Friday 20 Dec 2013
Just as Brit Art in the 1990s needed Saatchi the Pre-Raphaelites needed someone to help bring their art into the public consciousness. In Desperate Romantics that man is Fred Walters, an admirer of the group who – despite lacking the cash, confidence or influence of Saatchi – in this telling of the story is instrumental in bringing the Brotherhood's art to the masses.
A fictional character, Fred Walters is played by Sam Crane, a young actor whose experience already encompasses stage roles at the National Theatre (Some Trace Of Her, DNA), The Royal Court (Kebab) and Shakespeare's Globe (Othello).
Fresh from filming an energetic bar brawl with Aidan Turner (who plays Dante Gabriel Rossetti), Sam explains the origins of his character Fred: "He's a composite of several historical characters. The main basis is Fred Stephens, who was one of the original members of the Brotherhood and you see him as a model in a lot of the paintings – in the Millais painting Ferdinand Lured By Ariel, he's Ferdinand. There's also a little bit of Walter Deverell in him too because Walter was the person who found Lizzie Siddal, the group's main model. Finally, William Michael Rossetti's in there as well, he was the actual diarist of the group as well as Dante Gabriel Rossetti's brother."
Sam admits that, despite undertaking some background research, the scripts, which initially drew him to the project, were his main source: "I did research into all the different people and I read some of William Rossetti's diaries. But Fred is a fictional character who exists within the script and it's very clearly written so I think a lot of the work is done by the writer, Pete Bowker.
"The scripts are very strong, sharply written, funny and quite stylish. I particularly like Fred because he's full of conflicting desires. He really admires the Brotherhood – he's totally in awe of them as they're very glamorous people and he'd love to be like them but knows he doesn't have the talent or the self-assurance to be that cool."
Cool or not, Fred provides the group with their main source of inspiration: "He finds them this amazing flame-haired model (Lizzie Siddal) when he's shopping with his mother – he's very embarrassed to be there, he's a bit of a mummy's boy. Then he catches sight of Lizzie working in the back of a hat shop and knows she'll be the Brotherhood's perfect model. So he introduces her to them.
"He also manages to convince John Ruskin, the most influential art critic of the day, to visit the studio and see the artists' works-in-progress. These two events lead the Brotherhood to make him an honorary member and he becomes their diarist."
Despite his admiration for the group's art, Fred has problems with the way they conduct their personal lives. Sam explains: "Fred is a moral person and he gets really frustrated by the group's occasional fecklessness, ambition and particularly Rossetti's depravity. That's the interesting thing about the character, he's so desperate to be a part of the group and then, when he is, he can't reconcile his own morality with their behaviour and that tears him up inside. The other problem is that he's in love with Lizzie, but she's only interested in the bad boys and he's not a bad boy. She falls for Rossetti who's really the worst person for her and Fred knows that, but there's nothing he can do about it."
Sam confesses that, in reality, he isn't an ardent fan of Pre-Raphaelite art, but he has other reasons for admiring the group and for thinking their story has something for a modern audience: "I think some of the work is good, Millais is a talented painter, but he does get a bit chocolate boxy sometimes. I think what's more interesting about the group is their lives and their aims, they wanted to be revolutionaries and really shake up the system and I think those aims were, in a way, stronger than their work.
"I think audiences will see this story is very similar to a group of up-and-coming contemporary artists, trying to do something different. Their ambition and their drive is really recognisable, as are their various dalliances with alcohol, drugs and sex."
The analogy of Fred Walters as a kind of predecessor to Saatchi isn't too wide of the mark. Sam explains how, in Desperate Romantics, his character's business acumen changed the way the delicate relationship between art and commerce worked.
"Fred makes money by selling stories about the group as a journalist, but then he has this idea of becoming a sort of art dealer or artist's manager. He realises if the Brotherhood broke away from the Royal Academy, showing their work in a gallery and charging for tickets they could make a lot of money without even having to sell a painting. He recognised the popularity of the group – lots of people were already coming to see their work – and the rise of the middle classes and he thought 'yeah, people will be prepared to pay to see this'."
Although Fred isn't an artist he still gets embroiled in the hot-headed antics of the group as the fight scene Sam's just filmed proves. It's one of his favourite scenes: "I quite like the scene we've just done where I have a bust-up with Rossetti. It has to be quite technical in a way because they have to plan the camera positions and we have a fight director on hand. But it's not too tough – he flings me against the bar, I slide along it and he shoves me up against the wall and that's it really."
It seems Fred may not relish being a punch bag but Sam certainly enjoys tussling with this complex character.