TBT: Desperate Romantics


It took me far longer than it should have to watch Desperate Romantics (2009), and even longer than it should have to write this post. I’ve been promising it at least since last October, but every time I would sit down to start sourcing images, I’d get caught up in re-watching the show, which lead to cocktails, which lead to naps, and well… Not a lot of writing.

Desperate Romantics (2009)

I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you over all the pretty.

The cocktails aren’t because the show sucks; far from it. Desperate Romantics quickly became my all-time favorite historical romp — it’s got Aidan Turner, lots of costumes, some tasty adult scenes, and THE CRAVATS. And did I mention Aidan Turner? Because he’s easily my favorite thing about the entire series. The eye-candy factor with him is off the charts.

Desperate Romantics (2009)

Who, me? Have a thing for dark, brooding artistic types? NEVER.

Hell, the eye-candy in general is off the charts. The boys are pretty, the girls are pretty, everyone’s pretty and young and brilliantly idiotic. The writing is also top-notch; some of the best dialog I’ve heard in years is packed into nearly every scene (phrases like “freeing the member rampant” have now become a regular utterance in my house).

2009 Desperate Romantics

I’ll sign up to drown in Millais’ bathtub any time.

It is pretty much a very generalized overview of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and packs about the first ten years of their existence into a timeline that appears to only be about a year or two long. But that said, it’s witty and entertaining and AIDAN TURNER.

2009 Desperate Romantics

If you’re into red heads, btw, this is the TV series for you.

2009 Desperate Romantics

Hunty and Annie have get my vote for cutest couple.

If historical costume accuracy were a scale going from Reign (2013-) on one end and Elizabeth R (1971) on the other, I’d put Desperate Romantics somewhere in the middle, right around Victoria (2017). It’s not SUPER HISTORICALLY ACCURATE, but it gets the gist.

2009 Desperate Romantics

The costumes were designed by James Keast, who has a whole whack of historical costume flicks under his belt, including the first three episodes of season one of Victoria (2017), an episode of Mr. Selfridge (2014-2016), and Aristocrats (1999). The look is lavish and lived-in and largely appropriate for the time period (1849-ish to 1855-ish). And despite what you may think from some of these promo shots, the ladies do wear their hair up almost as frequently as they wear it down.

The one exception to this is Lizzie Siddal, who only wears her iconic flaming red tresses free and unfettered — she’s not just iconic; by the end of the series she’s a full-on iconoclast. Her hair is what defines the three Brotherhood artists and their art; so it’s written into her character that it comes to define who she is as well as she begins to develop into her own as an artist, not just a model.

2009 Desperate Romantics

The only time in the entire series you see Lizzie wearing her hair up is five minutes into the first episode. And thank god that awful hat disappears almost immediately, as well.

2009 Desperate Romantics

Amy Manson as Lizzie Siddal.

Speaking of her hair, I have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out if that was Amy Manson’s natural hair dyed red, or just a REALLY REALLY GOOD lace-front wig. Those of you who are fans of the original UK version of Being Human (2009-2013) will recognize her as the vampire Daisy from season two in which she rocks the brunette curls pretty hard. Another thing about Lizzie in this show — her eyes are this amazing pale green/blue/light hazel/amber color that is constantly changing depending on the lighting, and like the red hair, I’m left wondering if Manson was wearing dark contacts in Being Human (her eyes look straight-up brown in that show) or if she had the world’s most amazing light-colored contacts that don’t look the least bit fake in Desperate Romantics. If so, can someone send a pair to Jenna Coleman in Victoria?

It could also be post-processing color tweaks done to the film… Yes, this shit keeps me up at night. Anyway, moving on.

Another thing about the hair on the principle women in the cast… There’s definitely a thought process as to why they wear their hair down and when, so when I hear people sneering about the lack of hairpins in the show, I gotta wonder if they were paying attention at all. For starters, the two main female characters, Lizzie and Annie, both have their hair loose regularly. I’ve already mentioned why Lizzie gets a pass in this department, but the reasoning behind Annie’s hair is also interesting.

