Imagine leaving behind everything you know to take on a brutal journey in a wooden boat, before arriving to meet the person you’ll be tied to in a complex swirl of legal obligation and pressure. You’d better hope that they happen to be kind, with the alternative turning a brave new world into a ugly prison.
There’s the premise of Jamestown, Sky One’s period drama set in the camp of the early English settlers, in what was later to be the United States of America. It’s been 12 years since the first male settlers have seen a woman, and now they’ve paid for new wives to join them. From a modern perspective, marriages born out of tradition or money aren’t gone from many societies but Jamestown’s unique situation is almost terrifying. After all, being placed in a small town of frustrated men who have paid for you, all have which have survived the horrors of starvation and disease, is a dangerous place for a woman. With that cheery thought in mind, Jamestown isn’t going to be an easy watch for many and it doesn’t make it particularly fun.
The series doesn’t avoid the uncomfortable setting, admittedly because it can’t, and focuses primarily on three women in the group. There’s upper class lady Jocelyn Woodbryg (Naomi Battrick), the only woman fortunate enough to have met her betrothed back in England. Alongside her is spirited Irish girl Verity Bridges (Niamh Walsh), and quiet farm worker Alice Kett (Sophie Rundle). None of them are happy when they first assess their new situation, but Alice gets the toughest treatment, with her violent new fiancee inflicting the ultimate insult by taking her by force in the first day. It’s a horrific watch, regardless whether the premise itself spells the horrible inevitability of these atrocities.
Jamestown makes sure that the heroines have a certain strength and fury at the inequality. Despite certain backlash from TV critics, it’s not necessarily worth debating whether the outspoken nature of these women is ‘historically accurate’ – it’s a drama after all, and even if it’s not spot on, there’s a part of me that likes to thing that the deceased women that this was based on would be proud of the portrayal of these ladies. It’s certainly a kinder portrayal than showing them as utterly passive, and to be honest, it would require better writing than the show already has to portray anything more complex than either ends of the scale.
‘For a first episode it’s key to avoid bombarding viewers by simply leaving small breadcrumbs to incite interest for next week. The Jamestown writers don’t seem to believe in breadcrumbs, preferring to throw whole loaves at our heads instead.’
On the subject of the writing, this is the major Achilles heel of Jamestown. The writing is completely bereft of pacing, with just one hour of drama spilling into multiple plotlines, betrayals and revelations. It behaves in a similar manner to HBO’s Game of Thrones (once the showrunners left the carefully written books behind in the dust), packing in as much drama as they possibly can, regardless of whether it kills dramatic tension stone dead or looks a bit silly. Social media discussions is what these writers seem to be looking for, gunning for those by-the-minute reactions over a willingness to wait patiently as the plot unfolds at a human pace.
Take the very first scene of Jamestown. We don’t know these women, we don’t know their names or why they’ve chosen to take this journey. Despite that, one of them instantly admits to a murder that’s not referred to again, marking a baffling introduction to the series as a whole. As the episode continues, we still get precious little background as to the women or the new town in which they’ve found themselves, but one of them falls in love, another gets involved in about three different political debates and there’s an attempted murder with a last minute twist.
Strangely for a first episode, to go through the summary on a basic level is risking some major spoilers. There’s no need to speed this up, and for a first episode it’s key to avoid bombarding viewers by simply leaving small breadcrumbs to incite interest for next week. The Jamestown writers don’t seem to believe in breadcrumbs, preferring to throw whole loaves at our heads instead.
It’s a pity that the writing is so poor, because the actors give it their all. Some are relatively unknown to the British public, such as Niamh Walsh and Patsy Ferran (who plays servant Mercy), and they’ve clearly got plenty of talent. However, it’s underused by the ridiculous plotting and lazy scriptwriting that they’ve ended up with. Professional portrayer of silly villains Burn Gorman appears too, as does the brilliant Jason Flemyng, but they don’t have too much to do anyway.
It’s going to be a challenge to tune in for the next one. Set in an already unpleasant situation, Jamestown is an uncomfortable watch from the start that despite a retrospective portrayal of the spirited women, doesn’t have the talent to really handle the situation with care. Add plot developments on speed, and it’s simply overwhelming. It’s best to factor in some recovery time if you’re going to give this sub-par historical drama a shot.