Life in Squares: does the Bloomsbury group drama go far enough?

Published in The Independent on Sunday on July 26, 2015

Within the first five minutes of Life in Squares, the BBC’s major new drama about the Bloomsbury Group, two corsets are ripped off – and summarily chucked out of a window with a cry of “freedom!” It’s a statement of intent from sisters Vanessa and Virginia Stephens, a literal throwing off of restrictive Victorian convention, before they became the beating heart of the bohemian social circle of artists and thinkers named after the London neighbourhood in which they lived in the early 20th century.

But the corset defenestration is also, surely, a symbolic action for the series makers: nothing more obviously signifies the similarly stifling conventions of the costume drama than the corset, after all. And this BBC three-parter, written by Amanda Coe and directed by Swedish film-maker Simon Kaijser, certainly has a task on its hands to release these historical figures from the genteel trappings and expectations of the genre and convey their radical spirit. “Quite often we put period dramas in a formal straightjacket,” Kaisjer notes. The last thing he wanted was for Life in Squares to be filmed so elegantly that viewers just get nostalgic for the very conventions the Bloomsburies sought to smash.

Life in Squares is part of a new direction for the BBC when it comes to period drama: at the end of last year, drama commissioner Ben Stephenson declared that he was no longer interested in cosy Austen adaptations, but rather period dramas that “take massive risks with tone”, pointing to the likes of Wolf Hall and Peaky Blinders. So, it was that the HBO series Girls was mentioned as a stylistic touchstone to Kaisjer by the production team early on. “I loved the idea that it wasn’t just a period drama. [Their way of living] is still radical, and it had to have relevance today.”

This drama might not be quite as sexually frank as Girls, but it’s getting there: the focus is unabashedly on the personal drama behind the group’s artistry, the intertwined relationships and near-incestuous shagging. Vanessa is at the heart of it, but we see them all at it. The Daily Mail has reported thus: “The Bloomsbury bonkbuster! Six sex scenes in just one episode … is this the raunchiest TV show ever?”
For Bloomsbury fans, there’s always a wrinkle of annoyance about the attention paid to their sex lives over their creative achievements: Vanessa Bell was an acclaimed painter, and Virginia Woolf remains one of the world’s most significant novelists. Their circle included noted biographers (Lytton Strachey), artists (Duncan Grant), art critics (Clive Bell; Roger Fry), economists (John Maynard Keynes), psychoanalysts (Adrian Stephens), and authors (E M Forster).

Yet the group, as a collective, is often better remembered for its amorous experiments: Vanessa married and had two children by Clive Bell, who had an (unconsummated) flirtation with Virginia, who romanced Vita Sackville-West while married to Leonard Woolf. Vanessa also hooked up with Roger Fry and then lived and had a baby with Duncan Grant, who bed-hopped with Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes and Vanessa’s brother, Adrian. In modern parlance? It’s complicated.

But watching the first two episodes of Life in Squares is a reminder that actually, all this juicy stuff is genuinely fascinating. A century on, and even after Sixties’ free love, the acceptance of homosexuality, and a rise in visibility for polyamorous or alternative relationship structures, what the Bloomsburies managed is still rare. And, dare I say it, quite impressive in its bravery, looking for honest ways to live and love beyond mere convention.

The dramatic allure of their unorthodox personal lives also means they’re frequently fictionalised. There have been two novels recently which, like Life in Squares, focus on Vanessa’s story – Susan Sellers’ Vanessa and Virginia, also turned into a play, and Priya Parmar’s Vanessa & Her Sister. This year we’ve had Woolf en pointe in Wayne McGregor’s ballet Woolf Works, while this autumn sees a new film version being made of Eileen Atkins’s play, Vita & Virginia, starring Romola Garai, and telling of the Woolf and Sackville-West’s affair. On screen, there was the 2003 Oscar-winner The Hours, adapted from Michael Cunningham’s novel, which paralleled Woolf’s story with the complex emotional stories of women in the 1950s and present day, while other bio-dramas provide views on the group from later friends and lovers, such as Tom & Viv – looking at the troubled relationship of T S Eliot and wife Vivienne, and Carrington, about Strachey and Dora Carrington’s, er, troubled relationship.

Screen-wise at least, these adaptations have been all too orthodox. Both Tom & Viv and Carrington emerged at the height of the Ninieties “heritage cinema” trend, a fate that neither really transcended. Even The Hours, which has a more inventive structure, succumbed to a certain inert stateliness with Woolf a dour but genteel woman in an unfeasibly large country house, all tweed and florals and tea in the garden. The problem with such renderings is that they play into the hands of those that dismiss Bloomsbury as a gang of posh, self-indulgent aesthetes.

Life in Squares clearly intends to rebel from cliché, at least. But the drama does begin in 1905, when many Bloomsburies were wealthy and had moved into country houses. How can you accurately film all this stuff while preventing it from turning into Downton Abbey-esque escapism? With some difficulty.

On one hand, Kaisjer successfully shakes up the filming style – quite literally: he says he aimed for “impressionistic” and, unusually for a costume drama, shot with a hand-held camera. It’s not exactly Blair Witch-wobbly, but it does give a looser, “informal feel”, more analogous to the group’s own artistic experiments in form. On the other hand, it still does all look a bit deliberately vintage, with a chiaroscuro of smoky gloom here and a bleached fade-out there; very Instagram. And there’s heavy use of soft focus that lays thick romanticism over lingering shots of people painting, attractive young graduates discussing art and smoking, as women brush hair by candlelight ….

Still, if such scenes flirt with cliché, the performances are subtle and winning. Among the characters’ younger selves – we hop back and forth in their lives – Phoebe Fox is a nuanced, multi-faceted Vanessa, Lydia Leonard an enjoyably sharp, sprightly Virginia, and James Norton a soulful, pained Duncan Grant, while I’m looking forward to seeing more of Eve Best as the older Vanessa. Meanwhile, Coe’s script mostly manages the historic tone nicely, of-its-time but not slavishly so. “We took a naturalistic approach,” says Kaisjer. “It’s a bit more like people speak today, so audiences can relate.”

And while it may be a costume drama, it doesn’t feel overly lavish – some costumes are worn repeatedly, in contrast to the ongoing fashion-parade evident in many primetime period pieces, and while there may be servants, hatboxes and horse-drawn carriages, their rooms and farmhouses are shabby, covered in art not aristocratic wealth, and allow the show to avoid the usual picturesque wish-fulfillment.

If there’s one major sticking point, it’s the thundering, crudely ‘cinematic’ music. Heaving piano arpeggios indicate the presence of Art and Romance, while screechy violins flag Tragedy. It’s too formal, and by being so formulaic, cues us into expecting the drama to be highly codified too. Sure, a blast of Icona Pop might have been a step too far for the Beeb – but if you can’t adopt the musical as well as filming styles of Girls, can you at least avoid the musical styles of Merchant Ivory?

Here was your chance to take a “massive risk in tone”; why not grab it, Auntie? It seems that even when you ditch the corsets, escaping cultural convention is a tough ask. Still, it’s a struggle that the Bloomsbury Group might have had some sympathy with.

Where next?