I’ve never been a big fan of costume dramas or biopics, so my purchase of a second-hand, Dutch edition* of the BBC mini-series Charles II: The Power and the Passion, was motivated entirely by the talent of the players: Duff! Henderson! McCrory! Pierson! Rigg! Sewell! Who could resist a cast list as stacked as that one?
Of course, as with any biopic, certain events have to be re-imagined, or outright fabricated, to fit the overarching narrative… but since modern day politicians and journalists seem quite happy to do much the same thing with current events, I don’t see why dramatists should be criticised for such behaviour! Yes, that was an attempt at satire… forgive me… but watching kings and courtiers and mistresses and ministers plot and bully and wheedle and seduce their greedy way up the greasy pole has left me feeling rather cynical. It’s rather a sad comment on King Charles’s character that he (in the form of Rufus Sewell) is flanked by two prominent paramours on the cover of this DVD set, rather than his long-suffering wife, Catherine of Braganza. True, it was a marriage of convenience, to a Portuguese noblewoman who arrived in England unable to speak a word of English… but as played by Shirley Henderson, with her usual skittish fragility, it’s impossible not to side with her. Catherine also introduced recreational tea-drinking to this country, which rather amused me… it’s always fun to reflect on institutions or rituals that we consider “quintessentially English”, and then discover how many of them were actually borrowed from, or forced upon “us”, by “foreigners”!
Despite dominating the label of the second disc, Nell Gwynn doesn’t really score much screentime in the series… although they do try to include as many of her famous bon mots as they can. It’s impossible for us to ever really know the flesh-and-blood woman behind the sketchy historical “facts” that have filtered down to us…. but the general consensus seems to be that she was a warm and lively woman who used beauty, charm and cunning to waltz her way up from orange-seller to royal mistress, without ever tilting at political windmills, or making any major enemies along the way. As an actress, she was also a vocal advocate for Comedy over Drama, and for that I tip my hat to her. Gwynn was the most popular of the King’s mistresses with the general public… and I have to admit I was quite taken with her myself. That may just be the distorting effect of the good propaganda that’s built up around this “folk heroine” over the centuries… or it may have something to do with the fact that she was played in this production by Emma Pierson, who is an exceptionally beautiful woman, and a veteran of many fine shows, including the original run of Armstrong & Miller, Beast, Talk to Me and Bloodlines.
Representing the more ambitious side of the concubine coin, was Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine… played by the equally gorgeous Helen McCrory, who I’ve had a crush on ever since North Square. It was slightly hard to judge the ages of characters, since the same actors played them throughout the decades… but Castlemaine apparently met the King when she was in her late teens, and he was in exile on the continent. After a coquettish kiss of his ring (not a euphemism) we see them meet in a private room… he’s desperate to undress her, but she’s playing hard to get. She announces that she won’t lie with him until he is restored to the throne… which would surely suggest to any sane man that she has more on her mind than girlish romance, but Charley-boy doesn’t take the hint. Historical accounts vary over just how cold and conniving she actually was, but in this programme she’s played as a full-tilt femme fatale, with no compunction whatsoever when it comes to telling the many, many men she beds how they could or should be running the country. At one point she even held more sway in this country than the Queen, which is rather bizarre when you think about it. It’s easy to tut-tut over her machinations and low morals, but as she wryly observes, the only position she could aspire to in politics was on her back!
Now I ain’t sayin’ they were gold diggers, but they weren’t messin’ with no broke figgas. Gwynn apparently admitted to being a “whore” in the wider sense of the word, but denied being one in the stricter sense. Unfortunately there’s no common consensus among Feminists regarding Prostitution (or “gold digging” in general), and therefore I’m having trouble deciding whether to admire these women or not… were they really anything more than the WAGs of their day? Ideally, we’d all love to live in a world where women can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts in the workplace, earning equal respect and equal wages… but even then, surely there would still be some people who chose to pursue less respectable professions, or strategies for success? The subject is far too complicated for me to even understand, let alone summarise in a blog like this one, so instead I’ll dodge the issue by quoting some amusing song lyrics… as TMBG once sang, “I could never sleep my way to the top, ‘cuz my alarm clock always wakes me right up”!
* In case you’re curious, I eventually learned why this DVD was released for the Dutch market… apparently at that period in time “we” were facing off against “their” navy… and later, after a four year reign by Charles II’s brother, James, Denmark was “invited” to invade Britain, so that one of their chaps, William III of Orange, could run the place instead!