Saturday, February 24, 2007

Ad campaign for ITV Austen Season set to kick off

The ITV trailer for the new Jane Austen season is due to air from the 26th February (that's tomorrow!). For a sneak preview see: Guardian Organgrinder.

All three new telefilms look lush and lovely so far. Rupert Penry-Jones is set to wow female audiences as Wentworth in Persuasion, that's for certain. Although JJ Feild might not do himself too much harm in the period drama heart-throb ratings, judging from the very brief glimpse we have here of Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey. Felicity Jones looks exquisite as Catherine Morland. No doubt there will be numerous comments passed over the unruly state of Billie Piper's hair as Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. I can only assume we are meant to believe she is most certainly not yet 'out' in this version (which is true of course, up to the dance held in her honour).

All in all I'm busting for this season to get underway. Word has it that Mansfield Park might air on the 18th March, which is also Mother's Day in the UK of course. I'm half-expecting, with an advertising campaign kicking off tomorrow, that the first Austen adaptation will air the following Sunday. At a guess - again, complete unfounded speculation - the 1997 Emma will be shown first, or perhaps ITV will want to launch with one of its new incarnations?

Or .... perhaps ITV will run the telefilms in order of 'writing' (rather than publication), so that Northanger Abbey will air first, followed by Mansfield Park (on the 18th), then Emma, then Persuasion. However, judging by the buzz circulating, it's my guess that Persuasion is garnering greatest interest, so perhaps that would be the best film to kick off the season.

Alternatively, Billie Piper as Fanny in Mansfield Park is probably the biggest 'name' - plus this adaptation features ex-Eastender Michelle Ryan, which might mean this is the opener, likely to draw the widest audience based on name recognition alone. If so, then the season would take off on Mother's Day. Who knows?? Any info would be much appreciated!

As for the BBC's Sense and Sensibility, to be adapted by Andrew Davies, we have some casting rumours courtesy of Austenblog. Rumours suggest Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood, Charity Wakefield as her sister Marianne and Dominic Cooper as Edward Ferrars.

BBC misses golden opportunity with high class Lilies

OK, so it's not an adaptation, but I have to put in a good word for Lilies, the BBC period drama, shown 9.00pm Friday nights. It's the last episode next week sadly, to what has been an exhilarating series, with flawless writing and direction. Acting performances have been top-notch too. The screenwriter in this instance is Heidi Thomas, whose impeccable research into the period and place - early 1920s Liverpool, working-class Garston in particular - has truly brought this show to life. Everything, sets, locations, costumes, are seamlessly integrated, lost in context, which is how the best period drama should be.

Best of all, Lilies has never shied away from the brutal realities of life at the time, and has also sustained a warm, convivial sense throughout - in spite of the day to day hardships suffered. The plotlines have been strong and convincing, often shocking, often moving. Indeed, I have been moved from tears to laughter and back again, each episode.

The narrative focuses on the Moss household, comprising three sisters and a brother, all in their late teens to early twenties, who live in a two-up two-down with their widower father.

The most touching character for me is Iris (Catherine Tyldesley), the eldest of the three sisters, who has become a surrogate mother in her household. Iris has a whirlwind marriage which sours very quickly - the wedding night to be precise, when the truth of her husband's World War One wounds is brought to vivid and excrutiating light. It is heart-rending stuff. As the series has progressed she has become closer, spiritually and personally, to her rather dashing Catholic priest, Father Melia (Scot Williams). You could be forgiven for wishing that he could switch denomination and wed her - she'd make an ideal vicar's wife! But her ardent Catholicism is also what makes Iris so interesting, belying her compassion, and also, rather strangely perhaps, her ardent, sensual nature. When she explains in impassioned tones that she loves Jesus as 'a man', even while professing she wishes to be a nun, it's no small wonder that Father Melia is dubious about her true vocation.

Her two sisters Ruby (Kerrie Hayes) and May (Leanne Rowe) are also excellent characters. Ruby is feisty and outspoken while May has entertained ideas 'above her station' and is currently pregnant as the result of an affair with her former boss, from when she worked at his house as a parlourmaid. In truth, her pregnancy was the product of a twisted, insidious plan between the husband and wife - who are infertile - to gain a surrogate child. Except May fell for her baby's father and refuses to cowtow to their demands.

The sisters have a brother, Billy (Daniel Rigby). A gentle chap, mentally scarred from his experiences as a seaman during the war. During the course of the series we learnt of his secret homosexual love affair with a fellow seaman - now horribly deformed from battle, who sadly dies. Billy is a wonderful characterisation, in no small part because of his caustic, dry wit, which often debunks the female histrionics in his household.

Dadda (Brian McCardie) is one of the most fascinating characters of all. He is a man with a heart too big for his body, who is quick to temper, and quick to love. He is irrational, unreasonable, but also intelligent and occasionally fair. He remains a loveable character, in spite of his flaws.

