Hair apparent

Television - Andrew Billen doubts that a new BBC costume drama will appeal to Sunday-night viewers

You may not like BBC1's new costume drama Charles II: the power and the passion (Sundays, 9pm) - and I'm not sure how much I do - but you cannot deny that it is different. If its writer, Adrian Hodges, and its director, Joe Wright, have been influenced by anything, it is cinema - for example, Shek-har Kapur's Elizabeth (1998) or Sally Potter's Orlando (1993). CII shares their bleached-out, paired-down look and attitude. The only television period piece it recalls is The Other Boleyn Girl, in which Philippa Lowthorpe contrived to retell the Henry VIII story as a home movie shot by art students.

Whereas ITV's recent historical disasters about Boudicca and Henry the uxorious Tudor have gone, respectively, for the Braveheart and EastEnders audiences, CII looks as if it is aimed at the art-house crowd, who prefer their history wordy, claustrophobic and intricate - but with some sex and disembowelling thrown in for artistic reasons.

You can tell the BBC is slightly worried. First, there's the ludicrous subtitle, obviously added by someone in marketing with a sense of camp. The second giveaway is the continuity announcements about this "bodice-ripping historical drama" starring the "wonderfully rakish" Rufus Sewell as the king. (Actually I thought that, for all the flirtatious length of his eyelashes, Sewell looked as if he had other things on his mind during each of his many sex scenes.) The third hint that something was amiss was the decision to show the second episode immediately afterwards on BBC4, as if BBC4 was its natural home, which it may well be.

But the programme also shows signs of strain internally, of trying too hard. The acting is distracting. Like Alan Rickman's portrayal of De Valera in Michael Collins, it is inappropriately good. In the case of Helen McCrory as the scheming, sexually rapacious Lady Castlemaine, I found myself thinking: "Oh, stop it. We know you're brilliant." But to be fair, she had to work hard given the incredibility of her character's sex life - conducted while producing, without the painful necessity of visible pregnancy, a kindergarten of royal bastards. Some of the other casting was a little showy: Diana Rigg looking perfectly horrible as Charles's mother and Martin Freeman from The Office inevitably appearing comical as the turncoat parliamentarian Lord Shaftesbury.

With less justification, the writing thinks it is a cut above the norm. "You might try a little sycophancy now and again, Sir Edward. I believe it is quite fashionable in court circles," says the king. Upon arrival, Charles's future wife, a Portuguese princess, asks for a cup of tea and is told that "the drink is not popular in England". There are the expected cross-references to the future Charles III, although here it is the mistress, rather than the wife, who gets the line: "I don't think we need the king in bed with us. It's quite crowded enough already." But note all the clunking plot expositions and really dire dialogue such as: "Principles are a luxury kings cannot afford."

Even the show's flair, and it is not without some, seems calculated. Princess Catherine comes to court from Lisbon with the widest, weirdest hairdo you have ever seen. "My God, they've brought a bat for me to marry," Charles says, and the rest of the episode can be charted by the normalisation of her tresses until, finally, the king fancies her. As the hair gets less artificial, Catherine grows progressively human and Shirley Henderson manages the transformation from wimp to stoic very well in episode two. Yet the show remains easily distracted by all the hair apparent. The costume department does not seem to have got over the fact that men wore wigs all the time and underneath had crew cuts.

In the end, Charles likes Catherine enough to promise never to divorce her. He is, we perceive, a decent cove, clever at all sorts of stuff: astronomy, court politics, cunnilingus and knowing when to kill his enemies, when to lock them in the Tower and when to spare them. His problem is that he is a good king with bad advisers: Ian McDiarmid's Hyde, who tells him to clamp down on the Catholics, and Rupert Graves's Buckingham, who is a hothead. The king's only psychological problem stems from having had a worm's-eye view of his father's execution from under the scaffold. (Since Charles was actually in exile in France at the time, we must take this as either artistic licence or a dream.)

CII offers a lot of court intrigue, a lot of sex, a bit of killing and, actually, not a lot else - unless you count the Schamaesque wranglings about constitutional monarchies and Catholic rights. The plague is represented by a few bodies covered with blue dust. (Blue equals death here; it is also the colour of his father's decapitation scene.) The destruction of the fleet at Medway is merely reported. The angry multitudes referred to are noises off. It is not big-budget, grand-sweep historical drama with vistas and exteriors, but nor is it a chamber piece celebrating characterisation and verbal nuance. For BBC1's traditional autumnal Sunday-night audience, used to warming itself against the roaring fires of Austen, Dickens and George Eliot, CII must be as welcome as the vicarage's first burst water pipe of winter. It is, however, interesting.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times