I had just finished my first reading of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse when I noticed that BBC2 were putting on this miniseries about her and the rest of the Bloomsbury Group and I thought that it might be worth checking out. I really shouldn’t have bothered. Life in Squares spends little to no time on the artistic ideas or beliefs of the group and rather focuses more on the raunchy, rule-breaking side of their story. This direction is a perfectly fine one to take when you consider the group’s history, but not even such a scandalous theme could save this show from being entirely dull. Life in Squares desperately tries to match the artistic pretentiousness and snobbery of the Bloomsbury Group and it just doesn’t make for good television.
The Bloomsbury Group’s relative sexual promiscuity within their own liberal circle would certainly have been a scandalous topic during the inter-war period, but with its lack of a quality script and its failure to place the drama entirely within its context, Life in Squares just doesn’t make it feel all that shocking. We are expected to picture the show’s characters as rebellious just from a few scenes that showcase their conservative mothers or a curious policeman on duty, but it isn’t enough to make the ‘scandal’ remotely exciting for a modern audience. Everything just feels inconsequential. When Vanessa cheats on her husband and has a child with her homosexual friend Duncan, you’d think that we’d be entirely shocked, but we’re not. Clive doesn’t seem to care or even know that the child isn’t his and when Angelica finally finds out who her real father is, aside from a few tears, it is pretty much shrugged off. There never is any backlash to anything that the characters do and therefore everything that occurs in the show just feels flat and pointless.
In fact, it genuinely feels like the moments of these characters’ lives that are chosen to be shown are done so without any kind of logical reasoning behind them. We spend the first two episodes watching young versions of our protagonists and then for seemingly no reason we jump to them as much older in the third. Nothing of real significance seems to have occurred in their lives between these two stages and it is treated as if they have just been living in a void, waiting for another seemingly random point in their life for the camera to be turned back on. Why did the showrunners choose this moment in particular? The only thing that seems to connect the two periods together is that in the former, Angelica is born out of this affair and that in the latter, she finds out about the true means of her conception. It seems highly illogical for a three part miniseries to spend the first two episodes trying to make us associate with Vanessa Bell as played by Phoebe Fox and Virginia Woolf as played by Lydia Leonard, only to change the actresses who play these two for one episode and to then instead shift the focus onto the previously unseen Angelica Bell. When you look at Life in Squares in its entirety, it appears inconsistent and highly illogical.
On a purely aesthetic note, it has to be said that not everything has to be shot in soft-focus or through dull filters to prove that your show is a ‘raunchy’ period piece. Plus, not every single scene needs to be overlaid with the sound of a piano playing softly, making you feel like you’re watching the introduction to Downton Abbey on repeat (which to be honest might be a more profitable use of your time).
So much more could have been done with such a rich topic as the lives of the Bloomsbury Group, but Life in Squares just seems to have fallen short. Perhaps it would have benefited from having more episodes within which to flesh out its sense of historical context and to also make the two stages of their lives shown appear a little more coherent. Personally, a larger focus on the artistic elements of their story would have enriched the series a great deal, but that may have made the show too inaccessible for some. Either way, Life in Squares is unfortunately quite a disappointing telling of the lives of the Bloomsbury Group and a rather dull one to boot.