TV UK, 14 July

Escape to the Legion: reality legionnaires parade their hang-ups.

Dolan Cummings

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Ask a former French Foreign Legionnaire why he joined up and he’ll tell you he’s forgotten. That, after all, is the point. But then real legionnaires have to sign up for five years; for Escape to the Legion (Channel 4, Mondays at 9pm), a group of volunteers signed up for just a month in a pretend legion run by ex-Legionnaires for Channel 4.

The limitations of this reality TV approach are manifold: we learn less about the French Foreign Legion and the men who join it than we do about the volunteers and their idiosyncrasies. If people traditionally joined the legion for therapeutic reasons, the therapy was to have your personal concerns and hang-ups drilled, starved and beaten out of you. Here they are poked and pored over for the camera: the kid who has a problem with authority and fakes an injury, the recovering addict who can take the physical regime but can’t cope mentally. And of course this isn’t even the real thing.

The one massive concession that is immediately obvious is that the instructors speak English. This is frankly pathetic: anyone joining the legion is required to learn enough French to follow orders and communicate with fellow soldiers, not to recite Proust or discuss existentialism. But even this is considered too much for the volunteers, or perhaps for the viewers, who might have to look at subtitles now and again. The point seems to be to allow us to fantasise about how we would cope in the ‘Legion house’, and what we would learn about ourselves, rather than to teach us anything about this undoubtedly fascinating institution.

To unashamed escapism then: To the Ends of the Earth (BBC2, Wednesdays at 9pm) is a naval drama adapted from a trilogy by William Golding. In fact, it is a bit different from the usual fare. Last week’s opening episode would have been quite shocking for anyone expecting something like ITV’s Hornblower. The hero, Edmund Talbot, a passenger on his way to take a position in the government of Australia towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars, is ambivalent to say the least. An upper class twit ‘with all the arrogance of his class’, he is in a roundabout way responsible for the death of a pastor, who died of shame after drunkenly fellating a sailor.

Talbot’s caddish tendencies were tempered somewhat last night, when he fell in love in a rather unconvincing second episode, but things pick up in next week’s finale, when the rivalries and friendships that have been simmering come into their own. In any case, the drama is interesting less for its plot than its off-realist atmosphere, reminiscent of the recent Casanova, made by the same company Power, which is also soon to bring us The Virgin Queen, starring Anne-Marie Duff (Fiona from Shameless) as Elizabeth I.

To the Ends of the Earth is an interesting new take on the costume drama, visually impressive (with, like Casanova, nice use of dance that would be hard to pull off in a contemporary drama) but with a modern sensibility that means it doesn’t feel as escapist as it appears. There is a vague sentimentality about these dramas that can be cloying, but there is enough that is innovative and engaging about them to make The Virgin Queen a more welcome prospect than Escape to the Tudor House.

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