Serial / Television / TV

Stars to refight England’s civil war in new TV drama

The Observer
Vanessa Thorpe
10 Aug 2008

John Simm is Edward Sexby

John Simm is Edward Sexby

A passionate revolutionary saga will sweep across British television screens this autumn. The lavish four-part drama, The Devil’s Whore, from the pen of Peter Flannery, creator of the hit serial Our Friends in the North, stars Dominic West, of The Wire, as Oliver Cromwell. Andrea Riseborough, fresh from her role as Margaret Thatcher in BBC4’s The Long Walk to Finchley, will play alongside him as a young gentlewoman of the court, drawn into the English Civil War.

And right at the centre of this story of Roundhead versus Cavalier is a family legacy that has become increasingly personal to Martine Brant, co-writer of the £7m Channel 4 epic. Researching the screenplay for more than a decade, she discovered that her beautiful Oxfordshire home, Wytham Abbey, played a key part in the conflict that ripped England apart during the 17th century.

‘Cromwell actually stayed here as he planned the siege of Oxford,’ said Brant this weekend. ‘It was originally a manor that belonged to Abingdon Abbey and provided fruit and veg for the monks. It then became the seat of the Earls of Abingdon, before being sequestrated during the Civil War.’

The Devil’s Whore chronicles the life of the fictitious Angelica Fanshawe, who was born into the Royalist camp. The name is taken from that of the diarist Anne, Lady Fanshawe, a direct ancestor of Brant’s three daughters through their paternal grandmother.

‘The real Lady Fanshawe was the daughter of a wealthy merchant and part of the court entourage that travelled to Oxford, where she met her husband, Sir Richard,’ said Brant. ‘This was the kind of ancestry I had always wanted for myself. In my heart of hearts I had thought I must be a princess as a child, as many girls do, so the idea that my daughters are part of all this history is wonderful.’

The youngest, 15-year-old Miranda, will make her debut in the drama as Princess Elizabeth, grief-stricken daughter of the executed King Charles I, who is played by Peter Capaldi, the New Labour spin doctor in the hit BBC4 comedy The Thick of It

The Devil’s Whore, which has been co-funded by the American network HBO, also stars Michael Fassbender as the political firebrand Thomas Rainsborough. Fassbender won acclaim at this summer’s Cannes Film Festival for his portrayal of Bobby Sands in Hunger. John Simm, who starred as Sam Tyler in the BBC’s popular Life on Mars, plays the Puritan anti-monarchist Edward Sexby.

For Flannery the opportunity to bring this period to life – and with such a cast – is long overdue. ‘It is absolutely extraordinary how the English have forgotten their revolution and how under-dramatised it has been,’ he said. ‘There has been nothing on television that actually tells it as it happened. We killed a monarch, after all, and ours was the first revolution in Europe.’

Flannery argues that, if the revolution had played out differently, the country would not have returned to the monarchy. ‘This movement went on to inspire the French and Soviet revolutions and we might have had an early Soviet-style government ourselves. In British history it is still referred to as the Interregnum, a blip… but it was much more than that.’

Although Fanshawe is at the centre of the story, Flannery did not want it to revolve around one figure. ‘I almost consciously modelled it on Our Friends in the North. I didn’t want it to be told from a single perspective,’ he said. ‘I wanted a group of characters to help explain a period of history, but we needed one character to take us through it. Both politically and emotionally, Angelica becomes attached to the other side, and this completely changes and radicalises her life. One of the important things about the revolution is that it gave women a voice.’

Fanshawe Manor is crucial to the plot and is modelled on Brant’s home, but the production team had to re-create it in South Africa for cost reasons. ‘We filmed entirely in South Africa, in a valley full of oak trees not far from the Cape,’ said Flannery. ‘It looks very dramatic and very like Wytham Woods.’

The cast visited Brant and her family to rehearse at Wytham Abbey, which is set in 3,000 acres of woodland now owned by Oxford University. ‘When Dominic West walked through the main gate I said to him, “Cromwell would have ridden his horse in here”,’ said Brant. ‘He just seemed to fill out and from that moment he took on the mantle of Cromwell, I think.’

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