‘Pshaw!’ That was my first reaction to news of the BBC’s new ten-part Sunday night adaptation of The Three Musketeers. After all, wasn’t it about a fortnight ago I was in the Gaumont in Redditch watching the classic 1973 movie version that had just come out with Michael York (and Oliver Reed and Roy Kinnear…)? And wasn’t it roughly the day before yesterday that I remember tut-tutting and refusing point-blank to go to see the 1993 Hollywood bratpack travesty with those upstarts Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland?
This is what happens when you get old: time compresses; there’s nothing new under the sun; everything people younger than you do seems somehow to be a damned impertinence. So, no, I really didn’t fancy The Musketeers’ (BBC1) survival prospects in the Delingpole household. I gave it half an hour max.
At the end of the first episode, though, I was still happily watching. And thinking, ‘Good-oh! That’s my Sunday evenings sorted for the next two months then.’
I’ll tell you what clinched it for me. (Plot spoiler alert.) It was the Miller’s Crossing-like scene in the woods towards the end. This involved the very attractive and generously cleavaged young wife of Cardinal Richelieu. Given her attributes — and also the fact that she was sympathetically played as much more than a bit of gratuitous rumpy-pumpy — you would have thought that she would have been delighting us for many episodes to come.
But no. Richelieu (Peter Capaldi) takes her out into the woods, having discovered evidence of her infidelity, and indicates that she’s going to be killed. You think: ‘Nah. Not going to happen. Any second now, Athos, Porthos and Aramis are going to come galloping implausibly to the rescue and…’ Bang. ‘Oh.’
The scriptwriter Adrian Hodges has clearly learned his lesson well from series such as Game of Thrones: let no one be safe. Obviously, this is a touch trickier when three (four, if you count d’Artagnan) of your main characters are in the title but it doesn’t half keep jaded viewers on their toes. It also deals effectively with perhaps the biggest threat faced by all Three Musketeers adaptations — that they might descend at any moment into tongue-in-cheek knockabout.
Of all genres, tongue-in-cheek knockabout is possibly my least favourite: it’s The A-Team; it’s The Cannonball Run; it’s laughs without wit or humour and thrills rendered cheap through lack of peril. If no one can die or get injured — nobody who matters anyway — then where are the emotional stakes? Why should we care?
With this pacy, entertaining, not-too-insultingly scripted adaptation I find — rather to my surprise — that I do care. Sure there’s something heavily stylised about those leather outfits the boys wear — they’re more Harley Davidson rally than 17th-century France; and, yes, the endless swordplay can be as ineffably tedious as in any Errol Flynn swashbuckler. But behind all the braggadocio, all the pretty boy looks, all the wassailing and high jinks, you do get the sense that if you pricked these musketeers they’d bleed. Their nonchalance and gaiety, in other words, are not the product of their being immortal cartoonish cut-outs, but rather — as it must have been among chevalier classes throughout history — an admirable two-fingers jauntily flicked at the daily possibility of imminent death.
The other TV thing that I find myself strangely drawn to at the moment is The Taste (Channel 4, Tuesday). This is the cookery show mash-up — a cross between MasterChef and the talent show The Voice — in which teams led by three celebrity chefs compete to impress the judges on the basis of just a single, sample spoonful of intense yumminess.
It works, I think, is because unlike on MasterChef, the famous cooks (America’s Anthony Bourdain, a Frenchman called Ludo Lefebvre, and our own Nigella Lawson) aren’t there just as mentors but as competitors too. So when one of their team gets voted out, we see their ego publicly being given a huge knock, much as you might, say, when someone on I’m a Celebrity flunks their cockroach-eating test.
The resident celebrities milk this tension beautifully: Nigella is calm, encouraging, mumsy, prepared to administer hugs when necessary; Bourdain plays it like jazz — louche, free-form, aggressively cool (as when he goes into Lefebvre’s section with a glass of wine to goad and sneer at how, like, totally unrelaxed his rival is being); while Lefebvre lives up to his own national stereotype by being impossibly arrogant, uptight and demanding, and treating his team like the lowliest commis. It makes for a compulsive formula: which national character is best suited for world domination — the English, the American or the French?
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