Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Crimson Field / BBC One

The Crimson Field, episode 1, review
BBC period drama The Crimson Field is the First World War by way of Call the Midwife, says Serena Davies

The comparisons with Call the Midwife were inevitable. The Crimson Field, now nestled in the Sunday-night prime-time viewing schedule for the next five weeks, is BBC One’s new drama about nurses during the First World War. It is also an opportunity to show us, like Call the Midwife does, lots of well-scrubbed young ladies with plummy voices, alongside some more matronly, fiercer types, dealing with bloody matters of life and death. This they do in both programmes with gusto and good cheer, qualities which accentuate the huge clumsy gash of naked sentimentality which is scored across every moment of every scene.
I find Call the Midwife unbearable. But I actually rather liked The Crimson Field. Despite the absurdly pretty nurses and the over-sanitised sets (note the briar rose climbing up the field hospital wall; and soldiers marching off to the Front unburdened by backpacks), The Crimson Field seemed to have rather more justification to emotionally manipulate us than Call the Midwife has. Birth is everyday. The mass slaughter and irrevocable damage inflicted on millions by the First World War is not. The Crimson Field has a right to make us weep.
It also has Oona Chaplin. Chaplin is the granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin and great-grand-daughter of Eugene O’Neill. As befits that pedigree, she is an exceptional actress. In episode one of The Crimson Field her character formed the central focus of a thin storyline that brought three volunteer nurses to help at field hospital 25A – “not far from the Front” in France. She was the disaffected, grumpy one, Kitty Trevelyan, jaded by love (she tossed a wedding ring into the sea).
Chaplin has stillness, a quality that works wonders on a script as simplistic as this. She made every word stick, and hold you, made you care and she brought the single note of subtlety in the hour, when she played down the fact that a man sent mad by gas gangrene had tried to kill her. “No harm done,” she said quietly with a twitch of her head and a flicker of her eyes that spoke real compassion. With Chaplin at its core, and some very reputable performances skirting hers from the likes of Hermione Norris, The Crimson Field, despite its knee-high corn, is a seductive proposition.

The Crimson Field; Return of the Black Death: Secret History – TV review
Another posh period drama: could those be Downton Abbey girls nursing the wounded soldiers?
Sam Wollaston

A young woman throws a ring into the sea at the start of The Crimson Field (BBC1, Sunday). What could this mean? I'm thinking it might possibly signify her romantic life has gone tits up, she's got a sad backstory. Also that The Crimson Field ain't scared of no cliche. Time will tell.

We're in Boulogne, 1915, and she – Kitty (Oona Chaplin) – is one of three ladies heading off to volunteer at a field hospital just behind the western front. VADs they were called: voluntary aid detachments. Or "very attractive darlings", as one spunky young army surgeon has it. The rascal.

There's something of Downton Abbey's Crawley sisters about these three. So Flora (Alice St Clair) – young, pretty, naive but well-meaning – is a little bit Lady Sybil; Rosalie (Marianne Oldham) is the dull, worthy, less glamorous, unmarried one, whose name I obviously can't remember (nor can I be bothered to look it up); and Kitty is Lady Mary – beautiful, defiant, troubled, ahead of her time, with shorter hair, shorter temper, good with a cig in one hand, would be even better with a ballot paper in the other (yes, there's not just a bloody great war going on up the road, we're on the brink of all sorts of social upheaval as well).

They were generally from well-to-do backgrounds, these VADs, if not all Downton-posh. And look, here's Kevin Doyle, a butler in DA, a surgeon here; same kind of time though, and same kind of feel to it all.

It gets more Call the Midwife once we get to their destination, the fictitious Hospital 25A where well-meaning women in starched linen go about their business. Call the Volunteer Nurse. They're not pulling out babies, of course, they're picking out shrapnel. And dressing terrible wounds, patching up where possible, simply being with the dying when not. Then writing letters to their mums saying their boys went without discomfort or pain. Poor Flora, it's not quite the Guide camp she'd pictured. There are even human body parts – fingers and toes mostly, but the odd bigger one too – in the laundry.

Less chummy than CTM then, but the war, with its misery and death on a massive scale, doesn't help. Nor does Grace (Hermione Norris) the matron. She seems to want to do right by the men, but to the VADs she's a vindictive bully. What is her problem? Another tricky backstory to emerge, no doubt. And the other one, Sister Quayle (Kerry Fox), seems to have a touch of Munchausen by proxy about her too. She rips up poor shellshocked Prentiss's blighty ticket so he's sent back up the line to the front, almost certainly to be shot to pieces (physically – he already is mentally). Quayle's a cake-stealer too. Yes, there's cake-based humour – it shares that with Call The Midwife as well.

To be honest, it looks a bit as if they've looked at what's done really well recently, Sunday night period drama-wise, then picked out the two that have done really well and made a kind of amalgam. Which happily also ties in with a major anniversary.

There are six episodes for now, with more to come if the viewing figures are good. So there almost certainly won't be a satisfactory arc or sense of going somewhere; the complex characterisation or the emotional involvement of a novel adaptation (the recent Birdsong or Parade's End, say).

But the figures will be good, of course, because this country loves a posh polished period soap for a Sunday night. And though it's not my thing (nor were the other two), it is well done – lavish, performed with gusto (Norris's matron stands out), obviously well researched, and historically fascinating. And a rare story of women among all the men and mud. I certainly wouldn't bet on The Crimson Field being over by Christmas.

A bigger killer even than the first world war, the Black Death was deeply scary, and Return of the Black Death: Secret History (Channel 4, Sunday) certainly wasn't going to let you forget it. "Two horsemen of the apocalypse were riding on London in tandem," says Samuel West, narrating, (melo)dramatically. One horseman is the plague, the other famine, brought on by climate change, incidentally.

Not scared yet? Here are skeletons. And a churchy choral score, a bit like The Omen music, haunting bells too, constantly, loud and oppressive, throughout the entire hour … arrrgghhhh.

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