Annie Miller is William Holman Hunt’s muse/girlfriend, and when we first meet her in the show she’s basically, well, a whore. Hunt sees something in her, though, and substitutes her face in a painting that was originally modeled by Lizzie. This starts off a weird little love affair between Annie and Hunt that closely parallels Pygmalion. Hunt decides to make Annie his “project,” to give her reading and writing lessons and teach her proper comportment and etiquette so that they one day might “step out together” and be seen in public as a proper courtship, not just artist and model. So, the costumes and hair on Annie’s character reflect this evolution — she goes from a wild-haired and grubby little strumpet, to presentable lower-class young lady (though still not “appropriate” girlfriend material at this point, as evidenced by the fact that while her hair is washed, it’s still down). Eventually, Annie graduates to “proper” and even a bit “posh,” and she begins wearing her hair up when she’s not modeling.

2009 Desperate Romantics

Jennie Jacques as Annie Miller.

The third major female character, Effie Gray, is far more confined within her role as the repressed wife of John Ruskin. The scenes that feature her are the polar opposite of the scenes featuring Lizzie and Annie — while the other two girls get open, airy environments and space to move about, Effie is almost always seen restricted to her dark, oppressive sitting room, sipping tea like an overly tightened spring about to break. Also in keeping with her status as the member of upper-class society and wife of an important writer and critic, Effie’s clothing is prim and her hair is always styled (with the sole exception of the scenes where she is in bed).

2009 Desperate Romantics

Zöe Tapper as Effie Gray.

And just for a little comparison, here’s a portrait of the actual Effie from shortly after her marriage to Millais.

Euphemia ('Effie') Chalmers (née Gray), Lady Millais by Thomas Richmond, 1850 National Portrait Gallery

Euphemia (‘Effie’) Chalmers (née Gray), Lady Millais by Thomas Richmond, 1850, National Portrait Gallery

And finally, the last significant female character, Jane Burden (who only appears towards the end of the series, so while she’s important, she has far less screen time than Lizzie, Annie, and Effie). Jane isn’t upper class, but she’s solidly upwardly mobile middle class. She works in a tea shop, but she is engaged to William Morris, who is wealthy and from a good family. Her clothing and hair follows Effie’s more closely than either of the redheads (is it surprising that Jane is also a brunette like Effie?). Her hair is always up, and she’s always shown dressed in dark colors that accentuate her pale skin and dark eyes.

Desperate Romantics (2009)

Natalie Thomas as Jane Burden.

One of the things I really liked about the show was that there was some effort to cast actresses who looked like the people they were portraying. Here’s a photo of the real Jane Morris for comparison:


Some other elements I really liked about the costumes were with regards to the men’s outfits. There was a lot of layering of waistcoats and jackets and robes and different combinations of color and texture going on that gave this really visually interesting component to their costumes.

Desperate Romantics (2009)

Aidan Turner as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I love the layered waistcoats, something that occurs frequently with Gabriel throughout the show.

Desperate Romantics (2009)
2009 Desperate Romantics

Rafe Spall as William Holman Hunt, right after he returned from the Holy Land.

2009 Desperate Romantics

Samuel Barnett as John Everett Millais, child prodigy. He gets some of the best dialog in the show.

2009 Desperate Romantics

Sam Crane as Fred Walters, a fictional character made up of a couple different historical figures. The show is told through his voice.

So, to wrap this up, if you haven’t watched Desperate Romantics, WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU??? I mean, I hope you enjoy it!



About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

17 Responses

  1. Susan Pola

    I love the Pre-Rafes and have been meaning to see this. I will get it from the library.

  2. Karen K.

    Rafe Spall right after he returned from the Holy Land — LMFAO. That is some tragic facial hair. And Aiden Turner is so pretty, it’s not fair.

  3. Andrea

    I fell head over heels for Jennie Jaques after watching this. She looks like a little pixie!

    • Gill


      I was her drama teacher – I know her real name and age. More a minx than a pixie, but astonishingly talented.

  4. janette

    I have a kind of love/hate reaction to Desperate Romantics, Impossible not be caught up in the story from that opening shot. The actors are all hot. Aiden Turner as you so aptly point out is well,, Aiden Turner. The actor playing Millias was adorable and Raff Spall was excellent as Hunt. The depiction of the art was well done but there were some screaming historical inaccuracies especially towards the ending when Morris is introduced and that is where I get to the hate bit. William Morris is depicted as a buffoon and as a Morris fan I found that unforgivable. Yes he was perhaps socially awkward but he was not a fumbling idiot.
    Morris deserves a TV series of his own. I am really surprised that the Morris, Janey, Rossetti triangle has not yet made it to screen big or small though Morris deserves better than that too.

