Of all the images Charles II conjures up, probably none are of a bloody tyrant crushing his subjects beneath his autocratic heel. We’re more likely to think of a convivial libertine carousing with his mistresses, and the Restoration as an age of excess and debauchery.
Indeed, the return of Charles Stuart in 1660 was greeted with jubilation. Freed from Puritan strictures, the theatre burst into flower, science flourished and political parties emerged. But by 1680, when New Worlds opens, the merriment masked a more vicious reality. Charles II was failing in his efforts to rule by divine right and to settle a realm fractured by the English Revolution. Once more, sectarian fault-lines threatened to bring the country to another civil war.
Fears that Charles’s Roman Catholic brother, James, would succeed to the throne opened old religious schisms and fanned the embers of republican idealism. Charles’s response was ruthless. In an escalating battle to win public support, both the king and his Whig opponents whipped up an atmosphere of anxiety and suspicion. All who refused to conform were targeted, especially Roman Catholics, who were cast much like terrorists today. “If the Pope gets a great toe into England,” remarked one Whig MP, “all his body would follow.”
The Papist-under-the-bed fear softened up public opinion to accept such totally fabricated accusations as the Popish Plot. All challenge was arbitrarily silenced, and safety lay only in conformity. There followed such intense persecution that the final years of Charles’s reign became one of the most repressive periods in English history.
The 2008 drama, The Devil’s Whore [a series co-written with Peter Flannery], was set in the Civil Wars, a period when many of the civil liber- ties we enjoy today were won. New Worlds continues the story and explores the legacy of those struggles. We left our heroine, Angelica Fanshawe, hand in hand with her little girl, Beth, full of hope that the Restoration would heal the nation’s wounds. We pick up their lives years later. Charles II has been king for two decades and those hopes are proving bitterly forlorn.
Now in her middle years, Angelica is still living in Fanshawe House, married to John Francis, a Roman Catholic and a good man. Since the king was restored she has devoted her life to creating a fairytale world to protect her daughter from the peril that rages beyond the walls of their home. But on Beth’s 21st birthday the spell is broken by Abe, son of a fugitive regicide, living in the woods as an outlaw. From this cataclysmic
moment all their lives are changed for ever. Meanwhile, the king has been hunting down the few remaining men who signed his father’s death warrant. One of the last, William Goffe, fled to Massachusetts where, with secret support from Angelica, he has lived for 20 years. His republican principles have found ready welcome among the Puritans who settled in New England to build a society free of kings and courts, where they could live according to their consciences. A younger generation is fast growing up, among them our characters Ned and Hope, who define themselves as New Americans.
For these English settlers, the immediate threat is the native Americans whose lands they have been ruthlessly colonising. But the English king’s vengeance is catching up with Goffe and his wrath is turning upon his disloyal subjects who have been harbouring him.
New Worlds is the story of four young people caught up in the eternal struggle about how to live a good life in an unjust world and how to make that world a fairer place. It’s about hope and idealism and the unquenchable human spirit. And how there is always love – not just for each other, but for all humankind.
“What shall I do? How shall I live?” asks Beth when Abe opens her eyes to the exploitation of the poor. “Your heart will tell you how to live,” Abe replies.
MEET THE STARS
As political awakenings go, Freya Mavor’s revelation in New Worlds is pretty dramatic. Her character Beth is kidnapped from her 21st birthday party by Jamie Dornan’s tousled idealistic outlaw, Abe, and dragged through a forest to see the visceral suffering on her doorstep. Being the daughter of the Devil’s Whore herself, Angelica Fanshawe, this naturally stirs her revolutionary blood.
“Beth’s parents have done everything in their power to completely safeguard her in this little bubble, and when that breaks she has this sense of ‘How dare you keep this from me?’” says Freya, grinning mischievously from under her unruly blonde locks.
In reality, Glasgow-born Mavor’s parents – opera singer Jude Collins and scriptwriter and producer James Mavor – did everything they could to give their daughter adventure rather than cocoon her in a bubble, even moving to La Rochelle in France for a few years to expose her and her brother Alex to a different culture.
“Moving around an awful lot gave me some- thing in common with Beth,” she says. “Like her, I think freedom is really important. That’s something that I do hold dear – my sense of freedom in my choices, I guess.”
If fans of The Devil’s Whore are shocked at how gracefully Angelica Fanshawe (Eve Best) has aged when we discover her living in luxury at the peak of the Restoration – now the Countess of Seacourt and married to the stable, kind John Francis (Patrick Malahide) – they’ll be delighted by her daughter. Beth’s journey from pampered poppet to mud-smeared rebel spans five years and two continents.
