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Wednesday 24 Sep 2014

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Desperate Romantics – Rafe Spall plays William Holman Hunt

Rafe Spall as William Holman Hunt

With the nickname "Maniac", William Holman Hunt was surely someone to keep an eye out for, particularly as he thought he'd been given the nickname for all the right reasons. But for Hunt, one of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, played by Rafe Spall, the nickname was more likely to be down to his weird, wild and wonderful ways.

"He thinks it's because of his dogmatic work ethic, but his friends think otherwise – he's a bit wild and he's very intense and he's portrayed as a very strong Christian," says Rafe, who is best known for roles in the movies Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz and Wide Sargasso Sea and TV dramas including The Rotters' Club, The Chatterley Affair and Frankie Howerd – Rather You Than Me, in which he starred alongside David Walliams as Howerd's partner, Dennis Heymer.

Hunt became successful in the mid-19th century for his religious paintings including The Light Of The World, The Scapegoat, Finding Of The Saviour In The Temple and The Shadow Of Death. But it was his relationship with prostitute Annie Miller that drew him a lot of unwanted attention, driving him to distraction and almost causing him to have a breakdown. It was also this relationship that was the catalyst for him taking a hiatus from the Brotherhood.

Hunt was at odds with himself over this relationship, says Rafe: "His conflict in this drama is the fact that he is a man of God, but he is also obsessed by a prostitute so, to justify this, he gives her lessons in deportment and manners and skills, sort of My Fair Lady style.

"It was a massive love affair. They never married [Hunt later married Fanny Waugh, and then her sister, after his first wife died in childbirth] but it went on for a long time and I'm sure there would have been a big scandal and Hunt would've been really embarrassed by the fact that he was in love with a prostitute. But he wanted to change her – he wanted to turn her into something different."

As with any troublesome affairs of the heart, it was Hunt's close friends – all members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – who helped him through the dark times.

"They're inseparable, these three artists and Fred, they're a Brotherhood – they're the best of friends and the worst of enemies in the way that they're fiercely competitive with each other, like a lot of friendship groups, who all do the same job. But Rossetti, Millais and Hunt – they love each other.

"They were a very incestuous group. Much of the source material for the drama is based on fact and what Franny Moyle has done brilliantly with her book is taken their stories and enriched them with genuine human emotion.

Hunt decides he needs to get away from Miller and the Brotherhood and goes on a voyage of self-discovery to the Holy Land, telling the boys 'when I get back she'll be much better'."

It was this hiatus, though, that spelt the end of the relationship.

"I think it changed him in the fact that he went and saw more of the world," says Rafe. "He went on his own, he wanted to get away from Annie while she was turning into a lady, so he could come back and she'd be the lady he'd always wanted her to be. When he gets back, he finds that it was actually Annie's grubbiness that he was attracted to and the lady he turned her into, he isn't interested in any more.

"The thing with Annie Miller," he continues, "is that she was famous – she was a famous prostitute in real life, people knew who she was. And she went on to marry a Lord. She became a huge society girl."

Rafe admits that he knew little about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood before taking on this role so the drama has been a real eye-opener for him.

"When you think of Pre-Raphaelite painters you think of girls with red hair and maybe Ophelia. But now I've seen a lot of the paintings in the flesh and they're incredible. They're so impressive. The detail in them is just immense and I think some of them are really beautiful. I think Rossetti's paintings are my favourite. Hunt wasn't one for making pretty pictures; he wanted to tell the truth and he wanted to make things look real, at the expense of being beautiful. He didn't really care about beauty, he just wanted reality."

Rafe believes that Tracey Emin and Damian Hirst are the modern-day equivalent of the Brotherhood in the art world and that Hunt, Millais, Rossetti et al were the celebrities of their time, blowing out of the water suggestions that it's only in the 20th and 21st century that people have become obsessed with celebrity culture: "The age of celebrity isn't a new thing. The fact is they were really famous and the models they painted were the Kate Moss of their day and they were more famous than Tracey Emin and Damian Hirst – they're just as radical and just as strange.

"They were the modern painters of the day and the strangest, most out-there modern artists that you can imagine. The reason I'm interested in the drama is to show that young artists have always got drunk, slept with loads of girls and taken drugs – nothing's new."

Hunt became one of the most famous painters in British, if not world, history, according to Rafe and was "fiercely ambitious", a characteristic he greatly admires.

"I can relate to him in the fact that I'm an artist of sorts and I'm ambitious and I really care about what I do and put a lot of effort into it, and the same can be said for Hunt.

"I even get to wear a big beard for the last three episodes and really go for it!" he laughs. "I've done lots of really different stuff and I'm very lucky to be able to do that and I'm really grateful to Ben Evans, the producer, for giving me the chance and I've really enjoyed it. It's taken a lot of research and a lot of hard work and it's a lot of fun."

In fact, Rafe put so much into his preparation for the role that he took lessons so that his character would look the part when painting on to a canvas. "I went to a life-drawing class and someone came in and showed us how to hold a paintbrush!"

So does Rafe think he could have a future in the art world, following the lessons?

"I think you've either got it or you haven't... and I haven't!"

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