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New Worlds on Channel 4: Meet the poodle-haired rock gods of the Restoration

New Worlds, like The Devil’s Whore before it, fancies itself as a political drama. Why must it be silted up with all this Jean Plaidy-ish stuff?

Guy Henry as Randolph (centre) with the cast of New Worlds. Photo: Channel 4
Guy Henry as Randolph (centre) with the cast of New Worlds. Photo: Channel 4

New Worlds
Channel 4

Look back at the cast of The Devil’s Whore, Channel 4’s 2008 civil war epic, and the jaw drops: Dominic West, Michael Fassbender, Andrea Riseborough. I’m almost tempted to buy the box set and watch it all over again. The sequel – called New Worlds (Tuesdays, 9pm), which makes it sound more like a think-tank report than a sexy drama you’d stay in to watch – has a far less starry cast. On the plus side, it’s the Restoration now, so the wigs are amazing and every woman comes with creamy, overflowing breasts pretty much as standard. It’s like a Joan Collins convention gone wrong.

Let me try to set the scene. It’s the 1680s and Charles II (Jeremy Northam, enjoying himself mightily) has been on the throne for 20 years. Angelica Fanshawe, widow of the Leveller Edward Sexby, is now played by Eve Best (previously this was Andrea Riseborough’s role) and she has remarried: her husband is a Catholic but he is a good man, so this is OK.

In the kingdom, there is much turmoil. Judge Jeffreys (Pip Carter) is eagerly tracking down traitors, the better to keep his creaking rack busy. The people fear that Charles will be succeeded by his Catholic brother, James, under whose heel they would rather not live, so plotting abounds. Some are throwing their weight behind Charles’s bastard son, the duke of Monmouth, but others still long for a republic. Angelica Fanshawe, for instance, has been secretly sending money to New England, where Puritans are hiding the last of the regicides, William Goffe. Jeffreys regards her house in Oxfordshire as a nest of vipers, “sedition spread over its fields like dung”, and has dispatched a spy to investigate.

Is that everything? No. I’ve left out the peasants, who are hungry. Their land enclosed, they must work in the clay pits that produce the bricks for Charles’s extraordinary palaces. “Hear that?” says Abe (Jamie Dornan), an inhabitant of the forest that abuts the Fanshawe estate. “That’s the sound of chaos.” Abe misses Edward Sexby and has the hots for his daughter, Beth (Freya Mavor), whose political eyes he has opened, having taken her to gawp at the poor on their way to work.

It’s all rather exciting and the dialogue can at times be very good (it’s co-written by Peter Flannery of Our Friends in the North). But the whole thing has been ruined for me by the intrusion of various 21st-century love plots. New Worlds, like The Devil’s Whore before it, fancies itself as a political drama. It presents the viewer with a verbal dreamscape of equality whenever it can; when it comes to our early revolution, we sense pride and even longing on the part of its creators. So why must it be silted up with all this spoony Jean Plaidy-ish stuff? (For the benefit of younger readers: before there was Philippa Gregory, there was Jean Plaidy.)

Was it the money men who insisted there be stolen love letters and illicit across-the-class-divide snogs? Was it they who decreed that everyone must be beautiful, fragrant and white of teeth? (Beth, in particular, looks as though she has strolled out of an ad for Alice Temperley’s range for John Lewis.) One moment, we’re in some fetid cell with Jeffreys, his luxuriant wig wobbling with delight as a man’s eyes begin to bleed; the next, we’re peering through the gloom at Abe and Beth getting it on. Beth seems unbothered that Abe the poacher is more Harry Styles than Robin Hood; when he whispers to her that her heart will “tell her how to live”, she laps it up. Angelica should give her a good slap for historical inaccuracy and never mind about her risky new political views.

It probably goes without saying that the king, Monmouth and all the other poodle-haired rock gods of the Restoration are portrayed as stupid, vicious and somewhat camp. This is entertaining but I do think Flannery might have made them just a bit more nuanced. Or funny. Or properly, cleverly dirty, in the manner of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester. This goodies-and-baddies stuff is for kids, isn’t it?

No wonder I nearly fell off my seat when the action shifted to Massachusetts, where Goffe and his supporters were busy contending with some pretty angry Native Americans. Cromwell’s old faithful made a mighty earnest speech about their stolen land, it’s true, but when the Algonquin finally poured through the settlement gates they looked, to a man, terrifyingly like Keith Flint from the Prodigy.