Monday 10 Mar 2014
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of exciting and innovative artists who threw the buttoned-up Victorian art world into chaos with their revolutionary paintings and promiscuous love lives, but this isn't scriptwriter Peter Bowker's first brush with the maverick group of artists.
"When I was growing up, I thought they were the greatest artists that ever lived. I think there's something quintessentially 'youthful' that these three guys are struggling with; their regard for women and what they're trying to portray strikes me as very testosterone-filled, so there's no surprise young men like me were interested in them."
In what looks like a big departure from Occupation, his critically acclaimed drama about the Iraq War, the award-winning writer explains his decision to write a drama about art history.
"When I started to look at some of the extraordinary stories and peculiar details of the source material that Franny (Moyle) had written in her book, it wasn't long before it became clear that we had the basis of three great, distinct characters in these young men.
"The thing that really interested me was, although Millais is often regarded as the most gifted, it was Rossetti who was very much the leader of the group. Everybody who met him said charisma, charisma, charisma. He was very funny, and in his letters, he's always begging for money or 'tin'. I loved his politeness combined with a 'give me everything you've got' approach. I think we've all met or known people like this, women fall for them and men love their company. There was also a kind of Jim Morrison story to him: at the very end of his life he wasn't thin and beautiful but corrupted and bloated.
"As Millais was a child prodigy, I imagined he would have been singled out and even bullied at school. In spite of these experiences, he has a certain breezy cluelessness combined with a steely ambition, so I re-imagined him with some of the traits of a member of a boy band!"
"With Holman Hunt, the key was his very disturbed sexual passion in conflict with his religious zealousness. You can see it in Hunt's face: a simultaneous revulsion and fascination with prostitution, and in a way that made him a gift of a character to write.
"The decision to include a fictional narrator was partly there to help articulate how fast the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood grew, both in terms of success and reputation. The character of Fred Walters, a writer on the edge of the group, was an amalgam of a few real contemporaries of the Brotherhood, and I created him in order to tell stories from an outsider perspective."
Bowker goes on to explain the impact and power of the emerging media of the day and how this fed into the notoriety of the Pre-Raphaelites.
"This period saw great industrial and social change, and I think it was the beginning of the world of art as we recognise it now. These guys exploded at the same time as the phenomenon of daily newspapers, and art was arguably the most popular entertainment of the day: so that would explain how they became in some ways a cause celebre of the Victorians. Here are three young men, working in the most exciting medium of their day, blowing the art world apart. You can't underestimate their impact: it would have been like when you first heard punk, heard hip-hop or first saw a Damien Hirst piece.
"The other great thing for me as a writer is these characters enable you to shift gear from the comic to the tragic. One minute you're laughing at someone's appallingly sexist hypocrisy and the next minute someone is dying of terrible laudanum abuse. In Victorian England, unerringly it's the women who pay the price. With Lizzie, I don"t think it was the laudanum that killed her, it was Rossetti. Having said that, Annie Miller was an interesting exception: a street prostitute who aspired to a better life, she did snare a Lord in real life.
"The interesting thing about these boys is, in some ways they are the most attractive and articulate characters I've ever written, yet also at times woefully out of touch with reality and in their youthful idealism they probably bit off more than they could chew in their manifesto! There's a great comedy and vicarious excitement to be had by watching their struggle.
[Note: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood defined themselves as a reform movement, and they set out to create art in a more detailed, colourful and complex manner, rejecting the more mechanistic, Classical approach that had been almost universally adopted since the work of Raphael and Michelangelo.]
As to what the audience will get from the drama, Peter says: "I hope they'll be surprised that art history can be so lively, I hope they will be entertained and enjoy the humour and I hope the drama will also stimulate interest in the art and society of the time."
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