BBC’s Life in Squares represents the excesses of which the broadcaster has lately been accused. The onscreen vices of Life in Squares’ early twentieth century doyennes of culture and intellect do not seem to stretch into the realm of public interest television. As we survey the sights of James Norton (Duncan Grant) in a back alley with his hands down another chap’s trousers, James Norton with his arm around a naked bedfellow (Ed Birch’s Lytton Strachey) and finally James Norton with his gentleman’s club dinner date, the economist Maynard Keynes (Edmund Kingsley), you may have changed channels to BBC4’S, BBC: The Secret Files. Quite what the BBC looks to achieve with this onscreen foreplay, fellatio and philandering remains to be seen over the next two episodes. It is bound to confound and entertain in equal measure as writer Amanda Come and director Simon Kaijser look to sex up the period drama.
There are enough aficionados of the genre who believe Christmas’ Mapp and Lucia to be sufficiently sexy and would surely prefer a safer adaptation to join the much lauded vault of Dickens or Austen. Instead the powers that be have commissioned a befuddling beast of a drama that requires at least a smidgeon of biographical knowledge about these Bloomsbury babes to make head or tail of events onscreen. It is an intoxicating, heady mix of incestuous ties within this elite, closed troupe of minds. The big names are Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) and Maynard Keynes, who gave his surname to a brand of economics that shaped the interwar period and augments the discussion to this day. His ideas, to pour more money into recession hit economies, are sure to resonate with a British audience still belching from a direct diet of austerity gerrymandering and a political stalemate of economic squabbling from which Cameron’s Conservatives have risen supreme over the English electorate. But, as with Woolf the writer, the story has little interest in economics, striking out for the sordid within this small society of socialites and sex pests.
The society is a Post-victorian, post-Wilde melange of the traditional and the modern. The Bloomsbury set are the bohemians, who, with the wealth of the old order, look to shape the new as great white beacons of enlightenment shining through the dark doldrums of nineteenth century despair. Think Victorian era intellectuals and one long, white untrimmed beard springs to mind, be it in the disciplines of science, exploration, politics or literature. Bernard Shaw was hip. The best suddenly sprung beard of the night goes to Lytton Strachey (Ed Birch), who ushers in a new time period by the age old means of Hobbit style facial fluff.
In the end, it is not so much the characters that cause the confusion as the bizarre attempt at time hopping. It is an exercise that reduces a life into bitesize snippets. Instead of maturing with the characters from a detached omniscience, we are just left disorientated, heads spinning trying to collect the scraps of information that telegraph a time shift. Take the timeline of Virginia’s sister, Vanessa. We see the youthful seventeen year old all chirpy and chipper, until the introduction of the enigmatic Mr Clive Bell (Sam Hoare), who steals her soul and locks her creative talent to the deathbed of marriage. The actual wooing itself is rather a sedate experience as Virginia maintains her domineering influence over her sister before brother Thoby dies and Nessa ties the knot with Bell as some sort of heroic act of sisterly sacrifice that smacks more of self indulgence. We skip through the dullness of pregnancy in one scene and before we know it, the honeymoon period is over and baby is suckling breast. In just five TV minutes, new life is born. Economical, yes, but Keynes would not agree.
Age swapping in actors has been rehashed all over the place of late. The most successful example was True Detective (Sam Hoare is a bit of an aryan, Etonite Mcconaughey) but using the same actors as the aging face of a character is the vogue. Here it just does not work. Lydia Leonard as Virginia is dour, downbeat and depressed throughout with no outward change of expression, Phoebe Fox is not so much too young (she is 27) as too youthful in her portrayal of a Nessa coming to terms with the realities of motherhood and wedlock. Then there is the misguided decision to include the older versions of these characters at Charleston. A single scene that acts more as a seal on the episode’s confusion than a tantalising glimpse of what is to come. Still, at least it enables star turn, Rupert Penry -Jones (elder Duncan Grant), a chance to claim expenses on all three episodes popping up behind his canvas.
Life in Squares is very much an unfinished canvass painted blotchily in primary colours. Whether these colours will ignite in a muti-dimensional masterpiece remains to be seen. But it seems unlikely at best. Botheration BBC!