A bodice-tightening yarn

Channel 4's 'The Devil's Whore' is an oddly repressed romp through the English civil war.

The credits for Peter Flannery's new four-part drama on the English Revolution include a dedicated sex-scene co-ordinator. Given the very limited imaginations of TV commissioning editors, it's not hard to see that 'The Devil's Whore' is designed as C4's answer to HBO and BBCs sexed-up sixteenth-century saga 'The Tudors'.

With a buffed-up John Simm as garter-sniffing rogue Edward Sexby, Andrea Riseborough as the eponymous 'Devil's Whore', the alabaster-skinned, ruby-lipped and heavy-breasted Lady Angelica Fanshawe, and Michael Fassbender as a rugged Thomas Rainsborough (a sort of low-rent Aragorn from Lord of the Rings), C4 is certainly trying to put as much eye-candy on screen as possible. Even the Devil himself has a useful-looking prehensile tongue.

But though there are bobbing buttocks a-plenty in the first episode, it's telling that the opening scene is of Lady Fanshawe having her bodice tightened, not ripped asunder in an act of wild sexual abandon. There is sex in 'The Devil's Whore' but it is of the repressed, ersatz variety: Henry Fanshawe tries to stifle his wife's ecstatic moans; in the Fleet prison, one of the lags pumps mechanically away atop an unseen prostitute; Simm/Sexby takes his shirt off to reveal a ripped torso but quickly puts it back on again. Perhaps episode one was filmed on the sex scene co-ordinator's day off.

Like the show's fumbling bedfellows, the writers don't appear to be able to decide whether to aim for the audiences' heads or their nether-regions. This a series caught in two-minds as to whether to be a faithful, serious historical drama or merely an entertainment for those who get off on men wearing hose and doublets.

It is not just the factual inaccuracies in the series (Rainsborough was not an MP until 1647, neither was he an early associate of Cromwell, nor was he poor - his father was a wealthy merchant; we know next to nothing of Edward Sexby's life before 1643; John Lilburne did not look and sound like a ginger Chuckle Brother: 'England's New Chains Discovered? To me, to you, Paul!') that are the problem. Nor even the clunky, didactic dialogue placed in the actors' mouth (a feature of Our Friends in the North too, of course.) It's the fact that even with a stellar cast, high production values and a much-vaunted writing team this series seems incapable of generating drama out of a historical situation which was intrinsically dramatic.

A case in point is the treatment of the years 1640-1642. In the two years before the outbreak of civil war England, and London especially, was convulsed by riots, iconoclastic attacks, and assaults on Catholic priests and chapels. Lambeth Palace was sacked, the House of Lords surrounded by angry mobs and the King's carriage itself set upon by hostile Londoners.

This 'revolution before the revolution', as one historian has called it, is nowhere to be seen in the 'Devil's Whore'. Instead, Peter Capaldi's Charles I (too tall and silver-tongued to play this stuttering monarchical midget) moves incomprehensibly from being a bit annoyed with Parliament to having to do a runner from his capital city. Perhaps all this was cut to leave room for bobbing buttocks and shirtless Sexby.

Neither fun nor informative, the £7 million 'The Devil's Whore' shows glimmers of the talent involved without ever fulfilling its promise. Yes, it's refreshing for any drama, historical or otherwise, to have a feminine protagonist and Lady Fanshawe's visions neatly hint at the frenzied air of religious fanaticism which precipitated the war. Sadly, perhaps the truth is that this crucial period in English history is too unfamiliar to a popular audience to be conducive to successful drama. The need to explain the 'what happened' is too hard to reconcile with the mission to entertain.

Ted Vallance is lecturer in early modern British history at the University of Liverpool. His 'A Radical History of Britain' will be published next year.