BBC's Atlantis: "family friendly" drama gone wrong

The trouble with Atlantis isn’t that the drama is so lame; it's that its jokes are.

Atlantis
BBC1

Splosh! And with that sound, a small submarine containing a dishy but slightly fey young man – think Benedict Cumberbatch in a luxuriantly curly wig – enters the murky water. Jason, for that is his name, is in search of his father, whose own submarine has long lain at the bottom of the seabed somewhere nearby. As this series is called Atlantis (Saturdays, 8.25pm), however, we know exactly what will happen next.

Boom! Jason’s vessel is soon in a calamitous accident. He blacks out and when he wakes up he is lying on a warm beach, stark naked. A pile of (admittedly somewhat oldfashioned) clothes has been left on the sand, so he pulls them on and, to the sound of various Enya-like warblings (the sort of stuff that gets played on a British Airways plane as you taxi to the stand), he walks across the dunes until he sees . . . But, lo! What is this glorious sight up ahead? Is it Mykonos? Carcassonne? Euro Disney?

Welcome, then, to the BBC’s new Saturday night drama, which is basically Merlin with added sunshine and sand. It stars Jack Donnelly as Jason of golden fleece fame, Mark Addy as Hercules the demi-god and Robert Emms as Pythagoras, “the triangle guy”.

Indeed. Well spotted. This is something of a mash-up, historically speaking, its writer, Howard Overman (Hotel Babylon, New Tricks, Dirk Gently), apparently having leafed through a children’s treasury of myth and fable, picked out a few favourites, and then thrown in a real-life maths geek for good measure. Medusa, too, will shortly appear, in the form of the pouting Jemima Rooper, while the ruler of this version of Atlantis is King Minos of Crete (Alexander Siddig).

But why worry? Atlantis isn’t, you understand, intended to be high art. It’s not even intended to be competition for Game of Thrones. This is – dread phrase – a family friendly drama, with a CGI dragon for the children and Sarah Parish channelling Joan Collins as Alexis Colby for the adults. Parish, her earrings jangling, her kaftan wafting and her upper lip trembling like a whippet in a breeze, plays Queen Pasiphaë.

If only they’d made it a little sillier! I kept thinking, longingly, of Patrick Duffy in the 1970s show Man from Atlantis, in which his character, the sole survivor of the “lost” city, had webbed hands and feet and did top-secret research for the US government. More weirdly still, I also recalled Manimal, the 1980s series in which Simon MacCorkindale played a guy who could turn himself into any animal, a skill that proved highly useful when it came to helping the police solve difficult crimes.

The trouble with Atlantis isn’t that the drama is so lame (in the first episode, to no one’s very great surprise, Jason killed the Minotaur and thus saved the people from having to make any more human sacrifices to it); it’s that its jokes are. Pythagoras, for instance, is a drip who wants only to talk about the hypotenuse and Hercules is a podgy coward who longs to run away to Patmos, where there are lots of lovely women to be found.

Naturally, when Hercules mentioned Patmos, I was waiting for Jason to say: “I’ll come with you! I can get the ferry to Rhodes from there and thence an easyJet flight to Luton.” But no dice. It isn’t that kind of show at all. Xylophones play in comedy moments but that’s almost the only way to tell that one is supposed to be rolling in the aisles. After just 24 hours, Jason has decided that he really likes Atlantis – especially King Minos’s foxy daughter, Ariadne (Aiysha Hart) – and that he misses his TV, computer and toothbrush not one bit. Perhaps it’s because the necklace his sainted father left him – a Bonnie Tyler-style leather thong that might have come straight from Camden Market – finally looks vaguely fashionable among all the togas and sandals.

The only person who seems not to be taking Atlantis entirely seriously is Juliet Stevenson, who plays the Oracle and looks to me as though she might corpse at any moment. And no wonder. It’s a long way from Rada and the RSC to speaking gobbledegook in a former Tesco cold store in Chepstow (which is where, or so I read, much of Atlantis was filmed). “Ooh jah minj ja voo leee boo boo,” she burbles as she wanders the temple, wide of eye and wild of hair.

The Oracle is, I’m afraid, more like the batty old woman you avoid sitting next to on the number 38 bus than the fount of all wisdom, although she does a nice line in scented candles. In spite of this, Jason appears to buy every word. Like lots of people who shop at Camden Market, he is a sucker for incense and fortune-telling. If she offers to pierce his eyebrow, he’ll be her slave for life.

BBC1's Atlantis.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle