Early on in Peter Flannery's roaring Civil War drama, The Devil's Whore, the aristocratic heroine falls in with the Levellers, political radicals from Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army. Angelica Fanshawe is feisty, as heroines in British TV invariably are, and her journey towards "the Left" of the 1640s sees her overcome dangers that would have destroyed a lesser woman.
Her Catholic mother abandons her as a child. She becomes a lady-in-waiting at the court of Charles I, but displays her rebellious streak by talking back to the king and her vapid husband. When war comes, Harry Fanshawe proves his weakness by refusing to stand his ground against the parliamentary forces. Charles executes him for cowardice, and turfs Angelica out of his court. Seeing her starving and defenceless on the street, a corn merchant invites her to dinner, then tries to rape her.
Flannery leaves us in no doubt that her assailant is one of the rising bourgeoisie who want to dominate England when Parliament prevails. This lusty bourgeois' rise stops, however, when Angelica saves her honour by stabbing him in the throat with a cheese knife.
She flees and finds John Lilburne, the great radical pamphleteer, whom Parliament imprisoned for demanding that the English revolution should benefit all freeborn Englishmen, not only the merchants. In his cell, Angelica reads Lilburne's manifesto. The corrupt Parliament must be dissolved, she recites, and a new one elected by "all men of good faith and not just those with property". Lilburne looks a tad embarrassed by the gender exclusiveness of his demands. Like a modern politician who has heard himself saying "he" when he should have said "he or she", he interrupts hastily to show Angelica he is no sexist. "The levelling of women cannot begin until this has been accomplished," he reassures her.
I do not wish to jeer. The Devil's Whore is the best historical drama in years. The acting is terrific - Andrea Riseborough's performance as Angelica will surely make her a star - and Flannery's script is gripping. Yet its portrayal of 17th-century radicalism is tendentious and anachronistic, for a reason that says much about the denials of our times.
Lilburne would not have talked about "levelling". "Leveller" was an insult thrown at him by his Royalist and Parliamentarian enemies. He and his friends indignantly rejected the charge that "we would level all men's estates, that we would have no distinction of orders and dignities among men" as a malicious slander. Meanwhile, modern researchers wonder how seriously the Levellers believed in universal male suffrage - the main demands were for an end to rotten boroughs and for an English republic, not one man, one vote. As for feminism, Lilburne would never have dreamed of advocating "the levelling of women". Our notions of equality between the sexes were beyond the most radical minds of the 1640s.
Historical fact should not bind the writers of historical fiction, of course. But Channel 4's fiction is unintentionally fascinating because it relies on an interpretation of the Civil War that is at least 40 years out of date. From the late 19th century, the rise of the social democratic and socialist movements rescued the forgotten Levellers and the primitive communists of the Diggers movement from obscurity. As Blair Worden says in his Roundhead Reputations: The English Civil Wars and the Passions of Posterity, "once more the present saw its reflection in the past".
The 18th-century Whigs had drawn ideological succour from the parliamentarians' stand against the Crown but deplored the excesses of the revolution. Victorian liberals whitewashed the excesses and turned Cromwell into a plaster saint - a champion of liberty, worthy of a statue in Parliament Square. The mid-20th-century Left went further and argued that the revolution failed because it was not excessive enough. Cromwell and his greedy bourgeois allies destroyed its base by moving against the radical ideas of the Levellers and Diggers - a dampening of ardour that they were determined to resist in their lifetimes.
Students read the left-wing historians Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson. Scratching around for a name, a group of folk-punk musicians decided to call themselves The Levellers. Not to be outdone, Billy Bragg outflanked them on the left and dedicated a song to Gerrard Winstanley, the Digger leader.
Worden stops his account of how successive generations used the past in the mid-1970s. It is a pity he did, because by then historians were beginning to realise that the russet-coated captains of the New Model Army were not always potential readers of the New Statesman. They grasped that men murdered each other, blew up churches and supported or opposed Cromwell's theocratic rule, not because religion was a cover for class or political interests, but because religious passions moved them above all others.
Similarly, Christian, Jewish and Hindu fundamentalism was rising in contemporary America, Israel and India, and the Islamic revolution had swept to power in Iran. Contrary to enlightened hopes, militant religion was not dying but alive and kicking all too vigorously.
The new way of seeing the Civil War as a religious conflict filtered out of the universities. In his deservedly popular An Utterly Impartial History of Britain: (or 2,000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge), John O'Farrell headlines the section on
Oliver Cromwell "England's Ayatollah Khomeini". "Quite what his statue is doing in pride of place outside Parliament is one of our democracy's great mysteries," he says. "During the decade following the execution of Charles I, England was ruled by the Protestant version of the Taliban."
So it was, but you would never guess it from The Devil's Whore. The notion that religious hatreds dominated the period does not occur to Flannery. Channel 4 takes us back to the intellectual atmosphere of the mid-20th-century Left. Again, religion is just a gloss that covers "real" class and political interests.
How strange it is to see these old ideas on the screen now that messianic theocrats have killed thousands of infidels in New York, Madrid, London and Mumbai, and, in Iraq, blown up mosques and churches and killed tens of thousands more in a religious civil war. No one who looks at radical Islamists squarely can deny that apocalyptic religious passions inspire them. Yet Channel 4 and, I suspect, the majority of its audience are nervous about seeing reflections of the present in the past. They prefer to turn away and suppress their fears by seeking the comfort of familiar ideas.
For all its many dramatic virtues, it is what The Devil's Whore does not tell us about the mid-17th century that says most about the early 21st.