|From The Times November 3, 2008
Last night's Consuming Passion was the only 100th birthday present Mills and Boon could have wanted. Emma Frost's docudrama (more drama than doc) was not only an apologia for the paperback romances that sell 200 million copies a year but a 90-minute broadcast on behalf of the Campaign for Real Men.
Back in 1908 there was Charles Boon, but he couldn't have been described as a Real Man. A publisher who had left Methuen to start a new imprint with his friend Gerald Mills, short of cash and with the conversational skills of a navvy, he had somehow ensnared a respectable, moneyed girl to marry him. Mary's reward was a series of self-pitying speeches about how Boon's company was the only thing he had in the world. When Mills died of cancer, he was so distraught it was if his spouse had died. For a moment, I thought the script was trying to tell us something, but a caption at the end reassured us that the couple had four children. Boon's problem was that although he knew that Mary's view that women needed romance made business sense, he could not for the life of him see its application in the bedroom.
Flash forward to 1974, a year in which, if you believe the costume designer Emma Fryer, British fashion reached an all-decades nadir. But the floral dungarees and string coat were but two of the humiliations inflicted upon poor Janet Bottomley, a spinster trapped at home with her invalid mother. The rest were inflicted by a handsome, arrogant surgeon who performed her mother's hip replacement. Dr Grant, played by Patrick Baladi (an actor I cannot get enough of) from The Office and Bodies, met all the requirements of a Mills and Boon hero except for his reluctance to fall for Janet. The crashing of her hopes was almost too painful to watch. Janet did the only thing she could: she fashioned Dr Grant into Dr Steele in a novel snapped up by Boon's grandson Alan (played by the king of romance, Paul Nicholas). Thus Janet Bottomley, played by the impeccable Olivia Colman from Peep Show, reinvented herself as the author Raquel Pretty.
And so to the present day, and the most problematic of these tales. Would the college lecturer Kirstie, whose course on romance fiction included a Mills and Boon module, leave her mortgage-providing, wok-frying partner for a cocky 23-year-old student who could not keep his shirt on? I can't tell you how hard I was rooting for Mr Safe back home. But as sex scene followed sex scene I wondered how this drama could pull out of its nosedive towards endorsing the M&B myth that women must be tamed by domineering men. Well, it didn't, not until the final caption: “Kirstie's story does not represent real life,” it read. “Discuss.”
Frost's script was wickedly clever - and also informative. I did not know, for example, that these days M&B novels contain “throbbing c**ks”, an explicitness matched by the film (pubescent fans of Emilia Fox in Silent Witness will, I am sure, be rewarded by a thorough search of Google Images this morning). Nor did I know that in the Twenties M&B heroes became boyish, substituting for millions of bereaved women the sweethearts who never returned from the First World War.
I was not sure, before watching The Last Day of World War One on Saturday, if there was anything television could add to the subject of that four-year catastrophe. But Michael Palin, at his understated best, found a new way of telling the old story by way of the 11,000 men killed between the signing of the Armistice and the 11th-hour ceasefire. Their tragedy permits no gradation but it is, even now, hard not to be angry at the American General Charles Summerall's decision to order his men to take by force a German-held village that they could have walked into after 11am. His reasoning was that his men needed a bath. Several hundred young men were simply picked off by the Germans as they crossed the Meuse. Summerall, the programme might have told us, was promoted to Chief of Staff of the US Army and died aged 88.
Sharpe returned last night to ITV in Sharpe's Peril, and was in good form. It is now 1818 and he's a widower, but Sean Bean's soldier is still the perfect Mills and Boon hero. Part of his mission was to take care of a young French woman in such distress that she had to wear feisty, breast-exposing Laura Ashley lingerie for the whole 90 minutes. The other part was to knock a company of drunks into shape.
“I've seen some p***-poor sections in my time, by God I have! But yours is a bloody disgrace: work-shy, gutless - but that's going to change.” I suddenly realised whom Gordon Ramsay has been modelling himself on all this time.