It just wouldn’t be Sunday night without a BBC period drama, would it? The Line Of Beauty (8.30pm, Sundays on the ABC) is the latest, a three-part adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning novel, and a perfect example of three things the Brits do better than anyone else: period, ponces, and poofs.
Period. The Beeb’s stock in trade, for as long as I can remember tucking up on the couch with a cup of tea and a shortbread, has been period drama. Ornate language, heaving bosoms, and marvellous old stage hoofers enjoying a turn as a lecherous old lord or a villainous spinster.
But The Line Of Beauty faces a tough challenge in that it is a period drama set in a period that much of its audience still remembers: 1980s England. The 19th century, when it comes to TV, might as well be a fantasy world for all we know about it. But 1983 is a different story. There are plenty of viewers out there who wore the clothes, walked the streets and listened to the music, so the BBC’s famous attention to detail is even more important than usual. Do they pull it off? Well, you’d have to ask someone who was there.
Ponces. Plenty of shows have their upper-class twits, but the combination of pompous self-importance with a sort of pathetic desperation and often a cruel streak is uniquely British. Tim McInnerny’s Gerald Fedden MP is a fine addition to the list. As an up-and-coming star of Thatcher’s cabinet, he’s a man on the rise. Yet just beneath the surface he’s desperate for acceptance, for importance, for respect. When things are going well, he’s everybody’s friend; but place him under pressure, and the cracks will appear. Can’t wait.
And poofs. It’s not that the story of a young gay man’s s-xual awakening is uniquely British, because it isn’t. And The Line Of Beauty isn’t really about an awakening anyway – Nick Guest knows he’s gay, has known for some time, and he’s about as comfortable with it as one can be in Thatcher’s London.
But it’s his relationship with his best mate Toby that powers much of the story. Nick’s clearly in love with him, despite the fact that Toby is straight. And that’s the uniquely British angle – a character like Toby represents a sort of idealised masculinity that in an American or Australian drama is a long way from homos-xuality. But in the Oxbridge, young-men-in-the-prime-of-their-life world, male s-xuality is a lot more fluid, and because there’s no inherent societal contradiction in Toby “getting it out of his system” with Nick, the story drips with the excitement of genuine possibility.
Period, ponces and poofs – The Line Of Beauty shows off the BBC’s talent for all of them. It takes a novel laden with beautiful narration and strips it right back to reveal the wonderful story underneath. More of it, I say.