The clue to Shakespeare’s sexuality lies in the sonnets

The question ‘Was Shakespeare gay?’ is not very rational. It might be a little like asking ‘Was Shakespeare a Tory?’. Some of his scenarios might coincide with later developments – Jaques trying to pick up Ganymede in As You Like It (gay), or Ulysses’s speech on degree in Troilus and Cressida (Tory). But the historical conditions are not there. No doubt there have been people keen on same-sex relations since the dawn of time. But the possibilities of a social identity embedded in the word ‘gay’ didn’t exist in the 16th century, nor the medical diagnosis from which the word ‘homosexual’ arose. Nor will ‘sodomite’ do. That describes some very

Can Douglas Is Cancelled hold its nerve?

Like many sitcoms, W1A featured a middle-aged man convinced that he’s the only sane person left in the world. Usually, of course, this merely goes to show how delusional the bloke is – but the subversive twist here was that Ian Fletcher, the BBC’s head of values, seemed to be right. Playing Ian, Hugh Bonneville therefore spent much of his screentime radiating a bemused dismay at the madness around him. The only question is whether the show will hold its nerve or whether Douglas will prove toxic after all Now, as the main character in the comedy drama Douglas Is Cancelled, Bonneville is at it again. When we first met

Watching Queen Cleopatra felt like witnessing the death of scholarship

The most controversial aspect of Netflix’s new drama-documentary Queen Cleopatra – not least in Egypt – was the casting of a black actress, Adele James, in the title role. After all, one of the few things that seems certain about Cleopatra’s early life is that she was a Macedonian Greek. Luckily, though, the show had a powerful counterargument to this awkward and Eurocentric fact. As the African-American professor Shelley P. Haley put it with a QED-style flourish, back when she was girl, her beloved (if uneducated) grandmother once said to her: ‘I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was black.’ Watching Queen Cleopatra felt alarmingly like witnessing

The utter misery of BBC’s Marriage

‘Who are these people and why should we care about them?’ This is the most important question any screenwriter must ask before committing pen to paper. Sadly it’s a question I failed to come anywhere near answering during the interminable ‘realism’ of the BBC’s much discussed (and much praised) Marriage. Sean Bean and Nicola Walker play Ian and Emma, an uptight midlife couple caught in the tedium of marital graft after 27 years together. The four-part ‘drama’ has been widely commended for showing the profound inanity of ordinary people’s domestic lives. While I consider myself to be pretty ordinary, I failed to recognise either of these dullards as anything other

Alienatingly sweet and warm: BBC2’s The Newsreader reviewed

When TV makes shows about TV, it rarely has a good word to say for itself. In the likes of W1A, The Day Today and, savagest of all, Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV, the industry has looked in the mirror and ripped itself to shreds. What all these comedies say, in their own way, is that most TV is bombastic, brain-dead, two-star crap put together in a blind panic and a moral vacuum by idiots and monsters. Second only to politics, it’s the satirists’ biggest sitting duck, the gift that can’t stop giving. The Newsreader, a new newsroom drama, turns out to be cut from different cloth. It’s set

Who are these pathologically liberal rozzers? Channel 4’s Night Coppers reviewed

Grizzled police officers of the old school should probably avoid Channel 4’s Night Coppers for reasons of blood pressure. Like most documentary series with close access to the police, this one paints them in a light so favourable as to be almost comically sycophantic. The trouble for those grizzled types is that – the times being as they are – what’s now considered favourable is to make the rozzers who patrol Brighton after dark all seem like that pathologically liberal Dutch cop played by Paul Whitehouse in the late 1990s. Not that this is a reference which most of the officers featured in Wednesday’s opening episode would get – largely

The ancient Greek art of theatre criticism

Last week Lloyd Evans was wondering whether it was about time audiences started booing dramatic productions of which they disapproved. He was right to trace this happy practice back to the ancient Greeks. In Athens, trilogies of tragedies were put on in competition, and Plato tells us that the audience did not disguise its feelings about its choice of winner, though the judges had the final say (Plato disapproved of those who yielded to the ‘howling of the mob’). In general, disapproval of any aspect of a play was expressed by hissing and booing, and heels being kicked against the seats. Uncouth behaviour was also not uncommon. We hear of

