Wuthering Heights Part I

Peter Bowker seems to be the person to be on TV at the moment, as the screenwriter of Occupation, Desperate Romantics and now Wuthering Heights.  Surprisingly (for me), I think of these three I probably think that prod_pic5Occupation was the best-written, but Wuthering Heights has a lot going for it. Emily Bronte’s novel is famously difficult to adapt for stage or TV, due in part to its scope of time and its complex narrative strands. Bowker has simplified, to some extent at least, by doing away with the narrator, Lockwood, and attempts to iron out aspects of narrative confusion which cause havoc for A-level students, but he’s also done some odd things, such as making the characters older, and setting the action about 50 years later than the novel does. Not sure why. However, I’m less concerned about playing fast-and-loose with the plot of a novel than I am about real events (yes, I mean Desperate Romantics and the three-person Brotherhood…)

The acting is good, and not too overdone; Tom Hardy is a believable Heathcliff, tortured and conflicted, while Charlotte Riley is a convincing Cathy, seeing attraction in both Heathcliff and the solid but surprisingly appealing Edgar, played by Andrew Lincoln. But the relationshipWuthering-Heights-e3c85efb-15b0-45ea-944c-ba9e503a90f2 between young Catherine and Linton is emphasised here by its prominence at the beginning of the first episode, which I see as a good sign, since the novel is ultimately about finding freedom from the past; the relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy is doomed, difficult, and in the novel not really even about sex. Despite the increased emphasis on sexuality in this adaptation, I think the Heathcliff/Cathy relationship is done quite well.

What this adaptation does really well, in my opinion, is to bring out the Gothic tone of the novel. Though some of the more disturbing aspects of the novel (such as Lockwood rubbing the ghost-Cathy’s wrist over a shard of glass) are missing, and replaced instead with the oddly necrophiliac scene of Heathcliff in Cathy’s grave, other aspects are teased out in a way which can actually be helpful to a consideration of the novel. It’s a truism of Gothic, for example, that it makes much of boundaries and thresholds, of “inside” and “outside”, and this version, contrasting the open (but potentially threatening) freedom of the moors with the claustrophobic interiors of the rather Gothic-pic_thumb4looking houses, really makes the most of that. Looking in through, or out of, a window happens again and again; and follows a pattern: Cathy is on the inside; she joins Heathcliff, the Byronic outsider (and rather like Melmoth, I think) to peer in through windows, happy to be excluded. Eventually she gives in to convention and joins Edgar on the respectable inside, while Heathcliff watches angrily from outside. Eventually, she dies, and reaches in through a window from outside. Uncanny. Of course, these boundaries also relate to the boundaries of the self, which reach a problematic peak when Cathy explains, “I am Heathcliff”, no longer knowing where her own boundaries begin and end, and this is the central problem of the novel.

In The Times  on Saturday, Kate Muir described this as “Wuthering Heights for the Twilight generation”, and she’s right. Linked by a Gothic tradition, it’s possible to read WH filtered through modern conceptions of Gothic literature, and end up with this adaptation as the result. Though it has its problems, I think this production should help to explain to the “Twilight generation” why WH is so popular, and why it deserves close attention.

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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.