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The Crimson Petal And The White: Subverting expectations

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Marc Munden Marc Munden | 11:54 UK time, Monday, 4 April 2011

I directed a serial called The Devil's Whore, set during the English Civil War, for Channel Four a couple of years ago, which had a heroine haunted by the devil.

David Thompson, one of the producers of The Crimson Petal And The White, had liked that piece.

Years before, I had made an adaptation of Vanity Fair for BBC One, which had been called "costume drama for the MTV generation".

When he called, I guessed he wanted something a bit different.

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We met. He said "We want it to be really different."

I said "Really different?"

He said "Yes."

I said "I'm not sure about that. I can give it to you a bit different."

He said OK, thus saving BBC audiences from the spectacle of a post-modern novel about Victorian prostitution told through the medium of English folk dance.

In the way that Michel Faber, who wrote the book, set himself up against Victorian literature, continually borrowing its clichés but then subverting his readers' expectations, I thought there was an opportunity to set ourselves up similarly against TV period drama.

There was a chance to play with the grammatical elements of different genres. In the serial there are elements of documentary observation, sequences that are more classic and formal, bits that look like pop videos.

Episode three, for instance, has horror film references as Sugar finds herself in William's house, full of dark history, his wife semi-imprisoned by her doctor.

I loved Lucinda Coxon's script. It started with Sugar, a prostitute from the slums of St Giles narrating.

"You may imagine from other stories you've read that you know this world well - but those stories flattered you. You are an alien from another time and place altogether."

Amanda Hale as Agnes Rackham

So there was the first challenge. Trying to create a world that was credibly Victorian but was unrecognisable from any cosy historical world we had seen on TV before.

I imagine that St Giles, the slum where Mrs Leek's brothel is situated, was a hellish place. I was afraid to portray it as anything less - dangerous, unsanitary, desperate.

I was struck, when travelling in India, by the way that the grand spaces of the old imperial world - Edwardian New Delhi and Victorian Calcutta - had been appropriated and colonised by its modern inhabitants, divided up and adapted for their own use, bits built on and carved up.

That became the starting point for our vision.

We filmed in the courtyard of Manchester Town Hall - a Victorian gothic cathedral-like space - and brought in tons of mud, built slums and open sewers within it - colonised it ourselves.

Gustave Doré's illustrations of London, where the light barely makes it to the ground through the narrow chasm of terraces was another reference.

The Crimson Petal is a piece that deals with the mechanics of prostitution. It's not Pretty Woman. I like the fact that Sugar's motives are opaque and puzzling.

The sex is transactional and less interesting in many ways than the base things Sugar puts her body through.

Romola Garai, who plays Sugar, was unflinching in her depiction of that.

Romola Garai as Sugar in The Crimson Petal And The White

William Rackham, the protagonist who is besotted with Sugar, is a spoilt boy and a fool. He's a would-be writer who hasn't written anything except an unpublished small pamphlet and is resisting participating in his father's business.

To follow him, I felt that you needed to put that foolishness in a comic context, otherwise you'd lose interest in him.

I am in awe of comedians. There is a different creative energy that's present on set with a comedian, a risk of anarchy that I love.

I'd seen Chris O'Dowd in the film Festival and in Vera Drake. He's just got this incredible charisma and charm. He came in to see me and just made William really human in his foolishness.

As a director you're a bit like a conductor of an orchestra.

It's your job to have a clear and vivid dream for the film and be able to communicate that in a very concrete way that people can respond to.

You need to inspire all those heads of departments - production design, sound, costume, make-up to embrace your vision.

I like to push and push people to come up with more extreme ideas to the point where the ideas don't work.

Either that or they lose their temper and hit me.

Then I get them to rein in the ideas to the point where they do - that's the way you get interesting work.

Marc Munden is the director of The Crimson Petal And The White.

The Crimson Petal And The White is on BBC Two and BBC HD at 9pm on Wednesday, 6 April. For further programme times, please see the upcoming episodes page.

Listen to a review of The Crimson Petal And The White on Radio 4's Front Row.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    Really enjoyed last night's episode. Where are the interiors filmed. Looks a bit like Denis Severs House.

  • Comment number 2.

    Is this what has replaced programmes like Cranford and Waking the Dead? Unlike vandjill it was not my kind of enjoyment, even if factually correct. It seemed to dwell mainly on one topic. I shall not be watching the next 3 episodes.

  • Comment number 3.

    Having regrettably missed episode one, would really like to see a repeat broadcast of this on TV, rather than via i-Player on my PC - which is not the same!
    Top quality, high-budget prestige programming of quality deserves more than one showing!

  • Comment number 4.

