to their despotic king.

A cartoonish Civil War, full of cardboard cut-out Hooray-Henry Cavaliers

Championing democracy and egalitarianism against the Cavalier toffs is (you guessed it), Oliver Cromwell – notwithstanding that Cromwell did not become a significant political figure until well into the course of the Civil War. This is really a class war with a little religion thrown in. So even the Parliamentarian nobles (the figures who in fact initiated the challenge to the king) are made out to be buffoons. Only one, the Earl of Manchester, a slim and relatively young man barely out of his 30s in reality, is allowed to appear on-screen, and predictably made out to be elderly, corpulent, stupid and camp.

What is wrong with this is not just that, as history, it is junk. Its infantile dualities of goodies and baddies eviscerate the conflict of all that made it truly tragic: the fact that there was nobility of purpose and heroism of action on both sides; that choices were never black and white; and that human decency was never the monopoly simply of the Roundheads.

The Devil's Whore has many strumpets, but none is more prostituted and exploited here than History herself.

The author is a Fellow in History at Peterhouse, Cambridge.  His study of the beginnings of the English Civil War, The Noble Revolt: the Overthrow of Charles I, is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. · 

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