Shades of Tony Soprano: BBC1’s The Responder reviewed

Older readers may remember a time when people signalled their cultural superiority with the weird boast that they didn’t watch television. These days the same mistaken sense of superiority is more likely to rely on the equally weird one that they don’t watch terrestrial television. So now that the BBC and ITV find themselves in the historically improbable role of plucky underdogs, it’s pleasing to report that this week saw the launch of two terrific new terrestrial shows — one of which already looks set to be as good as anything on Netflix, Amazon or Disney+ (except for Get Back of course). The programme in question is The Responder. It

Tells us more about today than the early 1960s: BBC1’s A Very British Scandal reviewed

For people who like a good upper-class scandal (or ‘people’, as they’re also known), 1963 was definitely a vintage year. Even before the Profumo affair came along, the divorce of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll offered plenty to enjoy, with its courtroom tales of her 80-odd lovers and that famous Polaroid of her pleasuring a titillatingly anonymous man while still wearing her pearls. All of which presented something of a problem for BBC1’s three-part dramatisation, A Very British Scandal — and not just because it had to pretend not to be titillated itself. At a time when female blamelessness is such a dominant media theme, could it find a

A blisteringly bonkers first episode: Doctor Who – Flux reviewed

BBC1 continuity excitedly introduced the first in the new series of Doctor Who as ‘bigger and better than ever’ — presumably because the more accurate ‘bigger and better than it’s been for a bit’ doesn’t have quite the same punch. Still, Sunday’s programme was a definite, even exhilarating improvement on those of recent years. Since Chris Chibnall became the showrunner in 2018, thrills have taken a firm second place to solemn lectures on how the most dangerous monster of all is human prejudice. Yet at no stage here did the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) encounter some acknowledged hero of black and/or women’s history — and so allow us a self-satisfied bask

A highly polished exercise in treading water: Season 3 of Succession reviewed

At one point in an early Simpsons, Homer comes across an old issue of TV Guide, and finds the listing for the sitcom Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. ‘Gomer upsets Sergeant Carter,’ he reads — adding with a fond chuckle, ‘I’ll never forget that episode.’ Even for British viewers unfamiliar with the show, the joke is clear: that’s what happens in every episode. Sad to say, this popped into my head while watching the first in the new series of Succession. The acting, script and direction are as brilliant as ever. Nonetheless, once Logan Roy began yet again to dangle the possibility of becoming the next CEO of his media empire before

Bleak, unashamedly macho and grown-up: BBC2’s The North Water reviewed

‘The world is hell, and men are both the tormented souls and the devils within it.’ This was the cheery epigraph from Schopenhauer with which The North Water introduced itself — aptly, as it transpired. Certainly, BBC2’s starry new Victorian drama is not for those who prefer their television characters to be loveable. The first person we met was Irishman Henry Drax (Colin Farrell), who gruntingly concluded his business with a Hull prostitute before heading for the docks in a way familiar to viewers of Victorian TV dramas: shamble up the cobbles, straight on past the women in shawls, turn left at the urchins. Following a restorative dose of rum,

Latest proof that western civilisation is over: Sky Atlantic’s Domina reviewed

I’ve been looking at the reviews so far of Sky’s new Romans series Domina and none seems to have noticed the most salient point: it’s crap. This is almost more depressing than the fact that the series got made in the first place, for what it suggests is this: our culture is now so debased that even our arbiters of taste can no longer tell the difference between quality and mediocrity. Domina follows the story of Julius Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian, from when he was a member of the triumvirate to his apotheosis as Caesar Augustus. You’d think you couldn’t possibly go wrong with such fascinating historical material, rich with gore,