    Fantastic first episode!! I'm interested to read the Marc Munden also directed "The Devils Whore" as I loved that too.

  • Comment number 5.

    Great images and story line. Locations, fanastic. The cast list intergrated well into the story. At last a drama that the BBC do so well and a refreshing depature from the usual rubbish we see repeated time and again.
    Please could you confirm the music used in this drama.

  • Comment number 6.

    Grace - you can't expect a drama about a prostitute not to depict sex in some way. If you've ever read the book, you'll know this is about a time far removed from our own, and you can't expect a sanitised version of the times. If you want something which depicts prostitution in a modern day, cheesy way, I'd suggest you watch a DVD of Pretty Woman.

  • Comment number 7.

    Brilliant, loved it well done to the BBC, great drama, can't wait for the next epsoide to be show,great actors.

  • Comment number 8.

    I watched this programme because it starred Romola Garai. I had'nt even heard of her until I saw her in Atonement when she knocked me out! I had not seen such a potent on-screen presence since Emily watson and Samantha Morton. Some actors just light up the screen and compel attention the moment they appear and I have resolved to watch anything in which she has a major role. Romola produced just that kind of dynamism in the very first episode and I shall certainly be watching the rest. It has nothing to do with the play's erotic subtext. Romola is not a particularly "sexy" actress. But she is utterly professional and able to carry off potentially difficult scenes of intimacy with a down-to-earth competence that demands respect and admiration. I think this series is going to be a winner and can see myself getting thoroughly caught up in the developing story.

  • Comment number 9.

    What with Fanny Hill also currently being shown, it would be refreshing of the BBC to have a decent period depiction of working class women who are NOT prostitutes.
    However found this well acted and loved the detailed interiors.

    Why is London always filmed in Northern cities or in Ireland?
    London has brick buildings. St Giles and the 'Rookeries' would have been crumbling narrow 17th & 18thc brick built tenement slums with weatherboard out buildings ...and not stone built wide streets.

  • Comment number 10.

    I love the first episode. Great story, and great acting. Hope the press don't ruin it by publishing too much information on the storyline before it's shown on TV.

  • Comment number 11.

    The film work was amazing, the acting superb and as a piece of fantasy it was provocative!

    Comments about historical relevance are sadly tiresome.

  • Comment number 12.

    I agree with Grace and also others. Although the acting was brillantI felt extreme saddness at the how both women were treated and hmm sometimes women still are not treated well in our global society. Yes I agree what it was all about and yes could watch Pretty Woman... I just felt how awful it was for the prostitute Sugar and the wife who was being abused by her Physician and unsupported by her husband. The men seemed to be getting the full benefit !

  • Comment number 13.

    I enjoyed the first episode; I thought it was full of potential and I really liked the way it was shot and the production design. However, I don't understand why the cellist at the brothel wasn't actually playing the cello. It was incredibly obvious that she didn't have a clue how to play and that the music was overdubbed. Why does this happen? It's lazy! There are thousands of musicians out there who would have jumped at the chance of a bit of TV work. I'm one of them; I play the cello and I would have happliy agreed to put on a beautiful dress and play the cello on thie programme for a few bob..

  • Comment number 14.

    I'm watching this series with interest.Romola Garai is a fine actress,and in the role of Sugar the prostitute,has found a challenging part for herself which she is tackling with much professionalism.As to the intimate scenes,some of them are rather clumsy,particularly the shot in Episode One,where Sugar is washing herself,resigned to her situation. However,that said,the rest of the acting is intriguing,and some of the actors/actresses' expressions faintly resemble gargoyles(Mr Rackham appears to be developing a squint..the result of too much passion,perhaps?) I shall be watching the rest of the episodes with intrigue and interest.

  • Comment number 15.

    Beautiful production design, a rounded contemporary feel to the production. Finally a programme that successfully marries period and realism. It has that something which is very hard to create and find in current dramas.

  • Comment number 16.

    I am thoroughly enjoying this drama which, as others have already said, is original and ground-breaking. The word 'sad' has been used as a criticism here, whereas I think that in 2011, it is truly sad that there are still adult viewers who are afraid of realistic depictions both of the seamier side of life and of sex, joyful or otherwise, when the context demands them. Romola Garai is a captivating actress, both physically and artistically. I shall certainly be watching all remaining episodes. Just one tiny criticism of the props person, if I may? In Episode One, there was a clear shot of the red plastic cover at the neck of a wine-bottle, obviously anachronistic, while in Episode Two, a teapot was knocked over by Rackham's violent departure, but in the very next shot, it had magically uprighted itself! Incompetent props person or bad editing or both?

