Bringing the English Civil war to life

From the Diggers’ lunacy to Cromwell’s moral emptiness, the aim of TV drama The Devil’s Whore is never less than true.

James Heartfield

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There used to be a listings magazine in London called City Limits – a more ‘radical’ Time Out – that was so unerringly wrong about everything that you could tell what was a good film to see by its terrible review there.

Today, the same service is offered by the BBC TV’s Newsnight Review. So when glum-faced novelist Julie Myerson and big-haired columnist Sarfraz Manzoor tut-tutted at Channel 4’s English Civil War drama, The Devil’s Whore, it was sure to be good. And what about their fellow rent-an-opinion, the dour Scots crime writer Iain Rankin? ‘Ah doon’t knoo much aboot tha’ English Civil War’, he told us, which is not a crime in itself, but hardly something to boast about – not in the same week that Barack Obama was breathing life into those self-same values of democracy and liberty that were first made flesh in the fight between Charles I and Oliver Cromwell.

The truth is that many attempts to dramatise or televise the civil wars that wracked Britain throughout the 1640s have not come off. Ken Hughes’ 1970 film Cromwell was blessed with heroic Richard Harris as the Roundhead leader and creepy Alec Guinness as the King, but it dragged, as Harris mooned all over the place. Historian Tristram Hunt’s documentary series The English Civil War was ruined by too much showing off, and a 1999 drama documentary, The Civil War: England’s Fight for Freedom, was killed by the nasal narration of Jeremy Hardy.

Channel 4’s The Devil’s Whore puts life into the conflict because it has cut back on the battle re-enactment scenes and got in close on the leading characters: Leveller leader Thomas Rainsborough (seemingly bumped off here by Cromwell, not Royalists, as history records) played by handsome Michael Fassbender (currently on the big screen as Bobby Sands in Hunger); Cromwell, of course, played by Dominic West, The Wire‘s Jimmy McNulty; and Peter Capaldi out-creeping Guinness as the arrogant king. ‘I am mistook?’, Charles I says, conveying the logical impossibility of such a proposition.

The route into the main characters, though, is provided by two principal intermediaries: the fictional Angelica Fanshawe (doe-eyed Andrea Risborough) and loyal soldier Edward Sexby (John Simm). Fanshawe’s fight to be reckoned as a person, not just a woman, pushes the drama along in such a way that we are able to understand the seventeenth-century fixation on freedom of conscience as more than a cliché.

Peter Flannery, the writer of The Devil’s Whore, whose morose Our Friends in the North got the end of socialism just right in the 1990s, has likewise caught the mood and the language of the 1640s. When he drops Rainsborough’s famous quote that ‘the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he’, the script is not disturbed. He knows the history well enough to sympathise with the extremists of the revolution, the Diggers, but still suggest that they were, in the end, hysterical loons. He tells the story of the massacre at Drogheda without letting it outweigh what the revolution was about. Strikingly, he makes ‘Honest’ John Lilburne, the Levellers propagandist, grow from clown to giant in the courtroom.

But best of all he catches the eerie moral absence that is Cromwell. In his Cromwell memoir God’s Englishman, Christopher Hill tells the story – just shown in episode three of The Devil’s Whore last night – of the point at which Cromwell works out that he must slaughter the ringleaders of the New Model Army mutinies. From his letters we know that Cromwell was genuinely worried about what he was doing, and even saw the appeal and coherence of the Levellers’ arguments. He knew that they were only drawing out the logical meaning of the revolution. But he knew too that the logical meaning was without any real basis, and that he had to crush their dreams. In his letters, Cromwell explains that he cannot fault their arguments, but chooses instead to put himself in the hands of ‘providence’: meaning he gives over reason to intuition, and determines to crush the revolt to retain control of the army. It is a gruesome moment of Realpolitik that Dominic West wears lightly, as if he was watching something unfolding somewhere else.

James Heartfield was writing in the shadow of Ireton House, just down the hill from the site of Andrew Marvell’s cottage. His latest book Green Capitalism: Manufacturing Scarcity in an Age of Abundance is available to buy directly from his website at

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