Jamaica Inn

Jamaica_Inn_novelThe first of Daphne du Maurier’s novels I read was Jamaica Inn, which thrilled and rather scared me when I first read it, aged about 12. I even made my parents take me to the ‘real’ Jamaica Inn – the old inn on Bodmin Moor which inspired the story (which rather disappointed me when we got there). So I was rather looking forward to the BBC’s adaptation and to seeing how they achieved the menacing atmosphere and drama of the novel. The book unfolds how Mary Yellan begins to understand the significance of what is going on at her uncle’s inn, the wrecking and the violence, and also falls in love with his brother Jem, and while there is plenty of description of Cornwall and of the scenes Mary sees, the tension is palpable; it’s the kind of book where you keep wanting to know what happens.

The biggest issue with the BBC’s version was the ‘mumbling‘, variously blamed on the sound mixers and the actors, and moaned about all over the internet. And this was a problem, particularly with Joss Merlyn’s lines, and it didn’t really improve across the three episodes. But that wasn’t the biggest problem, for me: what I can’t understand is how, when the drama seemed to stick fairly closely to the plot of the novel (though lacking much detail), the novel is so much more exciting. I can only assume that in a desire not to overplay or overdramatise – that is, n an attempt to show some restraint which is often appropriate in adapting a novel for screen, the events were slowed down a little too much. Much of the dialogue comes straight from du Maurier, and the action is little changed too, though the bedroom scene in Launceston was added (of course). The scenery is beautiful (though it was filmed in Northern Ireland rather than Cornwall), and Jessica Brown Findlay is well-cast as Mary, both innocent and fiery, unsure of her place in the world but with a distinct and strong personality. Joanne Whalljamaica_2868239bey was perfect, in my opinion, as Aunt Patience, unhappy but determined to stick with her abusive husband (something she wrote about on the BBC blog). But Joss Merlyn is physically unlike du Maurier’s description (hardly a ‘great husk of a man’), and lacks the physical and psychological power that is crucial to the plot, and Jem is too shallowly drawn by this production – it is difficult to see why Mary was attracted to him, since he shows little sign of any real depth or interest. And Francis Davey, the Vicar of Altarnun, lacked any sinister atmosphere, despite being quite terrifying in the novel. The paintings which scare Mary and the way in which he reveals to her his part in the wrecking and murder are glossed over here, which causes the ending to lose its force.

608The real issue is the one usually faced with adaptations of novels: the drama and tension of a novel lies in its detail, its description, its careful building-up of character, place and storyline, and this detail is necessarily lost in performance. The historical and social contexts which du Maurier brings out so well are also lost, which is a shame. Most of all, Cornwall itself is the great hero of du Maurier’s novels, and despite the (mumbled!) accents, this is lost here: the sense of place which is so significant in the book seems somehow obliterated. The best I can say for this adaptation is that I didn’t hate it; but I was a little bored by it, and probably only stayed with it to the end because I wanted to see how the novel was adapted. I suggest you read the book.

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The Hour

I enjoyed the first series of the BBC drama The Hour, despite its somewhat far-fetched plot, and had been looking forward to the start of a new series. Apart from anything else, it’s impressively aesthetically accurate, the clothes, the colours, the sets seem to be perfectly 50s and if, like me, you are a vintage freak, this is extremely appealing. This series sees the characters continuing in their personal and professional lives on the trajectory begun by the previous series, but what particularly struck me about the first episode is how it seems to be a catalogue of women’s despair in a world with fewer options open to them. Bel (Romola Garai) seems to be in the best situation: she’s a woman in a man’s job, and clearly relishes the power she wields. As Caitlin Moran, a fan of the show, pointed out in Saturday’s Times, Bel’s wardrobe is awash with jewel colours in a sea of monochrome, and this rainbow in many ways sets her apart, as a successful and independent woman. She has done well, but is not as happy as one might hope because, after her fling with Hector ended, she is alone. Freddie’s (Ben Wishaw) return was accompanied by a new wife as well as improved job prospects, and her romantic prospects look gloomy. This is, of course, because in Fifties terms, she can’t have it all: a career woman is likely to end up alone, and perhaps somewhat embittered, like the mysterious Lix (Anna Chancellor), with her discreet affairs.

