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Life In Squares (review)

Yesterday I noticed that the second episode of Life In Squares, the BBC’s new three-part drama series on the lives and loves of the Bloomsbury Group, was nestling in the advance BBC2 schedule at 9.00pm and decided that I might as well give it a go.

I should perhaps point out here that literary or artistic criticism is neither my normal remit nor inclination.

I go to the theatre, to the cinema and watch non-sport television solely for the purpose of being entertained. I’m a punter – not a writer, producer, actor, floor manager or director. I don’t watch drama in order to see how the book or history upon which it is based has been realised in this latest version (and/or whether I agree with the interpretation), or to review the lighting, the production values, the acting, the direction. I come to it hoping to be ‘drawn into’ (call it alternatively ‘beguiled by’) the action and then wallow in it, letting it transport me to its period and context setting, immersed in its narrative action and plot-twists.

Oh, and I quite like a bit of gratuitous nakedness or bonking, if that’s on offer. And with Life In Squares, from its previews and advance publicity, it appeared that this was one of its key selling-points.

From this prospective onlooker’s point of view there are few things more destined to encourage a viewing of an ‘unknown’ programme than a transmission time at 9.00pm or later, plus a banner on the screen to the effect ‘WARNING: contains sexual explicit language and some nudity’.

Last night, after making myself my evening meal and settling down in front of the television, I noted that I had some two hours plus until the broadcast of last night’s episode two of Life In Squares.

What better way to build up to it – and indeed pass an evening of hopefully watching soft-porn acted out by real-life members of the acting profession (rather than the dorks who normally frequent porn films) – that watching the first episode, originally broadcast the previous week, on BBC i-Player?

Dear reader, this is what I did.

Sadly, I have to report that – after watching said opening 60-minute episode – my first and lasting conclusion was that the sex scenes were desperately disappointing.

Not personally being of the same-sex persuasion but liking to regard myself as open-minded, (not to say) broad-minded and liberal with a small ‘L’, I has steeled myself in advance for exposure to some male homosexual action. Knowing enough of the Bloomsbury Group story to be aware that some of the characters were exclusively homosexual, some bisexual and some merely heterosexual, I had anticipated it was coming not least because there had been stills of semi-naked males together in the media previews.

One character called Duncan [I assume this was Duncan Grant but cannot 100% confirm that, although separately I soon realised that the characters being called ‘Lytton’ and ‘Maynard’ were intended to be Strachey and J.M. Keynes respectively] was clearly a young man open to exploring his sexuality.

Early on he had a brief kissing and trousers-fumbling moment with a working class chap in a bricked alleyway after which, as they dusted themselves down and parted, they were watched with a hint of suspicion by an archetypal Dixon-of-Dock-Green policeman (although of course Jack Warner was making that series in the 1950s and 1960s, not the Edwardian era the programme was set in) – this presumably a dramatic device designed to underscore for the viewer that homosexual sex was illegal in those days.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until: 21/07/2015 - Programme Name: Life in Squares - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 1) - Picture Shows: **EMBARGOED UNTIL 21st JULY 2015** Lytton Strachey (ED BIRCH) - (C) Ecosse Films - Photographer: Robert ViglaskyLater ‘Duncan’ had a couple of semi-naked in bed clinches with Lytton and also later revealed to Lytton at a lunch together with Maynard that he had ‘had relations’ with Maynard as well, which our Lytton took rather well on the face of it, despite being somewhat disappointed at the news.

[In a scene soon afterwards – clearly time-jumped, this generally a device that I found confusing throughout the programme – Lytton appeared with a very poor fake red beard (plainly supplied by the props department) around his chops. I didn’t recognise him at first, until Maynard then helped me by addressing him as “Lytton” and then adding how much he admired his newly-grown beard].

Elsewhere, the female characters for the main part tended to take off their corsets and throw them out of the window, smoke, and say “copulation” “buggeration” and “sex” a lot – this in order to demonstrate to the viewer that they were bohemian, longing to be free of society’s conventions, and ‘breaking new ground’ in terms of the mores of the era.

threeBy this time we, the viewers, were getting quite a bit of help.

At one point one of the girls complained to another that men had their exclusive universities, their clubs, their sports which “we” were not allowed into.

At another, over a garden tea, one character said to another that Vanessa was now having a ‘thing’ with Vita [this presumably a reference to the tryst between writer Vanessa Stephen, later Woolf, and writer/gardener Vita Sackville-West, wife of Harold Nicholson, in the 1920s and 1930s – which was somewhat confusing as I was under the impression that the episode I was watching (i.e. Number 1) was set in 1905 or thereabouts …]

Nevertheless – despite all the advance publicity and female talk during the piece – of female nudity and hetero rumpy-pumpy was there little or nothing.

Admittedly, there was some initial degree of suggested underlying, but clothed, sexual longing between Vanessa Stephen (Virginia’s sister) – later Bell – and her future husband, the art critic Clive Bell.

Later, a year or more after their marriage because by then she’d had a baby, Vanessa jumped on Clive and ravished him as he lay in bed after he had confessed to having an affair, but during this she kept her semi-transparent chemise (I think they call it) on throughout.

There was no lesbian action, clothed or unclothed, at all – at least in Episode 1.

Once the episode had come to an end I switched back from BBC iPlayer to proper television and caught the last three minutes of Eastenders whilst devouring a Magnum ice cream I’d collected from the freezer.

It was about that point that a wave of tiredness came over me and I decided that I couldn’t possibly face waiting through another 30 minutes of BBC time just in order to see the episode (Number 2) that I had earlier decided to review for edification of my Rust followers.

My sincere apologies to all.


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About William Byford

A partner in an international firm of loss adjusters, William is a keen blogger and member of the internet community. More Posts