    • Sarah Lorraine

      I totally agree with you, re: Morris. As a designer, he’s basically God and they do portray him less than flatteringly. I’m not sure but I thought that one of the earlier films about the PRB (The Love School, perhaps?) delved into the love-triangle between Jane, Rossetti and Morris, but I could be confusing that with any number of love-triangles Rossetti was in at the time. Either way, he definitely does deserve his own film/tv show.

  5. Loren Dearborn

    I LOVE this show too, for all the reasons you give. Yeah, it’s not totally HA but to me it’s got the right vibe for the PRB. Everyone you mention is wonderful and Tom Hollander also does a great job at poor old repressed Ruskin.

  6. Susan Pola

    Having just finished watching it. I, too loved it except for the making of Morris as a buffoon.
    What I found sad was the whole Lizzie Siddal/Rossetti relationship. She was so betrayed by him, that although I love his art, I want to either Bitch-slap him into the 24th century or feed him to Drogon, or let Cersei blow him up with the High Sparrow. Rossetti is such a spoiled brat. Don’t like him.
    Ms. Siddal is portrayed sensitively by Amy Manson who shoes that she, too was a major talent. (Her surviving watercolours and sketches show such talent).
    I really loved Millais and Effie Grey. Happy endings for them.
    I am not sure if Ruskin was a closet homosexual, a paedophile or someone without sexual desire for anything but his art. Tom Hollander took the last view in his portrayal. Not sure I agree. But it was his view, I believe I heard.
    Jane Morris to quote Jane Curtis in the SNL sketch is ‘an …slut’.

  7. Marie McGowan Irving

    I didn’t watch this because I have loved pre-Raphaelite paintings for nearly 30 years and have read extensively about their lives, and the book this was based on mined every cliche about Fanny Cornforth that was ever written by her detractors. I couldn’t bear to watch it, even with Aidan Turner in Victorian artistic clothes, because I really thought I’d spend the whole thing ranting about what they got wrong.

    Annie Miller was poor, but having her be a prostitute is probably not very accurate. http://preraphaelitesisterhood.com/annie-miller/

  8. Rhyli Esser

    Oh My! Thanks for that. Now, thanks to you, I know everything this show and wikipedia has to teach me about the Pre-Raphaelites and their models! Up next- Effie Gray!

    I’ve had so much fun researching all the characters after (or sometimes during) each episode. I’ve always loved this style of painting -and Morris! – so its been a real treat getting to know the artists.

  9. Elizabeth Mahon

    I hated the depiction of them as some sort of artistic version of the Rat Pack, although I thought Tom Hollander was brilliant as Ruskin. And Jane Morris came from a lower-class family, her father was a stableman and her mother a laundress. According to Wikipedia, she grew up poor and deprived. I would rate on a much lower scale, more towards Reign, in it’s depiction. I think the Impressionists with Richard Armitage is a much better TV series than Desperate Romantics.

    • Janette

      the Impressionists is one of my favourite TV series. As stated in the beginning of Desperate Romantics it is a story based very loosely upon facts. Impressionists is endeavouring to be true to history though several crucial artists, ie Berthe Morisot are neglected and Richard Armitage.. Clearly however Impressionists is done on a very tight budget so not so much to squee over costume wise. Impressionists reignited my interest in their art and really gave me an appreciation of what they were up against and how bold they were in challenging established views. I felt that was laid on a bit thick for effect in D.R. without as much basis.

  10. Sansa Vegas

    I would love to see an adaptation of Beauty in thorns by Kate Forsyth. It’s set during the early years of the Pre Raphaelite era to the 1890’s, and it’s a wonderful book, with the string of the Sleeping beauty motif tying everything together.

  11. Gill O

    They are so young there! So sweet too.

    Ah, Jennie. I was her drama teacher at school. I have to say, that’s some impressive wigsmanship there (including pubic wig, I gather) – her real hair is brown. She was one of two students of mine who got full marks on a practical exam. She went on do do some work in Vikings”, so definitely frocky.