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Archive for December, 2008

How good was The Devil’s Whore? After watching the whole series, I’m still struggling to make up my mind. It seems to me as if perhaps the best answer I can come up with is that this drama set during the English Civil War was wildly uneven – brilliant at one moment, then slipping away into histrionics at the next.

One reason why this series didn’t have the consistency of co-writer Peter Flannery’s previous work, the landmark TV series Our Friends in the North, was that Flannery and co-writer Martine Brant were forced to cut the script back from a projected 12 hours to just four. Flannery reportedly faced marathon struggles to have both series produced at all – a wait of about 14 years each time – and must be hoping that his next project makes it to the screen more easily.

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However, despite being hacked back so mercilessly and having to move at far too fast a pace, the film still made compelling viewing, and all the main actors, including Dominic West as a somewhat Machiavellian Oliver Cromwell, John Simm as the tortured Edward Sexby, and Andrea Riseborough as heroine Angelica Fanshawe, gave fine performances.

The opening titles claimed the series was the “true story” of Angelica’s life, but in fact she was the only completely fictional character worked into this turbulent historical saga. It was Martine Brant’s idea to focus the story on a woman, giving a different perspective on an episode of history dominated by famous men.

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Dickens’ Christmas classic must be one of the most -adapted literary works, with a bewildering range of versions from silent films to The Muppet Christmas Carol and various modernisations, some more successful than others. (I’m especially fond of the Bill Murray movie Scrooged.) 

Patrick Stewart

Patrick Stewart as Scrooge and Dominic West as Fred

Over the last few years, it’s become a tradition in my household to watch the TV film starring Patrick Stewart, so I thought I’d write a little bit about it for this new blog – and wish a happy Christmas to anyone reading along .

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I’ve just finished watching the BBC’s epic new adaptation of the Dickens classic Little Dorrit, his great novel centred on London’s Marshalsea prison, so here are a few rambling thoughts about it.  After being impressed by the double feature film adaptation directed by Christine Edzard in 1988, I did wonder if a TV version could possibly live up to my memory of that film. It did – although I think the visuals of the earlier movie version were more striking and got the feeling of the prison better. It is years since I’ve seen it, but I vividly remember the flies gathering on the jail windows in that version and the way the oppressive heat almost shimmered from the screen.

Claire Foy as Little Dorrit

Claire Foy as Little Dorrit

This version, with three different directors in charge of different episodes, didn’t have that same haunting visual power – just as the recent BBC version of Bleak House waisn’t shrouded in fog and shadows like the adaptation  made 20 years earlier. Both the more recent adaptations of Dickens novels scripted by Davies  instead tended to focus in on the faces of the characters, in the way that soap opera does. Having said that, I don’t think the new Little Dorrit series felt like soap at all – it’s laced with so much Dickensian black comedy and satire, though at times I did miss the voice of the narrator in the book. 

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Here are some thoughts on another of ITV’s recent costume dramas, My Boy Jack – the tragic story of Rudyard Kipling’s son John, who went missing in battle in the First World War the day after his 18th birthday. His war-mongering father had pulled strings to get him a military commission despite his extremely poor eyesight (something they both shared), and was left blaming himself. Both parents set off on a  desperate quest to discover what had happened to their son, and if he was still alive.

I thought this was an excellent production. Because it wasn’t an adaptation of a novel, for once it fitted into the 90-minute slot without seeming rushed – although the constant ad breaks were still an annoyance, making me glad I’d taped it. The battle scenes were haunting and gave a feeling of the confusion, dirt and sheer terror in the trenches.  

Daniel Radcliffe

David Haig

David Haig

David Haig, who wrote the stage play My Boy Jack and then adapted it for TV,  mainly seems to have been seen on screen in comedies in the last few years. But I knew he was a fine dramatic actor from his role as Harold Nicolson in the BBC’s Portrait of a Marriage. He was moving here as Kipling – putting across a mixture of belligerence and charm with an underlying note of uncertainty. His determination to make his son live out  the dreams he had himself was all too vivid.

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So how do you fit a 900-page novel into a 90-minute TV film? Sadly, the inevitable answer is, by cutting almost everything out – leaving just a few glimpses of what might have been.

As a long-time Dickens fan, I had been pleased to hear ITV was doing an adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop , especially since Sir Derek Jacobi was playing the grandfather.  But I’d failed to realise just how much of the book would have to be lost – sacrificing even more of the story than the recent Jane Austen adaptations did. Directed by Brian Percival, who also made the 2005 North and South, this production looks beautiful. Visually, it often has a flavour of the original illustrations by Phiz and George Cattermole, but, because of its length, is completely inadequate to do justice to this sprawling novel. 

Sophie Vavasseur and Sir Derek Jacobi

Sophie Vavasseur and Sir Derek Jacobi

Jacobi was superb as Arthur Clennam in the great double feature film version of Little Dorrit , and in this production he brings the same sensitivity to the grandfather – showing the conflict between his addiction to gambling and his love for his granddaughter, Nell. His eyes glitter with silent desire every time he sees money, and he moves his mouth very slightly and tremulously in a way which shows his inner turmoil. Sophie Vavasseur is also excellent as Nell – though at 15 she is rather older than the heroine of the novel, not so much of a child. She manages to seem vulnerable and yet determined, without the aura of mawkishness which surrounds the character in the novel.

Toby Jones also gives a fine performance as Quilp, though, inevitably, he’s not much like the monster of evil described in the book, who seems scarcely human. He might be short, but he isn’t a dwarf – and my feeling is that this is just as well, since it would be rather disconcerting to see someone playing on their physical appearance to induce fear and loathing. Jones makes Quilp villainous through the force of personality he projects rather than his looks – though he does at times strike theatrical physical attitudes which recall the  illustrations, and Dickens’s descriptions in the text. 

