Last night I
Turns out I was more or less right. The show was generally well acted and improved markedly as time went on. The hour and twenty minutes of footage could perhaps have been docked of those extra twenty for a more concise production: the first few scenes were relatively staid and dull, but were probably necessary in hindsight to set up the 19th century period and introduce the relationships between characters. At first, it did seem like the story wouldn’t be quite as exciting or sensational as I had expected – Beau took a comical wig off the Prince Regent’s head and started a fashion for wearing trousers, and thereby, apparently started a revolution. Interesting to historians perhaps, but not overly attractive to the average viewer.
However, with the appearance of Matthew Rhys as the louche, sneering Lord Byron, everything seemingly went up a notch. Rhys’s performance as the young poetic rebel was magnetic and charismatic, giving a real sense of the shock he must have induced in Regency London with his sexual misdemeanours and his utter disrespect for authority. The Prince Regent loathes him, leading to some tense exchanges which are highly watchable and well-scripted. One argument ensues over the gift of a snuffbox, in which the fearless Byron describes the Prince as ‘so petty’ and the most powerful man in England can seemingly do nothing but seethe. There is also a commanding turn from Phil Davis as Brummell’s rough butler Robinson, who sometimes seems to be the one giving the orders when not busy fighting off bailiffs and serving the debt-ridden Brummell bootlace soup, before his appointment as sartorial advisor to the Prince.
Throughout the show, powder-faced fops in multi-coloured flamboyant attire gradually transform, one by one, into black-suited, unostentatious ‘dandies’, inspired by Brummell’s royal example. The Prince himself, played by Hugh Bonneville, is a dull, faintly pathetic and needy individual, calling Brummell round in the early hours of the morning to read Shakespeare with him, because he can’t get to sleep. At this point, the dandy is too tired to care about his reactions, and physically groans when asked once more to play ‘Fatstaff’, insulting the Prince with a friend’s confidence before checking himself just in time so as not to set off his childish temper. He asks, just for once, to be allowed to play the Prince, to which Bonneville retorts ‘well of course you can’t be, I’m the son of the King!’ Personally, I thought many of the assorted lords about town looked better in the original outfits, with more than a couple looking like overdressed versions of the Kinks.
Byron is the only character seemingly determined to keep in colour, with a stylish purple jacket that reflects his rakish personality. The affair between Byron and Brummell seems to go more or less unremarked by the Regency society, which struck me as odd, although it is because of his dalliance with the wayward writer that the Prince severs all ties with his ‘sartorial adviser’. In some ways it was reminiscent of the relationship between Oscar Wilde and the younger, petulant Bosie Douglas as seen in the Stephen Fry film, but Rhys throws his toys out of the pram far less than Jude Law did in that role, and there seems to be a true, if wicked, mutual love between the characters. The best line in the show comes from one of these scenes – Robinson interrupts the two men gaily rogering a female admirer to pass on a message from the Prince, which Brummell completely ignores before taunting his butler and shutting the door in his face, saying “this is between Lord Byron, Julia, and myself.”
As expected from a BBC costume drama, the camera-work is tasteful and elegant, if sometimes a little cheesy (characters rippling into view in front of mirrors like anachronistic holograms). The footage of Brummell dressing (watched, rather bizarrely, by a room full of eager-to-learn fashionable men) is a prime example, as the shirt glides effortlessly down over his shoulders like a handkerchief swooping through the air from a magician’s pocket. This scene is used again as a backdrop to the end credits, while the titular Smiths song plays the show out as a subtle reminder of Brummell’s charm and prescience: he knew so much about these things.