What right does the BBC have, making a lavish six-part western? The BBC – which is all about stuffy, bonneted period dramas and documentaries where a nonagenarian cavorts with chimpanzees – tackling the quintessence of American culture? And, to add to the impertinence, calling it The English? Well, that’s the situation we arrive at with Hugo Blick’s BBC Two drama (co-produced with Amazon), which arrives on our screen with a thunder of hooves.
Emily Blunt is Cornelia Locke, an Englishwoman whose father owns “half of Devon”. She’s journeying through the heart of America on an unarticulated voyage of revenge. It’s there that she encounters Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), trussed up and beaten to a pulp. A Pawnee-born ex-US army officer, Whipp wants to claim a slide of American land, as is his veteran’s right. “Smoke dreams for the fireside,” dismisses a fellow soldier. Fate throws Eli and Cornelia together, a tough-as-nails twosome heading north with nothing but a few guns, knives, bows, arrows and their wits.
The picaresque nature of these adventures is aided by the fact that almost nobody survives long enough to make it to a second episode. This is from the Cormac McCarthy school of westerns: full of raping, hanging and scalping. Life is cheap here, and nearly everyone we encounter is living out their final day. “It cannot be that this whole country is only full of killers and thieves!” Cornelia exclaims, but the evidence is stacked up to the contrary. The only argument against that notion is the calm, composed presence of Whipp. In a land where people would put a bullet in your head for a hot meal, he’s saving women and children, without a flash of anger or crack of a smile.
Blunt is a terrific actor, and, as has been witnessed in films like Edge of Tomorrow and A Quiet Place, a confident action hero. Her voice has a lilting, almost Germanic, timbre; a sense of un-Englishness in this sea of colonisers. Conversely, Spencer’s Whipp is the only character to speak with a modern American accent. The taciturn sharpshooter is an overdone trope of the western, but he adds pleasingly to that canon. And the other characters who make it through multiple episodes – Stephen Rea’s Sheriff Marshall, Valerie Pachner’s Martha Myers and Tom Hughes’s Thomas Trafford – all bolster that feeling of prestige.
The English is beautiful. Panoramas show wagons trundling against the sunset and saloons springing up like tombstones from the dust. But it also has that near pastiche quality that exemplifies the early westerns, which were shot on ranches and soundstages in Los Angeles. The predominantly British cast and use of the Spanish deserts and sierras as a stand-in for the American West exacerbate this impression. “People cross oceans just to get to where we are now,” Katie Clarke (Kimberly Guerrero) tells Cornelia. “But they always come up a little short.” And The English comes up a little short of total immersion.
But perhaps that’s not the point. For all its starkness and brutality, The English is actually a deliciously corny love letter to its forebears. From the Eastwoodesque gruffness of Spencer’s Whipp to the way that Cornelia becomes an arse-kicking gunslinger, like Mattie Ross in True Grit, The English overflows with affection for the history of the western. And unlike recent additions to the genre, such as Hostiles or Bone Tomahawk – which replace the bloodless gun smoke of John Wayne with skull-cracking intensity – The English is kind of goofy. “I’m a Scorpio,” Cornelia informs Whipp, telling him how star signs are all the rage in London. “Mine’s about revenge – can’t help but think yours is too.” This is pure, delicious, American cheese.
At its best, The English feels like it could’ve been made by the Coen brothers. And for a Thursday night drama on BBC Two, that’s a huge compliment. “There are many who can welcome you to the real America,” announces Ciaran Hinds’s short-lived villain at the show’s opening, “but only one who can truly mean it.” Somehow, the BBC has managed to carve a slice of the real America into its schedule and – audacity of audacities – call it The English.