Julia Davis is a justly celebrated writer/performer of black comedy, most famously BBC Three's Nighty Night, and now she's transferred her her skills to a period drama for Sky Atlantic's lavish Hunderby—a sly, deliciously dark riff on Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel Rebecca. The 19th-century story concerns Helene (Alexandra Roach), a shipwreck survivor who washes ashore near the hamlet of Hunderby on the English coast. Two aspiring heroes come to her aide—a mute black slave called Geoff (Daniel Lawrence Taylor) and the handsome Dr Foggerty (Rufus Jones)—but the man who takes credit as Helene's saviour is god-fearing Edmund (Alex MacQueen), a widowed pastor with puritanical beliefs.
Helene's duly swept off her feet by affluent Edmund, eventually marrying and moving into his mansion, where she meets icy housekeeper Dorothy (Julia Davis); a woman obsessed with her previous mistress, Arabelle, and determined to tear Helene's life apart. Throw in a love triangle with Helene preferring the company of dashing Dr Foggerty (who does impossibly gallant things like ride the countryside looking for imperilled wildlife), and Helene's own dark past before she was shipwrecked, and you have the making of a rather fine period drama... only with Davis's signature comedy drizzled over it. Once again, Davis finds particular delight in having a sweet woman mercilessly chided and framed by more dominant personalities, although it's arguably less shocking in a period setting because we accept there was gender inequality in the 1830s. This means Hunderby feels slightly more trivial in some ways, but the show escapes this by having an unexpectedly resolute style and tone. If you're not paying attention, you may not even notice Hunderby's a comedy—as most of the jokes are in the subtext of its eloquent dialogue.
I was also charmed by the production design by David Ferris and how brilliantly director Tony Dow evokes the feel of this era. It helps enormously that the show borrows a trick from Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and only uses natural light instead of electrical lamps and bulbs. The interior scenes (filmed at Dorney Court in Buckinghamshire, relying on daylight from windows and candles) consequently had a very different feel compared to equivalent period dramas on the BBC and ITV. The exterior scenes are also a painterly joy, often resembling the works of Constable.
Davis gives herself the best role as the Machiavellian housekeeper, floating around Edmund's house with a fixed expression of scorn and well-practised smiles that never part the lips. But that's not to say everyone else trails in her wake. MacQueen is excellent as a similarly abhorrent monster, Jones is very amusing as the remarkably composed and ridiculously honourable physician, and Roach turns a potentially one-note "victim" role into something altogether more nuances and likable. The show even finds time to give the likes of Pulling's Rebekah Stanton a decent background role as a randy cook.
I even like its half-hour serialised format, suggesting the piecemeal manner in which Charles Dickens novels were originally published. Hunderby's a weekly dose of silly naughtiness and antediluvian soap opera; both cleverly subtle and brilliantly broad (take the a moment where Edmund's aged mother forces him to breast feed, featuring genuine old lady breasts). Davis' writing darts between various grades of comedy very well, but is ultimately a stately TV novella full of Victorian grotesques and uncomfortable moments of class/social torture.
You're either on its wavelength, or you're not, and I'm definitely in the former camp.
written by Julia Davis / directed by Tony Dow / 27 August & September 2012 / Sky Atlantic