In 2004, the BBC aired a six-part mini-series adaptation of Anthony Trollope's He Knew He was Right, directed by Tom Vaughan with a screenplay from Britain's favourite adaptor, Andrew Davies.
This adaptation garnered modest critical praise and generated medium-key spectator interest. Certainly it was not the recipient of grand plaudits and praise, in the mould of other BBC triumphs such as Bleak House (2005) and Pride and Prejudice (1995). Indeed, an earlier Trollope adaptation, The Way We Live Now, aired in 2001 with a Davies screenplay and superb direction from David Yates, had secured greater media interest. This was in large part due to strong acting performances from David Suchet, Matthew Macfayden and Shirley Henderson, and because the core themes of the production - a stocks bubble focusing on the 19th century obsession with building railroads - could be topically compared to the Internet boom at the time.
He Knew He Was Right cannot boast similar selling points. This is much more a tale of small-scale domesticana, mild chicanery, and a study of the highs and lows of romantic love and courtship. For all that, there is an unmistakeable toughness at the heart of this narrative. Few adaptations, few stories, have offered such a blistering critique of the condition of womanhood in the nineteenth century with such deceptive softness and finesse, with such gentle humour and warmth.
The BBC’s He Knew He Was Right offers three key plotlines which interweave and inter-relate throughout. The primary plot focuses on the failing marriage of Louis and Emily Trevelyan. Louis suspects his naieve young wife Emily to be having an affair with her godfather, Colonel Osborne, played with cheeky aplomb by the inimitable Bill Nighy. Louis refuses to believe his wife when she (rightly) protests her innocence. Conscious of the possibility of social disapproval – again unwarranted – Louis chooses to ostracise his wife, sending her away, with her beautiful, younger sister Nora in tow, thereby tarnishing both sisters, while potentially damaging Nora's marriage prospects to boot.
Matters worsen for poor Emily when Louis also decides to take control of their young son, taking him abroad to Italy, where Emily cannot gain access to him – although legally, during this period, Emily has no rights at all, with regard to custody of her son. Indeed, she is shown throughout to be little more than a chattel, her husband’s property. The fact that her husband is clearly losing his mind, sinking into depravity as his lucidity fast wanes, has little bearing on her case.
Emily is played sympathetically here by Laura Fraser, best known perhaps for her role as Kate in A Knight’s Tale, starring alongside Heath Ledger. Fraser naturally has a wide-eyed, innocent gaze which serves her well in this role. She is hugely appealing, cruelly victimised, but unflinchingly strong in spirit, despite her ordeal. Oliver Dimsdale takes on the difficult role of Louis – difficult because he has to somehow manage to combine a sense of weariness, mental vulnerability and confusion (incredibly, he never stops loving his wife, despite his harsh behaviour), with an arrogant refusal to believe in his wife’s virtue, resulting in cruelty and shame. Indeed, Louis’s own actions further exacerbate what was merely an unregarded hint of scandal, blowing it out of all proportion, needlessly destroying his wife’s reputation in the meanwhile - crushing his own hopes for happiness with the family he loves.
Louis’s actions also affect Emily’s sister Nora, played with luminous beauty by Christina Cole (recently seen as Blanche in the BBC’s 2006 version of Jane Eyre), as she is in love with Louis’s close friend Hugh Stanbury (Stephen Campbell Moore). Their romance is thwarted, first by Emily’s shocking change in circumstances, and then by Nora and Emily’s parents, who are displeased that Nora has formerly rejected the suit of a landed lord in favour of Hugh, who is a mere journalist.
The third major plotline involves Hugh’s family – most particularly his sister Dorothy, played with engaging grace and charm by Caroline Martin. Dorothy is dispatched to the pretty cathedral town of Wells, to stay with her elderly Aunt Jemima. Anna Massie is marvellous as the crabby but kind Aunt, who takes a real shine to her niece, hoping to marry her off to Mr Gibson, a local curate.
David Tennant as Gibson is a real standout show-stealer here. Indeed, the ‘Wells’ plotline and cast proves to be one of the most successful elements of this production, in no small part due to the fine acting of Gibson, Massie, Martin and Claudie Blakley, who warrants particular mention as the psychotic Camilla French, to whom Gibson is forcibly engaged, instantly regretting it, and desperate to wriggle out of the arrangement. Gibson's dilemma is prompted by Dorothy's refusal of his hand in marriage (he was keen to secure £2000 promised her by her Aunt), but all the while he is furiously courted by two sisters vying for his affection - the Misses French, Camilla and Arabella. Their bitchy antics provide much of the comic relief here, although there is a strong sense too that Gibson deserves the angst he suffers at their hands – that he has not behaved honourably.
Dorothy is soon embroiled in her own romantic troubles. An unassuming girl, she never expects romantic fulfilment, but is soon proposed to by Brooke Burgess, played by Matthew Goode, who is almost unhealthily smooth and handsome. But Aunt Jemima, at first, is reluctant to let them wed – but we all know, there will be a happy outcome … and are genuinely pleased for Dorothy.
Other notable acting credits should go to Ron Cook, who is excellent as the slimy detective Bosul, John Alderton as the dour parson Mr Outhouse, Amy Marston as prissy Priscilla Stanbury, Raymond Coulthard as Nora’s kindly, rich admirer Mr Glascock, and Geraldine James and Geoffrey Palmer – the latter, especially splendid – as the Rowleys, parents to poor Emily and Nora.
Production values are uniformly solid throughout, although I sense this was not as high budget a production as others the BBC have produced in recent years. But locations are aptly chosen, and a foreign foray into splendid Tuscan countryside, is also thrown in for good measure. Costumes and sets are spot-on. Direction is serviceable and entertaining, conveying us simply and easily through the plot, while highlighting the very real political issues pertaining to women’s rights (or rather the lack of them) in nineteenth century Britain. Davies’s script is especially commendable in his adept handling of the Louis/Emily marriage. Davies is one of our finest writers when it comes to ensuring a sharp critical focus on historical proto-feminist commentary. He is particularly strong at virtuous heroines who are both strong and vulnerable.
This is a fine, albeit underrated adaptation. There is a gentle cadence to the production. It is amusing and even a little twee at times, but still it remains a strongly argued piece of work. It is not in the same class as the marvellous Bleak House or as unrelentingly enjoyable as Pride and Prejudice. But it is a well-produced, well-acted contribution to the BBC’s bulging portfolio of period dramas, and further proof too that Trollope makes for good TV drama. I sincerely hope we get a version of the Palliser novels some time in the future, or indeed, a re-run of the Barsetshire chronicles. Trollope says very serious things in a deceptively sweet and sincere manner, and this adaptation is no exception.