  • Comment number 17.

    Wow, the photography, lighting and soundtrack are outstanding. Really enjoying this. Thanks.

  • Comment number 18.

    This is a very good series. Romola Gari is very intriguing as 'Sugar' and you are constantly kept guessing as to her feelings and motives. I feel that it is amazing in the 21st century that people claim to be 'shocked' at just how male dominated Victorian society was-for women like 'Sugar' and 'Rackham's' poor wife,their lives were not their own and even abuse by a Doctor could go unpunished for the mere fact that the Doctor was a man. I have read that the original book ends very strangely and abruptly-my only misgiving about the series therefore is that it will leave too many questions unanswered at the conclusion. Full marks to Chris O'Dowd for daring to expose all-a refreshing change from female flesh. Top marks to BBC2 for producing such a fine programme.

  • Comment number 19.

    This series comes over as a sort of steam-punk fantasy as designed by Vivienne Westwood. It doesn't really bother too much with historical accuracy, although lays on colourful 'Victorian' squalor with a trowel - the line about 'alien from another time and place' is typical of many that would jar with anyone who expects faithful representation of the language or social behaviour Victorian period. But that's not its point.
    It's filmed in a heightened MTV video style and includes a full gamut of equally extravagant acting styles; Gillian Anderson and Amanda Hale as the mad wife seem to particularly enjoy themselves, and Mrs Fox's various consumptive dying scenes remind me of Oscar Wilde's line about little Nell.
    I really can't take it as seriously as I'm apparently meant to, but that's not to say it's not very entertaining, and it has a thriller-like quality in that I will watch it to the end to see what happens; although you know none if it's going to end well.

  • Comment number 20.

    This is a fantastic series. I've certainly enjoyed the first two episodes and am looking forward to the last two. Does anyone here know where I can obtain the soundtrack to the series? In looking at the credits the composer for this series is someone named Cristobal Tapia de Veer, but there doesn't seem to be any reference to a soundtrack for this show...

    -- redmage

  • Comment number 21.

    love it ...love it!!! watched the episodes a couple of times. i am pretty sure the story portrays the reality of those days and i love every real story no matter how harsh it is.

  • Comment number 22.

    Having grown up on stiff period dramas on a Sunday night it's taken me years to warm to anything remotely pre 1970's! However the tide is turning after having watched the entire series of The Tudors. The Crimson Petal and the White is captivating. What a great casting! The spoken English reflects the period well. Nice to see the leading lady a Redhead! Shame it's only 4 episodes. I could watch it every week.

  • Comment number 23.

    I love a period drama, me and my tastes are broad enough to appreciate the whole gamut to which we are treated, particularly by the BBC (apart from The Tudors, which I enjoyed to begin with but which has now become hilarious - and not in a good way.) I can appreciate the exquisite period detail of Cranford, but I also love this "vivid dream" of a piece. The acting is superb, particularly Chris O'Dowd and I love the music and am even intrigued by the make up artist's use of non-lipstick. HOWEVER, I the only one who is driven to distraction by not being able to hear about 25% of the speech. I am not hard of hearing and there's not a problem with our tv. It's as though the sound designer is doing the audio equivalent of the "tilt shift " camera technique (which I think is really effective), where everything is blurred except the main subject, giving a heightened sense of seeing into the subject's thoughts. However, the sound version is in reverse. We can hear the rain outside as though it's a bath running in the room, for example. I have to have the sound up really high and then the fantastic music comes in at an overwhelming level. It's as though the sound hasn't been mastered. I missing vital plot!! What did Sugar say to Mrs Rackham at the end of the last episode?!

  • Comment number 24.

    I have only just come across The Crimson Petal at episode 4. I really wish the BBC would have more repeats of their programs, broadcasting twice per week woudl help plus having an additional satellite channel for repeats and have a +1 option. I find this time and time again with the BBC. C4 has a plus 1. It seems a shame for you to create quality programs but to have so limited opportunity to watch them. I know you like to support your iplayer but I sit in front of a computer all day, I have appaulling download speed for my broadband and as such, the iplayer options are not really suitable for me and the thousands of people who live in rural areas with either no broadband or very poor broadband. I much prefer to sit by my fire in comfort. Please BBC, start to offer more opportunity to re-broadcast your programs.

  • Comment number 25.

    I have to agree with Carra, #23, that, especially tonight in episode four, I was frustrated to miss the entire scene of Sugar reading to Sophie because the music drowned out the spoken words. If this was done for effect, it was a poor judgement, for without the script there is no story. Although, once I worked out what it was, the hiss of gas in the hallway scenes did lend a realistic reminder of the days before electric lights! But again, overly loud.

