The good old days are back: opium, fancy hats, colonialism and well-lit sex

Patrick Freyne: The Luminaries looks great and has spirited acting, but what is it trying to be?

Opium! Gold! Astrolabes! Fancy hats! Olde-timey sidearms! Colonialism! Sailboats! It’s the olden days again on the British national broadcaster. And that’s not just on the news programmes (though expect lots of astrolabes, olde-timey sidearms and opium on Newsnight as the post-Brexit years accumulate).

If you watch period dramas a lot, you'll know that there are two kinds of olden days. There's the olden days in which people swathed in velvet say, "Oh no, your lordship, Mr Hitler is using the wrong fork!" and then there's the type of olden days in which toothless grotesques wrestle in the mud, stopping only to have surprisingly well-lit sex or to die of a lurgy. But enough about Kildare in the 1990s.

The Luminaries (Monday and Tuesday, BBC One) is closer to the latter category. It begins with a confusing night scene in which a man is murdered and our distressed heroine, Anna (Eve Hewson), finds her hands covered in crumbs of gold.

What is it about this cartoonishly sinister man that appeals to Emery? Is it the way he gnaws on the scenery as he outlines his improbable plans?

Then the words "Nine months earlier" appear on screen, and we see a happier Anna standing on a boat gazing at the cliffs of New Zealand. This is the difference between fiction and contemporary adult life. If you were to do a "Nine months earlier" flashback on my boring life, I'd be sitting in the same chair writing a column (possibly literally this column).


Anna, however, quickly establishes a strange and mystical connection with her dreamy shipmate Emery (Himesh Patel) over a discussion of a ship-trailing albatross. They have much in common. Both are starry eyed young rubes who have come to New Zealand with hope in their hearts and gold on their brains. She has a shady past (presumably it’s that she’s Bono’s daughter), and her new friend Emery has an optimistic outlook, but they are both strikingly naive young ingenues. They are quickly separated and targeted by mustachio-twirling miscreants.

Emery is swiftly swindled by his travelling companions before inexplicably going into partnership with the first cartoonishly sinister and violent man in a bowler hat that he meets. What is it about this cartoonishly sinister and violent man in a bowler hat that appeals to Emery? Is it his shifty eyes? Is it the way in which he gnaws on the scenery as he outlines his improbable plans? Is it the way I’m shouting, “Oh yes he is!” and, “Oh no you didn’t!” at the screen whenever he opens his mouth? Is it the violent way he dispatches the young assassin who comes to kill him? Is it the psychotically bonkers reason he gives for the young assassin’s anger (the bowler-hat man got the assassin’s whole family addicted to opium during the Opium Wars)? What is it about this man that makes Emery think to go into business with him? He must have nice shoes.

Anna, meanwhile, cannot read and quickly has her purse purloined and Emery's address destroyed by a nefarious well-dressed lady called Lydia Wells (the wonderfully camera-hogging Eva Green), who, impressed by Anna's trusting guilelessness, hires her as a prospective prostitute for her rigged casino/fortune telling/brothel business. (Take that business plan to your bank manager and see where it gets you.)

Compared with Emery, Anna is a hard-boiled cynic. She is, in fact, the little ingenue that could. She does some spying and snooping. She quickly learns that hammy Lydia is best pals with the cartoonishly violent ham in a bowler hat. She is, in fact, in danger of being caught between them in a sort of ham sandwich. She overhears their plan to dispatch Lydia’s gold-prospector husband in order to steal his gold. The last few sentences would make for quite a complex problem-page letter that would traffic well on social. But Anna can’t read or write, so she cuts to the chase and tells the gold prospector about the plot. “What a narc,” says you. “Interfering in the business interests of two visionary disruptors. Why couldn’t she just let the market decide?”

Why am I rooting for the extravagant brothel madam and the violent man in a bowler hat?

The answer is: because of olden-days sex. The gold prospector is the hunky kind and not the grey-bearded variety who dances around performatively saying “tarnation!” Before long Anna and the gold prospector are doing it in the sand instead of in a bed like nature intended, getting sand everywhere and probably cramps. Meanwhile, miles away, Emery nearly drowns because he goes into the sea without being able to swim. Classic Emery.

By the end of the second episode we are in the middle of a murder mystery and find that Anna can somehow channel the missing Emery’s thoughts, memories and ability to read. This is, I guess, the kind of virtual learning the Department of Education is planning for next year. But to both the programme-makers and the Department of Education I say: how does this work, exactly? It’s the type of fuzzy just-because logic that might appear seamless in a dreamy work of literary fiction (this is based on a novel by Eleanor Catton) but seems insufficiently worked out for the small screen or, indeed, educational policy.

All in all, The Luminaries looks beautiful, and it features some spirited acting (including from Eve Hewson), but I’m not sure what it’s trying to be. Is it a gritty tale of colonial New Zealand or a wishy-washy work of fantasy? And why am I rooting for the extravagant brothel madam and the violent man in a bowler hat?

Elsewhere this week the BBC makes me feel like lush period dramas are an awful lot of trouble to go to when you could just pair a brilliant script with one brilliant actor. I know this is a terrible notion to hand to financially troubled, risk-averse broadcasters, but Alan Bennett’s newly reproduced Talking Heads monologues (Monday and Tuesday, BBC One) are just so good. They’re emotionally textured, chatty, funny and dark. They also feature people talking to themselves in otherwise empty sitting rooms, and who can’t relate to that right now?

Imelda Staunton's A Woman of Letters drifts slowly from whimsical rumination with witty asides to existential darkness with witty asides. Then in An Ordinary Woman, one of two new scripts Bennett has written, Sarah Lancashire brings us from chummy domesticity into a disturbing suburban nightmare. I know this is easier said than done, but it makes me wonder if Liz Nugent or Paul Howard or Marian Keyes might write us a few of these for Irish screens (seriously). Perhaps a fortune-telling bordello madame or a violent man in a bowler hat could feature (not seriously).