Tom Riley as Leonardo da Vinci
Two new costume series I'm watching, The Village (BBC1) and  Da Vinci's Demons (Fox, Italian Sky TV) epitomize  the difference between the old traditional way to represent history in fiction and the new tendency to spectacularise it  for modern audiences to enjoy it more. I must be old (I am. Enough, at least) or ancient  (Gosh! I really hope I am  not) because I like it much more when it is accurate and traditional. Not that I despise innovation and originality but I tend not to hit it off with HBO's  and especially Starz's  style in producing costume drama. 

Jonathan Rhys Meyers  as King Henry VIII - The Tudors
I liked HBO's The Pillars of the Earth or World's Without End. They were both fairly good. But they left me with the impression that old tradtitional British TV would have done better. What did they lack? Depth. These shows often lack depth, i.e. character analysis. 
Mind you, I have no problem at criticizing BBC when necessary. For instance,  I've been betrayed by BBC more than once recently with their sudden unacceptable decisions of axing series I had loved but, anyhow, their interest in numbers and figures still hasn't killed the quality of their period drama. They usually use nudity, sexual and violent content for the sake of realism - warning the audience at the beginning of the show - but they do not try to attract viewers with nudity, sex and violence as their fundamental ingredients adding a certain quantity of CGI as their main spice, which is instead typical of the new trend started by Starz.. 

The Borgias - main cast
Spartacus may be their most representative product. Spectacularly gritty, stunningly beautiful at the eye, action packed, lots of nudity, dramatic stunts.
I know, a lot of people love this genre.  The Tudors (Showtime), The Borgias (Showtime), Game of Thrones (HBO) are widely popular and they look amazing but they are too gritty, too dark, too "violent for violence sake" for me.
I swear that I tried, I gave them a chance but  I managed to see episode 1 in series 1 of Game of Thrones and that was the end for me; then,  the whole first  series  of  The Tudors,  and - I must be honest -  only  20 minutes of the opening episode of the first season of The Borgias. They simply are not for me. Luckily for their producers and broadcasters they are liked by huge audiences all over the world. Numbers and figures count  in showbiz. 

Da Vinci's Demons 
Now, do I like Da Vinci's Demons (Starz)? I didn't mind watching the pilot episode, it was fun,  but I may have been biased for the presence of so many familiar British faces! Examples,  the earl of Grantham from Downton Abbey, Hugh Bonneville,  in all his naked splendour (see clip),  opens the episode as the Duke of Milan but is immediately and irreversibly dismissed by slaughtering. The protagonist is Tom Riley, the charming young actor everything Austen lovers like me might  remember for being Wickham in Lost in Austen. You think he doesn't resemble the bearded icon we all have in mind for Italian Renaissance genius Leonardo? You're right! He has sexy stabble more than the long grey beard we have in mind and he looks more like a gorgeous leather-clad superhero of blockbuster movies. Cheeky, sarky, superskilled at fighting, unforseeably smart young,  Leonardo gets into Lorenzo De Medici's court thanks to  his charms, not his other talents,  at first. That is,  seducing De Medici's mistress, Lucrezia Donati. 

Laura Haddock as Lucrezia Donati
I'd better go on with my examples of familiar faces which may have influenced me: Lorenzo De Medici is Elliot Cowan, Mr Darcy in Lost in Austen, and Lucrezia Donati is Laura Haddock who was Beryl Ballard in Upstairs DownstairsBlake Ritson (Upstairs Downstairs, World Without an End, Mansfield Park, Emma) plays arch-villain Count Riario and Lara Pulver (Robin Hood, Sherlock) is Clarice Orsini.
As I said, episode one of Da Vinci's Demons  was fun. I'll have a look at episode two and then make up my mind. I have already checked the first reactions and reviews, though. Many enthusiastic comments I really can't agree with. Not yet at least.

Nico Mirallegro - The Village
What about The Village on BBC1 each Sunday night? It has had a very critical reception so far though the ratings for the opening episode were really good. Viewers accused it of being depressing and nothing like Downton Abbey. As much as I liked watching ITV Downton Abbey, when has it become parameter for quality drama?  I really hope numbers and figures don't go on influencing the quality of what we are going to see on TV but I fear it will be unavoidable. 

Charlie Murphy - The Village
The Village  is an ambitious project, Peter Moffat would tell 100 years of English history through the story of one rural community, in 42 episodes and several series. But will BBC1 go on investing on their schedule if the ratings start being disappointing? They didn't think twice and axed so many good shows! One for all, we will never see how The Hour ends up. No third series for Ben Winshaw, Romola Garai, Dominic West and their mates. I am furious. The series ended with a cliffhanger. What now? At least give a story a proper ending!

