The Crimson Petal And The White

Romola Garai as Sugar

AUTHOR Michel Faber described the sex in his book as “hardcore”.

Reviewers said it was “filthy” and debauched.

So how would you go about filming it for a BBC2 drama?

Some of the answers are in my feature for today’s Manchester Evening News, which you can read below.

Though I’m sure you’re more interested in the starring role for Manchester Town Hall…

Sex, of course, sells. But there’s much more to this story.

Those who have read the book will know the identity of Sugar’s mother.

And what unfolds over the course of her daughter’s journey.

I didn’t find tonight’s first episode particularly shocking, aside from one moment involving Richard E Grant as the sinister Doctor Curlew.

But then the more explicit scenes come later on in the series.


THE magic of television has again transformed Manchester Town Hall for a starring role in a controversial new drama.

A TV team used the courtyard of the historic building to depict St Giles Rookery, a notorious Victorian slum at the heart of The Crimson Petal And The White (BBC2, tonight, 9pm).

The four-part series reveals the truth about the darker side of prostitution in 1870s London but was filmed in Manchester and Liverpool.

Award-winning director Marc Munden explains: “The big reference for St Giles was photos of Calcutta – I felt the slum should be very similar to that and we wanted to make it as frightening, odd and gripping as possible.

“The first line in the script was, ‘You think you know this world well but other stories have flattered you. You’re an alien in this world.’ I just thought that was a tremendous challenge to try and create that on screen.”

Atonement and Emma star Romola Garai plays young, calculating whore Sugar, who was forced into prostitution by her mother when she was just 13.

The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd co-stars as wealthy perfume company heir William Rackham, who makes Sugar, 19, his mistress.

She lives in a brothel within St Giles Rookery run by Mrs Castaway, played by The X-Files actress Gillian Anderson, with the “adult” drama claiming to uncover “the true sexual politics of Victorian life – in a way never seen before on screen”.

Chris O'Dowd as William Rackham

Some of the “dark intimacies” in the original bestselling 2002 novel by Michel Faber were too explicit to be screened in the series. Sugar tells viewers of the spicy tale: “If you dare enter this world, you had better tread carefully.”

But Marc says BBC bosses did not try to censor the drama. “There’s absolutely nothing that we were asked to pull back on. It was really pretty astounding.”

Screenwriter Lucinda Coxon explains: “People have been very interested in the sex in the book and how we’re going to do it. There were people saying, ‘There will be lots of debates about what you can and can’t show.’

“But, in the end, those decisions made themselves. At no point was there any kind of editorial interference.”

Romola says: “I hope a lot of people sit down with their steak and chips waiting for a gentle evening’s viewing with a wedding at the end and then find themselves open-mouthed. I think they are in for a shock, but I think they’re in for a very enjoyable shock.”

She had already read the novel when the role came along. “At the beginning of the stort, Sugar has become something of a ‘destination prostitute’, which means she has a certain amount of power – she can pick and choose her clients.

“As far as Sugar is concerned this is a pretty enviable position, but like a lot of women in her situation she wants to get off the street, she wants to be a mistress, because that gives her a better quality of life.

“That’s her main goal and she meets William Rackham who has a lot of money and he’s also someone that she things is quite stupid. She thinks that he is someone that she can use.”

Gillian Anderson as Mrs Castaway

Asked about the dark sex scenes, Chris jokes: “I thought it was going to be a lot funnier. He starts off as a wounded beast who is trapped. He’s a fascinating character because he doesn’t know himself.

“William is rattled and weighed down with the responsibilities that people heap upon him. His father expects him to be one thing, his wife expects him to be something else and society wants something from him. And more than anything else he expects a lot of himself. He sees her as freedom.”

BBC Drama boss Ben Stephenson maintains: “This is period drama like you’ve never seen it before.” While Lucinda says it covers a period of history not well documented, involving all parts of society and untold stories.

“It’s a fantastic drama about the extent to which we can ever know what is in other people’s heads. It’s a story about a relationship between two people and certainly one of them very rarely has any idea about what’s in the other person’s head.

“And it’s very much a story about people who’ve had very damaged childhoods and spend the rest of their lives trying to work through that.”

The Crimson Petal And The White BBC Site

Marc Munden BBC TV Blog

The Book

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