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The revolution will be televised

A drama proves that England's radical past is something we should celebrate

<strong>The Devil's Wh

So, this is exciting. No sooner has Dominic West finished his work on the HBO cops-and-drugs-drama The Wire than he turns up as . . . Oliver Cromwell. I don't think of Cromwell often - though my father, a fan, owned an engraving of him which, at one time, used to hang above our breakfast table - but when I do, I picture him as stout and constipated-looking rather than the vision of saturnine sexiness that is Dominic West.

In fact, scratch "exciting": West's appearance in The Devil's Whore (Wednesdays, 9pm) is very disorientating. Here, he speaks in an approximation of Cromwell's Fenland burr which, like the Baltimore grunt he adopted for The Wire, I find rather hard to catch. Next week, I'm going to spend my whole time worrying that I'm about to miss his signing of Charles I's death warrant - Cromwell will apparently be seen agonising over this task, rather than jauntily dashing off his signature en route to finding himself a comfy spike on which to sit - simply because I cannot understand a word he says.

But never mind. Even if I do miss this crucial moment, it is going to be excellent watching Charles I (Peter Capaldi) shiveringly walking to the block. Capaldi is perfect as the king, from the loamy hollows of his eyes to the pretty patrician lilt of his voice. West excepted, this series is nothing if not well cast. There is something especially magnetic about Michael Fassbender's Thomas Rainsborough, a man we non-historians might describe as the radical's radical (he and his friend Cromwell are on different paths, though they do not yet know it). Fassbender's eyes are lit from within, like gelatinous fairy lights, a trick of physiology that sets him wonderfully free to underact.

I don't know which Leveller our heroine, a fictional character called Angelica Fanshawe (Andrea Riseborough), is going to end up copping off with now that her fey royalist husband has been executed by the king for his cowardice, but I, for one, sincerely hope that it is Rainsborough who ends up throwing his billowing shirt on the bedroom floor. Fassbender's charisma combined with the parched Puritanism of Rainsborough's character - "You blaspheme by giving the Son of God a birthday party," he announced to a group of hymn-singing royalists whose church his men attacked on Christmas morning - is hotter than the fires of hell themselves.

And what of the writing? It has taken Peter Flannery, who also brought us the peerless Our Friends in the North, 14 years to get this drama on screen: commissioning editors, he has said, don't go a bundle on Roundheads and Cavaliers any more. If true, I find this mystifying. Don't these young things in trainers remember By the Sword Divided, two long series of which the BBC screened in the early 1980s? I do - so well, I can still hum the theme tune. My hunch is that audiences love priest holes, laced corsets and horses cantering through oak forests.

Our grasp both of the precise chronology and of the endlessly shifting politics of the Civil War might be patchy, but this isn't to say that we don't appreciate the expansive drama of it all - or that we aren't willing to bask in the odd glory of the fact that we, the English, were the first to do the whole revolution thing. (I strongly disagree with Ronan Bennett, who recently wrote in the Guardian that "the English often seem embarrassed" about their radical past; across the country are swaths of people, from Quakers to trade unionists, who are more than proud, and Bennett should get out of London more, and meet them.)

Still, plotting these torrid years is complicated, and I'm not sure that Flannery has quite pulled it off. Angelica Fanshawe - what a name: is she originally from Ambridge? - is not so much a character as a device; it is her job to explain the whole damn mess to those who didn't pay attention at school, and what this means is that she is annoyingly ditzy. And then there is Edward Sexby (John Simm), who starts as a mercenary and ends as a radical, and whom Flannery has coughing up the worst macho clichés I've ever heard. I do hope it won't be him, old scarface, who ends up bedding Angelica.

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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 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess