The Confessions of Frannie Langton, review: period drama passion with a modern twist

Karla Simone-Spence plays Frannie Langton, an ex-slave who becomes a maid in Georgian London - Drama Republic/ITVX
Karla Simone-Spence plays Frannie Langton, an ex-slave who becomes a maid in Georgian London - Drama Republic/ITVX

Have you heard of ITVX? It’s the new name for ITV Hub, the broadcaster’s streaming service. I did ask someone at ITV if they had any concerns that the X in the title might lead people to think it was offering X-rated content, but it turns out that they conducted some consumer research which revealed that only people of a certain age make that association. So that put me firmly in my middle-aged place.

Anyhow. ITVX aims to entice viewers of all ages by launching with some brand new dramas. The Confessions of Frannie Langton is one of them, adapted by writer Sara Collins from her own historical novel. Frannie is a young Jamaican woman, born into a life of slavery and raised by a cruel plantation owner (Steven Mackintosh), then brought over to England where she becomes a maid in Georgian London.

It’s more Bronte sisters than Austen, with a fiery heroine and Gothic touches. We begin with Frannie being arrested for killing her master and mistress, before going back in time to piece together just how she found herself here. It turns out that Frannie (Karla-Simone Spence) was having a passionate affair with her sultry and laudanum-addicted French mistress (Sophie Cookson). She loathed the master of the house (Stephen Campbell Moore), a celebrated scientist interested in dubious racial experiments. Frannie insists that she’s innocent, but is she telling the truth?

“No doubt you’re thinking this will be just another one of those slave histories, all sugared over with misery and despair,” Frannie tells us in voiceover. That’s what you’d get on the BBC; we’re on ITV, though, so there’s also a love story, some lesbian passion and a murder mystery. And Frannie is far from being a downtrodden figure: educated and well-read, proud and defiant, she bonds with her mistress over a shared love of the Romantic poets and challenges anyone who treats her with disrespect. At one point she declares that she is fed up with people “deciding who I am or what I am as soon as you take one look at me”.

In keeping with the Gothic style, it’s overwrought. There is a sinister housekeeper ruling the roost. She makes Frannie sleep in the scullery and says: “Didn’t I tell you that you should be seen and not heard?” This is not subtle stuff. Would any young servant in Frannie’s position really have spoken and behaved in this way? Unlikely, but this is drama as wish fulfilment.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is available on ITVX from Thursday 8 December