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Charles II Review

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This is riveting stuff: a fierce, intimate study of a little-portrayed king.

★★★★

When the BBC boasts about another of its ripe historical dramas to be nestled into the requisite Sunday night slot, you can’t help but inwardly groan. Not another worthy traipse through some corseted past-life, laden with our shiniest thesps fresh from a summer with the RSC… Well, yes, that’s true with this four-part study of the life of the Merry Monarch, Charles II — but those groans are swiftly stifled. Against crumbling preconceptions, this is riveting stuff: a fierce, intimate study of a little-portrayed king, oft written off as an oversexed dandy rather than a man who presided over a major cusp in British history.

Writer Adrian Hodges discovered that tweedy historians were in hot dispute over the true worth of Charles II, so elected to shuck off the debate. Instead, he found a man tormented by the execution of his father, who, despite his many passions, grew to pursue a brave and liberal line between the heated factions of Protestant and Catholic Britain. In fact, Charles was the last king to align himself with the papacy. The political shenanigans of Parliament and the court — a world of embittered spin and manipulation — bears uncanny resonance with our modern government.

By necessity when trying to cover a whole life, the series suffers from a telegram-shudder, with history unveiled in short, sharp bursts. However, such characters as the lustrous, cruel Barbara Villiers (Helen McCrory), duplicitous best friend Buckingham (Rupert Graves) and the politically-adept Lord Shaftesbury (a deadpan Martin Freeman) are brought to vivid life. And upfront, Rufus Sewell has a career-making time of it as the moody king who, for all his dalliances with well-bosomed ladies (including Emma Pierson’s salty Nell Gwynn), harboured a powerful mind and was aware of the crossfire of plots and counterplots around him.

That double-act of legendary disasters, the Great Plague and the Fire Of London, are given clever visual notation, while Prague makes a splendidly authentic and economic backdrop to
the action. Slyly, much of the drama is set in and around the warrens of the recreated Palace Of Whitehall (long destroyed), a vision of a tight-knit world saturated with obligation.