Little Birds is available on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV.

For music fans of a certain post-punk vintage, the erotic, proto-feminist writings of the French-Cuban diarist, theorist, novelist and essayist Anaïs Nin arrived at a key moment. Her death at the age of 73 in 1977 unlocked copious, previously expurgated editions of her writings. Hip rock lyricists queued to join the Nin crowd. British college rock band The House of Love took its name from her 1954 novel A Spy in the House of Love; their debut single Shine On begins, “In a garden in the house of love, sitting lonely on a plastic chair…” Nin’s combination of heightened sensation and artifice feels thoroughly modern, and bridges decades of relative obscurity for Nin and a flushed afterlife of cult currency. She still matters, it seems.

Little Birds, a short-story collection which she produced in the 40s, but which was not published until 1979, provides a sweet spot for this latest rummage in Nin’s drawers: an ambitious six-part Sky Atlantic miniseries from Warp Films, resourcefully adapted by Qatari-American artist Sophia Al-Maria and directed by hardworking TV regular Stacie Passon. It follows two noted film adaptations: Philip Kaufman’s well-dressed 30s-set partial memoir Henry & June (1990), and Zalman King’s softcore romp through another posthumously published collection, Delta of Venus (1995).

As well as bringing an eye-opening frankness to her chronicles and naming names, Nin took a practical interest in Freudian psychoanalysis and added couch-side expertise and firsthand experience to the sexual and theoretical. She once observed that “man’s language is inadequate” – a truism for our times?

A narrative drawn from individual short stories might feel episodic, but Al-Maria weaves them cleverly into an arc – though it begins as a vivid patchwork of disparate characters unified only by her chosen geographical precinct: Tangier, 1955, whose enchanted ‘international zone’ was established in the 20s under shared British, French and Spanish administration (what could possibly go wrong?), creating a tense, sexually and politically charged détente. The central storyline builds to a pressure-cooker denouement involving the return of Morocco’s exiled king, Mohammed V, which will take the central players to the brink when the bright lights go out.

An early warning amid the orgiastic partying sounds when dusky local dominatrix Cherifa Lamour (Lebanese actor Yumna Marwan) insults the carousing French with a ribald rendition of La Marseillaise that exposes international tensions and boldly recalls the national-anthem battle between the French (La Marseillaise) and the Germans (Die Wacht am Rhein) in Casablanca (1942). Jean-Marc Barr plays an ambitiously reptilian French administrator, whose initial geniality recalls Claude Rains’s Captain Renault, but who turns out to have a vicious sadistic streak.

Al-Maria strives to work in anecdotal material from the short stories – sexually frank anecdotes sometimes relayed verbally (including an actual shaggy dog story) or elaborately staged (the unexpected orgasmic reaction to a public hanging, for instance) – but, wisely, she organises the material around a central love (or lust) triangle: American heiress and pre-sexual-enlightenment Nin avatar Lucy (Juno Temple, slyly cast daughter of punk potentate Julien), whose appetite for sexual education is voracious; her new husband of convenience, the closeted aristo Cavendish-Smyth (Hugh Skinner); and the Egyptian prince Adham (Raphael Acloque, from the French TV series Spiral), who swings both ways and is attractively comfortable in his own skin. One local observes: “Tangier is everything all at once,” unpacking very little in the way of explanation while a wonderfully diverse cast go about their business in the North-African-meets-Eurotrash colonial melting pot, recreated in sun-bleached Cadiz in Andalusia, where the production’s heightened colours feel almost Almodóvarian.

Little Birds (2020)
Little Birds (2020)

Theatrical production design and roving camerawork create a sumptuously original, hyperreal interior world; screens and booths signal secrecy, while S&M blindfolds and masks also conceal. In one of Sky’s making-of featurettes a production designer describes the look as “zebra-print with a tarnished edge”, heightened by surreal walk-ons for a bored camel and a nonplussed lizard, while yet another militaristic conga line locomotes around a palatial room to Anne Nikitin’s fruity, Moorish-influenced score. Artificial blocks of blue, purple, yellow and crimson blink like a Pearl and Dean ident. Undressing for dinner, Lucy muses, “Should I choose scandal red or shocking pink?” She could be conferencing with the lighting crew.

The visual artifice intoxicates through sheer commitment to its own mood-board; when Lucy has a brush with body-painting it’s the most vivid blue in the shop. Art seems to dominate but politics simmers beneath the surface. “Neutrality is complicity,” declares one local revolutionary, while the administrator announces, “The Arabs consider me French, and the French consider me Arab.” He desires Cherifa as a Moroccan wife for political gain, while she declares she has “no time for politics”.

Problematically, politics has plenty of time for her. Little Birds darkens as it progresses, with era-appropriate songs that almost recall The Singing Detective. When one American serenades the spineless Hugo with Kurt Weill’s September Song (“It’s a long, long while from May to December”), Hugo’s fate is sealed.

The real achievement here is in Al-Maria’s prudent processing of a slippery, episodic, arguably tepid source. If anything, Nin’s stories are reduced to gossip. However, the script moves seamlessly between light and dark, as when, in a later episode, a kidnapped Cherifa is brutally bound by a thuggish French soldier and she can’t help but critique his rope-tying technique: “You’re doing it wrong,” she scolds.

Originally published: 22 September 2020