Indeed, this is the most exciting aspect of this series. The quality of the writing is so masterful, each character is treated with an even hand, eliciting both our criticism and our fond empathy, all within a single moment.

It is a shame that the ratings for Lilies have been so poor. The BBC has boobed big time here, choosing to schedule Lilies on a Friday night rather than the Sunday night slot this show lends itself to, meaning it has had to face off Celebrity Big Brother on Channel 4 and Midsomer Murders on ITV. Unsurprisingly, ratings have tanked. And yet there has been no repeat option for viewers who would have been an interested audience. Of those who have watched the show, and judging too from comments posted on the BBC website, Lilies has garnered a strong and engaged fanbase.

Sadly I don't expect the BBC to commission a second series, which this show deserves, based on the ratings, which seems all the more unfair when one considers we pay our licence fees for all types of TV fare, not just programmes pandering to ratings which often succumb to a soapy, populist formula. Waterloo Road is a classic example. Series One was pithy, well-written, well-executed. Series Two has plunged into the realm of melodrama, over the top storylines and appalling scriptwork.

I sincerely hope a DVD version of Lilies is launched, to ensure more people get to see this wonderful series, which truly counts as the Best of British. The BBC has produced a top-class production and failed to promote it. This sort of defeatism is sure to undermine the corporation.

Friday, February 23, 2007

McGrath gives Nicholas Nickleby the sugary sweet treatment

Texan filmmaker Douglas McGrath has developed something of a pedigree with cinematic adaptation having adapted Jane Austen's Emma to screen in 1996, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and more recently, produced Infamous, the latest treatment of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

This 2002 version of Charles Dickens' novel Nicholas Nickleby is closer in tone and style to Emma than McGrath's other works. Both adaptations are lustrous evocations of nineteenth century England, notable for starring glamourous up and coming stars.

As with Gwyneth Paltrow taking on Emma Woodhouse in McGrath's Emma, Charlie Hunnam is similarly a sleekly handsome blonde bombshell, whose gilded good looks dazzle and charm. Paltrow was archly sweet, making for a girlish, endearing, even vulnerable Emma Woodhouse, barely concealed by her defensive wit and snobbishness. Paltrow's interpretation of the role worked well within the fluffy chocolate-box context of McGrath's film. McGrath's Nicholas Nickleby has to indulge in a somewhat darker palette at times, as suits a narrative where cruelty and inhumanity are paramount features. Hunnam plays Nickleby with earnest sweetness, but fails to imbue the character with a sense of emotional depth, and his performance is anaemic and stilted alongside the ranks of fine character actors who illuminate this cast.

Nickleby's eventual love interest, Madeleine Bray, is played here by another up and coming 'looker' with a knack for sweetness - Anne Hathaway. Hathaway struggles to disguise her American accent at times - let's hope she fares better in the forthcoming picture, Becoming Jane, a very loose biopic focusing on Austen's romantic interest in Tom LeFroy.

Stronger here was Romola Garai as a positively luminous Kate Nickleby, while Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson made for deliciously wicked, psychopathic renditions of Wackford Squeers and his wife. Nathan Lane offered suitable comic relief as Vincent Crummles (effectively acting as the film's supra-narrator too), while the brilliant Alan Cummings was sorely under-used as Mr Folair. Amidst a plethora of other notable acting cameos from the likes of Timothy Spall, Tom Courtenay, Phil Davis, Sophie Thompson, Barry Humphries and Edward Fox as a lecherous Sir Mulberry Hawk, Christopher Plummer hammed it grandly as the pernicious Uncle Ralph Nickleby. Meanwhile Jamie Bell made for a suitably tragic Smike - a role which has been grossly over-sentimentalised, both by Dickens and again by McGrath.

Indeed, McGrath has taken on Dickens's penchant for sentimentality with enthusiastic gusto, smothering this film with a thin layer of slightly sickly sentimental goo. The horrors of the gruesome Yorkshire schools, where young boys were tortured and abandoned, are diluted by the saccharine-sweetness which permeates this picture. Money-mad Ralph Nickleby's heartlessness is a foremost factor of course, best conveyed by the humilation he metes out to his niece Kate, through his exposing her to ridicule and lechery amongst his investor clients. But there remains a 'safe' sense throughout - the film lacks an edgy backbone and any audience anxiety has been minimised. The colours, the sets, the costumes, are too sharp, too bright, too technicolour, even in London, where poverty and hardship were obvious and unavoidable factors. Scenes set in Bucolic Devonshire, where the Nickleby's cottage is based, are bathed in honeyed-soft sunlight, ensuring a dreamlike, nostalgic and definitively unreal quality.

Added to this is the pleasant, tooting trademark musical scoring of Rachel Portman, who also scored McGrath's Emma. Indeed, Portman's syrupy, sweet and jocular style ideally suits McGrath's view of nineteenth century England. Her jaunty style is a standout in every film she composes for, including Only You, Chocolat and Polanski's Oliver Twist. She has had an illustrious and successful career, and certainly her musical style is used to good effect here, in that it absolutely matches the director's intent.