In a man’s world, the alternative is to be like Marnie (Oona Chaplin), Hector’s long-suffering wife, destined to play the perfect housewife by spending the empty hours baking pastel confections in her pastel flat while her husband is out drinking and womanising. The sadness of her empty nest, her unfulfilled dreams, is one of the most striking things about the first episode, and is perhaps a good indicator of why feminism became so important in the subsequent decades. Another alternative is Kiki Delaine’s (Hannah Tointon) life: she is a singer, performing in the cabaret clubs that Hector goes to. Dressed in skimpy clothes and singing daft songs (Alma Cogan’s ‘Never do a Tango with an Eskimo’), she is as far removed from Bel as possible, though she also has a successful career. But she is subject to (presumably male) violence as well as performing for men; autonomy and independence still seems a long way off here.

Hector, meanwhile, seems to have it all: heading the news show The Hour, a beautiful wife waiting at home, whilst he lives it up in Soho nightclubs. I suspect this is about to all go wrong for him, though; after all, this series is set towards the end of the Fifties, and feminism must be just around the corner. The domestic family centre with the home-making woman at its heart was beginning to disintegrate, and Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique would begin second-wave feminism across America in 1963. Yet the issues of womanhood in The Hour are in many ways still pertinent: the clash between home-making and working, between career and family, are very different today but they are still clashing, and articles in the newspapers nowadays are still asking if women really can ‘have it all’. The women in The Hour show some of the difficult choices women make, and I am hopeful that the rest of the series will offer some kind of justice or recompense for them.

Parade’s End: literary adaptation

Like many other people, I haven’t read Ford Madox Ford’s massive novel Parade’s End (although I have read other novels by him); also like many other people, I will be buying a copy soon. Tom Stoppard’s adaptation for the BBC is appealing, visually, intellectually and emotionally, judging by the first episode. I read a review which described it as the ‘high-brow Downton’, and that’s about right: it shares a lot with the hit series Downton Abbeyperiod, class, setting, war, etc, but in so many respects it is quite different. Of course partly this depends on its source: Parade’s End is (apparently) a complex Modernist novel which has little in the way of a timeline. This is reflected in this adaptation: the action jumps back and forth, in w way which is not too difficult to follow, but woe betide you if you decide to take a phone call in the middle of it.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock Holmes, but fatter and without Holmes’s vices – and, despite appearances to the contrary, with an additional capacity for love. Moreover, he has a stiff upper lip which is not just metaphorical; you can actually see it and stare in surprise as it fails to move during meals, conversation or high emotion. His character, Christopher Tietjens, is a remarkable, Victorian fossil: immoveable as stone on the outside, and not necessarily the most likeable of characters, but with a nobility which one has to admire even when it seems misplaced. (I also cannot help but be impressed and amused by a man who corrects the encyclopaedia).  Tietjens’ wife, Sylvia, is serially unfaithful, and seems to be intent on shocking everyone; their relationship appears to be a clash of the old and the new; Tietjens has inherited the Victorianism of his father’s generation, while Sylvia is representative of the new generation. This contrast is further set up by the imagery of the screenplay: Tietjens almost always appears in deeply Victorian settings, beautiful old wallpaper, paintings, antiques etc, while scenes which feature Sylvia appear like a set of Modernist still-lives (think Vanessa Bell). This clash of ideas, seemingly fatal to their marriage, seems to be a part of their attraction to each other, however. Yet the only love we really see in the early part of this episode is that of Tietjens for his son, who may not even be his.

Towards the end of the episode, it becomes clear that Tietjens is developing feelings for the remarkably-named Valentine Wannop, a young suffragette. At this stage we see that the clash between the old and the new is not all about Tietjens and his wife; Valentine represents a new kind of younger generation, one that believes that good works are necessary, and that we can make the world a better place – a complete contrast to the selfish and self-seeking, if beautiful, Sylvia. Perhaps the remarkable difference in their characters is heralded by Valentine’s entrance, chased by a policeman like a scene from an old-fashioned farce. This collision of old and new, however, is one which will change the lives of the characters (and, incidentally, is nicely represented in the collision between a horse-drawn carriage and a new motor car).

Incidentally, I must comment on a few links to the Pre-Raphaelites. Not only was the novelist, Ford Madox Ford, the grandson of the painter Ford Madox Brown, there is also a reference to Tietjens’ friend Victor McMaster’s book on Rossetti (though Tietjens refers to Rossetti’s works as ‘like congealed bacon fat’!) This is perhaps indicative of the ways in which Parade’s End attempts to distance itself from the Victorians.

