Keywords in press previews for Life in Squares were ‘racy’ and ‘risqué’. Romps were promised. Boundaries would be pushed. There would be ‘massive risks with tone’. Crucial questions around the Bloomsbury set would be explored: was Virginia Woolf ‘Bloomsbury bed hopper or frigid?’, asked the Daily Mail. Lydia Leonard, the actor playing the young Woolf, took a more nuanced view: ‘Virginia was famously sapphic when she’s older but she’s notoriously frigid when she was younger’.
In the event, the opening episode of the BBC’s new Bloomsbury drama was not as boundary-pushing as all that – probably less sexy than Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Parade’s End in 2012, and on the evidence of this first instalment, less perverse and polymorphous than something like Peter Hall’s adaptation of The Camomile Lawn in 1992. Beautiful young actors getting off with each other in inventive combinations is hardly new in period drama. The only scene with much libidinal charge was when Duncan Grant got picked up by a flat-capped bit of rough for a fumble down an alleyway. The rest of the time, the sex seemed like a way to show the shabby-chic furnishings and the lighting palette to their best advantage, each liaison clinically choreographed to expose just enough skin to get a nine o’clock slot and sell the rights to the US while still being ‘racy’.
The more challenging part of Life in Squares was trying to get the actors to portray artists, writers and intellectuals. Results were a bit mixed. Phoebe Fox, playing the young Vanessa Bell, was splendid, replying to Clive Bell’s mansplaining of Gainsborough to her with genuine feeling: ‘Some passages of paint, you feel them in your marrow. You know what it must have been like to make that mark. Painting can be a sort of physical knowledge.’
At other moments the attempt to stage intellectual life was a little awkward. At one point, we came in mid-way through a conversation in which John Maynard Keynes was arguing aesthetics with the barista-like Lytton Strachey by bafflingly telling him: ‘Lytton, cake without eating it simply isn’t cake…’
Later on came a staging of the famous scene in which Strachey brought down ‘all barriers of reticence and reserve’ – as Woolf put it in the essay ‘Old Bloomsbury’ – by pointing to a stain on Vanessa’s dress and asking, ‘Semen?’ In Life in Squares this became a nervous, ‘Hmm… semen, I presume,’ and was clunkingly followed by Virginia ventriloquizing a famous quotation from a different essay of hers, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’: ‘Well, human nature has changed!’
Not quite the risks with tone a viewer might have hoped for…