The Crimson Petal And The White is an intimate psychological thriller, that lifts the lid on the darker side of Victorian London revealing a world seething with vitality, sexuality, ambition and emotion.
This provocative and riveting four-part drama tells the story of Sugar, (played by Romola Garai) an alluring, intelligent young prostitute who yearns for a better life away from the brothel she is attached to, run by the contemptible Mrs Castaway (Gillian Anderson).
Highly sought after and sexually adept, Sugar finds her only comfort in the secret novel she is writing in which a murderous prostitute takes revenge on her clients.
However, things change for her when she meets wealthy businessman William Rackham (Chris O’Dowd). Sugar is a thrilling antidote to William’s life, saddled with a pious brother, Henry Rackham (Mark Gatiss) and fragile wife Agnes Rackham (Amanda Hale). Agnes regularly endures visits from the invasive physician Doctor Curlew (Richard E Grant), leaving her unable to perform her wifely duties.
William ensconces Sugar as his mistress and she soon grows accustomed to her new life. Yet unbeknown to William, Sugar begins to hatch a plan which sets a series of events in motion that will change their lives forever.
Here Romola Garai explains just why this drama was so intriguing to her as an actress:
What initially attracted you to the role of Sugar?
‘I was very attracted to the novel. I had read it before and loved it. I thought Sugar was a fantastically interesting creation because she encapsulates quite a lot of contemporary concerns relating to women, power and sexuality.
‘I thought these themes were discussed quite honestly and accurately in the adaptation, which is not always the case, especially in television and film adaptations about prostitution.’[callout title=Actress Romola Garai]”Apparently as a woman, you’re able to use your body to control men”[/callout]
You mentioned power, and that’s a very interesting theme throughout the book.
‘Lucinda (Coxon’s) adaptation is exceptional because she writes incredibly clearly about the problems associated with women’s power being connected with their ability to sell their bodies. Apparently as a woman, you’re able to use your body to control men; I still believe that that is principally a mirage, that power still rests largely with the men paying you, than it does with the woman being paid. The book expresses that idea really strongly.
‘I also think its interesting that halfway through the story Sugar gives up prostitution to become a governess and a sort of pseudo-mother figure, for the central male character, William Rackham, and it’s then the story really changes and starts to discuss how little power she has in that role.
‘I think there may be women today who have children who are stay–at–home mums who might hopefully relate to that element of the story: of still being undervalued, unpaid, not really being given the kind of support and recognition that they need to make our society see them as truly gender equals.’
The novel was written in the 21st century and therefore looks at the Victorian period through a modern lens. How do you feel that influences the drama?
‘For me its main concern is a contemporary one, the relationship between men and women and the power struggles going on between them; they were skirmishes in Victorian Britain, they weren’t battles, because the idea, the concept that women would have equality was so foreign to that society that that there weren’t women fighting for it in the same way because it was a completely alien concept.
‘I think you know that the central concern is definitely more of a contemporary concern, because obviously we live in a generation of women who can see equality as an ideal and who are concerned with that, and so I would say it’s more modern than historical in its interests.’
Sugar and William play a cat and mouse game of sorts throughout the drama; how would you describe their relationship?
‘When she meets William Rackham who has a lot of money, she definitely doesn’t respect him, and so she thinks that he is someone that she can use. Sugar makes a terrible error in judgement there, because he turns out to have a lot more acumen and style than she gives him credit for, and also he turns out to be much more appealing than she had first thought.
‘When she switches her lifestyle, when she stops having other clients, she stops seeing him as a client and starts seeing him as a man, then she falls in love with him. As soon as she falls in love with him she steadily loses all of her power, she has no ability to protect herself emotionally, and really I think that’s what’s interesting about this story.
‘The minute Sugar does that, that’s really where her loss of power takes place. Sugar starts off in a position that a lot of women would say is obviously lacking in any power – being a prostitute – and trades it for a position for a woman in love, with a typical relationship with a man, which turns out to be a relationship in which she has even less power in.’
For viewers who have a perception of what period dramas, do you think they’re in for a shock with The Crimson Petal And The White?
‘Oh I think so, I hope so! I hope a lot of people sit down with their steak and chips waiting for a gentle evening’s viewing with a wedding at the end… and then find themselves open-mouthed!
‘I think they are in for a shock, but I think they’re in for a very enjoyable shock.’
The Crimson Petal And The White Wednesday 6 April, 9pm, BBC TWO