Sunday 2 December 2007

Bless the BBC box set!

After discovering a seemingly inexhaustable supply in the local library we have been trawling through the back catalogue of BBC petticoat serials the last couple of weeks allowing me to catch up on all the worthy English novels of the accepted cannon that I will never read. I know, I know, I should have read Middlemarch, but when it is covered in a couple of entertaining hours on your TV on a winter's eve, really, it is hard to say no and reach for the paper tome instead.

Especially when they are such weighty tomes. I have known for along time that I will never attempt another Dickens after my one and only valiant attempt at 'The Pickwick Paper' (not the best choice) was derailed by other entertainment options too readily at hand. My Dad, a solicitor, has sailed many references over my head to 'Jaundice versus Jaundice', but now, after watching the BBC's excellent Bleak House I know I can give him a knowing wink without having had to balance the book on my knee for a month or two.

It is all down to a one-man revolution for me - Mr Andrew Davies. I have read somewhere online that personally he may be a tad arrogant or other such criticism, but ever since the watershed moment when I saw the 1995 Pride and Prejudice BBC adaptation, yes, the one with Colin Firth in the wet shirt, I have been a fan, even if I didn't know it at first.

The art of TV adaptation is curious - it is creative, but it is also slavish - the writer has to balance the essential themes and characters of the novel with the particular dictates of the medium. TV serials allow a greater allotment of time for the writer to include more of the characters and incidents that would have to be sidelined by a movie, but the ability to know what to keep and what to cut is a fine art. It is enlightening to read Austen's novel, then watch all of, is it 6 or 8 hours, of Davies' BBC version, and then watch the latest movie offering, the one with Kiera Knightley.

This is not an exercise that my boyfriend would ever, ever embark upon, it would probably be the most effective torture for him, more effective than having his bollocks bashed ala the latest James Bond film. But for me, as an unabashed Austen fan, well, OK, a little abashed, I found it illustrated the differences between adapting for film and for TV very nicely.

The book has so much detail, of course, being a book, but it also has the peculiarities of that particular era of the novel - loats more description than we can stomach these days with our airplane book tastes, far more introspection and moralising as well, and then a huge dose of pathetic fallacy, repetition and an extended denoument which has much to do with the fact that the original author and audience for the book had no TV, video games or internet to distract them from a decent lengthy book. The original book also didn't have much in the way of sex scenes, or even extended kissing scenes, the big climax in the book is, if I remember rightly more in the way of an ardent long look in the eyes with the couples' hands clasped. That's it.

So for electronic mediums for a modern audience this aspect has to be beefed up. I remember reading Mansfield Park in school (which was at the time deadly dull and only completed by reading a chapter and then rewarding myself with a dose of TV before the next session - eyes propped open with matchsticks). But in the film version the naughty daughter jumped into bed with the dashing rake of a neighbour and they were caught in flagrante by the shocked heroine, Fanny. Whilst in the book this fabled bit was described as "jumping over the ha-ha gate" a metaphor that sailed over my head when I was skimming it for exams. I was in the cinema when I saw the characters going at it, and I couldn't help myself from exclaiming aloud, Oh! The Ha-Ha gate!

Pride and Predudice doesn't have anything as juicy and censorious as the incident in Mansfield Park. It is a much fluffier work, one which the author herself thought was lacking in a bit of weight. But it is one that has touched the hearts of lots of romantic women who should probably know better, but can't help indulging in the wish-fullfillment pleasure anyway.

The treatment of P&P in the BBC adaptation is nevertheless sexed up by Davies' invention of the famous wet-shirt scene that poor Colin Firth will rue until the day he dies, even if he acknowledges that it also set up his entire career. There is no mention of his dip before he comes accross the heroine still dripping in the novel. But it was a stroke of genius - women swooned, they just loved it despite the ridiculousness of the incident - why would a lord decide after a long ride to swim in a murky pond when he could pop into his huge house nearby and fill one of a dozen baths for his ablutions? Because then we wouldn't get our delicously titillating moment. Davies knows just how to judge when to pop one in.