However, these three characters are the only ones who have any space at all to develop. The story, with a screenplay by Martyn Hesford, is almost entirely focused on a heavily truncated version of  Nell and grandfather’s epic journey through England, with them running into only two or three of the grotesque and colourful characters who are among the chief delights of the novel. Mrs Jarley (Zoe Wanamaker) is glimpsed for a minute or two, her world-famous waxworks for even less.

Worst of all, Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness – everybody’s favourite characters in this book – are almost completely lost. Young actor Geoff Breton is wonderful as Dick and seems almost to be the character come to life from the old illustrations – but he gets no time to show off his brand of ludicrous charm, and his touching relationship with the scared scullery maid comes down to just a couple of brief conversations.  

There are some wonderful moments in this production, such as the sheer melodrama of the scene when the sick Nell, wandering out into the snow in her nightgown, sees her grandfather gambling for pennies by candlelight at a wooden table. But if only it had been double or even treble the length.

One place where I was happy about brevity, though, was the famous death scene. Here, less is more – and there’s no need for a TV film to milk the emotions as shamelessly as the young Dickens did.

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ITV’s recent version of Northanger Abbey is a far better production than their take on Mansfield Park, as I’d expected and hoped, with Andrew Davies as the scriptwriter. The dialogue is very crisp and convincing, as always with Davies – no clunkingly modern lines to break the spell.  This is also a much better film than the previous BBC version of Northanger Abbey, which was something of an embarrassment and to me didn’t get the tone of the book. However, it still feels short at 93 minutes and – inevitably – has to leave out an awful lot of the novel.

JJ Feild and Felicity Jones

JJ Feild and Felicity Jones

I also feel it is slightly flat compared to the sharp wit of Austen, something which comes from losing the narrator’s voice. Davies does actually keep the narrator at the start and end (I think Geraldine James provides the voice) but there is no narrator cutting in the rest of the time, which I’d rather hoped there might be at key points. 
 
With this version, my feeling is that the problem isn’t so much the time constraints, although it is still short at 90 minutes, but the lack of filming on location in Bath, apparently to save money. Most of it was filmed in Dublin and it does look beautiful, but I miss Bath’s famous streets and buildings – and there’s nothing like that extraordinary scene in the 1980s film of the ladies taking the waters in their fine dresses.
 
Felicity Jones is very wide-eyed and young-looking, and convincing as a heroine starting out on life in eager expectation. She wears far less revealing clothes than Billie Piper did in MP. However, Isabella (Carey Mulligan) does wear low-cut dresses – this seems deliberate as she tries to attract attention from passing men. One change in Davies’ version is that we glimpse Isabella in bed with Captain Tilney before she is casually cast aside. She asks “Are we engaged now?”, but is curtly told to put on her clothes and go. I thought this was a poignant moment.
Catherine Walker is also very good as Eleanor – she reminds me a little of Emma Thompson as Elinor in the 1995 movie of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ with that quiet self-control and feeling of staying in the background.

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The dangers of reading novels are stressed, but my feeling was that this is done with less affection than in in the novel, where Austen’s vivid knowledge and enjoyment of Ann Radcliffe’s book comes across even as she lightly mocks her melodrama.  Davies does enjoy playing up the sexual content of the Gothic element, with Catherine, played by Felicity Jones, dreaming scenes from Udolpho mixed up with her fantasies about Henry Tilney.
Catherine’s reading of Udolpho features strongly in this adaptation, but references to another Gothic novel, Matthew Lewis’ The Monk are added in as well, building on a brief passage in the book where John Thorpe says he never reads novels, but read The Monk the other day. Davies includes a sexy Gothic dream sequence based on The Monk. As Henry Tilney (JJ Feild) discusses Radcliffe with Catherine, whereas Thorpe (William Beck) is the one suggesting she should read The Monk , perhaps this is supposed to be an oblique comment on the difference in character between the two. Just guessing here as I’ve never read The Monk.  I was dismayed to see Catherine burning her copy of Udolpho after being sent home, though I imagine the fact that it features prominently in the film may well get more people to read it, alongside Northanger Abbey

I don’t think Davies’s Tilney is as witty as Austen’s – and he seems more vulnerable than I’ve ever thought of the character being, maybe because he is played by JJ Feild, a fine actor who has a vulnerable quality to him. He played the young Michael Caine character in the film of Last Orders and was also Sam Beeton in the BBC film The Secret Life of Mrs Beeton, a film I loved which was also directed by Northanger Abbey director Jon Jones. Here Henry has tears in his eyes when he upbraids Catherine about her thinking his father is a murderer. I miss some of the wit and lightheartedness of Austen’s Henry, although those elements are still there – just with a note of slight melancholy added in at times.
 
I was struck by the fact that at the end Henry seems to turn on himself and criticise himself for having upbraided Catherine earlier when she suspected murder. He recognises that in a way she was right about his father after all, saying he killed his mother through “a kind of vampirism” – marrying her for her money and then sucking the life out of her through his coldness and unkindness. I think this is implied in Austen but not stated outright like this. For me this worked well, as a revelation of the “real” horror behind all the Gothic imaginings – the money-worship behind the black veil, so to speak.
Connected to this, Liam Cunningham is outstanding as General Tilney, in a performance which is nothing like the pantomime villain antics of Robert Hardy in the 1980s film. Instead, this General is all cold politeness with a sort of sliminess about him. Every time he speaks both his children start involuntarily and sort of shrink away very slightly, nothing melodramatic about it, but it tells.

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