The Crimson Petal and the White on BBC Two

“Keep your wits about you” warns the narrator of both book and this new adaptation. You may think you know Victorian London from other stories but you don’t. And now you’ve wandered astray. Both book and TV series start with a bang – the crash of a horse drawn cab and the scavenging among the remains and then both open up into a London of rigid formality, carnal diversions and beautiful deception.

I hate people who compare an adaptation from one form into another – usually books into films – seeking out the discrepancies. I’ll just ponder aloud if Sophie Rackham is going to appear because I can’t remember if she should have done by now and then move on to the TV series itself. Because this is thrilling stuff – and must surely be to both devotees of the novel and those poor folk who don’t even know who Michel Faber is.

The central plot as revealed in this episode is pretty basic – William Rackham, a man living under his father’s thumb and under his wife’s fragility, finds direction through his devotion to Sugar, a highly recommended and sought after prostitute. The diversions come via the complete world these two people inhabit – from the beaky brothel Madam Mrs Castaway to the uptight and yearning to be good (and bad) Henry Rackham, William’s brother who wishes to rescue fallen women but worries he won’t recognise them via Bodley & Ashwell, Mrs Fox, the oily Dr Carlew and the trapped flighty and deluled Agnes Rackham, William’s wife.

The cast, direction, writing and production have all come together here to bring it perfectly to life. There doesn’t (yet) seem to be a single false note. I had no idea that Chris O’Dowd could even act and here he is bringing a whole host of emotions and contradictions to the role of William Rackham; Romola Garai is note perfect as the intelligent hooker with the mind of steel and the terrifying revenge novel on the go – and everyone else from Mark Gatiss as Henry to the boy playing Christopher (Mrs Castaway’s runner) is on the money. The styling of Victorian London as some kind of mouldy, washed-out Gormenghast matches the mood and tone – and I love the camerawork with its switches of focus and playing with angles and depth of field. And the writing by Lucinda Coxon is nicely spare – retaining some good lines from the novel but not being in thrall to it.

I like that there are notions of female strength and solidarity that are hinted at without being overt – and I like also that the basic hypocrisy of a society that locked its women in asylums but kept an army of prostitutes in business isn’t rammed home. The characters are what is important and so far this adaptation looks like being something of a winner. I’d like to think of something clever to say to round off but I’ll leave it there (for now) and come back at the end of episode four and see if this journey with Sugar through the dark soul of London stays on course.


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