Show Hide image

Desperate Romantics

Sex scenes involving the Pre-Raphaelites and their groupies are no turn-on at all

Desperate Romantics (Tuesdays, 9pm), which dramatises the private lives of the Pre-Raphaelites, is just The Tudors with easels. I hated it from the second I clapped eyes on Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Aidan Turner), who is portrayed here as the bastard hyperactive child of Giles Coren and Razorlight's Johnny Borrell ("Is that a tube of burnt sienna in your pocket, Mr Rossetti, or are you just pleased to see me?").

On spying John Ruskin (Tom Hollander) across the other side of a gallery, Rossetti, desperately in need of the great critic's patronage, made to introduce himself. "Mr Ruskin," he said, "I've read all of your books . . . not always to the end but, you know, enough to get the gist." With that sentence - so unlikely, and so utterly pathetic - I knew we were going to be fed 60 minutes of pure drivel. Was I right, or was I right? He turned to introduce his friend, Millais. "I give you John Millais," he said. "Child prodigy, on the verge of puberty." Ruskin looked fit to gag, and I don't blame him.

This series has been created by Franny Moyle, who published a group biography of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood earlier this year - a TV tie-in, it now appears; her background is in television, not scholarship - and Peter Bowker, who most recently gave us the excellent Occupation. I remember reading a review of Desperate Romantics in which the writer noted, with some bewilderment, that Moyle claimed in her book that she wanted to bring the already exceedingly popular Pre-Raphaelites "to life for a new public". Eh? I thought. But now, all is clear. The public in question is obviously really thick. How else to explain why she and Bowker have simply sucked all the juicy stuff from the work of others (I'm thinking of the likes of Tim Hilton, author of the definitive biography of Ruskin) and then stitched it clumsily together - so little time, so many anachronisms! - so that their material radiates heat, and heat alone? Who needs art theory when you can have hookers offering to "pop out" a breast? Who needs nuance and repression and emotional pain when you can have John Ruskin furtively looking at dirty drawings in the dead of night?

The result is not only feeble, but rather disgraceful. It's so easy to snigger at poor old Ruskin, who took one look at his new wife's pubic hair (or so one version of the story goes) and ran for her dressing gown. But this is hardly the most significant fact about him. As for Effie Ruskin, did she really, four years into their marriage, wake her husband in the middle of the night and tell him of her womanly "needs"? I doubt it.

The members of the Brotherhood themselves are depicted boy-band style: whenever they walk, it's in a line across the pavement, as if they were posing for an album cover. The camera is as often at their heels as at their faces, which is very rock'n'roll. Jaunty music plays. And, of course, they have groupies, with whom they have sex. A lot of sex. Now, everyone knows that the Pre-Raphaelites liked sex, that their private lives were positively Byzantine at times.

But that doesn't mean they were ridiculous - or, come to that, wholly dislikeable. Here, though, they are both. Rossetti I have already described. What a creep! William Holman Hunt (Rafe Spall) is just a kind of hulking freak, one whose world-view is apparently entirely changed thanks to a swift studio blow job, administered by his model Annie Miller (Jennie Jacques). As for John Everett Millais (Samuel Barnett), he is a petulant wimp, his bottom lip permanently quivering. On current form, the frustrated Effie Ruskin is about as likely to fall for him as Ruskin is to bend her over and spank her bare bottom with a copy of The Seven Lamps of Architecture. Dear God. What can I tell you? If there is a new public out there waiting to discover the Pre-Raphaelites, this is hardly the thing to get them hooked. You leave this thinking: so what? A few dead painters liked shagging. You leave this thinking: yuck.

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 27 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, On tour with the far right