1705. England is a mess. Society is crooked. The rich stamp on the poor and nobody, from the gouty magistrates to Queen “Brandy Nan” Anne, is doing a damn thing about it. The people need a hero, and Happy Valley and Gentleman Jack’s Sally Wainwright has written them one in Nelly Jackson.

Played by Derry Girls’ Louisa Hyland, Nell is a kickass 18th century action hero infused with supernatural strength by her spirit sidekick Billy Blind (a winged Nick Mohammed from Ted Lasso). Between those two, Nell’s younger sisters, a formerly enslaved servant, and a louche conman, they’re going to save the world. Or maybe just Tottenham.

Renegade Nell is an eight-part British historical adventure series. In a mirror universe, it might have aired in the Saturday teatime slot on BBC One as natural successor to Doctor Who, Robin Hood and Merlin, but made with more cash and more women, but in this reality, it’s streaming on Disney+ (hence the cash).

With gymnastic, blood-free fight scenes and light-touch supernatural horror, Renegade Nell is a family-friendly adventure. It’s an everyone-friendly adventure, in fact. Diverting and well-cast, it throws well-aimed jabs at greedy landlords and the gutter press that apply as much now as they did in the 18th century. There’s a comforting predictability about its ‘get in and out of a scrape inside 45 minutes’ structure, and a lot to like in its cast.

Chief of things to like about Renegade Nell’s cast is Nell herself. Hyland excels in a demanding role as the sun around which everything else orbits. Like sunshine, she improves everything just by being there and you miss her when she’s gone. She bosses Buffy-ish fight scenes and comedy accents without mugging for the camera, and her Frank Butcher voice, down-to-business attitude and magical strength make her a remarkably comforting presence. Nell, you think, would be a good person to have on your side.

On Nell’s side are sprite Billy – a kind of Jiminy Cricket companion who zips around in various sizes and who has as little clue why he’s there as Nell does. There are younger sisters Roxy (Bo Bragason) and George (Florence Keen), plus Frank Dillane (The Essex Serpent; Fear the Walking Dead) as confidence trickster Charles Devereux, and Enyi Okoronkwo as runaway servant Rasselas.

Definitely not on Nell’s side is Adrian Lester’s sinister Earl of Poynton and aristo siblings Thomas Blancheford and Sofia Wilmot. That lot are the Slytherin to Nell and co.’s Gryffindor, and filled with evil both of the human and supernatural variety.

As for Nell, she’s recently returned to England from the battlefields, where she lost her man and gained a sprite. When she’s framed for murder, her gang is forced on the road in search of a magistrate with a sympathetic ear. That’s when the rumour mill starts to grind, and Nell is transformed in the public eye into a devil by gossipy toffs, scandalously untrue pamphlets, and a rousing folk ballad (in its early days, the show – inspired by a stage play Sally Wainwright wrote for her local amateur dramatics society – was titled The Ballad of Renegade Nell).

Along the way, they meet colourful characters including the delightfully named press baron Lady Eularia Moggerhanger (Joely Richardson) and frustrated debutante Polly Honeycombe (Ashna Rabheru). Friday Night Dinner’s Mark Heap and Doctor Who’s Ruth Madeley pop up too, and each new face is a welcome one.

A romp with a social conscience and plenty to say about the “quality” abusing the wretched, Renegade Nell is a new kind of Robin Hood story, centring a new kind of historical heroine… though not new to Wainwright. Nell may be from a different social class to Wainwright’s version of lesbian landowner Anne Lister in BBC/HBO’s Gentleman Jack, but she’s similarly untrammelled by how her society thinks that she, and women in general, should behave.

This fun, refreshing family romp builds to a big finale with a satisfying pay-off, but also lays the foundations for more story to come. After all, they may have started in Tottenham, but there’s a whole crooked world to save.

Stream all episodes of Original series Renegade Nell from 29 March exclusively on Disney+

The post Renegade Nell Review: A Boisterous British Fairy Tale appeared first on Den of Geek.

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