Royal Kill List, review: a bit like being taught history by a Guy Ritchie film

Actors Jared Harris, Sheila Atim and Joseph Fiennes provide the narration
Actors Jared Harris, Sheila Atim and Joseph Fiennes provide the narration - AETN

The 17th century is having a sexy makeover. Earlier this month there was Mary & George, which is all orgies and swearing. Now we have Royal Kill List (Sky History), which is mostly torture and swearing. It’s a swaggering docu-drama about Charles II, made by a team that has overdosed on Guy Ritchie films. They’ve billed it as “the ultimate revenge thriller”. “Remind me,” a bewigged Charles asks Parliament, “which of you c---s killed my father?”

The production company is 72 Films, which specialises in hefty documentaries (Rise of the Nazis, 9/11 One Day in America) and fly-on-the-wall series about Premier League football teams. Royal Kill List is also billed as a “landmark” documentary, which it absolutely isn’t, but it is at least trying to do something dramatically different.

In place of the usual talking heads, we have actors Joseph Fiennes, Sheila Atim and Jared Harris. They provide the narration, but speak directly to camera. Each speaks from a different perspective: Harris for the Republicans, Atim for the Royalists and Fiennes for Charles himself.

So, for example, Atim remarks that Charles’s life is one of hedonistic excess and emptiness, to which Fiennes retorts: “Emptiness? Give me a break. By any standards he’s a handsome guy, but as a king he’s a f---ing rock star. Women are throwing themselves at him. Get over it.”

This kind of writing makes me cringe, but it does bring the subject to life. As does the torture. The dramatic scenes are well-acted and with high production values, which means the sight of William Prynne’s face – the letters S and L, for “seditious libeler”, were carved into his cheeks as punishment for insulting Charles I’s queen – will make you recoil. Prynne also had his ears cut off.

Mercifully this happened before the period covered by this programme, so we don’t see it. We do see the results of traitors being castrated and disembowelled, the camera getting up close to organs and entrails slopped into baskets. The story of Charles II vowing to take revenge on the traitors who killed his father is succinctly told. But the language quickly becomes too wearing.

When the monarch complains of being thrown from his horse, he rages: “I’m going to have that f---er killed and then I’m going to f---ing eat it.” His mistress, Barbara Villiers, sighs at executions: “We’re so over heads on spikes.” Modernising language is one thing, but did 17th-century women really speak like bored Kardashians?

Royal Kill List begins at 9pm on Sky History; the series is available now on Now