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

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon