After the success of Normal People, the BBC’s steamy coming-of-age drama, earlier this year, erotic TV appears to be on the agenda of TV commissioners. Fortunately for Sky Atlantic, they already had Little Birds, loosely adapted from a collection of 1940s erotica by the French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin, on the slate. Unfortunately, it does not live up to either its promise, nor its source material.
The series largely takes place in the international zone of Tangiers, an oasis of colour and hedonism in the 1950s. Qatari-American writer Sophia Al-Maria embraces the spirit of the bohemian Nin, famous for her affair with fellow writer Henry Miller, but does not confine herself too closely to the text. Episode one began in New York, where American heiress Lucy Savage (Juno Temple) had decided that marriage to an English lord in Tangiers was a strong enough incentive to escape her tranquilliser-happy doctors and nasty new-moneyed relations. It’s a slightly tired and crudely drawn set-up, although the image of David Costabile, who plays Lucy’s arms dealer father, wielding an electric carving knife over a pineapple is memorably weird.
Meanwhile, over in Tangiers just before her arrival, Lucy’s intended, Hugo Cavendish-Smyth (Fleabag’s Hugh Skinner on rather flat form), was enjoying a last tumble in the sand dunes with Egyptian royalty Adam Abaza (an understated, sexy Raphael Acloque who sometimes feels like he’s in a different, better show), while courtesan Cherifa (Yumna Marwan) took revenge on her French imperialist masters via their own humiliating sexual preferences. In episode two, we continued to explore the city through Lucy’s oversized cat eyes (the sunglasses throughout the show are truly superb), in all its psychedelic colours and geometric shapes. The camera has fun with fish-eye lenses, adding another layer of surrealism.
But beyond the lush aesthetics – themselves a kind of voyeurism after months of staring at the same interiors during lockdown – it’s hard to work out what the point of it all is. There was less sex than I was expecting from an adaptation of erotica, although perhaps things will steam up as the series continues, and the little there was felt more twisted and humiliating than sexy.
More problematic is the show’s slightly disturbing imperialistic underbelly. “I must have you. I must ravish you!” Lucy told her husband in episode two, but as soon it became clear that that’s not on the cards, she transferred her desire to the city itself. The effect is jolly enough – think sequinned halter neck dresses, conga lines and cocktails in kasbah – but the implications are disturbing.
Sexual exploitation as an allegory for imperialism is everywhere in the show: Hugo abandons Adam to preserve his own lineage, aristocratic hedonist Contessa Mandrax (Rossy de Palma has her way with a local servant, Cherifa is forced to sing the Marseillaise as part of her services. I want to believe Al-Maria and director Stacie Passon know what they’re doing with this kind of delicate political material but I’m not convinced – there’s something off about Sky inviting its viewers to find their own “desire” in a story about white people using a colony to spice up their sex lives.