Last month, the veteran filmmaker Ken Loach accused TV companies of ‘wallowing in fake nostalgia’ and ‘painting a rosy vision of the past’ through period dramas like Downton Abbey and Victoria. He should be delighted, then, with Dark Angel – a relentless miseryfest of poverty, consumption, cockroaches and death. So, so many deaths.
Downton’s Joanne Froggatt plays Mary Ann Cotton, a former Sunday school teacher in 19th century County Durham who, on the surface, appeared blighted with even worse luck than poor Anna Bates. Despite the fact they’d buried four children in as many years, her husband continued to treat her like a breeding mare, while her mother proved a less than sympathetic shoulder to cry on. ‘Buck up, love,’ she told her daughter, as more babies were born and lost. ‘It’s just how life is for women, and no amount of mithering will change that.’
Eventually, Mary Ann lost patience, and decided to poison her husband for the crime of a bit of a useless lump. (Across Britain, several million men shifted nervously in their seats.) More hubbies quickly followed, and were summarily dispatched through Mary Ann’s favoured method of tea laced with arsenic. Her babies, too, were tragically short-lived; in total, Cotton is suspected of poisoning up to 21 people, including her mother, three of her four husbands and 15 of her children and stepchildren.
Gwyneth Hughes’ screenplay, inspired by David Wilson’s book, is an effective telling of a story that in one sense writes itself, but also runs the risk of becoming dully repetitive. (Four Weddings and 21 Funerals, anyone?) In this week’s opening instalment, Froggat convincingly sold the transition from grieving wife and mother to venomous black widow, while also falling under the spell of a local wrong ’un (Jonas Armstrong), who was happily hoisting up her skirts even as his own wife lay dying of scrofula. Nice.
If Catherine Cookson had written ITV thrillers, I imagine they’d have looked a lot like Dark Angel. A tale of arsenic and old lace bonnets, it should certainly make Lord Grantham think twice before ringing for tea again.
At the risk of upsetting Ken Loach, The Moonstone really is a genuine piece of escapist period fluff. But what marvellous fluff: Wilkie Collins’ mystery - about a family cursed by a diamond plundered from India – is credited with inventing the detective novel, and it’s great to see all the resources of a big BBC costume drama – complete with a shirtless, sopping wet Poldark/Darcy moment under the village pump for leading man Joshua Silver – being thrown at weekday afternoons, for viewers who want something more nourishing than Judge Rinder.
Television’s Opening Night
This gem of a show recreated the night, 80 years ago, when the BBC launched the world’s first regular TV service from Alexandra Palace. A fascinating mix of science and showbiz, technicians and tap-dancers, it didn’t just take us behind the lens but into it, as engineer Hugh Hunt set about recreating one of John Logie-Baird’s original ‘flying spot’ cameras – with no instructions. Amazingly, though, he was able to turn for help to Logie-Baird’s original right-hand man, Paul Reveley – still sharp as a tack at 104.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, November 3, 2016
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