There are other moments just as delicious, an early ball scene where they dance verbally and physically is a masterclass in TV choreography, the 'accidental' meetings of the would-be lovers in the snooker room or on the grounds are also timed to perfection, as is the heart-melting moment in the drawing room when they know they are in love and look at each other lingeringly over the piano forte oblivious to the others in the room - ahh. Even the fight when he first proposes is a beautifully acted and directed scene of tension that allows me to shed buckets of guilty tears if I am alone to indulge myself.

But the Knightley film, that seemed to be so successful, just rocketed along, careering past and only just touching off plot points and omitting delightful comic moments because they had to. For the film it was only about the love story between the two protagonists, with no time for any comment on the class mores and mileu, nope, just get to the snog at the end. And then you can watch the alternative 'American' ending where we see Elizabeth and Darcy embarrassingly going over their courtship in icky detail in a gag-inducing scene where he says something about calling her Mrs Darcy forever.

That was not in the book. Neither was the extended kissing and the cakey candle-lit surroundings, it is a moment of fan fiction. Like Gone with the Wind part 2 or some spin-off Harry Potter fantasy where minor characters have dramatic gay sex in the Hogwarts staff room. Trust me, get the Davies version, pack off the boyfriend somewhere and settle down with a box of chockies and a hanky or three.

With Middlemarch Davies was not yet the star adapter and the budget was not quite there that they would enjoy after the success of 1995's P&P, but nevertheless the scope and drama of the book are very enjoyably realised. To see the full Davies treatment, however, go straight for Bleak House, the increase in directorial and editing pizzaz is remarkable and in no way detracts from the story - it makes great TV.

The most recent Davies' adaptation I have seen is Fanny Hill. This is an extraodinary choice because the original, in my opinion is unreadable. Obviously other people have managed it, but the relentless descriptions of male members as throbing rods of ivory and so on gets pretty tedious, pretty quickly. And in terms of depth of characterisation and thematic exploration it is one dimensional - a straightforward no applogies story of a girl from the country who beds her way to the top, thanks very much. Tom Jones is a far more enjoyable saucy rags to riches tale - and the best thing Kubrick ever did.

So not all of Davies' adaptation are equally brilliant, and not all of the BBC petticoat producitons that were made without Davies' input are worthless, most of them are definitely worth a look. I can highly recommend Tipping the Velvet adapted from a Sarah Waters' novel, it is more tightly written than Fingersmiths also by Waters but not adapted by Davies, but both are worth watching. I also enjoyedBBC versions of Dafoe's Moll Flanders and Trollope's The Way We Live Now, especially as I know full well that I will never get around to reading them unless I am struck down with a debilitation illness.

I missed out on the latest BBC offering here, Cranford, which has garnered some good reviews - but it is the case that if you miss the first Sunday, you have to miss all the others until you can get them out on a box set from the library. Bless the box set! How did they do it before DVDs? Imagine watching the brilliant I Claudius every Sunday for weeks and weeks, if you missed a week of that you would be lost. The only trouble with the box set is that it is hard not to go for that next episode even if it is 3am on a worknight, it is too easy to say go on, and click on to the next one.

It should be noted that our Mr Davies has not just done period adaptations. He also wrote various episodes for various TV series, as well as film scripts, inlcuding famously and probably lucratively the two Briget Jones' movies, but it is the TV mini-series where he excels. It doesn't even have to be period - his scathing and ironic political miniseries The House of Cards and To Play the King are also delights for the box set collection in the tradition of Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy.

I guess it is a reflection of my recent relaxation into domesticity that heralds my respect and enjoyment of these TV serials. And perhaps it is because it allows me to cheat my literary credentials as I acknowledge that my reading tastes are getting lighter instead of weightier as I get older. I still enjoy the odd trip to the movies, and I have not yet given up reading altogether, but as I am sitting there flicking between chanels looking for something to watch while eating tea, I am grateful to the BBC for providing me via the DVD player with reliable extended viewing pleasure that makes me feel as if I am getting more out of the box than a dose of reality TV, an education as well as entertainment. Bring on the BBC serials, it annoys the hell out of some people, but I am properly grateful.