Johnn Simm -  The Village
Back to The Village, I like it a lot. Depressing? It may be, anyhow I am pretty sure the reality of a rural English village during WWI must have been rather distressing and I want to trust Peter Moffat's talent.  How would the critical viewers describe that period? Omitting any tragic detail?  WWI Downton Abbey style, put simply. But here the people involved are really poor: no earls no glamour. Just the ugly truth. Apparently those viewers are not so willing to face it. Or, at least, not on Sunday night. 

Maxine Peake - The Village

My opinion is that the cast is exceptionally good, everybody's perfect in their own roles, John Simm and Maxine Peake, Nico Mirallegro and Bill Jones, Juliet Stevenson and Rupert Evans, Augustus Prew and Charlie Murphy, Joe Armstrong and Emily Beecham. The idea of telling about 100 years in history from a one man's perspective is touching and I hope we get to see the entire project. 
I can hear a question coming from a distant curious reader: Have I ever disliked something I watched on BBC? Does that mean I sound biased? Well, I did, instead. And it is one of the most popular shows they have been broadcasting for years, Doctor Who. I tried to watch it but I just didn't like it. (Yes, I know, my unpopularity grows word after word, honesty kills!)  

Jamie Campbell Bower as Arthur - Camelot
And have I ever liked a Starz show, instead? Actually I have to make an effort to find one, but I liked Camelot (2010)  pretty much,  though I didn't find it perfect. It stars Joseph Fiennes, Jamie Campbell Bower, Tamsin Egerton, Eva Green, James Purefoy, Peter Mooney, Claire Forlani, Philip Winchester and Sinead Cusack. Guess what? It was never recomissioned after the first season got disappointing ratings. Perhaps it was because it contained too little sex scenes and too little violence? It had some,  but it was meant to be more a study of character. However, you see? Apparently there must be something wrong with me.  I'm doomed to be disappointed. 

Ready to listen to your opinions, of course. Please, feel free to disagree with me, I love interesting discussion. 



Alessia Carmicino said...

The Tudors was amazing! And believe me, it was more historically accurate than it seems ( it indeed made me love the Tudor Era and I started to read a lot of biografies ;) )But the show gave its best in season 2 3 and 4( Season 1 is not my favourite, you should have continued!:D )
Th Borgias has beautiful costumes but is not a masterpiece ( and it messed up too much the hystorical facts in my opinion)
I'm not sure about this new Da Vinci, The Guy is cool but it seems to much assassin's creed for me! :)

Maria Grazia said...

I'm not a Tudor fan, Alessia, since I'm a Ricardian ;-), but season one wasn't so historically accurate for what I remember. Season 2 had started even worse (not as for accuracy) and I stopped watching it. All those episodes just to make Henry VIII decide to marry Anne Boleyn? To see her torture him through denying him copulation before marriage but accepting sex games of other types? No, thanks. There was other stuff all around of course but no, thanks. Sometimes historical accuracy is not only what I look for. I can read essays and academic research for that. Quality in entertainment shouldn't only be based on spectacularity and especially be made up of just lots of sex and violence. Lots of that and little else. My very personal opinion. Ratings prove me wrong. Or better make me minority.

Alessia Carmicino said...

I didn't love it for sex and violence, I loved it for the way it gave justice to many historical characters,usually portrayed as horrible human beings and condemned by history like Richard himself, giving them an opportunity to explain themselves and their actions( my favourite character was Lady Mary Tudor, Henry's daughter,not the handsome king)! I was just trying to explain there was much more in the show apart from the usual "American" addictions of sex and violence, but off course You 're absolutely free to have a different opinion, there's no problem at all! ;)

Trudy said...

It's hard for me to want to watch anything once I feel the producers are trying to lure me with excess drama (Downton Abbey - I stopped watching it when they killed Sybil), sex ( The Tudors), or violence (Game of Thrones).
It makes me angry to think that every show must be dumbed down to some presumed American excitable standard. I was hoping the BBC could set a different standard. There must be people like us who enjoy a good story without the excessive embellishments for marketing's sake!

Maria Grazia said...

Hi, Trudy! I finished watching Downton Abbey 3 but I was quite disappointed, in fact.
I'm not against sex or eroticism or even violence when they ... make sense in a story. As I wrote in the post above, in BBC fiction they don't avoid those feature completely (nudity, sex scenes, violence) but they are well contextualized. When there is too much of all that, to me it is like eating a dish I love spoilt by too much spice. I can't taste it.
Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to disappoint you, MG, but this time I (almost ;-) agree with your PoV!
Couldn't go further than the 1st ep. of Da Vinci's Demons because, apart of the said exaggerations, it was spectacularly... inconsistant, and not only for the many historical inaccuracies. As for The Village, it is a good drama but there is nothing new in the plot, which doesn't help top cheer up the viewer: the depressing atmosphere was in South Riding as well, but in the latter there was a more interesting story to tell.
Have a nice day,
xx K/V

Maria Grazia said...