    I expect the book ended where the series concluded, but I do wish it had been better specified where they were to end up. I'm going to imagine they joined Sophie's mother in the convent or sailed to America because I like a happy ending. So glad that hypocritical Mr Rackham got his just desserts. Very good series, apart from the sound imbalance. I did enjoy it, thank you.

  • Comment number 26.

    I tend to agree with previous posts by Nicky & RGardener about the sound but I have only praise for the four part serial, would like to have seen more of it. As with RGardener comments about the end though, not really sure where Miss Sugar and Sophie ended up. Would like to think it was America as I too really like a happy ending. This misty scene did leave me thinking they would be joining sophie's mother, how sad. Hope it was America. Will have to watch it again on iplayer.

  • Comment number 27.

    I loved this mini series, the rich and authentic looking visuals, the dialogue, everything... until the last episode! I have come away feeling robbed of a true conclusion. Don't get me wrong, I like a bit of mystery and the luxury of making up my own mind regarding the final otcome, however, there is a massive difference between that and the feeling that the writers couldn't be bothered to finish it properly or ran out of time. Sugar had just discovered that the woman on the beach could not have been Mrs Rackham, her book had been blown around London, the police were on her trail, she didn't really bother looking for Christopher, her baby had just been aborted, the woman who saves prostitutes (can't remember her name...Moaning Myrtle from Harry Potter) had told her she would help her if she ever needed it and then was never seen again and nothing really was said about Rackham's brother killing himself and then the object of his demise got better!

    Too many loose ends for something I have invested 4 weeks watching and thinking about. Also, why was Sugar always scratching her hands if there was nothing wrong with her when the Dr examined her? There had better be a Crimson series 2!!

  • Comment number 28.

    Congratulations to everyone involved with this drama, loved every minute and detail. The actors were all brilliant but Romola Garai really shone for me. I was hooked from the first episode and shall really miss such fantastic t.v. More please!

  • Comment number 29.

    Right from the first opening episode there was something not seen on TV for a long time. Stunning photography and trickery, atmospheric location choices, characters that meant something to you whether hated or cared for and a feeling that you were being drawn slowly into a corrupt but clever tale.
    The sex scenes were coarse; as they should be in a gritty Victorian prostitute's lair yet it was balanced by the contrasting lifestyle Sugar was grasping to escape to.
    The end was a little undefined but I think it was meant to tease and through all her bumbling but cruel knockbacks off Rackham, she had exacted her revenge.
    Brilliant TV - more please...

  • Comment number 30.

    I feel obliged to add my comments having watched the conclusion of this outstanding series. I have had to obtain the book by Michael Faber having become so caught up with the characters and story line. It appears that the television series followed the book reasonably closely. However like a previous commentator @ #27, I felt there were too many loose ends left hanging and questions unanswered. The lack of a definite resolution to the many issues raised was a tad frustrating. I trust that the book (which is available as a Kindle download at a fraction of the RRP), will answer some of these issues more definitively. But that is a relatively minor issue and should not be allowed to detract from the very high quality production values achieved in the series. Others have mentioned the realistic scenery and visuals and I endorse that view. The acting was of the finest with stellar performances by Romola Garai (what will I do without her stunning enactment every Wednesday?), Chris O' Dowd (who simply got better and better as the fatuous Will Rackham), Amanda Hale (convincingly off her rocker) and the ever excellent (and lascivious) Richard E. Grant. If there had been a GMC in those days, Dr Curlew would not just have been struck off but sent to prison! So I am left with the book itself to tide me over the withdrawal symptoms I expect over the next several Wednesday evenings. Thank you Marc Munden for directing this superb series and for initiating this blog. It has been fascinating reading the opinions of other viewers.

  • Comment number 31.

    Just finished Fabel's book and found the ending utterly disappointing. Hope that BBC will take Sugar's and Sophie's story a little further... can't wait for next week's episode!

  • Comment number 32.

    I would just like to say I loved The crimson petal and the white, Romalo played Sugar brilliantly, BBC need to do more drama's like this. The scenery was also superb evoking London in those times great I'm glad Sugar and Sophie managed to get away. Just a shame it has to finish.

  • Comment number 33.

    I too thought this mini-series was fantastic! Gritty, disturbing in some parts, but never the less true to life of the horrors of Victorian England for those who did not have money and status. The acting was superb and the leading lady portrayed the waif like Sugar very well indeed. There were one or two loose ends which needed to be tied up and certain questions remained unanswered. Perhaps the viewer was expected to draw his/her own conclusions. I do hope there is a sequel. Please BBC, commission another series of this!

  • Comment number 34.

