“We’re living in extraordinary times Virginia”
I think Rachel Freck and I would be very good friends, given the exquisite job she did in casting BBC1 miniseries Life in Squares very much according to my preferences. Phoebe Fox and Eve Best, Lydia Leonard and Al Weaver, James Norton and Rupert Penry-Jones and Elliot Cowan, plus bonus Deborah Findlay and Emily Bruni amongst many more – the stuff of my dreams. So I was already very well-inclined towards this retelling of the travails of the Bloomsbury set, written by Amanda Coe and directed by Simon Kaisjer, before it had even started.
Fortunately it also delivered well over its three hour-long episodes, giving us costume drama with a bit of a difference (and a smattering of raunch as its publicity campaign unnecessarily blurted). Kaisjer’s vision was less opulent fantasy than lived-in reality, albeit through an artistic filter, and so handheld camerawork mixed with everyday costumes to achieve this more rooted ethos. And Coe’s script putting one of the lesser celebrated of the set – Vanessa Bell née Stephens – at the heart of the narrative gave the narrative the freedom to stretch out across multiple timeframe, remaining fresh all the while.
Where the series really excelled is in showing the exhilaration that this group of creative spirits got from forming their own bubble within society, the freedom that it engendered for both its women and men to be as sexually ambiguous and adventurous as they liked. And then having created their ideal lives in pursuit of essentially individual freedom, tracking how it wasn’t always what it cracked up to be, especially once the next generation came into the picture, further complicating an already complex network of fiercely emotional connection.
Life in Squares did occasionally teeter on the brink of being overwrought but that flightily romantic nature was part of the appeal for me. From the moment the Stephens sisters, Phoebe Fox’s Vanessa (later Bell) and Lydia Leonard’s Virginia (later Woolf) shrug off their late father’s patriarchal stuffiness and enter the world of literary salons, torrid affairs, fluid sexualities and marriage (not necessarily in that order), the tangled web they wove was just achingly beautiful to behold, especially as the various individuals try to find their footing in the ever-shifting terrain of such sexual freedom.
Leonard’s gorgeously fragile Virginia, later finding safe haven in Al Weaver’s solid arms as Leonard Woolf as well as amusement with Emily Bruni’s Vita Sackville-West, has an illicit emotional affair with Sam Hoare’s handsome Clive Bell, which Fox’s Vanessa doesn’t approve of (being his wife) though she’s busy having a dalliance with James Norton’s luscious artist Duncan Grant, who is enjoying the company of his lovesick cousin Lytton Strachey (a brilliant Ed Birch) who is fine JUST FINE with just sex as Duncan has fallen harder for Edmund Kingsley’s JM Keynes and then later Ben Lloyd-Hughes Bunny – got it?!
There’s a lot to take in and initially, the flickers into ’20 years later’ are a little disorientating but by the final episode, all becomes clear and Eve Best, as the grown up Phoebe Fox erm Vanessa, gets her real chance to shine as her determination to lead her own life has to be balanced with that of her three children and the consequences of past decisions ricochet through time. When a show’s happy ending (of sorts) involves [spoiler alert] a woman getting together with her just discovered biological father’s former gay lover (Miles from This Life, who can blame her), one has to be glad that there’s nothing squares about the lives in Life in Squares.