The recent BBC series Desperate Romantics has just premiered on Australian television, and as I’ve long been interested in the Pre-Raphaelites I was keen to see it, but how disappointing to find it no more than a superficial and absurd videoclip fantasy of what some people seem to wish Victorian England was ‘really’ like. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (self-portrait)

 It has already been widely reported that most of the events depicted simply didn’t happen or are heavily distorted, and that at least one major character never actually existed. The producers see no problem with this, claiming that as the PRB ‘took imaginative licence in their art’, then their costume soap may justifiably follow ‘in that inventive spirit’. Even so, watching a supposedly true story that is untrue in almost every respect requires more doublethink than should be expected of anyone. 

Of course, dramatic adaptions of real events always need to take some degree of liberty with fact. Narrative cohesion and limited budgets may require characters eliminated or merged, events telescoped, locations condensed, time-frames shuffled. Making these concessions without losing sight of who the real people were or what their times were like is a tricky balancing act. There are many successful examples, but Desperate Romantics lacks the courage to even attempt such balance. It merely brags upfront of its intention to misrepresent real people and then plunges deeply into its shallow fictions. So much for the PRB creed of ‘Truth to Nature’.

The best historical dramas tend to stick close to the known facts of history where possible. Plausible speculation on the motivations or actions behind known outcomes is where the true drama and most entertainment is often found. Whatever speculations Desperate Romantics makes, however, such as the groundless smear that John Ruskin pimped his wife to the painter Millais, seem to be motivated solely by sensationalism. 

I was very surprised that the Desperate Romantics team saw the need to invent so much, because the real Pre-Raphaelite story is much more compelling – and considerably less ridiculous – than anything presented here. Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity is the reduction of Dante Gabriel Rossetti into a leering, laddish loudmouth without an iota of the real man’s well-documented wit and charisma. 

Ophelia by John Everett Millais

The “desperate” in the title best refers to TV producers anxious to pepper their costume drama with all manner of obvious untruths and modern intrusions that they imagine will secure the ratings. If so, they greatly underestimated their audience – apparently UK viewership plummeted 20% after the first episode. If only they had confidence in the drama inherent in the actual source material – or their ability to bring it to life – then success may have been theirs.

If a script has things happen that didn’t happen just to spice up the story (such as Rossetti saving Elizabeth Siddal’s life when she modelled for Millais’ Ophelia) then at the very least it should have the excuse that it captures some essence of the times, emotions and personalities in question. Since Desperate Romantics comes nowhere near achieving this, its countless falsehoods tend to reduce it to much ado about not much.