Now 20, Mavor burst on to our TV screens as teenager Mini McGuiness in E4’s Skins. And the way she secured that role shows enterprise and bravery. “I was coming back from school on the bus and there were two girls chatting about open auditions for Skins, so I noted the details, saved up pocket money from babysitting, got the train to Bristol and queued for seven hours to do a three-minute audition,” she laughs. “I was a huge fan of Skins when I was 14. I was obsessed with the character of Chris Miles, who was played by Joe Dempsie.”
When the two met on the set of New Worlds it was, “Bizarre,” says Mavor. “I wished I could go back and tell my 14-year-old self: ‘You’ll be acting with him one day and you’ll become friends.’ My 14-year-old self would go wild and jump around the room, which is very sad now I think about it.”
A role in Dexter Fletcher’s musical tribute to the Proclaimers, Sunshine on Leith, followed, which helped Mavor, like Beth, decide there’s a time to take sides. As we chat, the subject of conversation moves to the vote on Scottish independence this autumn.
“I’m terrified about politics. It’s very hard to be confronted with the harsh reality of the situation we’re in,” she begins. “The whole ignorance is bliss thing has truth. But it’s important to be active. The obvious one that affects me – because I am Scottish – is how I would like Scotland to be run.” She pauses. “Well I’m voting yes, so there you go, that’s that said. I’m voting yes.”
Hers is the Scotland of Sunshine on Leith, she explains, modern, but deeply linked to its past. “Scotland is so rich in tradition and identity – being Scottish means simple silly things like learning all the ceilidh dances and Celtic songs and celebrating Burns night every year,” she smiles wryly. “I mean, I don’t live in Scotland any more, but I still say I’m Scottish not English.”
Does that mean she’s the Sean Connery of her generation? “Well…” she hesitates, then launches into a near-perfect impression of the famous Scot, before breaking off and laughing, “I’d better stop there before I dig myself a deeper hole.”
As the daughter of Oscar-winning New Zealand writer and director, Jane Champion, Australian-born Alice Englert has spent most of her life growing up around movie sets. Even so, she’s convinced the casting directors made a terrible mistake when they gave her the role of puritan action girl, Hope.
“They asked if I could ride horses, which I can, so they were misled into the idea that I’m physically active and strong,” she groans. “I’m a total klutz at everything else and I ride no horses in this show at all…”
Fortunately director Charles Martin shot New Worlds non sequentially – while Hope starts the drama firing guns and fighting native Americans, Englert started shooting the series as the demure puritan Hope, living in a fundamentalist Christian sect. “I had to wear a sign proclaiming my sin and shame, and only got to hold a gun and have some dirt in my hair by the end of it,” grins the 19-year-old.
Campion was pregnant with Englert when she won an Oscar for The Piano, but she split from Englert’s father, Australian film-maker Colin Englert, when their daughter was seven. “I’m a big fan of both my parents – I’m happy
to be influenced by them,” she says. “When I was doing prep for New Worlds, I was visiting my mother in New Zealand and borrowed one of her big knives to practice chopping. She was watching me whacking this tree and she’s like, ‘Why did I send you to school? You’re doing what you were doing ten years ago!’ I’ve never felt like I was in her shadow because of the way my small career has so far worked out.”
Not such a small career. Campion cast her daughter in a couple of short films in 2008, and she’s since appeared in four features, including last year’s film Beautiful Creatures, as well as the BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which is due to air next year. As a result of growing up as an only child around film sets, Englert seems older than her tender years, delivering meditative riffs on her character’s historical context.
“They’re the original young Americans. Children born innocent, but stained with the blood of native Americans. Of course those young innocents deserve to have a free life… Once Hope starts to understand the complexity of the native American situation, that really floors her.”
She compares Hope’s experience with her own understanding of the land rights issue in Australia. “What people always say about Australia is the lifestyle is brilliant. But we pretty much made a race of people extinct. We completely messed up Australia’s original culture. Australia is great – I think there is a lot of creative energy that’s coming out of there. I love being an Australian… I’m just not such a fan of Australian politics. There’s a constant whipping up of fear over asylum seekers – we had candidates claiming illegal immigrants were causing traffic jams in Sydney’s suburbs!”
She professes her surprise at the UK class system. “I don’t live a wealthy life, but I’ve not been restricted by money,” she explains. “I met this English guy the other day who said: ‘I don’t hold it against you, but I don’t like rich people.’ He explained how unfair the world is and I had to say, ‘I agree with you.’ It was a big call for me – to realise why you need some sort of revolution. The world is filled with people like me who, if only we were to realise, would have to go out and do something.”
See New Worlds tonight 9:00pm, Channel 4