Renegade Nell preview | Spells, swashbuckling, and a whole lot of fun

renegade nell louisa harland
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Forced to flee her humble beginnings, Nell Jackson (Louisa Harland) carves a feisty path through 18th century England in a delightfully entertaining adventure. Here are our thoughts on the first three episodes of Renegade Nell.

(Episodes watched: 3 of 8)

Screenwriter Sally Wainwright is no stranger to genre-twisting action heroines. In her hit BBC series Happy Valley, Sarah Lancashire played a no-nonsense lawmaker in the best Western to ever come out of northern England. With Wainwright’s Renegade Nell, the eight-part historical fantasy dropping all at once on Disney Plus, she’s repeating the trick. Don’t let the early-18th century setting fool you. Nell Jackson is a superhero – and a bloody entertaining one at that.

The reasons why the daughter of a pub landlord is able to catch bullets and kick people really, really hard are left as enticing mysteries after the first few episodes. All we know is that Nell, recently widowed by the not-altogether-charitable-sounding Captain Jackson, is returning to her family home after a long time away. En route, she encounters a charismatic highwayman (Frank Dillane) and, after a short bout of fisticuffs, discovers her little village is being terrorised by the rotten son of their landlord (Jake Dunn).

A bit of magic, some murder, and a high-speed carriage chase or two later, Nell finds herself on the run from the law with her family in tow. In the episodes that follow, she’ll meet a cheerful little fairy called Billy Blind (Nick Mohammed, who plays him not unlike his stand-up character Mr Swallow) and face off against a slightly more nefarious kind of magic than her own.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, Renegade Nell goes to great pains to get the important stuff right. Derry Girls' Harland is brash and charismatic in the lead, and Nell proves a juicy role to get into. The first few episodes see her play around with accent and costume changes, tightly executed fight choreography and even getting convincingly beaten up by a drunk aristocrat. It’s rare to see a show get its main character so right that you genuinely miss her for the brief moments she isn’t on screen.

The plot, meanwhile, barrels along at a swift pace, cramming in plenty of swashbuckling set pieces while keeping the overarching narrative clipping along nicely. Combined with Nick Foster and Oli Julian’s typically historical fiddle and lute-filled score, a cheeky sense of humour and willingness to lean into fantasy tropes go a long way to keeping us thoroughly invested for the first three episodes – even if the last of which can’t quite match the breakneck pace of its predecessors.

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Something of a spiritual sequel to classic Saturday teatime telly – Doctor Who, Robin Hood, Merlin, Atlantis et al – Renegade Nell strikes a slightly more grown-up tone than what’s come before. It’s stuffed full of spooky plague villages, witty barbs and a heroine fond of throwing ne’er do wells through things made of wood – enough to make you think twice before showing it to a six year-old, but still well below some of the scarier episodes of Doctor Who.

It feels in so many ways like the sort of thing the BBC should be fighting tooth and nail for – quality, family drama from the creator of several of the corporation’s biggest hits. That Disney have clearly splashed the cash to make the fantastical elements look a shade or two above what the traditional broadcaster can usually manage might give some indication why Wainright has parted ways with the BBC after making three hit series together. Still, if you’ve been craving some crowd-pleasing entertainment to coral a bickering family unit in front of – you just found it. Renegade Nell is just really, really good fun.

All eight episodes of Renegade Nell are streaming on Disney Plus from 29th March.

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