Jamestown: absurd, generic and risible show in ‘a hive of men starved of women’

Bill Gallagher’s immensely unsubtle writing results in absurd, generic and risible TV

Jocelyn (Naomi Battrick), Verity (Niamh Walsh) and Alice (Sophie Rundle). Photograph: Sky

Jocelyn (Naomi Battrick), Verity (Niamh Walsh) and Alice (Sophie Rundle). Photograph: Sky

 

The place: Virginia, in these not yet United States of America. The time: 1619. The weather: very pleasant indeed. And the women who have survived the treacherous crossing to Jamestown, the first British colony in this land of promise, look as though they have disembarked from nothing more arduous than a shampoo commercial. This is among the first signs that Jamestown (Sky1, Friday), from the producers of Downton Abbey, may not be a model of historical realism.

At the harbour these “maids to make wives” are assigned to waiting men like prizes to raffle winners. For Alice (Sophie Rundle) it is love at the first sight of swarthy Silas (Stuart Martin), a paragon of colonial dishiness, but – alas – he is acting as courier for his brother, Henry, her betrothed, a paragon of greasiness. “You cost him 150 pounds of the finest tobacco,” Alice is told. She seems pleased.

Elsewhere the haughty blonde Jocelyn (Naomi Battrick), who admitted to murdering a man in the show’s opening seconds, meets her husband to be, Samuel, a well-to-do clerk who deals mainly in exposition: “I know we talked about this in England, but . . . ”

Verity (Niamh Walsh), a red-haired Irish woman and former convict, who is naturally obliged to be feisty, is left unclaimed and is advised to find safety, for Jamestown is “a hive of men starved of women”.

What this means in Bill Gallagher’s immensely unsubtle writing is that rape will be used as a plot device before we reach the first ad break. When Alice is attacked by Henry its consequence is conveyed with a dreamy shot of her awaking in the grass, leaking a single aesthetic teardrop, while enveloped by tender string music. Such is the show’s dispiriting command of gravity.

Everything that follows is absurd, generic or risible. Alice and Silas, who have barely exchanged words, breathlessly confess their hopeless love. Jocelyn, an intense social climber, turns her wiles towards a very specific altering of the colony’s legislation on the sale of tobacco farms.

And Verity abandons her partner, the town drunk and scallywag, to take her chances in the wilderness. Her escape doesn’t last long, in circumstances that involve quicksand, wolves and the sudden intervention of the town’s smouldering blacksmith. But, frankly, she’s got the right idea. “I had a look at this place and decided it’s not for me,” she tells Alice.

Amen, sister.

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