Little Birds

Sky Atlantic / NOW TV

Depending on which critics you read, Anaïs Nin was either a spirited pioneer of female sexual empowerment, or a self-absorbed narcissist dressing up her mucky fantasies as ‘art’.

In Little Birds, writer Sophia Al Maria has taken Nin’s posthumous collection of erotic short stories as the (very loose) inspiration for a steamy saga set in 1950s Tangier, a last outpost of colonial decadence during the dying days of empire.

Juno Temple plays Lucy Savage, a wealthy American debutante who is more than happy to be shipped off to Morocco – and an arranged marriage to an English aristocrat – if it means escaping her stultifying, listlessly medicated life in uptown Manhattan. 

Unfortunately, her new husband – played by Fleabag’s increasingly ubiquitous Hugh Skinner – prefers the attentions of his (male) Egyptian lover, prompting Lucy to pursue her sexual awakening in the fleshpots of Tangier’s famously licentious international zone. It’s an eye-opening world of courtesans and cabaret singers, none more exotically-plumed than Lily von X (Nina Sosanya), a glamorous actress and filmmaker who likes to get her kicks at public executions, and the fabled dominatrix Cherifa Lamour (a star-making turn from Lebanese actress Yumna Marwan).

With the French Army brutally supressing nationalist insurgents, there is clearly an attempt to draw parallels between Lucy’s yearning to escape her gilded gage, and the Moroccans’ own desire for independence. But it’s a somewhat ham-fisted analogy that only succeeds in making you wonder why, in the midst of such history, we should really care about one poor little rich girl’s problems.

Is it sexy? Not especially – it’s a bit too high camp for that. What’s undeniable, though, is that Little Birds is simply ravishing to look at. Rendered in the highly saturated palette of Technicolor-era Hollywood – from the pastel pinks and powder blues of New York (where Temple exudes pure Grace Kelly chic) to the scarlet interiors of Tangier’s bordellos – it’s the sort of show that makes you want to hang every frame on your wall. A definite case of style over substance, then. But what style.

Harlots

BBC2 / iPlayer

More sauciness, as the BBC has picked up all three series of this Anglo-American bodice-ripper, first shown here –confusingly – on ITV Encore. Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville head the top-drawer cast as rival brothel madams in Georgian London, where one in five women made their living from the world’s oldest profession. Yes, it’s quite bawdy and rude, but amidst the petticoats and heaving bosoms, it’s a story of street-smart women doing whatever it takes to survive – and perhaps even prosper.

The Umbrella Academy

Netflix

This offbeat comic book fantasy about a bunch of super-powered siblings – including a ghost, a half-ape astronaut and a time traveller trapped in the body of a 13-year-old schoolboy – was a huge hit for Netflix first time out. The second series relocates the action to Dallas in 1963 (always a popular sci-fi destination), but otherwise sticks to the same winning formula. How bonkers is it? Let’s just say that, in episode one, the world ends twice – and that’s before the opening credits.

Published in Waitrose Weekend, 6 August 2020 (c) Waitrose Weekend

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