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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.

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January 4th, 2009
1:01 PM
Cohen's article may have a few errors, but he is bang on in his observation that progressive left opinion just can't handle religion. This religious illiteracy leads to the routine 'recoding' of declared religious motivations as always 'really' about class or power or gender. It is simply unthinkable to certain left-wing temperaments that people might be motivated by ideas of eternal destiny, the immortality of the soul and the eschaton. Revisionist histories of the Civil War have put religion right back at the centre of it. It was a war of rival religious ideas much more than competing classes. A bloody coda to the British Reformation.

Michael Sweeney
December 24th, 2008
11:12 AM
I once recall listening to a BBC play about the civil war where the roundheads were depicted as working class northerners and Cromwell as a 17th century Scargill figure. A very eminent historian I knew back then commented 'But Cromwell was a member of the Cambridgeshire gentry...' The past is a different country etc etc

Ross Burns
December 23rd, 2008
11:12 PM
Resistor, I thought you'd like that last bit.

December 23rd, 2008
9:12 PM
Thanks Steve, now I know that facts are no longer sacred in Britsh journalism. Sadly Nick Cohen is getting a reputation as the best example of that. And Ross, the idea that Billy Bragg would have introduced the song by saying, 'I'd like to dedicate this song to Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers' is laughable. Cohen thought Bragg had written the song and was using the 'fact' as another attempt to bash the anti-war left.

December 23rd, 2008
10:12 AM
Steve, Nick is not writing of the programme with that bit about 'religion being just a gloss' etc - he is saying it was historians in the seventies who were starting to realise that religion was the main motive for the violence, and not what had been accepted by others. And that should answer your last sentence too. If you have an idle moment, would you give 3-5 other excellent historical drama's that prove Nick wrong. You aren't just Nick bashing are you? Resistor, I have checked and Rosselson is the composer of said song. However, this slip shouldn't have caused the start of the earthquake you seem to be experiencing. Have you never been at a wedding party before, when the groom says he'd like to dedicate this song to my lovely new wife and then sings a famous song, probably written by Elton John or the Beatles. Or, perhaps if he isn't Malcolm Rifkind, by Billy Bragg.

December 23rd, 2008
5:12 AM
yeah! bang on there resistor, the entire crux of the review is the billy bragg reference- yeesh.

December 22nd, 2008
4:12 PM
'Not to be outdone, Billy Bragg outflanked them on the left and dedicated a song to Gerrard Winstanley, the Digger leader.' Complete rubbish, the song sung by Bragg about the Diggers, 'The World Turned Upside Down' was written by Leon Rosselson. when was the last time Cohen did any fact-checking.

December 21st, 2008
10:12 AM
The Devil's Whore is the best historical drama in years. nonsense. It had a few good performances but historical drama needs to be wedded to the history of the time. This was more like a Philippa Gregory novel than a proper historical drama. and as for this: 'religion is just a gloss that covers "real" class and political interests'? Religion was ALL OVER the programme. You are watching it selectively, Nick. In fact you seem to have misread almost everything you've watched this year. Maybe that's the fault of the left too. Because everything else is in your eyes. I also fail to understand the immediate parallele drawn between the civil war and Islamist terrorism. Where is the reflection of this aspect of the present in the civil war? you never actually say.

Ross Burns
December 19th, 2008
11:12 AM
Not only is Nick Cohen of the highest standard as an author, journalist and polemicist, his television criticism shares that height too. Brilliant piece.

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