Royal Kill List review – Joseph Fiennes, Sheila Atim and Jared Harris will give you a great, great time

<span>What a top cast! … Jared Harris, Sheila Atim and Joseph Fiennes in Royal Kill List.</span><span>Photograph: AETN/A+E Networks EMEA.</span>
What a top cast! … Jared Harris, Sheila Atim and Joseph Fiennes in Royal Kill List.Photograph: AETN/A+E Networks EMEA.

Do you think the royal family has Sky? If so, do you think a new docudrama about the Restoration would be considered a great all-together watch (“Come on, it’s time to see us take our bloody revenge on the wretched people for once! Roll up!”) or do you think Queen Camilla would send a fag-singed memo to the household telling them to keep King Charles away from the remote till it has receded deep into the platform’s back catalogue (“Chuckyegg doesn’t need to be worried at a time like this, ’kay”)?

They should watch it. Royal Kill List is great fun. It follows the same successful formula as Royal Bastards: The Rise of the Tudors, by the same people two years ago, which had the actors Sheila Atim, Philip Glenister and Sophie Rundle embody the warring houses of Lancaster, York and Tudor (you’ll never guess who wins), with their factual narratives rounded out by scripted dramatic scenes – using different actors – throughout.

Here we have Atim again, this time representing the royalist point of view. She is joined by Jared Harris for the republicans/regicides and Joseph Fiennes on the side of Charles II. That is a top cast – and you know you are in safe hands on the narrative side of the equation. But for those of you who have been quailing since I mentioned “scripted dramatic scenes” and rightly smelled a euphemism for “historical reconstructions” – fear not! They hold up their end of things just as well. We seem to be coming out of the long era in which such things were a jerry-built embarrassment, using people apparently dragged in off the street and given some typing to say in front of cameras that wobbled as much as the sets did.

Now, things are proper. There is a convincingly horrible decapitation (Camilla, distract him with the coronation slides!), plus a convincing Charles II (Ashley Emerson) sliding inexorably from taking good advice on how to be a king that could keep his head and lead the country back to stability towards the exercising of bloody vengeance. A host of other pertinent characters are given just enough meat on their bones to become real to us and enhance the story.

We are helped, too, by the fact that Royal Kill List moves at pace. The first episode sketches in the civil war background, takes us through Charles I’s beheading (“Murder” says Fiennes; “The lawful execution of a war criminal,” says Harris), the death of Oliver Cromwell and the power vacuum he leaves. Parliament offers the exiled Stuart son a deal – “Come back and be king, but with this new thing we are calling ‘parliamentary oversight’” – and he makes a cautiously triumphant return from his 14-year forced sojourn in Holland on his 30th birthday (“In a sea of bowed heads and shit-eating grins, who can he trust?”). “It’s been fun,” says Fiennes, as wigs and Dutch corsetry are cast aside during the first of numerous sex scenes. “But he’d rather be king.”

Boy, does he want all 59 people who signed his father’s death warrant put to death as soon as possible! But he is a better politician than Daddy was and at first allows his hand to be stayed by the wise counsel of Edward Hyde (Antony Bunsee) (as Fiennes puts it, thanks to a script that falls too often into matey colloquialisms, “that’s where this guy comes in”).

Hyde persuades him that executing a token seven signatories would be the perfect compromise. But you can only fight for so long against the natural inclinations of a bereaved son who believes in his divine right, and so begins the hunt for the death warrant (lost between decapitation and coronation) and the men who signed it.

This is led by the devoted royalist William Prynne (Gary Bates, deftly capturing the very specific creepiness of the absolute fanatic), while the signatories make their decisions about whether to stay, like martyrdom-craving Thomas Harrison (Jem Wall), or go, like Edmund Ludlow (Jonah Russell), the leader of the New Model Army, who eventually decides that discretion is the better part of being hanged, drawn and quartered. But he’ll be back.

Royal Kill List manages to be a thrilling adventure story while still conveying the seismic, country-changing scale of the events. The three-narrator device allows pauses for reflection and assimilation of everything being presented. It induces that rarest sensation – of being genuinely edified and entertained at the same time.

• Royal Kill List was on Sky History and is available on Now