Early on in the third and final part of Amanda Coe’s telling of the lives of the Bloomsbury lot, Vanessa Bell, the central character in this take, sighs in reply to the question from Vita Sackville-West: ‘And what is going on with you, Vanessa?’ ‘My life is exceedingly quiet,’ she says. And although Vanessa Bell’s life had its markedly fiery moments in youth – whose life does not? – the viewer is compelled to agree with her, and then inevitably wonder why it is that this ‘drama’ is focussing on her in the first place. Her sister, Virigina Woolf, calls Bell, ‘the Queen of Bohemia’. Bohemianism, it seems, is not much of a spectator sport.
And it is not that Life in Squares is dull – it is gorgeously shot and has in it some flitting moments, when screen time allows, of superb performances (particularly Lydia Leonard as a fidgety young Virginia who commands the attention in every corner when she is in the frame); no, it is more that Life in Squares, by focussing on the least exciting members of the frequenters of Bloomsbury’s salons, relinquishes any real intent on digging deep into the psyches of this most profoundly interesting modernist conglomerate in favour of soap opera. Indeed, take away the frocks and summer hats, the references to Byron and James Joyce, and Russell Square may just as well be Albert Square.
Dialogue-wise, some subtle exchanges are chiefly undermined by some ham-fisted attempts at displaying these great thinkers waxing at the fireplace. In this respect the script never really recovers from episode one’s ‘Childe Harold is a load of posturing nonsense! It can’t hold a candle to Don Juan, even if the alexandrines are forced to breaking point!’ For the most part, when the characters discuss art the lines stick out like sixth form posing – the whole thing, tellingly, is much more comfortable when fretting over unrequited love. Outside of the carnal entanglements the show is superficial. Characters throw away a few lines about the importance of shedding the suffocating psychological garb of the Victorians -‘People must be free to love who and how they like; otherwise we’ll just be like our parents’. Sitting in their midst is Lytton Strachey, author of Eminent Victorians. And he goes ignored. Virginia Woolf mentions how she has been wooed by the Americans to go and talk about marriage and love – but the camera presses on Vanessa Bell, who may well have had some interesting opinions on it but… well, her sister was the genius.
But this lack of insight is not uncommon nowadays. So why is it that modern screen drama has such difficulty with genius? It is not a new question – and the subject for another article altogether. The truth is, BBC prime time thinks genius terribly dull, and worse: who can understand it? Only other geniuses, right? And they don’t watch TV. What TV-viewers want is sex, more sex, and then some post-coital moping. Soap Opera.
It might not be quite such a shortfall here, if it weren’t for the fact that Life in Squares cannot escape one of the few modern examples where genius was successfully trapped on celluloid. Well, not that it can’t escape – rather it evokes it at every opportunity. The Hours hangs heavy over Coe’s drama – and not simply in subject matter. Stephen Daldry’s masterful direction of David Hare’s excellent adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has some pedigree (Nicole Kidman and her prosthetic conk won an Oscar for their joint portrayal of Virginia Woolf – but also Stephen Dillane gives a career-best screen performance as the tormented and dutiful Leonard). The reason why the Virginia Woolf segments of The Hours are so entirely successful is they are focussing on the most important person in the room, and the segments are trying to understand that person’s genius. The story is about how Woolf walked that thin and crooked line between ecstatic genius and self-destruction. It focusses on one of the eternal questions: what drives human greatness, and what is the cost?
Life in Squares is not interested in this question at all, but it is happy to adorn itself in the signifiers of The Hours – from the Glass-esque score to the attempts at the poetics of Darldy’s camera work. But once the question of genius is discarded, anything else seems pretty meagre.
The framework of Life in Squares is too narrow for the teases that poke their head into shot. Almost every cameo – for that is what they eventually are – suggests a more gritty and vital experience just out of shot. The rivalry between Strachey and Maynard Keynes (particularly over Duncan Grant) is passed over with one lunch. The life of homosexuals in this period is commented on, mourned over even (in a very touching scene between Grant and a sympathetic doctor), but it is all a story for another time. Virgina Woolf has often been criticised in her work (and in her diaries) for being cut off from the tumultuous goings on in the wider world, and here there is an interesting attempt to portray a group who are not really sure where they stand when it comes to the shadow of fascism – of course they’re against it in principle, but the idea of actually doing something about it would burst that honeysuckle bubble. But for these scenes Woolf is gone altogether. It is for Bell to argue with her son Julian over the foolishness of joining the International Brigade at the breakfast table. ‘I hate it when you fight,’ sobs the daughter. At least something is happening, says the viewer.
But this is where we end up when Vanessa Bell – this version of Vanessa Bell at least – is the focal point. Even the insular Woolf is dropping by and talking about lecturing in America and mingling with London’s literati. Bell has all but given up painting when her first child is born – her bohemian commune at Charleston in West Sussex seems to comprise only three or four regular participants, and when they suggest leaving for such frivolous reasons as touring America, Bell seems devastated. Life in Squares, in fact, could have been the BBC’s first agoraphobic mini-series. By leaving all of the excitement and… dare I say it: drama… outside the walls of Bell’s small world, Coe has a written a serial that, by the end, really does give the impression of that suppressive isolationist condition.
Life in Squares purports to be about the Bloomsbury Group, without doubt some of the most influential figures of the twentieth century. But it is essentially about Vanessa Bell, the one for whom such an accolade would be sadly overstating a case. That Bell was an interesting artist, and an interesting figure, is not in dispute. But that in this three hours she can nudge out of shot her sister, Strachey, Keynes, Eliot, Sackville-West, EM Forster, even Leonard Woolf, is a weakness in conception, and perhaps even a weakness of commission.