'morning K/V!
Strange enough you partly shared my opinion. Sort of miracle! what happened there?!?
South Riding was different, from a female point of view, focused on the heroine. The Village is a choral reconstruction, lots of characters and several subplots. It's different from WWI/beginning of the 20th cent. drama series (Birdsong, South Riding or Parade's End, Downton Abbey 2) I've recently seen, being set in a tiny village in a rural area. So I beg to differ, my dear friend.
By the way, still wondering, how did it happened that we became friends? :P

Anonymous said...

I align my self with your thinking MG. I am disappointed in the dumbing down of drama: The Tudors a case in point for its historical inconsistencies. Game of Thrones? I try so hard to like it because the books are a reader's dream, but when they cut the head off the horse in Episode 1 of Series 1, I nearly threw up and from then on the violence was too much. I love Paradise, (positive and heartening) disliked South Riding and Parade's End because they are dark and depressing. I didn't know The Hour had been canned and was devastated, it was brilliant! Such pace and clever script writing! Downton? Oh beloved Downton... what has happened? I have to say the latest series of Upstairs Downstairs had become a lot stronger and grittier and I enjoyed it more than series 3 of DA.

My opinion for what it is worth is that if the story is good enough, it needs neither sex nor violence to sell it. I wonder when British drama writers will return to their excellent English roots and forget about American TV styles. Sooner rather than later, I hope.

Maria Grazia said...

Wow! Thanks, Prue! Nothing to add. Just sending a big grateful hug to you down there in beautiful Tasmania.

Anne Easter Smith said...

Good post, Maria! I am assuming you are based in UK as some of the shows you mention (and the channels) have not arrived in US. I tried to watch the Tudors(on my computer because I don't get HBO) and when I realized they had cobbled together Henry's two sisters into one woman, I switched it off. Ridiculous. And why they chose a weedy little Irishman to play Bluff Hal, I cannot imagine.
Funny, even though I would love my books to be picked up for a series, (unfortunately the very famous Philippa Gregory has beaten me to it :-( I dread them mucking about with the storyline and wipe out long hours of research for accuracy
I insist on in my books. Wondering in Gregory's series "White Queen" will paint Richard as a villian as usual? Anyone seen it yet?

Maria Grazia said...

Hello Anne! Glad to hear from you. First of all I don't live in the UK but in Italy. Anyhow, I manage to watch American series on satellite pay TV channels and I have an app in my iPad which allows me to watch British (and not only) TV.
The series based on Gregory's books is not out yet but I definitely want to see it. Maybe I won't like it but ... let's give it a try before dismissing it.
Richard III is not a completely negative figure in her "The White Queen" but, since the protagonist of the book is Elizabeth Woodville and she didn't like him much, you can't expect much from that book as a Ricardian. I know that the series is also based on Gregory's "The Kingmaker's Daughter" and in it, Anne Neville is the protagonist. We will follow Richard and Anne's love story in the final episodes, apparently.
So, I really hope we will have a different Richard on screen. There has never been a filmed not-villain version of him, has there?
Let's hope to see your books on screen sooner or later in brilliant adaptations!

Monica said...

I am not familiar with most of the series you are writing about.
I tried to watch the first episode of The Village, but I found it depressing indeed, even if it never entered my mind to compare it with Downton Abbey.
As for other series mentioned in the comments, I also disliked Parade's End. I didn't understand the characters, I guess.
And oh, yes, I loved The Hour and absolutely want a third series! Have you already signed the petition for it? ;-)

Maria Grazia said...

Hey Monica!
Yes, I've signed it after you warned me about it on facebook. I definitely want a third series of The Hour! They can't leave us without a proper end! What is going to happen to Freddie and Bel? I hate when they simply decide to cut without any respect for the audience. The Hour had had such positive response!
As for depressing stuff, I'm notoriously one who likes crying. I find it ... regenerating and cathartic. Yeah, I know, sounds a bit crazy, but that's true.
Enjoy your weekend, Monica! Greetings to amazing Amsterdam :-)

Anonymous said...

Da Vincis Demns Episode 2. Thought the lovely young actors coming onstage during the banquet dancing were beautiful especially a lovely new face being carried in long blind hair and wonderful movement skills reminded me of Game of Thrones. This young girl actor/dancer should be seen again