The English still has a universal appeal

The English (BBC2, 9pm)

If you’ve been watching The English, it’s not hard to see why such an impressive cast signed up for it.

We’re now on the fourth episode, and it’s proving to be a truly gripping watch, with great scripts from Hugo Blick, whose previous credits include The Honourable Woman and Black Earth Rising.

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But as well as the quality of the writing and the chance to work with leading lady (and executive producer) Emily Blunt, is there also a chance that the actors signed up because they just really wanted to be in a Western?

As Rafe Spall admits, it is a bit of a dream for many actors: “There’s been a few moments on set where I’ve gone ‘I’m in a Western, that’s crazy!’ This is the sort of stuff you imagined acting to be like when you were a kid.

“Usually, in my career, I’m in a car park in London somewhere in the drizzle. But this is very special and to be filming in Spain with an exceptional world class Spanish crew has been a massive joy.”

However, as we discover in tonight’s episode, he also has a great character to play, who he describes as the show’s ‘heart of darkness’. Spall, who has previously appeared in everything from Shaun of the Dead to The Salisbury Poisonings, explains: “David Melmont is a man accompanying an English aristocrat – who is a second son of a big family – to the American West to do a recce of the land, where they intend to bring 50,000 head of cattle.

“My character commits an atrocity… He is truly bad to the bone, but at the same time, I’m still playing a human being – no matter how bad they are. It gives you a big launching pad to be very creative. It’s been a challenge, but one that I’ve relished and loved.”

We’re about to learn more as the action flashes back 15 years earlier to 1875, when Thomas Trafford (Tom Hughes) arrived on the Chalk River in Wyoming to establish his cattle ranch, accompanied by accountant and aide David Melmont and local guide Thin Kelly (Steve Wall).

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Melmont worries that a nearby Native American camp could be a threat to their enterprise, and later shares his concerns with a trio of US soldiers. Trafford would rather he didn’t say anything, but Melmont and the soldiers later head towards the camp with deadly intentions…

What they do next will have unexpected ramifications reaching as far as England, where Cornelia Locke receives a visit that will later motivate her own journey to the West.

It’s dark, but Spall thinks The English still has a universal appeal.

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He says “This is a show for everyone. It’s glamorous, fun, evocative. The landscapes, sets and costumes are incredible. That’s the stuff that pulls you in and the things that keep you there are the universally relatable things: love, revenge, people trying to get by when they feel the world is against them.

“At the core of it are Emily and Chaske Spencer’s characters trying to do the right thing.”

David Melmont and Thomas Trafford