The Bloomsbury Group were unlikeable – but Life in Squares is too adoring to show it

Admittedly, Life in Squares is a pretty high-class kind of soap opera - but it's still about who is sleeping with who.

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Life in Squares
BBC2

At the risk of sounding like the kind of old bag who refuses to remove her blue stockings even to swim in Hampstead ponds, I rather disapprove of the BBC’s reductive Bloomsbury shagathon Life in Squares. It’s not exactly the sex that puts me off, though Lytton Strachey’s beard does look a little scratchy. But its numerous couplings are the most obvious outward sign of its failure when it comes to more inward matters. A series that is only three hours long cannot possibly hope adequately to tell the stories of so many distinct and complicated human beings and all their various creative contributions, both to each other and to our culture: such concision can only ever result in what amounts to a soap opera. How much better it would have been to focus on one or two characters, or on a particular story: the relationship of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell with their servants, perhaps, or the damage visited on Angelica, Bell’s daughter, when she discovered that her father was not Clive Bell, but Duncan Grant. (Poor thing, she ended up marrying Duncan’s old lover, Bunny Garnett.) We need proper time with characters, even those based on real people, to begin to care about them.

Admittedly, Life in Squares is a pretty high-class kind of soap opera, one that comes with carriages, servants and moderately witty talk of books and art. It looks pretty. But this doesn’t alter the fact that its attention is mostly on who is sleeping with whom. Extensive cast list aside – before Lytton’s gingery beard sprouted like cauliflower on an empty allotment I kept muddling him and Maynard Keynes – the other big problem is the issue of work. How do you dramatise writing and painting and thinking? Most audiences would rather watch a thrusting bottom than a pen scratching effortfully across paper. That said, are bobbing backsides enough to hold them?

It is hard to know whom a series of this sort is for. Those who are interested in the Bloomsbury Group have a thousand better ways to entertain themselves of a weekday evening. They can plough through The Waves, or entertain themselves with Strachey’s sneers at Florence Nightingale; they can hoist any number of improving (and not-so-improving) biographies on to their laps. On the other hand, those who have no interest will, I think, be first baffled and then a little bored by this miniseries.

I was certainly baffled, and I own quite a lot of the fat books in question. At the end of episode one (27 July, 9pm), the estimable actor Eve Best appeared out of nowhere. Who was she supposed to be? I eliminated Vita Sackville-West when she began talking about her. Who, then? Only when the titles rolled did I grasp she was meant to be Bell as an older woman. Such confusions were at odds with the helpful/mildly patronising visual signposting elsewhere: when Grant enjoyed a furtive assignation with a random male in a dark alley, a policeman immediately strolled by. No sooner had Woolf and Bell been ticked off by their starchy Victorian aunt than they were hurling their hated corsets from a bedroom window.

I should say something about the performances. They are lovely. Phoebe Fox (as the young Vanessa) and Lydia Leonard (as young Virginia) make a fine pair, earnest yet skittish, if a little too beautiful. James Norton (the hot vicar in Grantchester) is so sexy and sympathetic as Duncan Grant, you can almost see why Bell persuaded herself it would be a good idea to have a child by him. Clive Bell, Vanessa’s husband, has always been regarded as the ass of the group and Sam Hoare duly goes along with this, his pomposity extending into the bedroom. But none of these turns can redeem the project, which at its worst comes off like Sue Limb’s Radio 4 spoof Gloomsbury, minus the jokes. The preening, humourless mood, is, I am guessing, born of the anxiety that to examine certain aspects of the group’s unlikeability – their snobbery, for instance – is somehow to negate their achievements. But it doesn’t work like this. It is perfectly possible to admire both their work and their pioneering private lives without finding them adorable, or even vaguely genial. A more daring series would have reflected this, and been far more satisfying as a result. 

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 appears in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double