The series documents the attempts of the brothers Fielding (John and Henry – he of Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones fame) to institute London’s first police force, the Bow Street Runners, seventy-five years before Sir Robert Peel eventually founded the Met.
CoV has a magnificent cast, and is obviously meticulously researched, but it has a budget that would barely cover the cost of christmas decorations in an old folks home. My primary school’s nativity play probably has more money spent on it. We’re told London is a throbbing metropolis where the poor live fifty to a room, but when we visit one of these slums, there’s not a soul to be found. Possibly they’ve all scarpered to avoid five-o, or are hiding under dust-sheets like pre-Christian Jewish revolutionaries; nevertheless, there’s a distinctive lack of life on the patently set-bound streets.
Episodes one and two were much enjoyed by the broadsheet critics, but they were some of the clumsiest cock I’ve ever seen. C4 have had an appalling run with new drama lately, from Meadowlands to Ghost Squad by way of Goldplated, so fortunately I was already expecting derisory nonsense, but I couldn’t believe this crap (I paraphrase):
Where can we find this debauched molly?
PERIWIGGED, POWDERED AND PERFUMED POOF
We had to go to Sodomite Alley
Right, let’s go to Sodomite Alley
Whizzy 3D 18th Century London A-Z effect, zooming onto a street labelled Sodomite Alley
EXT. SODOMITE ALLEY – NIGHT
TITLE: Sodomite Alley
Eventually,we made our way to Sodomite Alley
Here we are, then. Sodomite Alley.
Sodomites? In alleys? Never before have I heard of such a thing.
Frankly, if it wasn’t for Ian McDiarmid and Iain Glen, I wouldn’t have given this a second look. Their performances are magnetic. When McDiarmid as Henry Fielding returns to the scene of a burglary, only to discover the home that was cleared out yesterday is miraculously restored, and its owner would rather buy everything back from the thieves than suffer the indignity of reporting a crime, Fielding’s frustration that the victim has the nerve to be “sitting on his own fucking furniture!” perfectly communicates the difficulty of getting people to recognise the authority and utility of an organised police force.
But the performances couldn’t overcome the fact that CoV is a show with an identity crisis, which will commit to neither fact or drama. Is it a docu-drama or period procedual? Entertainment or education? Fish or fowl? Arthur or Martha? Episodes one and two were as thrilling as an Open University segment. It was as if someone had spliced together all the scripted segments from a history doc, edited out all the graphs and talking heads and repackaged it as a drama, forgettng that it ought to be exciting. And then, suddenly, episode three was rather good, and episode four, which was a contination of the story, was even better. Out of the filth and pestilence there was drama, and tension, and conflicting agendas and more swearing, and less hand-holding and hectoring, and fewer expository voiceovers, and so I looked upon it, and saw it was good.
But not as good as Terry Pratchett’s Watch novels.
And anyway, there’s only one episode left, so who knows if we’ll get to see what could be a potentially fascinating show develop any further.