In fact, this episode was laden with symbolism of various kinds: it is a highly literary adaptation. There is an abundance of modernist symbolism: the refracted lights of the chandelier in the opening sequence; the repeated motif of the train wheels bearing down on the world, rushing ahead into the darkness that would become the Great War. Because, of course, that is where all this is leading: to the war, and the ultimate darkness and uncertainty that brought to Europe. Yet even in this opening episode, there seems to be a profound sadness at the heart of the plot: an inability to trust or even understand other people, prefiguring the emotional destruction to come. The fog in which Valentine and Tietjens get lost not only offers a chance for them to become close, but also is indicative of the emotional fog which obscures their ability to form functional relationships. Moreover, this crucial scene takes place outside: away from the aesthetic ties of Victorianism and modernism which fix Tietjens and Sylvia to their place in time. Were he not so noble, Tietjens might find true happiness with Valentine.

Just William

From the ages of about eight to eleven, I was obsessed with Richmal Crompton’s Just William books – and I mean obsessed; I could practically recite them, and every birthday book token was spent in the local bookshop on another William book. In retrospect, this was probably both good and bad. The books are so well-written, and I remember having to look words up in the dictionary, which no doubt helped my vocabulary no end. On the other hand, it did lead me into some emulatory mischief which probably made my parents wonder why they ever taught me to read at all. I was also a member of the Outlaws club (which, as I recall, meant sending off a postal order for 45 pence and getting a badge in return, which I refused to take off).

Consequently, I was really quite excited to hear that the BBC were doing a new televised version, with Daniel Roche from Outnumbered as William Brown, and even more pleased when I read that Roche had read the books and was very pleased to be playing William. But I was also somewhat trepidatious, as we’ve all seen childhood favourites massacred by newer versions. This one, however, didn’t disappoint. The writer Simon Nye (Men Behaving Badly) did a good job, as did Roche; the four episodes seemed absolutely faithful to the spirit of the original. I did find it slightly odd that they have been updated to the 1950s, but I suppose the rather grand 1920s house, with staff whom William loved to bait, would have seemed very remote to children now. And the updating was done carefully – Robert, William’s brother, no longer apes Rudolph Valentino, but Marlon Brando; his sister Ethel is glamorous and somewhat less langorous as a Fifties bombshell rather than Clara Bow. Violet Elizabeth Bott is a bit less annoying in the BBC version than in the book, and consequently slightly less funny, but still she does look the part perfectly.

And Daniel Roche as William is a star – he’s got it spot-on. The books talk a lot about the expressiveness of William’s face, and Roche has got that down to a tee. He also has the general crossness and air of indignation with the world which William seems to constantly feel. The well-meaning bad behaviour of William is both hilarious and kind of touching; William lives by his own code of chivalry and fairness, and sees no obstacle as insurmountable. I really hope that these four episodes will have whetted the appetites of a few children – not just boys – to read the books.

Also, I’ve just discovered there is still a Just William Society – see here!

NB Has anyone out there read the Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge, or any of BB’s books? – other favourites of mine, which I have recently revisited and still really enjoy!

Preview of “Desperate Romantics”

The BFI screened a preview of the BBC dram446_indexa Desperate Romantics earlier this week, with a discussion afterwards with the cast and writers. Based on the book of the same name by Franny Moyle, the series focuses on the dramatic lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The series, following on from the recent BBC4 programmes on the art of the PRB, is clearly designed to appeal to those who know nothing about the PRB as well as those who are already aficionados. It is encouraging, though, that the series aims to show how novel the PRB’s approach was (suggesting that they are “comparable to the punks a hundred years later”).

I wasn’t expecting to be particularly enthused by it, but actually, I rather enjoyed it. It’s loud and rollicking, with a script by Peter Bowker (Occupation, Blackpool) that is sometimes a little too concerned with quick-fire humour, but it certainly entertained me. There is evidently a desire behind the series to show the PRB as real people, not stuffy long-dead painters, and it certainly achieves that end. Sometimes it goes rather over the top, and of course salacious detail is prioritised, but in this first episode at least, the characters of Holman Hunt, Rossetti and Millais are appealing if a little exaggerated.

