When this feature-length ITV drama starring Keeley Hawes and James Murray was first shown, I remember being disappointed. As a lifelong fan of Thomas Hardy, I’d just reread the novel and was struck by how different the TV version was from the original story, with many changes to the plot and characters.
However, I gave it another try when it was repeated this Christmas and thoroughly enjoyed it this time round. Maybe it was because the book wasn’t so fresh in my mind, or perhaps I was just in a better mood for it!
The film was made to be shown at Christmas and, like the book, has a far sunnier mood than most of Hardy – with the focus on the happier side of rural life. I’ve read comments made by Hardy himself in later life suggesting that he had treated his chorus of villagers too lightly and too much as comic relief in this book – but I think maybe he was being a little hard on himself here. His affection for and enjoyment of the place he came from come across vividly, along with his awareness of its limitations. The film reflects this, featuring humorous conversations involving the villagers but never mocking or dismissing them.
I feel the film relishes the village way of life , with colourful scenes of dancing, music, church services and farming. This version of Under the Greenwood Tree was made in Jersey and Hertfordshire rather than in Hardy’s Wessex, but the countryside is still beautiful, even though anyone who knows the original landscapes will be sad not to see them. It is doubtless all much brighter and cleaner than the reality of rural existence in the 19th century, and there’s no sense of the sort of drudgery which many of these characters would have had to put up with in real life – but, then again, this is Hardy in a happy mood. There are plenty of darker works to choose from!
Although it’s a sunny film, literally so most of the time, there is a poignant feeling that the way of life being shown is slipping away . This drama of changing times is focused on the decision by the socially ambitious vicar, Parson Maybold (Ben Miles) to get rid of the church band and replace them by a harmonium.
When reading the novel, my sympathy has always been entirely with the band, as a cast of lively characters who are part of the community – and I’ve wondered how on earth the vicar can want to replace them with a single instrument, even if the harmonium player is the heroine, Fancy Day. Watching the film, it struck me for the first time that the vicar has a certain point after all, as the band wander around the area the worse for drink. I still think it’s a shame the band loses out – but maybe the argument isn’t as one-sided as I’d thought.
This is quite a rare Hardy novel in that the central romantic couple end up together while still young, with no heartbreak or tragic misunderstandings. The worst teacher Fancy Day and village carrier Dick Dewy have to contend with is their difference in social position. (This same storyline is seen in far more sombre tones in later novel The Woodlanders.)
Director Nicholas Laughland and writer Ashley Pharoah have played up this class angle, showing Fancy’s father as fiercely determined not to see her marry “beneath her”. (The class conflict is also bound up with the row over church music, as I get the impression a harmonium is somehow more middle-class than a group of men playing instruments and singing. )
Fancy herself has her snobbish side, and is shown wincing at little social errors Dick makes, such as coming to her door while wet and muddy. Later she wades into a lake to throw herself into Dick’s arms as he bathes, ignoring the fact that she is wearing a long white dress – so she gets wet and muddy enough before she is finished. Strikes me this scene also allows viewers to see James Murray with his shirt off, in a sort-of echo of the famous scene from the 1995 Pride and Prejudice – though I know Colin Firth keeps his shirt on!
In the book, there is never much doubt that Fancy will end up with Dick – except for a surprise twist near the end where she suddenly accepts a proposal from the vicar, Parson Maybold, only to realise the next morning that she has made a terrible mistake. She never lets Dick know of the incident. Oddly, the film changes this, making Fancy turn down Mr Maybold’s proposal, although she is still briefly tempted by it – so there is no secret for her to keep from Dick. In the book, Fancy is tempted by Mr Maybold’s promise that they will move to Yorkshire and she will see society there. I was rather amused to see that in the TV film he has the grander offer of a job in Venice – presumably because that sounds more romantic to us 21st-century viewers!
The romantic story is also complicated in this version by making it a real possibility that Fancy could be tempted to marry middle-aged farmer Shinar (Steve Pemberton). In the book he’s a minor character, briefly mentioned a few times – but in this film he is built up into a poignant character, someone who has never had time for love in earlier life. It struck me that the scriptwriter was borrowing from Far from the Madding Crowd here and thinking of Farmer Boldwood, though the character does not have quite the same intensity. In any case, I think Pemberton gives an appealing performance as Shinar, and leaves you almost sorry that Fancy doesn’t marry him instead of Dick.
One change I definitely do approve of is that, in this version, Fancy decides herself that she wants to marry Dick and tells her father so – rather than tricking him into approving the match by pretending to go into a decline. Hardy writes this whole sequence humorously, but it’s far more romantic to see Fancy stepping out and claiming her love without any subterfuge – and it’s more what his later heroines would do.