Culture House Daily

BBC1’s The Crimson Field: manipulative, saccharine, shallow – and addictive

8 April 2014

Thanks to BBC1’s new World War One drama The Crimson Field, I know now how to fake the symptoms of syphilis. All you need is a red hot needle, to create a genital blister, and some condensed milk, for realistic-looking discharge.

You had to do this if you wanted to get sent home from the front, because the horrible public school officers didn’t believe in namby-pamby mental illnesses like shell-shock, and had absolutely no sympathy for the poor privates who wept when they listened to Madame Butterfly.

Is it possible to make a WWI drama without resorting to cliché? Yes, actually: the BBC’s adaptation of Parade’s End managed it a couple of years ago.

Still, they at least had a book to go on. Something makes me doubt Sarah Phelps, who churned out the script for this new six-parter set in a field hospital in Boulogne, did much research beyond Wikipedia.

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At the risk of sounding like Peter Hitchens deconstructing Downton, the accents were too modern, the script was anachronistic (would a young woman in 1915 have muttered ‘God!’ in an irritated way?) and there was a noticeable lack of military language.

More importantly, there was not nearly enough gore or suffering. Even the piled-up, bloody bandages were a uniform bubblegum-pink. Ok, there were a few chopped-off toes (though by the time the nurse found them they wouldn’t have been skin-colour, like a joke-shop finger), but we could have done with a great deal more blood, pus, urine, phlegm, bile, crying and swearing.

Still, Call the Midwife, this drama’s illustrious predecessor in the Sunday night nine o’clock slot, was remarkably free of poo, placenta and that white goo babies are covered in when they’re born.

Yes, those of you in mourning after the end of Call the Midwife can cast off your funeral garb and rejoice, because The Crimson Field is — give or take a few minor details — pretty much exactly the same.

Not only is it sanitised, sepia-tinged and overly sentimental, it has identical characters. On the one hand you’ve got the young women volunteers, including a prissy spinster who’s found her calling in life, a rebellious one who smokes and wears scent (but will no doubt turn out to be a virgin), and a haughty one with a mysterious past who talks back to matron and says things like ‘I didn’t come here to make friends.’ She’s played, rather well, by Oona Chaplin (who, poor thing, cannot be mentioned without pointing out that she is Charlie’s granddaughter and Eugene O’Neil’s great-granddaughter).

Then there are the older, wiser women. The ferocious matron who’ll turn out to have a surprisingly soft heart, played by Hermione Norris, and the possibly bulimic Sister Quayle, played by an actress who’s the spitting image of Charlotte Rampling. They carry the show, as they’re supposed to. Towards the end of episode one, Suranne Jones turns up, to Matron’s delight. She’s got short hair and drives a motorbike, so I naturally assumed she was going to have an affair with Matron, but then the last scene showed her fingering a secret wedding ring so maybe not.

The men are incidental to the action, just as they are in Call the Midwife. The lieutenant colonel in charge of the field hospital is played by Kevin Doyle, who you may recognise as the hapless servant Molesley from Downton Abbey, which just about sums it up.

This is a drama cynically manufactured to appeal to women; well, a certain type of woman who prefers chocolate to sex and is past her first flush of youth. It is saccharine, shallow and desperately short of intelligence and authenticity. Saying that, it’s pretty watchable and I’ll probably catch episode two.

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Show comments
  • zaphriel

    I know, I mean why would you even HAVE a drama where the WOMEN are the main protagonists. I mean it’s not like they have done anything interesting in the entire history of the planet despite making up half the population throughout.

    Get back to making the same war drama you do every time BBC, where the only time we see a woman at all is when their son is sent home in a box.

  • beverly beedie

    last nights episode was spoiled by the poor dialogue of Susannah Jones. I had to put the subtitles on to understand what she was saying She needs to go for speech lessons and start talking with her mouth open Its a shame as she is a good actress and a nice person otherwise I have enjoyed the series

  • Lucy

    Both of my parents are historians and they heartily approve and as someone who is not ‘past her first flush of youth’ I can say that I rather enjoyed it too (this maybe because of it’s similarities to Downton Abbey which I won’t deny. I noticed them and wasn’t too disappointed because I like Downton Abbey). I don’t think people necessarily want to see gore and it’s national television so it can’t exactly be a bloody horrible mess due to the number of people watching. I’m aware that this was the reality but most people don’t want to vomit into their cheese and biscuits as they sit watching the BBC.

  • Rebecca

    Well yes it would appeal to women because its how women started to become taken seriously and valued more so it is not JUST about the suffering that men went through it is about the hole lot. Saying that you dobt if Sarah Phelps did research beyond wikipedia is just sorry but a stupid thing to say, every single person to do with the crimson field and their individual characters did research into diares and different wars, the medical histories, so you have no right to say that. You don’t seem to have grasped WHY they made this series. The words you use in this are insulting, you really don’t understand it at all. and excuse me but it is NOT LIKE CALL THE MIDWIFE! or downton abbey i’m sorry but its not. I know its all your opinion but be nicer about you say it and be respectful and do some research before you say those sort of things

  • amfortas

    I guess it doesn’t matter that you paid scant attention to detail (the smoker and the scent wearer were different people; the wedding ring was an engagement ring although the smoker did have a wedding ring earlier in the drama).

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