    I often needed the subtitles to follow the dialogue.

  • Comment number 35.

    Thank you Uzume for pointing out that Sugar realises the body pulled out of the river cannot be that of Agnes. I have watched the show three times now and may not have noticed. I think that in time William may realise that Agnes may still be alive as he didn't have a close look at the body. Both he and Cheeseman just saw the partly decomposed body of a woman with long blond hair (of course only Sugar knows that Agnes cropped her hair short). Mrs. Castaway's body may have been dumped in the river. Agnes presumably makes her way to Lostwithiel and becomes a nun and writer in a convent. Sugar promises Sophie that she will take good care of her and you feel confident that she will do so perhaps as a successful writer in America. I wonder whether she would have been able to get out of the country with the little girl. The ending seems left open to a sequel but I hope there isn't one as sequels are never as good. I liked the steal from Joe Wright's Atonement (also of course with Romola Garai) and Pride and Prejudice: the close-up of William's and Sugar's hands when Sugar arrives to become governess.

  • Comment number 36.

    is there any more or is it all gone now?

  • Comment number 37.

    Really enjoyed episodes 1-3 but missed final episode as on holiday. Just tried to watch it on iplayer and no longer avaliable! devastated!!! Can we have a repeat of all

  • Comment number 38.

    Thank you for all your great comments and observations on this page. I was out of the country for the transmission so my apologies for coming so late to the discussion. To answer just some of your questions and complaints:
    Vandjhill: Yes, Dennis Severs’ house was used for Mrs Castaway’s boudoir and the staircase but Mrs Castaway’s parlour was filmed at a house in Princelet Street, Spitalfields. Sugar’s bedroom is a set built in a studio in Montreal but modelled on Dennis Severs’ own bedroom.
    There are plans to repeat the whole serial on BBC4 in September, PClarke and nicky. Before then you may have to part with good money to buy the box set (available in June). Sorry, couldn’t resist a plug.
    roger i and redmage: The music by Canadian composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer is not available as a soundtrack. It is his first foray into composing for the screen – he is a pop musician and producer - but you can check out more of his work at: www.myspace.com/cristotapia where there are some excerpts of his music and also at: www.troublemakers.ca/production.html.
    Yes, WarwickO, I agree about that elusive quality of “on-screen presence”. Both Emily Watson and Samantha Morton are compelling and luminous in everything they do.
    AndrewEastLondon, unfortunately the choice of locations is very often to do with the complicated logistics of filming. We wanted somewhere that afforded a 360° scope but to shut off a network of streets was out of the question on such a low budget. Hence the enclosed courtyard of Manchester town hall. However, the “stone built wide streets” represented the comparitively salubrious streets of Notting Hill, far to the west of the slums of St Giles.
    Grace and Ei: Lucinda Coxon’s adaptation very much champions Sugar’s perspective – a woman trying to claw her way out of poverty – and concentrates in the latter two episodes on her growing relationship with Rackham’s daughter. Those of you who watched it to the end will know that the piece has a strangely redemptive and perhaps uplifting ending.
    lemonandthings. The cellist is Jo Silverston: www.myspace.com/josilvercello/ , a much respected player and arranger who works with the Unthanks and Allen Toussaint, and in fact she is playing live – its just that the exigencies of editing a scene like that mean that inevitably some of the playing is out of sync. (And she’ll probably kill me for putting it in the film hoping no-one will notice). And on that note, Congratulations John Phillips on spotting the paranormal teapot – blame the director not the props or editor, my decision to keep it in.
    Carra, RGardener and Suzymat, I’m sorry you couldn’t hear some of the dialogue – the sound is mixed in a dubbing theatre on speakers that simulate the average tv and I’m normally quite vigilant about the dialogue being clear. Sometimes with music though, the resonant frequencies of peoples’ tvs mean that the sound comes out differently. However, with the Crimson Petal poem (Tennyson’s erotic poem read to Sophie at bedtime: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Now_Sleeps_the_Crimson_Petal/ ), it was a stylistic choice to overwhelm it with music – maybe I got that wrong. Sugar’s words to Agnes at the end of Ep3 are “When you arrive at your destination, walk deep into the countryside. Ask to be shown to the convent. Don’t take No for an answer”.
    Uzume, despite your frustrations, Lucinda Coxon’s adaptation is very faithful to the ending of the novel. Those who were frustrated by the serial not being “wrapped up” can read Faber’s collection of short stories The Apple one of which alludes to what happened to Sophie in later life.

  • Comment number 39.

    I would also echo the other posters above who have requested that the soundtrack be made available. Excellent series, stunning music! I would buy it for certain.


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