Death and Nightingales: Dark period drama with a resonance for present

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Should you only watch one period drama this winter, make sure it’s the BBC’s dark and compelling Death and Nightingales.

Forget the bodice-ripping, britches-straining rompery of other period dramas, Death and Nightingales is a historical drama which is topical through parallel and allusion.

Created by The Fall’s Allan Cubitt, the three-part series is set in Fermanagh in 1885 when all of the country is an undivided province of the British Empire.

In the series Ulster actor Jamie Dornan, who achieved fame as a voyeuristic serial killer in The Fall and a kinky billionaire in Fifty Shades of Grey, is back on home turf once again as easy-on-the-eye, quarry worker Liam Ward.

Dornan is joined on screen by a talented cast, including Matthew Rhys (The Americans) and 21-year-old rising star Ann Skelly (Red Rock, Kissing Candice).

Set over a desperately tense 24-hour period, it’s Beth Winters’ (Skelly) 23rd birthday – the day she has decided to join the charming Liam Ward (Dornan) and escape from her limited life and difficult and complex relationship with her domineering Protestant landowner stepfather Billy (Rhys).

As decades of pain and betrayal finally build to a devastating climax, Death and Nightingales is a powerful and gripping drama that follows a woman struggling to control her own destiny and will illuminate tensions that tear both families and nations apart.

The story may be set in the 19th century, but that does not mean it lacks contemporary resonance.

First and foremost, Death and Nightingales is a love story, but themes of class and politics also loom under the surface as Beth falls for the mysterious and charming Liam, described by servant Mercy as the ‘‘most breathtaking creature I have ever laid eyes on’.’

Based on the modern Irish classic novel by Eugene McCabe, this starkly drawn adaption, also explores religious divides – Billy is a Protestant landlord, Liam is Catholic, while Beth’s late mother was Catholic but she has been raised as part of the Protestant ascendancy.

As well as being moved by Eugene McCabe’s love story between Beth and Liam, Cubitt was also fascinated with the politics of that time and place, saying it “dramatises relationships across a sectarian divide in Ireland in the 1880s … It’s an extremely powerful, almost mythic tale”.

The relationship between Billy and his daughter is muddied by dark secrets that take it into the realms of incest, and Beth occupies much of our sympathies as she contemplates escaping the clutches of her miserly father and the spartan mansion where she lives.

Dornan gives a strong performance, showing off his versatility as an actor – his Fermanagh brogue is pretty convincing too.

The beautiful Fermanagh landscape is also a star of the show with its glistening lakes and fertile fields; and given its border setting, the series could look set to spark some lively debate in our Brexit-obsessed times.

It is a haunting tale of love and deception – the perfect ingredients for winter evening viewing and office water cooler debate.

l Death and Nightingales is on BBC Two on Wednesdays at 9pm.