Narratologically, McGrath steers a steady if uninspiring course with his adapted screenplay, which is compact and fluent. Nicholas and Smike's stay with Crummles' acting troupe feels a little rushed, but is probably suitably truncated in terms of the over-arching plot. Perhaps the closing stages can be criticised. The Nickleby-Bray romance, while foreshadowed, is hastily engineered, and indeed, the final punishment for his cold-hearted Uncle Ralph is too swift and a little confusing. The closing scenes at the Devonshire cottage are too long and too sappy, and reek of cloying sentimentality.

Dickens is one of our best-loved and most frequently adapted authors. Adaptations tend to fall into two camps: those which offer challenging and richly-rewarding interpretations of his work, where his characters flicker to life in their full multi-faceted glory, and then there are those which serve up strongly drawn caricatures amidst boldy-lit and colourful land and townscapes, revelling in nostalgic, lush evocations of an imagined past. McGrath's Nicholas Nickleby occupies the secondary camp, while the triumphant BBC series of Bleak House in 2005, is a fine example of the first.

Even so, McGrath's film is an enjoyable romp, which does not require a great deal of mental engagement, but at least prompts a smile on a regular basis. It is harmless, frothy fun, neatly packaged with a strong, if thinly-spread cast. Hunnam and Hathaway are at least nice to look at, if a little uninspiring - which pretty much sums up the piece.

Monday, February 19, 2007

BBC's Dracula lacks bite

The BBC aired a single tele-film version of Bram Stoker's Dracula in December 2006, the latest in a long line of Draculas to haunt out screens. This adaptation - like most Draculas - strayed from the original Bram Stoker novel.

The threat of syphilis was at the heart of this particular interpretation - a fatal illness residing in the victim's blood, the corollary of sexual deviance and/or promiscuity, which could be passed from generation to generation. Syphilis was topical to its time, but there was a sense that syphilis was acting here as a metaphor for AIDS too.

The protagonist of this version was Lord Holmwood, played here by Dan Stevens (The Line of Beauty, who turns to a sinister, Satan-worshipping underground cult, to help cure him of the syphilis he has inherited from his father. He is desperate for a cure as he longs to bed his luscious, newly-wed wife, Lucy Westenra, enthusiastically played by Sophia Myles. Jonathan Harker - a criminally under-used Rafe Spall in this version - is dispatched to his doom in Transylvania, running an errand for Dracula, who is using Holmwood's cult to his own fiendish ends ... which soon leads to Dracula's sneaking into Britain via Whitby, seducing poor frustrated Lucy, who then becomes a vampire herself, while developing the hots for Mina, Harker's fiancee (Stephanie Leonidas).

Marc Warren took on the iconoclastic role of Dracula. Warren is a favourite actor of mine, but there was something a little lacking here. Similarly, David Suchet as a hoary-headed, melodramatic Van Helsing, failed to impress - strange really, in view of his fine acting credentials.

Sets, locations and costumes were suitably dark and gothic. But the screenplay from Stewart Harcourt was lacklustre and direction (Bill Eagles) was dull and predictable.

Overall, this Dracula lacks bite.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Cranford Chronicles coming our way

Finally we have news from the BBC that an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford is to commence filming this April in the Cotswolds and London. The five-part series is set to star Judi Dench (no less) in the main role as Matty Jenkyns. Sue Birtwhistle, with a solid pedigree in period drama, including the BBC's 1995 Pride and Prejudice, is producer, and Heidi Thomas is the screenwriter. The involvement of Thomas in particular has sparked my interest in this project, as I am a big fan of her writing based on the current BBC drama series Lilies.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Coming soon ...

My computer has been dead for the last few weeks hence I have been suffering Mac Deprivation Sickness ... and been unable to update this blog, sadly. All being well, business can now resume as usual.

Reviews to come, based on material watched in the last two weeks, include the BBC's Dracula (screened December 2006), Our Mutual Friend (BBC, 1998), Vanity Fair (Focus/Granada 2004) and Nicholas Nickleby (2002).

On the non-adaptation front, I have also been enjoying the BBC's new drama series Lilies, charting the experiences of three young women, growing up in 1920s Liverpool. It's great stuff so far - fine acting and a great script from Heidi Thomas. I hope a second series is commissioned.

And like many others no doubt, I am eagerly looking forward to the return of Lost to Sky One on the 11th February.

I also caught up (finally) with the political BBC mini-seres, State of Play, which first aired in 2003. Magnificent! John Simms was fantastic, Bill Nighy was sublime, Kelly MacDonald was brilliant, James MacAvoy was his best chirpy self, and David Morissey proved to me yet again that he was one of our finest actors. In fact all the cast, including Philip Glenister and Polly Walker, were simply outstanding - not a dud performance in sight. The drama, penned by Paul Abbott, was superbly paced, truly riveting.