Superb but depraved: BBC1’s The Serpent reviewed

The Serpent is the best BBC drama series in ages — god knows how it slipped through the net — but I still think it most unlikely that I shall stick it through to the final episode. It’s not the style that’s wrong but the subject matter: do we really want to spend eight hours of life in the company of a smug, ruthless serial killer who murders at least 12 people — and more or less gets away with it? Up to a point The Serpent has addressed this problem by trying to make the central figure not the killer, Charles Sobhraj, but the persistent Dutch junior diplomat, Herman

Netflix’s Barbarians taught me those Romans had it coming

Of all the times and places to have been on the wrong side of history, I can’t imagine many worse than to have been a Roman legionnaire in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in the year 9 AD. It was the Romans’ Isandlwana — a devastating defeat inflicted by native forces on what was theoretically the world’s most sophisticated, best trained, and almost insuperable military power. Over the years since I first learned about arrogant, tricked, doomed Roman commander Varus and his three legions (about 20,000 men, almost none of whom got out alive), I’ve often mused pityingly on how it must have felt: trapped in the gloomy forest,

Spare us David Hare

Having not watched television for nine months and already growing bored of the 1,000-piece jigsaw of General Alfredo Stroessner (part of the ‘Vigorous Leaders’ range from Waddingtons), my wife suggested — for a novelty — that maybe we should take in the new political thriller starring Hugh Laurie, called Roadkill. We have fond memories of Laurie from previous dramas and are both mildly interested in politics, so it seemed an agreeable idea. ‘What side is it on?’ I asked, with a note of warning. ‘BBC One,’ replied the missus, and we looked at each other glumly and I said: ‘Oh Christ. It’ll be a woke BAME-athon. Isn’t there an old

Funny, tender and properly horrible: Channel 4’s Adult Material reviewed

A woman is eating a pie in her car as it gets an automatic wash. Careful to keep the pie out of shot, she then films herself on her phone pretending to have an orgasm, posts the clip online and drives to work. Once there, she’s constantly distracted by thoughts of domestic chores (‘Whites tonight, colours in the morning, hang them out before the school run’) — which mightn’t be so unusual, except that her work consists of having sex. But if the early scenes in Channel 4’s new porn-industry drama Adult Material suggested a cheeky, essentially light-hearted twist on female life-juggling, this soon proved deceptive. What followed was an

From riveting Hitchockian melodrama to bigoted drivel: BBC’s Unprecedented reviewed

Back to the West End at last. After a four- month lay-off, I grabbed the first available chance to catch a show in central London. I joined 20 enthusiasts at the ‘West End Musical — Silent Disco Walking Tour’, which convened outside a Fitzrovia pub. We were given a pink bracelet and a set of headphones that pumped musical hits into our ears. Our cheerleader, Sean, introduced us to his helpers, Tiny Tom and Sticky Vicky, who taught us a quick dance move. It transpired that we were the performers as well as the audience. We set off across the West End like a military convoy of unemployed choristers. At

Sumptuous and very promising: A Suitable Boy reviewed

Nobody could argue that Andrew Davies isn’t up for a challenge. He’d also surely be a shoo-in for Monty Python’s Summarise Proust competition. After turning both War and Peace and Les Misérables into satisfying, unhurried six-part drama series, he’s now taken on Vikram Seth’s 1,300-page novel A Suitable Boy. The first episode started with a wedding that immediately established the programme’s visual sumptuousness, while also serving as a handy introduction to the main characters. The groom’s rebellious brother Maan, for example, chafed at the idea that he was supposed to be next. The bride’s spirited sister Lata protested that the newly weds hardly knew each other, before hearing the chilling

Another drama about how women are great and men are rubbish: C4’s Philharmonia reviewed

On the face of it, a French-language drama about a Parisian symphony orchestra mightn’t sound like the most action-packed of TV watches. In fact, though, Philharmonia (Sundays) is pretty much Dallas with violins. The first episode began with the eponymous orchestra blasting out a spot of what Shazam assured me was Dvorak, before its elderly conductor dropped his baton and collapsed to the floor, never to rise again. Cue a pair of Gallically elegant female lower legs making their way through the airport as one Hélène Barizet arrived from New York to take over the role. David was left in a tartan bag in Belfast; Helen was discovered in a