In the discussion after the screening, the writers, Peter Bowker and Franny Moyle, made it clear that it is the contemporary relevance and resonance of the story behind the PRB which they wanted to get across to the viewer; certainly they have presented it with a strong contemporary appeal, all sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, but personally I feel too much is made of trying to link the past with the present. Nonetheless, Moyle discussed the human elements of ambition and love which feature in the series, along with the group dynamic, which she feels gives it an appealing mythic quality. She wanted to “dust down” the academic perspective of the PRB and bring the intense emotions of the artists back to life. Ben Evans, the producer, added that it was the aspects of human nature – and the sex – which interested the BBC in it! The series has a dangerous appeal, he suggested, which is stronger than the average period drama.

Bowker explained that he wanted to get across the “laddishness” that Moyle had implied in her book, and commented that when writing Millais he had been thinking of David Blunkett – that is, a clean-living character who turns out to be having an unexpected affair! Rafe Spall explained that to a certain extent playing the members of the PRB presented the actors with a blank canvas, since we don’t know what their voices or mannerisms were like, and so the actors have worked hard at their interpretations. In Holman Hunt, Spall aimed to create a mixture of control and precision desperate_romantics_01with sex and violence, which provided an interesting challenge. Clearly Spall has done some considerable research on Hunt, and has grown to love his character. Amy Manson suggested that in portraying Elizabeth Siddal she had attempted to show the desire to achieve more than expected from life, as the milliner became a model. Certainly Manson looked the part, almost uncannily, and was sharp-tongued and blunt, perhaps intending to recreate Siddal as a very modern heroine, rather than the waif-victim she is sometimes portrayed as. Oh, and it was suggested that Barbara Windsor is a modern version of Annie Miller!

The issue of historical accuracy is bound to be one of the biggest questions that any programme like this raises, and Bowker admits that the passage of time permits more liberties with history than biopics of more recent subjects do. A number of direct quotations from Ruskin and others were used in this episode, although I was surprised that Dickens’ comments on Christ in the House of his Parents, which were published in Household Words, were here spoken at an exhibition, as was Ruskin’s reply which appeared in The Times. The biggest liberty taken, which concerns me more, is the invention of a narrator-character, Fred Walters; apparently this was because all the possible narrators – WM Rossetti, Fred Stephens, Walter Deverell – had such stories of their own that Bowker felt it would be best to minimise the part of the narrator by making him up. I’m not sure this was necessary, personally.

The programme also suggests that the PRB first exhibited their paintings together, in an exhibition that they put on themselves. This is patently untrue, though I can see how it works as a device, but of course many viewers won’t realise the liberties that have been taken with the truth. Still, if it leads people to a genuine interest in the PRB, perhaps it will be worth it. Best, I think, to try to suspend personal knowledge and concerns, and just enjoy it as a well-produced and entertaining show. It starts on BBC2 on July 21st at 9pm.

Anne Frank on the BBC

When I was thirteen, I read The Diary of Ann1211181588784e Frank at school, and as soon as I’d finished it, I started again. I can still practically quote sections from it, and moreover it started me in the habit of writing a diary. I was excited to hear that the BBC were producing a five-part series based on it, in the capable hands of Deborah Moggach, and last night’s first episode did not disappoint. No fiction could be better than this true story: the trials of adolescent life are mixed in with the much more serious trials of war, and of being Jewish in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. Anne Frank’s enthusiasm for life, not even repressed by the banalities of life in the Secret Annexe, is very well-played by Ellie Kendrick, who even looks spookily like Anne. Her ups and downs, which Anne’s diary records as a dual nature – vivacious on the outside and serious and thoughtful on the inside – is portrayed perfectly. That this journey of self-discovery in hiding leads not to the brilliant career she dreams of, but to death in Belsen, is only one of the tragedies of the narrative.

Anne’s mother, Edith, played by Tamsin Greig, is one of the triumphs of this programme; Anne’s diary is often unsympathetic to her mother, as teenagers often are, but Moggach permits us to see her as a woman on the verge of a breakdown, angry at what was happening in the world and fearful for her family. That the tale of people in hiding, who could never go outside, has managed to capture the imagination of so many readers over the last fifty years is a tribute to the career Anne might have had; it is personality, as much as if not more than war, which makes it compelling, and this series seems to depict that brilliantly.  I hope this production will introduce more thirteen-year-olds to the book as well.