BBC Two’s new adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock is wonderfully seductive

There are so many blossomy female hormones, you can practically smell them.

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I was all set to be sniffy about the new adaptation for Australian television of Joan Lindsay’s mesmerising 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock (BBC Two, 9.05pm, 11 July). Why would anyone bother with such a thing, I thought, when they could simply watch, yet again, Peter Weir’s unimprovable 1975 film? But in truth I’m halfway to being seduced by this swoony confection, which comes in six episodes and with so many blossomy female hormones, you can practically smell them. To my surprise, I find that I don’t entirely dislike its pre-Raphaelite palette, its trippy mood, and its light (and sometimes not-so-light) top notes of sapphism and S&M. Really, I mean it as a compliment when I say that it makes you think of Pears soap, frantically itchy mosquito bites and sweat-soaked summer sheets.

It is 1900, and three young ladies and their teacher are about to go missing while on a longed-for picnic in the Australian outback: an unexplained disappearance that will cause much fear and loathing among the eucalyptus trees. The girls are students at Appleyard College, an establishment – a kind of finishing school, really – run by a mysterious widow called Hester Appleyard (Natalie Dormer) who, perhaps because she is in possession of a guilty conscience, often dreams that she is naked in company. I’m not quite sure that I wholly buy this version of Hester; her fondness for hairbrushes (for spanking pupils) and her Captain Sensible-style sunglasses make her seem a little cartoonish, for all that Dormer is giving the part everything she’s got. But at least she’s all of a piece with the violence and animal instincts that are everywhere just beneath the surface of things in this colonial realm. Her recently learned manners cover her essence only lightly, like muslin across a shoulder or window pane.

The directors (Larysa Kondracki, Michael Rymer and Amanda Brotchie) have given their series a rocky soundtrack and plenty of clever-clever camera angles, as if to say to their audience: don’t be put off by all the corsets. They also have a tendency somewhat to over-signal the inchoate desires of teenagers, the better to suggest that Victorian girls were no different – an old lie, this – to 21st century ones (the St Valentine’s Day cake that was served at the ill-fated picnic came with icing so pink it was almost obscene). But they’ve won some lovely performances from several of their young stars: Madeleine Madden catches very well the stubborn restlessness of the soon-to-be-lost Marion Quade, and Inez Currõ brings real spirit to the part of Sara, the rebellious younger pupil who has some as yet undisclosed dirt on Mrs Appleyard. Why, though, was the pert Samara Weaving cast as Irma, another of the imminently disappeared? All the leg of mutton sleeves in the world cannot save her. She looks like she belongs in an ad for Silvikrin shampoo, not a turn-of-the-century boarding school where deportment classes come as standard.

By rights, James Erskine’s documentary John Curry: the Ice King (BBC Four, 10pm, 9 July) should win all the prizes. It was so beautifully made, one masterstroke being his decision to use Freddie Fox to read the touching letters Curry wrote down the years to friends and lovers (the more I see and hear of Fox, the more I admire his talent for a certain kind of campery). But it was also notable for its reluctance ever to be prurient, its eye always resting longest on Curry’s immense talent, even in those moments when his private life crowded in (Curry, who won the Olympic gold medal for figure skating in 1976, died from an Aids-related illness in 1994, at the age of 44).

Though the footage of him moving effortlessly across the ice was marvellous, an interest in skating wasn’t a prerequisite for enjoyment here. With its attention to family and changing attitudes both to gender and sexuality – Curry’s father, distant and cold, permitted his son to take up skating only because, unlike ballet, it was considered a sport – this was social history of the best, by which I mean the slyest, kind. How casually cruel the world was then, and yet how oddly eager to embrace this lonely, complicated, wildly unusual man. 

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 13 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit farce