The Crimson Petal and the White: Reeks of Sex-Stained Sheets

Michael Faber's bawdy tale about Sugar, Victorian London's most talented prostitute, has been described as the book Dickens would have written if he'd been able to speak freely. This TV adaptation doesn't let it down....
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Michael Faber's bawdy tale about Sugar, Victorian London's most talented prostitute, has been described as the book Dickens would have written if he'd been able to speak freely. This TV adaptation doesn't let it down....

Let me be clear: this is one of my favourite books. I read it while suffering a particularly nasty bout of gastroenteritis and I honestly believe it saved my very life. So when I heard they were doing it on the telly I was a bit worried. How badly were they going to bugger it up?

It's often like that with telly adaptations, isn't it? You've imagined the much-cherished characters so fully and with such affection you almost grieve when the casting turns out to be so atrocious you're expecting Su Pollard to hove into view at any moment. All too often the story's not handled right. The sets look dodgy. The bloody music pisses you off. Not so with this glorious phantasmagoria of debauchery with which we were blessed by BBC2.

The Crimson Petal on the White is a gorgeous, fetid, lush, grubby, pox-ridden phantasmagoria of the darkest of Victorian delights. There's no pre-Raphaelite wash here: this London is full of gin-soaked, scabby-faced, hollow-eyed wastrels. It's a world where laudanum and the contraceptive douche live cheek by jowl. This is where the BBC excels - costume drama is one of the things the Beeb does best, apart from anything involving Brian Cox standing on a rock, obv. It's truly a brilliant adaptation: the script, the set, the costumes, the make-up (which frankly almost makes everyone look as if they've been dug up, which, if you lived in 1870s London you actually might have been), the props, the colouring, the music...oh, I could go on. I loved it.

Lucinda Coxon's adaptation does the book proud - it reeks of week-old sex-stained sheets.

TCPOTW is based on Michael Faber's excellent book that critics have dubbed "the book Dickens would have written if he'd been able to speak freely." Lucinda Coxon's adaptation does the book proud - it reeks of week-old sex-stained sheets. It's about Sugar, a prostitute of astonishing skill; half the men in London have read her customers' panting reviews of the quality of her ministrations and want her, yearn for her. One of these men, William Rackham, seeks her out, and after the first blowie he's ready to pay for exclusivity. Rackham's wife Agnes is "delicate" and is prone to hysterical fits. Rackham is driven to distraction as he tries to save her from madness and relies on the scary, starey doctor wonderfully played by a very predatory Richard E Grant. But the doc is sexually abusing Agnes and his weekly visits drive her further towards the asylum. Finding no succour in his wife, Rackham pays for sex.

The main protagonists are gloriously solid - Sugar is luminously clever and at the end of episode one, we love her sense of mystery and myth; where has she come from? Did she spring from a lotus? William Rackham is a repressed under-achiever who's sexual awakening is like a rebirth. He progresses from jerk to jock with astonishing rapidity. Both these actors are great: Romara Garai as Sugar is hauntingly wonderful; the blank, vacant look on her face as she's being rogered from behind will stay with me for longer than I'm comfortable with. But for me Chris O'Dowd's Rackham is one of the best pieces of telly acting I've seen in a long time. There's none of the whiff of drama school about this performance: it's real - achingly, burningly real. Mark Gatiss is also brilliant as the godly, philanthropic brother. But the most creative casting is the character of Mrs Castaway, the madam of the brothel: it's none other than Gillian "X-Files" bloody Anderson! As a cockney whore! Amazing.

TCPOTW is about sexual politics, poverty, class, exploitation, repression and the longing for freedom. But more than anything it's about hypocrisy - that scourge of middle-class Victoriana. And watching this wonderful drama, I wonder how much more sophisticated we are today.

Set your telly boxes to record it next week. You won't be disappointed.

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